Friday, May 20, 2011

POV Shifts: Proceed with Caution

As a writer (or even as a reader), I'm not a big fan of point-of-view shifts, hopping from one character's mind into another, back and forth. It can get complicated and choppy and confusing. I prefer to stick with one character (perhaps two) and get to know them better than any other character. Because when you spend a little time here with one character and a little time there with another, you feel like you know a few characters sort-of well, and none of them extremely well.

Also, POV shifts can feel incredibly jarring, if not handled deftly. One book I read years ago--I can't recall the title or author--placed the readers in the mind of one character for several chapters. We got relaxed, got comfortable, settled in to know her thoughts, the way her mind worked. Then, the phone rang. The character picked it up, and we watched her end of the conversation play out, as expected.

But when she hung up, WHAM! The reader was suddenly thrust into the mind the other character on the other end of the phone. Huh? Sure, that move could be considered uber-creative. But it was also uber-confusing. In fact, I had to re-read that shift about three times to make sure what had happened. Very jarring. In addition, I kept wondering how the other character--the one I'd gotten to know so well--was reacting at that moment. I'd invested a lot of time with her, and didn't care about this other character. I kept wanting to jump back into the other woman's POV again. I think I read the rest of that chapter and then quit reading altogether. I knew that if the author used that jarring technique once, he/she would probably use it again and again. Ick.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule (not that this post is a "rule" - it's just my opinion, my...heh...point of view ;-).

One exception is the book I'm currently reading (and loving) - The Island, by Elin Hilderbrand. Ms. Hilderbrand starts off by allowing the reader to see one character's point of view. And just when we know the character (and like her), the POV shifts to another character. But--it's done so swiftly and smoothly that it feels natural. (A break in text is given, then the name of the upcoming character offered in big bold letters--we're prepared for the shift before it occurs. We know what we're in for. It's not a shock or surprise).

And by the time the author has shifted again (there are four characters whose POVs we see, and I'm only on page 80 right now), we not only understand the transition and are prepared for it, but more importantly, we feel we know each character thoroughly. And, this particular story couldn't be told any other way. We need to see into the minds of each character intimately to be able to know precisely what they're going through when they're together. This technique, used brilliantly, is effective and creative. Reading Ms. Hilderbrand's novel isn't just a pleasure--it's also a lesson. It gives the writer-reader a chance to see a technique executed extremely well.

Rosamunde Pilcher also handles POV shifts well (The Shellseekers has whole sections of the book entirely devoted to each character's POV, and the shift is clearly made by placing the character's name before that section).

What are your experiences with POV, both as a reader and writer? I'd love to hear them...


  1. This is exactly the topic my writer's group goes over and over. It is so easy for people to go out of the POV of their main character without knowing it. I personally like anything that is well-written. I especially liked The Help which was in 3 points of view and done well. The characters were distinct and had good voice.
    I am a teacher and deal with children's lit a lot. One of the authors that writes middle grade, Lisa Yee, has an interesting trio of books. It is the same story but told from 3 points of view. So the first story is told from a gifted girl's point of view, the second book is from the POV of the "dumb" jock she is tutoring and the third books is her best friend. Very interesting.

  2. Those books (Lisa Yee's) sound interesting! Very creative use of POV.

    I haven't read "The Help" yet, but it's definitely on my list. I saw the movie trailer for it last week!