Saturday, 29 October 2011

Points of view, appropriately!

Okay, so some novelists hit the jackpot with their first ever effort, but for most of us, learning the craft of writing is a long, hard slog. Those of us who choose the novel as our preferred genre have to learn, in particular, how to sustain the reader's interest over 100,000 words or so – no mean feat. The end result should look effortless and seamless, but in fact there are many, many decisions to make along the way.

Main plot points? Setting? Cast of characters? Tale told chronologically or not? Sub-plots? Themes? Story arcs? Emotional journeys? The list of choices is endless.

One of the first decisions to be made is on whose story it is. My august mentor, Anita Burgh (who has her own blog at, is insistent on making sure all her proteg├ęs know and understand this. Usually, we establish the main character right up front (and normally end with him or her), so making sure the reader is completely engaged in the plot line that will drive the book. Clearly the 'owner' will have his or her own point of view (POV). If you are writing in the first person, this is the only point of view you will be able to use throughout the whole book. Personally, I find this quite challenging and prefer to use several viewpoints, so that I can come at the main plot from a number of different angles.

If you are using multiple viewpoints, however, you have to be very careful. Anita taught me to be absolutely rigid in this, always making sure there is a line space between switches of viewpoint at the very least, so that the reader can follow whose 'head' you are in. Also, it's important that every character who has a point of view also has a story arc, so that the reader is engaged his this line of the story.

Should there be rules in fiction writing? You could argue that rules rather undermine creativity and freedom of expression, and perhaps they do. But as a reader, I would strongly support the view that 'head-hopping', as it's known, is a no-no. I recently read Family Album, by Penelope Lively. I really enjoyed her fine evocation of character, but at one stage I was left utterly bewildered during a round-the-table scene where we were in the head of each and every one of her characters in the space of a paragraph.

Can you break rules? Of course. Rules are always there to be broken. Elizabeth Chadwick recently tweeted that she had decided to change the POV briefly within a sentence because it worked best that way. Sometimes it's a judgement call – a complete POV switch could seem clumsy or overly intrusive in a particular context – but for my money, less experienced writers should stick with the rules.

That's my point of view, anyway!


  1. I'm with you all the way on head hopping, it can get so confusing. However, I do like writing from a multi-viewpoint perspective and always adhere to the line space or 3 asterisks between the change of viewpoint scenes. Excellent post Jenny and a lot there for new writers to think about.

  2. The only problem with this is that lots of people do treat it as a RULE without really understanding it. The Authonomy site, which I used for a while, was full of wannabe writers who'd falsely accuse others of head-hopping when the problem actually was that they hadn't 'got' what the writers they were criticising were trying to do. Of course, if the reader has no idea whose voice they're hearing the writer has failed, but shifting POV to create particular effects or give contrasting responses to an incident or event is an essential part of narrative technique.

    (As an aside, I'm posting a spoof interview on my own blog on Halloween which takes a wee sideswipe at what my interviewee calls 'the Point Of View brigade'. The same interview will be posted on the Booksquawk site as what they're calling a spooftacular. - End of commercial break.)

  3. Compeletely agree about change of POV having a line space. It's one of those 'rules' that's meant to eliminate reader confusion, whether in a short story or novel. Guess the rule acn be broken if the writer is competent enough to avoid all confusion!

  4. Great post Jenny, on an important issue. I'm with you on only breaking the 'rules' of POV when you know them and are therefore making an informed decision to do so.

  5. I think this one could run and run!

  6. Coming in late - again. Agree with you Jenny that POV needs to be carefully observed. It CAN work when some writers head-hop (Nora Roberts does it v. successfully) but generally I dislike it intensely.

    Like you a prefer to use multiple view points (usually 3, not sure i can manage more) but the teen novels I'm working on at the moment are written in the first person. Definitely a challenge, but an interesting one.