In "POV 101 – Get into your protagonist’s head and stay there," I discussed the effectiveness of starting out your story in your protagonist’s point of view and staying there for most of the novel.
But what if you want to show how other people are feeling? If they’re important characters, like the villain, a romantic interest, or a close friend or family member, you can and should give them their own POV scenes, where you get into their heads and we see their thoughts, emotions, goals, aspirations and fears. This way we, the readers, find out things the main character doesn't know. Great for adding suspense and intrigue!
If another character is in the same scene as your main character, you show their thoughts, feelings and attitude only through what your protagonist can perceive—their attitude, words, tone of voice, facial expressions, body language and actions.
The general rule of thumb is “one scene, one viewpoint.” Or even better, wait for a new chapter to change the point of view to someone else’s. If you change the viewpoint within a scene, it’s best to do it only once, and leave a blank space before you start the next person’s point of view. Don't go back and forth within a paragraph or go into another character's thoughts for only a sentence or two. At the minimum, give the other person a paragraph or two. Ping-ponging back and forth can be jarring and confusing to the reader. This is what’s referred to as “head-hopping.” Some writers go so far as to leave three asterisks (* * *) and spaces above and below to indicate a switch in viewpoint within a scene, but I think that’s too jarring and disruptive to the flow of action, since we’re still in the same scene. Three asterisks, centered, are best reserved to indicate a shift in place and time -- in other words, a new scene.
So why is it so important to avoid switching viewpoints (head-hopping) within scenes?
First of all, in order to become emotionally engaged in a story, readers want to identify with and bond with one main character -- your protagonist or hero/heroine. They want to follow that character vicariously, know their thoughts and hopes and fears, almost be that character for most of the novel. So it's natural to be privy to that character's thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. But if the author suddenly jolts them out of that character and into the thoughts of another character, it feels unnatural and reminds us that we're reading a book. It's like the author is too heavy-handed, too intrusive. It can be subliminally confusing and annoying. Do that often enough and readers might put the book down and find another or write a less-than-satisfactory review.
Here’s an example of a viewpoint gaffe, which I made up:
What’s wrong here? We were in Carole’s POV, and she had her back turned so she wouldn’t know Colton was sneaking past, especially with all that noise coming from his room. And how would she know he’s riding away on his bike? Another jarring POV shift in the same scene would be if we suddenly started seeing her husband waving his secretary away because he’s in an important conversation. We’re in Carole’s POV in this scene, and she can’t see what her husband is doing at his office.
We start out in Steve’s point of view, who’s in trouble and has just picked up the phone and called his wife, Grace:
“Grace, thank god you’re home. This is all too much for me. My life is crumbling around me and I can’t seem to do anything about it,” Steve said, closing his eyes and rubbing his face.
The sadness and despair in his voice brought tears to Grace’s eyes.
“I have to think.” There was long pause before Steve continued. “Luckily, George is right here. I’ll ask if he knows a good attorney who can help with this.”
“That sounds good.” She felt some relief.
“I’ll be waiting,” she said softly. The call ended before she could say I love you.
What’s wrong with how this scene is written? It's disjointed and confusing. Also unnatural. In reality, we would be one of those people and would have to infer how the other one is feeling or what they're doing by what they say, their inflection, background noises, etc.
Choose either Steve or Grace and play the scene from his or her POV. Show us only what he or she can see, hear, and perceive.
A quick way to check whose POV you’re in is to get out the highlighters or colored pens and choose a different color for each of your main characters. Pick your protagonist’s color, then start highlighting or underlining sentences that describe scenes, people, perceptions, and emotions strictly from his or her POV. Do the same for other characters, with their color. When you’re done, you should have paragraphs, and preferably scenes, of only one color. If you have another color creeping into that scene, see if you can rewrite those sentences from the dominating character’s POV. If you have a number of colors within one scene, you’ve got some revisions to do. And as Stephen King says, “Writing is rewriting.”
By the way, my third book, Captivate Your Readers, gets into a lot of detail on engaging your readers and bringing your story and characters to life by using deep point of view, showing instead of telling, and stepping back as the author to let the characters tell the story in their own voice.
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com and on Facebook and Twitter.