5 Tips for Finding Point-of-View Errors — Guest: Marcy Kennedy

by Jami Gold on November 3, 2015

in Writing Stuff

See-Hear-Speak No Evil monkey sculpture with text: 5 Ways to Find POV Errors

As we learn writing craft, we often go through various phases of learning. First we might need to learn about story structure, and then once we have that down, we might focus on developing three-dimensional characters.

Or we might start off with needing to learn grammar and those pesky comma rules. Then once we’ve reached the expert level on that, we might need to pay attention to livening up our settings and descriptions.

In short, learning the craft of writing is an ongoing project. Just when we think we know everything there is to know, we discover another area of writing skills that we weren’t even aware existed.

Some of us enjoy the “always learning” aspect of writing, but some might find it frustrating. Especially when we feel that we don’t want to submit our work to agents or editors—or we don’t want to self-publish our stories—until we’re an expert with it all.

However, I’m not sure it’s possible to be super-skilled in all of these areas. And to some extent, that’s what beta readers or editors are for: finding the errors we miss (and hopefully know how to fix).

One area I struggle with even though I know the rules—and that I know how to fix once it’s pointed out to me—is out-of-POV phrases. Luckily, one of my editors is a genius at finding these.

Today, as one of my awesome guest posters helping me out during NaNoWriMo month, I’m sharing her (and her tips!) with all of you. *grin* Please welcome the wonderful Marcy Kennedy!

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How to Hunt Down
Sneaky Point-of-View Errors

Point-of-view errors come in two “sizes.” The big POV error is head-hopping where we jump from one character’s viewpoint to another’s without a proper transition. Once we understand what head-hopping is, it’s usually pretty easy to spot.

Small-scale POV errors (what Jami calls out-of-POV phrases) are much harder for us to see in our own work, so I was excited when Jami asked if I’d share some tips for tracking down those out-of-POV phrases.

But What’s So Bad About Small POV Errors?

Compared to head-hopping, small-scale POV errors can seem like they’re not a big deal. After all, we’re not yanking the reader entirely out of one character’s mind and tossing them into another’s without any warning.

But, in some ways, out-of-POV phrases are actually worse. With head-hopping, the reader might get whiplash and stumble around for a moment, but they’ll eventually figure out that they’ve moved into another character’s head. In other words, they’ll know why things didn’t feel right for a minute.

With out-of-POV phrases, the reader can’t always explain why they’re feeling disconnected from the viewpoint character or like something is “off” with the writing and they couldn’t “get into it.” And because they can’t say exactly what made them less engrossed in the life of the main character, they’re turned away from our work more than if they could say “I hated how the writer jumped back and forth between the characters, but…”

So let’s take a look at how we accidentally use out-of-POV phrases and how to spot them.

#1: We Attribute Emotions to Non-Viewpoint Characters

When we’re writing in a limited point of view, we can include only what our viewpoint character knows. Our viewpoint character can’t know what another character is feeling. They can guess, but all they know is what they can hear or see. Any time we tell the reader what another character was feeling—like “sadly” or “in anger”—we’ve introduced a POV error.

I’ll give you an example:

Dan kept his attention on the bomb, unfazed by the ticking clock.

If Dan isn’t our viewpoint character, our viewpoint character can’t know whether Dan is fazed or unfazed. Dan might seem unfazed on the outside, but he might be barely keeping his calm on the inside.

We could manage this type of out-of-POV phrase in a lot of ways depending on what we wanted from the scene:

  • We could have our viewpoint character wonder about how Dan was able to keep his cool when they couldn’t even hand him a tool without dropping it.
  • Or we might show a small tick that hints that Dan isn’t as unfazed as he seems.
  • Or we might have Dan talking bravely, but show through our viewpoint character’s internal dialogue that they don’t buy it.

How Can We Catch These Errors?

I love editing hacks—ways to make editing our writing a little bit easier. We can use the Find feature in our word processing program to search for emotion words.

(If you don’t know how to create a macro in Microsoft Word to do this, check out this excellent post from Jami. You could also do the words one at a time, but this makes it much faster.)

Some of the emotion words you come across might belong to your viewpoint character. Get rid of those too—they’re telling rather than showing.

#2: We Attribute Motivation to a Non-Viewpoint Character

This is the sneaky point-of-view error I see most often in my editing work. It happens when we tell the reader why a non-viewpoint character did something. It’s a problem because the viewpoint character can’t know for sure why the other characters are doing what they’re doing.

In this example, Eddie isn’t the viewpoint character.

Her movement caught Eddie’s eye, and he turned to face her.

Since she is the viewpoint character, she can’t know why Eddie turned to face her. She doesn’t know if it was her movement, a sound she made, or if he was going to turn in that direction anyway.

How Can We Catch These Errors?

Sometimes errors can only be caught by carefully reading through our fiction with the sole purpose of looking for POV errors. But we can start by using MS Word’s Find feature to search for a few phrases that often go along with this type of POV error:

  • at the sight of/sound of
  • because
  • caught his/her eye
  • caught his/her attention
  • to (do something) – E.g., James scowled at Christine and reached over to brush dirt off her shirt sleeve. (Christine, the viewpoint character, can’t know what he was intending when he reached. We’re telling his motivation instead of showing his action.)

#3: We Tell the Reader What a Non-Viewpoint Character Thought or Saw

Here’s the one I see most often:

He thought about that for a minute.

If the thinker isn’t the viewpoint character, this is a POV error. The viewpoint character can’t know the person is thinking about what they’ve said or that they’re thinking at all. One way to fix this would be to give the character an action that might imply thinking.

How Can We Catch These Errors?

As you might have guessed by now, I love the Find feature. Here’s your list of words to search for. (And as a bonus, if you find these words used for your viewpoint character, get rid of them there as well. They’re telling rather than showing.)

  • thought
  • noticed
  • realized
  • wondered
  • believed
  • knew
  • remembered
  • recalled
  • reviewed
  • considered

#4: We Include Items the Viewpoint Character Doesn’t Notice or Can’t See

The biggest POV offenders in this category tend to be actions that happen without conscious thought, but they can also include things the viewpoint character doesn’t see happening around them.

Here’s an example of how this might look. Karen is our viewpoint character.

Karen turned to look out the window and didn’t notice Jeff slip the business card into his pocket.

Since Karen is our viewpoint character, we can’t record the business card theft because she didn’t notice it happening. One way around this would be to show Karen noticing later that the business card is missing.

How Can We Catch These Errors?

Remember that we can’t catch all out-of-POV phrases using the Find feature, but that said, here’s your starter list: *smile*

  • unknowingly
  • didn’t notice
  • not realizing
  • unconsciously
  • unaware

Also, watch out for any time you have your viewpoint character close or cover their eyes. You can’t show anything until they open/uncover them again!

#5: We Tell the Reader What the Viewpoint Character Looks Like

There are ways around this, where we can come up with a good reason for our viewpoint character to be thinking about their appearance, so not every description of our viewpoint character is a POV error. Out-of-POV phrases are most likely to sneak in when we describe the expression on our viewpoint character’s face.

Melissa and Jeremy are the viewpoint characters in these examples.

A smirk crossed Melissa’s face.

A pained expression crossed Jeremy’s face.

These are errors because they’re something the viewpoint character can’t see, and they sound like someone describing them from the outside, rather than them experiencing what’s happening from the inside.

We can fix errors like these by switching over to what the viewpoint character feels like inside. Or we can say something like…

Melissa smirked.

We know when we smirk, and it’s an action, so this isn’t a POV error.

How Can We Catch These Errors?

These ones are a bit harder to pin down with a hack, but if you do a search for the word face, you’ll spot 75 percent of them.

Hopefully these tips will help you ferret out some of your out-of-POV phrases and start to identify the ones that are most likely to sneak into your work. In the end, the more familiar we become with what counts as an out-of-POV phrase and where our personal weaknesses lie, the better able we’ll be to avoid them (or catch them during our edits).

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Marcy KennedyMarcy Kennedy is a science fiction and fantasy author who believes there’s always hope. Sometimes you just have to dig a little harder to find it. She’s also the author of the bestselling Busy Writer’s Guides series, which focuses on giving authors deep teaching while still respecting their time.

You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth on her website. Don’t forget to subscribe to her free newsletter, where new subscribers receive a copy of her mini-book Strong Female Characters as a thank-you gift!

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About Point of View in Fiction:

Point of View in Fiction book coverPoint of view isn’t merely another writing craft technique. Point of view is the foundation upon which all other elements of the writing craft stand—or fall.

It’s the opinions and judgments that color everything the reader believes about the world and the story. It’s the voice of the character that becomes as familiar to the reader as their own. It’s what makes the story real, believable, and honest.

Yet, despite its importance, point-of-view errors are the most common problem for fiction writers.

In Point of View in Fiction: A Busy Writer’s Guide, you’ll learn

  • the strengths and weaknesses of the four different points of view you can choose for your story (first person, second person, limited third person, and omniscient),
  • how to select the right point of view for your story,
  • how to maintain a consistent point of view throughout your story,
  • practical techniques for identifying and fixing head-hopping and other point-of-view errors,
  • the criteria to consider when choosing the viewpoint character for each individual scene or chapter,

and much more! Buy it on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords! Available in print and ebook forms.

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Thank you, Marcy! Someday I’ll be better at eliminating these in my work, but until then, thank you so much for sharing your expertise. *grin*

As Marcy said, focusing on these phrases can feel really nitpicky, so this issue might not be one we focus on until after we’ve mastered the basics. But if we’re trying to create a strong connection between our readers and our characters, we need to eliminate anything and everything that creates distance.

I’ve blogged before about how fixing POV errors often comes down to better showing, as we might want to show how the POV character comes to their conclusion, or we might just cut the conclusion and show the evidence. Hopefully this post gives plenty of examples for how to find those errors and make those fixes.

If we understand how POV—and these out-of-POV errors—are related to showing and telling, we might start to see how little nitpicky issues like these affect the overall engagement of our story. And that might be the most helpful tip of all. *smile*

Had you thought about the different ways we can break POV beyond just head-hopping? Do you struggle with some of these out-of-POV issues in your writing? Do you have any other tips for finding these errors? Or tips to help other writers maintain a consistent point of view? Do you have any questions for Marcy?

P.S. Don’t miss my guest post at Writers in the Storm with tips for how to avoid getting stuck with our writing—whether due to time, writer’s block, or story issues—especially during this NaNoWriMo month. *smile*

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84 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Tamara LeBlanc November 3, 2015 at 11:23 am

To me, you hit on the best ways of finding POV errors. I remember when I first began writing and found my crit group, I realized I had been head hoping for years. Then I believe I mastered the BIG POV errors. It’s very rare that I get dinged on head hopping anymore.
But I’m not perfect, and small POV errors happen occasionally to this day. When we’re in the moment, banging away at the keys, letting the story pour out, mistakes are inevitable.
That’s why, as you mentioned, it’s imperative to have beta readers.
Great post!!!
And I started your book! LOVE it so far!!!! When I’m finished I’ll be sure to review 🙂

Have a great week,
Tamara

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Marcy Kennedy November 3, 2015 at 1:05 pm

I think they happen to everyone occasionally (at least for those of us who want to write in deep POV because we have to stay as close as possible to our viewpoint character) 🙂

And thank you so much for thinking to write a review when you’re done. Reviews are so important!

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Jami Gold November 3, 2015 at 4:21 pm

Hi Tamara,

Believe me, I still struggle with these small POV errors as well. That’s why I wanted Marcy to share her secrets. LOL! All I can do is hope I improve–and with these tips, hopefully we all will improve. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee November 3, 2015 at 12:19 pm

Those are good ways to find PoV errors, but one thing to also keep in mind: These techniques assume you’re using a limited PoV with some narrative distance.

If you’re using omniscient, the tips don’t work. If you’re using a very “close” PoV, then they don’t all work. (Ex.: “He thought a minute” could be what the narrator saw & interpreted via the filter of their personality, in a very “close” PoV, if your narrator tends to make such evaluations.)

Just something to be aware of. 🙂

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Marcy Kennedy November 3, 2015 at 1:03 pm

I agree that they don’t work for omniscient. You technically can’t have POV errors in omniscient because the all-knowing narrator knows all 🙂 In omniscient, the author has a similar challenge, though, of making sure that the voice they use is consistently that of the narrator rather than slipping into the voice of a character.

But I believe these do work, and work best, for close or deep POV (which is what I write personally) because they tend to eliminate all narrative distance and they force you to show rather than tell. Perhaps you might have a character who interprets/draws conclusions/makes evaluations that look like some of these POV errors, but that’s not likely to be the norm for most close-POV writers. And I’d argue that we should try to avoid it because it adds a feeling of distance. The reader isn’t likely to interpret it as “that’s the character’s personality.” So while it could be that a writer could execute a deep-POV character while doing these things, it wouldn’t feel as much like deep POV.

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Jami Gold November 3, 2015 at 4:32 pm

Hi Marcy,

“Perhaps you might have a character who interprets/draws conclusions/makes evaluations that look like some of these POV errors, but … The reader isn’t likely to interpret it as “that’s the character’s personality.””

Yes, I had that reluctance against removing those originally–“What if that’s just the character’s assumption?” But as you said, the reader might not interpret it that way unless we indicate somehow in the text that it is their assumption. And if the reader thinks otherwise, it would suffer from the same distance issue as an actual POV error. So if we want to include assumptions, we should make it clear to the reader. Thanks for sharing that insight!

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Carradee November 3, 2015 at 9:56 pm

My experience is that if you set up the PoV character as the type to make assumptions, readers will follow along as long as you handle the structural logistics (of sentence order/building) to lead things properly. But you already know what kinds of narrators I favor. 😛

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Jami Gold November 3, 2015 at 10:41 pm

Hi Carradee,

Agreed. Generally, when I get a note from an editor about this issue, I look at beefing up the language implying that it is an assumption and/or I show more evidence for what led them to that assumption. (Or in the case of certain characters, I check whether I’ve wobbled on their characterization so it’s not clear what kind of person they are.)

As you mentioned in your comment to Marcy, if we do it right, readers will follow where we lead them. But I figure if an editor points it out, that means we didn’t make it clear enough. 🙂

And you know I like nuance (and have spoken many times about taking advice too far), but I think it’s also easy (when we know what we mean) to forget to include those caveats. Thanks for bringing up the issue! 🙂

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Carradee November 3, 2015 at 9:53 pm

…Actually, you can have PoV errors in omniscient, such as by slipping into limited PoV or by being inconsistent in the form the omniscience takes. I’ve also seen people conflate head-hopping with omniscient—and those aren’t the same thing at all.

Rules of thumb, like “Show; don’t tell,” get emphasized to the degree that people lose sight of what is actually meant by them. “Show; don’t tell” refers specifically to character actions and is a reminder to show what you can of character emotions, but some things (like character motivation) cannot be shown. And then even a generally “close” narrative distance has situations where it’s best to flex into more distant. (For example, JK Rowling got more distant on purpose when Harry Potter got depressed.)

As you yourself say, eliminating filter words only tends to deepen the narrative distance. Without that caveat, you’re setting folks up to sabotage themselves by blindly applying things even when it doesn’t apply to their narrator.

Telling a writer what to do without telling them when it applies is logically comparable to telling someone to make an “allergy-friendly” meal without telling them which allergens to avoid. As long as the person eating the meal has no allergies or has one of the allergies you managed to avoid, everything’s fine; but if not, you could leave them ill for days if not outright kill them.

I’ve seen a lot of folks sabotaging themselves (or being sabotaged) by the application of things that lacked proper caveats. I’m a bit sensitive to it. (Er, okay, more than a bit. Disregard for important caveats doesn’t only apply to writing, and it can be outright worthy-of-hospital dangerous. Personal experience.)

I’m also puzzled by your claims that it’ll confuse the reader and that the reader isn’t likely to read it as the character’s personality. It sounds as if you’re ignoring basic structural logistics and leading. Perhaps we have different approaches to writing and editing. We certainly seem to favor different types of narrators. 🙂

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Serena Yung November 4, 2015 at 4:16 pm

Hey Carradee,

I’m glad you talked about the omniscient POV issues because I write in this POV! (The omniscient POV is also my genre’s norm.)

Yeah, agreed that it’s important to explain when a certain piece of advice applies and when it doesn’t. FYI, I LOVE telling, haha, not trying to be rebellious on purpose, but just because I enjoy telling. But I show a lot as well. So I show when it’s appropriate and tell when it’s appropriate. I remember a post Jami did about when it’s better to tell rather than to show. And I recently thought of another instance where telling would be wiser than showing:

The case where your villain does really, really nasty, maybe even deeply disturbing crimes, yet you want the reader to be able to like and sympathize with him. So, if you just summarize what the villain does, maybe even through a character’s speech to create more distance (Idk, conveying it through character speech distances it more for me!), then the disturbing and nasty stuff doesn’t sound THAT repulsive to readers, and so readers can more easily focus on his more likable and sympathetic sides, which you do show a lot. In contrast, if you show actual scenes of the villain doing those horrible things to people, it will probably etch his actions even more deeply into the reader’s mind, and make the villain much more disgusting to the reader and WAY harder to like.

I know this because that’s the situation my story is in now. My main villain does some insanely cruel things, but I only briefly summarize what he does through the speech of some characters who know or have heard about it. Yet, I do massive amounts of showing, through dialogue scenes, emotional and mental description, internal dialogue, etc. for the sympathetic and likable sides of my villain. So that successfully makes me love him despite my knowledge of what he did. Not sure if this will work for my readers too, but it worked on me, haha; and I am quite certain that showing the actual scenes of cruelty as opposed to just briefly summarizing those acts, will make my villain more repulsive and harder to forgive.

LOL! It looks like that every time I talk about the show vs. tell issue, I write a long essay about it. ^_^

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Carradee November 5, 2015 at 8:06 am

You say that as if essays are a bad things. 😛

That is a good example of “telling” being ideal, for what you want the reader to take from it. Your situation, if you show it directly, is apt to horrify the reader; and if you show it indirectly, is apt to terrify the reader. Telling can be a good way to avoid that. 🙂

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Serena Yung November 5, 2015 at 8:08 pm

Carradee, thanks for confirming what I thought! I think I
wouldn’t be able to love my villain this much if I saw the things he did close up too. D:

Oh I’ve heard of a discussion on terror vs. horror. I don’t quite remember how the article I read differentiated between the terms, but how do you define terrifying and horrifying respectively?

In my villain’s example, I would personally see horror as more related to being disgusted and disturbed than being scared. Terror is more about being dreadfully afraid. So the movie Sinister 2 would be more horrifying and Insidious 3 would be more terrifying, if you happened to have watched these two movies too. ^_^

Oh now I wonder why the horror genre is called horror rather than terror. The terror genre, lol.

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Carradee November 6, 2015 at 4:35 pm

I haven’t seen those movies, but you sound as if you have the gist.

horror = physical revulsion, where the stomach twists.
terror = psychological revulsion, where the mind flinches away.

Well, per what I was taught at university, the horror genre spawned out of the gothic novels. Gothics by women tended to be more terrifying than horrific (and tended to be ethical with a good vs. evil); gothics by men tended to be more horrific than terrifying (…and tended to be on the pornographic). Both editions of the genre had terror and horror, but they were just balanced more one way or the other. (One thing that makes Frankenstein interesting is how it bridges the male and female sides of the genre.)

Horror is only one of the genres that can be viewed as coming out of the gothic tradition. Southern gothic, “dark” genres (like dark fantasy and dark romance), and thrillers also come to mind.

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Honorat January 13, 2016 at 12:13 pm

Heh. I am writing my protagonist doing the insanely cruel things in deep POV. Oops. I have a thing for writing two protagonists who are each other’s antagonists.

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Jami Gold January 13, 2016 at 1:05 pm

Hi Honorat,

LOL! Many romances are set up that the hero and heroine are both each other’s antagonists and each other’s keys to their goal. 😉 Enjoy the fun!

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Marcy Kennedy November 6, 2015 at 6:52 am

Hi Carradee,

I should have been more clear about what I said concerning omniscient 🙂 I meant you couldn’t have the type of POV errors I’m talking about here and the type of small-scale POV errors that you see with close POV writing. (One of the links I included pointed to a post on how head-hopping and omniscient POV are different and often confused.) I intended this post, as mentioned in the intro, for people writing in limited POV.

As for ignoring basic structural logistics and leading, not at all 🙂
It can be done, but not all readers will follow along (and you’ll never know the ones who don’t unless they leave a bad review–but you could argue those weren’t your ideal readers anyway ;)). That’s why I chose words such as likely and could.

And many writers aren’t far enough along in their career to execute a character like that in a way the reader will understand, or they could execute it, but they don’t want to. This post is better for people who don’t want that type of narrator (but do write deep POV) and have done these things either accidentally when they don’t want that type of narrator or without realizing the distance/errors they create. Most people–in my experience anyway–don’t create the type of exception narrator you mentioned and so, even in deep POV, these are errors for them. We need to learn possible errors before we can deal with them one way or another–otherwise we’re just stumbling around blindly 🙂

It’s difficult to include every caveat in a blog post. I generally like to talk about guidelines in writing rather than rules. Guidelines give the best result most of the time, but they come with exceptions. Writing is, as you said, a nuanced art. What my experience as an editor has been is too many people think they’re the exception when they’re not. So I encourage my clients, before they violate the guideline, to make sure they have a good reason for it. If they have a good reason for it, and it makes the story better, then that’s what they should do. (I’m also a big proponent of there being times when we should show rather than tell.)

I hope that makes my stance on all of this more clear.

We do seem to favor different types of narrators. I like to experiment with different character personalities, so I wouldn’t be creating one type of narrator regularly. I also prefer to avoid these phrases (or to modify them) even when I have a narrator like you mentioned. That’s not the right or wrong way. That’s just my preference. And it’s the beauty of writing that we can write the characters we want to write 🙂

But I suspect that if we sat down and defined terms, we wouldn’t be as far apart in writing and editing as you suspect 🙂

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Jami Gold November 6, 2015 at 8:44 am

Hi Marcy,

Agreed. In my editing experience, most of the time I see issues like these in manuscripts it’s because the author didn’t know or understand–or thought they knew how to break the “rule” and really didn’t–which is why instructional posts like these are so important.

Yes, there will always be exceptions, but those who are aware and educated enough to consciously choose a different technique (and do it well) would likely know that these guidelines don’t apply to them. So while I think it’s good to point out that these aren’t hard and fast “rules,” I also know that we can’t include every disclaimer or caveat in a blog post.

Of the people who include these POV issues in their writing, at least 90% (probably more like 95%+) are unaware of how these issues can be a problem, don’t know how to avoid them, or are mistaken in how to bend the “guidelines.” And as you said, usually the best way to break a rule correctly is to know and understand the rule completely–then we can consciously choose when our method will work better and we’ll know how to mitigate the risks. 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to clarify the issue!

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Carradee November 6, 2015 at 4:40 pm

But I suspect that if we sat down and defined terms, we wouldn’t be as far apart in writing and editing as you suspect 🙂

Indeed. 🙂

What my experience as an editor has been is too many people think they’re the exception when they’re not. So I encourage my clients, before they violate the guideline, to make sure they have a good reason for it. If they have a good reason for it, and it makes the story better, then that’s what they should do.

Agreed! 🙂 We apparently just have a different way of structuring things when we give those guidelines.

My narrators tend to differ, but they tend to be… Um. Well, my epic fantasy series is in first person, with a different narrator per book (so far), and those narrators have things like PTSD and outright mental illness. There’s even an “other woman”.

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Carradee November 6, 2015 at 4:50 pm

Argh. Didn’t mean to hit “Submit” yet.

In my editing experience, most of the time I see issues like these in manuscripts it’s because the author didn’t know or understand–or thought they knew how to break the “rule” and really didn’t

Oh, yes. I’ve encountered more than one author who pitched a fit because sentence fragments are perfectly fine to use in fiction—and refuse to recognize that the sentence fragment wasn’t the problem. The misplaced modifiers and/or overuse of them was.

Or “X is a perfectly fine word for this sentence!” Yes, it is, but you’ve already used it ten times on that page alone—or maybe it could be, but using it there contradicts what you already described three paragraphs up.

It’s a processing stage that writers have to go through. Only thing I mind about it is the people who stagnate there because they don’t believe they could possibly be mistaken.

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Jami Gold November 6, 2015 at 5:39 pm

Hi Carradee,

LOL! Yep, I know all those types. 🙂

As you said, it’s most sad when someone refuses to learn. Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung November 10, 2015 at 4:17 pm

Wow what a discussion! Lol. Sorry, Carradee, for replying so ridiculously late, haha. But wow, I never knew there is some gender difference between female and male horror writers. To be fair, I don’t think I’ve had much experience reading female horror writers. 🙁

I’ve read Stephen King’s The Shining and It, but both seemed more terrifying than horrifying to me, though there was a bit too much blood than I was comfortable with in It. But as in your Frankenstein example, male and female writers can of course break the gender norms! For some reason, I don’t think I’ve encountered pornographic horror before… Well I don’t have much experience reading or watching horror, I guess, haha.

For some reason, I think horror is easier for me to manage than terror. So I found Sinister 2 (more horrifying) more tolerable than Insidious 3 (more terrifying). For Sinister 2, if it was too bad, I just covered my eyes, haha.

As for the rest of the discussion, I agree that it’s best to break a rule only if you have a good reason to. But sometimes I break a rule on purpose as an experiment to see what would happen to my story, lol. Or maybe I’m just really curious how breaking a certain rule will look like in my writing. I can always edit it again.

Jami Gold November 3, 2015 at 4:25 pm

Hi Carradee,

Very true. Marcy specified at the beginning of the post that she was speaking about limited POV (as opposed to omniscient), but it’s good to reiterate that point and explain what that means. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Stacy Jerger November 3, 2015 at 1:09 pm

Yes!!!! I’m so glad there’s a blog post about this! As a developmental editor, I’ve been really surprised at how many clients struggle with POV on macro and micro levels. I sometimes thought I was being too much of a stickler about correcting those micro issues. It can feel like such a confusing, gray area.

Another POV issue I see a lot is keeping character names and titles consistent within different POVs. A grandfather wouldn’t describe his grandson’s action as “Timmy smiled up at his grandfather.” But rather “smiled up at him.”

POV is such a pesky, pesky thing! Thanks so much for sharing. 🙂

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Marcy Kennedy November 3, 2015 at 2:02 pm

Thanks for the comment! POV issues are the most common problem I run in to in my editing work as well. You’re so right about the name consistency. What I often see is a single scene where the viewpoint character thinks about another character as Sally, the secretary, and the woman (for example). In real life, we tend to be consistent in the way in which we think about other people.

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Stacy Jerger November 3, 2015 at 3:06 pm

“In real life, we tend to be consistent in the way in which we think about other people.”

Absolutely! That’s a great point.

It’s oddly comforting to know other editors run into POV issues so often too. 🙂

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Jami Gold November 3, 2015 at 5:10 pm

Hi Marcy,

I probably do this in my stories because I’m trying to get away from using the same descriptor a hundred times in a scene, so I switch between, say, child and girl. Do you have suggestions for a better way to handle that issue? 🙂

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Marcy Kennedy November 6, 2015 at 6:58 am

I think the best guideline is to prefer he/she whenever it’s not going to cause confusion. Those don’t draw attention to themselves 🙂

If it’s a walk-on character where the POV character doesn’t know their name, then I don’t think it’s as much of a problem to alternate between “child” and “girl” (to go with your example). The problem is more when the POV character knows who the other person is. I know my accountant’s name, and so when I think about him, I think about him by name. Or I say to my husband, “When Andrew comes, we need to ask him thus and so.”

But it’s also not always wrong. You could use it strategically to show an intentional distancing by your POV character too. Someone who they thought of by name prior to an insult might become “that woman” after an insult 🙂

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Jami Gold November 6, 2015 at 8:28 am

Hi Marcy,

Yes, and if he/she can be used without confusion, I think I make that choice. The problem comes when there are multiple he’s or she’s in a scene and a more specific tag is required. 🙂 Thanks for the insight!

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Jami Gold November 3, 2015 at 4:34 pm

Hi Stacy,

Yes! As I mentioned in the post, this can seem like a really nitpicky thing, but all these errors increase distance between the character and the reader in a deep POV story. Thanks for bringing up that great example! 🙂

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Ashley November 3, 2015 at 1:24 pm

I really, really struggle with this… not with doing it properly (although I probably don’t), but with accepting that all of these are really a problem. I mean, what’s wrong with saying what your POV character thought or realized? Isn’t that showing? Or is the problem just with writing, ” ‘That’s not fair,’ she thought” – and if so, wouldn’t there be times you would want to clarify that’s a thought, not spoken? Or is that supposed to be made obvious by formatting?

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Marcy Kennedy November 3, 2015 at 2:22 pm

Point of view and showing vs. telling are very closely related topics.
Saying that your POV character thought or realized is actually telling. Showing would be showing the contents of those thoughts or depicting the realization. I’ll give you an example:

Telling: Kate realized she’d locked her keys inside the car.

Showing: Kate yanked on the car door handle. The door didn’t budge, and her keys dangled from the ignition. “Dang it!”

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Ashley November 6, 2015 at 3:00 pm

Thanks Marcy (and Jami!). That makes sense, though my devil’s advocate side says, “What if there isn’t an action that goes along with the realization in that moment?” For instance, what if the POV character is talking with Person A and in the course of the conversation realizes something about Person B, who isn’t in the room? That realization might (and structurally, probably should) bear action fruit in a later scene, but you might want to convey the realization as it happens even if there isn’t a yanking-on-the-door-handle action that can go along with it. Maybe there’s a way of doing that without a word like “thought” or “realized,” but it’s not coming to mind right now.

…And now I have to think about what POV I’m actually using. I definitely wasn’t aiming for really deep POV, which I just don’t enjoy as much as styles with a little more distance (blame it on growing up reading the classics, with their love of telling!) but based on what you’re saying, it doesn’t quite sound like true omniscient, either. Or maybe I’ll dig into that *after* NaNoWriMo, even if it means guaranteeing more revision!

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Jami Gold November 6, 2015 at 6:06 pm

Hi Ashley,

Usually when we have an epiphany, there’s some action (even if we don’t realize it 🙂 ). We might pause in the middle of a sentence, hesitate in moving, lose focus in our vision/stare at a wall, etc.

So we could start off with an action like that and then go straight to internal dialogue:
Sally’s new boss beckoned her down the hall. “Hell if I know where we’re going to set up your desk.”
Sally stopped mid-stride, the clues falling into place in her mind. Her boss didn’t want her here.

(Obviously, that’s a lame example, but hopefully it gives you an idea. 🙂 ) We have the stopping mid-stride action to show the thought, the clues phrase to give context/motivation for the action, and the realization about her boss in indirect internal dialogue.

That example could be used in either deep POV or shallow-limited POV. Either way, filter words aren’t needed.

And despite all the focus on deep POV, it’s perfectly okay to write 3rd person subjective/limited POV without going deep. Shallow POV isn’t the current trend for most genres, but trends change, and most importantly, we have to be comfortable with our voice. 😀

With 3rd person, we can think of a spectrum with omniscient at one end and deep POV at the other–and there’s room between those for limited without deep. Marcy’s book explains that spectrum as “narrative distance”–how close or how far the “camera” is for the story. Does it hover over everything (omniscient)?Is it inside one character’s head (deep)? Or is it outside a character but close (non-deep limited)? Etc., etc. (And the camera can move around to some extent–pulling back during painful emotions, etc.)

I hope that helps! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Jami Gold November 3, 2015 at 5:04 pm

Hi Ashley,

This is one of those things that isn’t “technically” wrong from a grammar, basic writing craft, etc. perspective, and if we’re not trying to write deep POV, it wouldn’t be a problem at all.

For example, if we were trying to write a non-close/deep/tight POV (either omniscient or simply a limited POV without the deep/close/tight aspect), it would be okay to use words that add distance between the reader and the character, and “thought,” “realized,” etc. wouldn’t be a problem then. However, the majority of stories in most genres now use deep POV and try to eliminate filtering words.

There are some exceptions (Middle Grade, some fantasy or science fiction, some literary etc.), but most writers who use distancing words to filter the character’s experiences for the reader do so accidentally. They simply don’t know how to go deeper. Most of them–when asked if they meant to use a shallow POV–will ask for help and suggestions to go deeper. Hence the suggestions for how to go deeper. 😉

In regards to your example, I’d recommend Marcy’s Internal Dialogue book, as she covers the different formatting options and how to make those thoughts clear. 🙂 (Marcy also did a guest post about the topic of internal dialogue.) Her explanations for indirect and direct internal dialogue (and how we’d indicate both with our writing) are the best I’ve ever seen, so hopefully that will help. 🙂 Thanks for the great question!

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Ashley November 3, 2015 at 1:57 pm

Also, you seem to be saying it’s a problem for an omniscient narrator to go deeply into a character’s POV. Why is that?

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Marcy Kennedy November 3, 2015 at 2:16 pm

When you’re writing in omniscient POV, you don’t use multiple viewpoints. You have only one viewpoint (one point of view), and it’s that of the omniscient narrator. It’s the narrator’s voice that the reader hears. (The narrator might be the author or it might be a constructed narrator like Death in The Book Thief.)

So while that omniscient narrator knows what’s going on inside the characters and can share bits of their feelings and thoughts, we won’t be writing anything other than small bits of internal dialogue in the voice of the character. In omniscient, you never go inside the character and see the world through their eyes because the omniscient narrator–not the characters–is the one telling the story.

I hope that helps make it more clear 🙂 I spend quite a bit of time in my book on omniscient POV because I know it can be tricky to understand.

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Jami Gold November 3, 2015 at 5:09 pm

Hi Ashley,

As Marcy said, there’s a difference between omniscient knowing a character’s thoughts and feelings and expressing narrative details in a character’s voice. While omniscient might share a character’s thoughts or feelings with readers, the narrative itself should remain in the omniscient voice (whether that’s a specific narrator’s voice or just the authorial voice). I hope that helps. 🙂 Thanks for the question!

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Serena Yung November 4, 2015 at 5:25 pm

Oh, Jami, that brings up an interesting thing that I’m doing in my story lately! You already know that I write in the omniscient POV, and I guess it may be a rule that the narration all has to be in the narrator’s voice, but you know how I enjoy breaking rules for fun, haha. So what I do, is that I sometimes deliberately swim around and zip from the narrator’s POV (through the narrator’s eyes and in the narrator’s voice) and the character’s POV (through the character’s eyes and in the character’s voice). Yes, I know this is probably an absolute no-no, but I find it fun to zip around like that! My readers would probably hate me for doing so (at least some of my readers might), but right now I’m still pantsing so I don’t need to worry about the dilemma of pleasing myself vs. pleasing others yet.

As an example, my main villain’s son is called Shen Qing Le, where Shen is his surname. My main teenage characters, who are his friends but not very close friends yet, call him Qing Le Xiongdi. Which approximately means brother Qingle, where brother not only indicates friendliness; it sort of indicates that you are not very close to them yet, otherwise you would probably omit the “brother” appellation. My villain (i.e. Qing Le’s father) calls him Qing Er, where Er is a kind of standard endearment that elders like parents, teachers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, etc. might call the younger person. On the other hand, my villain’s henchmen all call my villain’s son “Shao Zhangmen”, which basically means “Younger Leader of our Clan” or “Son of our Clan Leader”.

Finally, the narrator sometimes calls him “Qing Le” or “Shen Qing Le”. The Chinese martial arts novels, and probably Chinese novels in general, are interesting in that some novels always refer to the characters by their full name, i.e. surname + first name + middle name. Some novels always refer to them as their first name + middle name. And some novels use a combination of the two, e.g. first name + middle name most of the time, but occasionally the full name. I actually alternate between the two methods deliberately. When I want to be more emotionally distant (at least slightly more distant), I use their full name, and when I want to be emotionally closer and more familiar, I use only their first and middle name. So what typically happens in my novel is that a character starts off with their full name, but I gradually transition to calling them directly by their first and middle name when I sense the reader is “getting to know them”. But there are times when I switch back to the full name again because of some special feeling the full name gives me. It’s kind of hard to explain what that special feeling is, but my heroine’s full name: Dong Tong Li (東彤灕) just FEELS different from just her first and middle name: Tong Li (彤灕). It’s mostly the visual effect her name has on me, and I switch it around when I subtly want the reader to experience this certain feeling with her full name instead of the usual feeling with just her first and middle name.

Lol, and I deliberately keep using Shen Fen Hui, which is my main villain’s full name, so I can keep a distance from him. No matter how much I’m in love with him (yay villain crushes!), I know that he did some very evil things, so I don’t think the reader will appreciate it if I do my usual thing and transition to Fen Hui (no surname), because that sort of “forces” the reader to view my villain as a closer, more familiar, and even “friendlier” character. Yeah, these appellation quirks in Chinese are fun to play with!

Sorry, what a digression that was, haha.

Anyway, back to my villain’s son Shen Qing Le: Since different groups of people call him differently, I can easily indicate whose POV I’m in simply by changing how I refer to this boy. “Qing Le” shows it’s the narrator’s POV, “Qing Le Xiongdi” indicates it’s one of his teenage friend’s, “Qing Er” means it’s his dad’s POV, and “Shao Zhangmen” signals that it’s one of his dad’s henchmen’s POV.

Yes, of course I could have been a good girl and just stuck with the narrator’s voice, calling him only Qing Le (and rarely Shen Qing Le). Yet…well, you know my muse is weird. My muse feels that something is not right if I stick with the narrator’s voice and never slip into other characters’ voices sometimes. I actually don’t quite remember if the Chinese martial arts stories do this thing that I do with changing name appellations to indicate narrator-to-character or character-to-narrator shifts, or if the stories just keep to the narrator’s voice even when showing a character’s (non-italicized) internal dialogue.

Of course I could just use filter words like “Shen Fen Hui thought…”, but yeah, I like that free indirect discourse thing where you blur the boundaries between the narrator’s and character’s POV even in omniscient, so you furtively switch between character and narrator perspectives.

Anyhow, back to the topic of having characters’ voices as well as the narrator’s voice in the narration, the reason why I do this, is not *really* because I want to be a rebel, but because–it just feels nice to do it! I think there’s something so sweet and heartwarming when I hear “Qing Er” instead of “Qing Le” when we narrate the villain (his dad)’s perspective. “Shao Zhangmen” from the henchmen’s POV sounds oddly affectionate to me too, and aw, I don’t know, the appellations “Qing Er” and “Shao Zhangmen” used in the narration just give me the fuzzies and I enjoy that warmth. 😀

Oh, actually maybe these different appellations could have the same function as “filter words” in omniscient. If I say “Dong Tong Li thought…” then obviously that thought is from my heroine. But saying “Qing Er” also obviously indicates that the thought was by a specific character, namely my villain (the dad.) As we usually only focus on one henchman in each paragraph, saying “Shao Zhangmen” clearly shows the thought was from that particular henchman, and not from any of the other characters, nor from the narrator.

Hope that was an entertaining example, haha.

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Jami Gold November 4, 2015 at 5:36 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Interesting. 🙂

I obviously have no idea what the “norm” is for Chinese stories, but as you said, during drafting, we can only worry about so much. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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Glynis Jolly November 3, 2015 at 5:39 pm

I’ve caught myself doing some of these. I wrote a scene where the POV wasn’t there and found myself putting in words, phrases, and sentences that would only go with the POV. I got it turned around though by showing emotion, body language, and using dialogue. It was a mess for a while.

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Jami Gold November 3, 2015 at 5:44 pm

Hi Glynis,

I understand. 🙂 I’ve had Marcy do a special editing pass for me–focusing just on these issues–because they are so sneaky. LOL! Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Marcy Kennedy November 6, 2015 at 7:00 am

Ooo, you just made a good point here. We’re going to make these during writing, and so we shouldn’t worry about them during that first draft stage. When we come back to edit, we can fix any “mess” we’ve created. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

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Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) November 3, 2015 at 7:52 pm

With regard to working within a limited third person (however close or distant) the challenge of only citing what the viewpoint characters sees and hears isn’t as straightforward from a narrative standpoint as it is from a basic SPAG standpoint.

This is why people say “Things can be well-written, and grammatically correct, but not a story.”

This is also why the “Story Trumps All” argument/ideology can drive me CRAZY as a writer. Just because I can’t coast on storytelling alone doesn’t mean it matters less to me, but it also doesn’t help me embrace the “Nothing is ever perfect” advice writers are beat over the head with.

It’s HARD to care without letting necessary revision make you afraid to then go from writing to selling what we’ve written.

I may have to look for this in “Gabriel” because the issues with out of viewpoint description is an issue with me.

Some beta-readers got frustrated with not knowing what Gabriel (the viewpoint character) and other characters looked like.

It’s not like I have no clue, but like Marcy said (and showed in her examples), the viewpoint character wouldn’t note people he sees everyday like he just met them (unless there was a story reason, or he actually is meeting them for the first time) but even if the viewpoint character knows this, the reader doesn’t, and thus lies the issue of having visual description that matters, without having POV nightmares or having readers lost at how to “imagine their ideal ver. of the character.”

As much as I respect the ideal of letting readers fill in some blanks, that’s easier said than done when I get feedback that gives me the opposite impression, especially if you don’t have the benefit of illustrations to help with that (I’m hoping “Gabriel” will have illustrations) but I still need/want the story to work without them.

I know this can an individualistic thing, but this doesn’t always mean it’s a “Can’t Please Everyone” problem, because more than one beta-reader pointed this out to me.

I think I’ve worked through most of these (since I did sell “Gabriel”) but I think the out-of-viewpoint description issue is BIG for me in general, and this is even when I’m BEYOND the first draft, to put this in perspective.

This is where I envy comics because the visuals speak for themselves.

Us novelists (even if we can get in-book illustrations) we battle this push-pull between giving the reader no idea how to “picture the character” versus the issues Marcy spoke to above.

As much as I keep hearing we words-only people can do things visual mediums can’t, it still feels like what films, television and comics can do visually give them an edge text-only storytellers don’t have.

Otherwise, how can you explain readers who feel like you’re not “describing the characters enough” as much as they don’t want a boring laundry list “At the mirror” play by play.

Maybe I’m particularly sensitive to this because my stories are about animals and they’re not 100% naturalistic, but not necessarily anthro in the way Redwall or Beatrix Potter are. “Gabriel” is particularly in the middle of either extreme.

I sometimes wonder how the nonhuman “Looney Tunes” characters would be characterized if they were in novel form versus in their native animated medium.

If only so those cartoon writers could know what we words-only writers have to go through on even the simplest things…

Whenever I watch cartoons now (particularly ones pre-2000) I can often imagine a few seconds of a scene taking several or more pages to set up so the reader will “buy it” within the context of the story world, however real or surreal it is.

Any advice, Jami or Marcy? (At least I’m not alone in struggling with this)

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Jami Gold November 3, 2015 at 10:30 pm

Hi Taurean,

As you said, there is certainly an amount of “you can’t please everyone” to the question. Just earlier today I saw a review stating that the characters must have been naked the whole book because the author didn’t go into details about their clothes every scene. *sigh* *shakes head*

That said, I’d guess any character that didn’t fall into our normal expectations would need more description. (I always go a little deeper into description when my paranormal characters are in the scene.)

I’m not sure if Marcy would have any other suggestions, but I’d say to show with some sort of action: smoothing whiskers, lifting his tail around his wrist, looking down his snout at something, etc. In other words, it might not be the mirror description but the sense of being in a non-human body that might help. Not sure if that helps or not, but that’s how I’ve tried to think of it when I’m writing in dragon/unicorn/whatever-form. 🙂 Good luck, and thanks for the comment!

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Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) November 4, 2015 at 1:01 pm

Those are good general tips, Jami, but the problems I think viewpoint characters face in third person limited POV (Close or distant) are particularly unique and challenging versus what we can describe via other characters outside the viewpoint character the story’s told in.

While you cited an extreme example via that Amazon review, Jami, there is a struggle there, beyond individual reader preference, and that’s what I struggle with.

The answer will be different for every writer and every book requires a different answer, but I still felt I had to speak to the challenges those writing in close third face with this seemingly hopeless dichotomy, because it’s not like we can not describe our characters AT ALL, at least not in a 21st century novel.

Early 20th century novels just “Get Away” with things [either describing appearance too much, too little, or in a cliched manner] most of us can’t, in some ways that makes books a better reading experience, but this demand for deep characterization can cause less obvious problems for those working in text-centric mediums where visuals can’t help us, or only so much (where the cover’s often all we get outside comics/graphic novels or kidlit).

I put “Hopeless Dichotomy” in quotes because clearly authors do find a way, or more books would have this problem that prevent readers from enjoying the book.

It’s the answers for our book/story are hard to come by, and I think those writing nonhuman characters (however naturalistic, alien, or anthro they are) face this issue more acutely than human characters do.

Again, even if readers HATE the “Mirror” description of characters, they still need something beyond their name and eye color to go on, that includes the viewpoint character.

Yet unless their in a super appearance conscious career or environment, or hopelessly vain, describing appearance of viewpoint characters is tough when we don’t have an “in” to do it via career or background where in the character’s world/mindset, this is normal, even if abnormal to the reader.

It’s just HARD to do that without POV nightmares cited by you and Marcy.

I don’t think we can always chalk that up to solely a “Can’t Please Everyone” problem, Jami, but I get what you’re saying, all the same.

The issue for writers tends to be “What level of this ‘Can’t see the character’ thing is objective versus subjective.”

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Jami Gold November 4, 2015 at 1:41 pm

Hi Taurean,

With non-human characters, I wonder if readers would be more forgiving of these POV errors just because they “need” to know. For my paranormal characters, I might have to include details that normally wouldn’t stand out to the POV character, but addresses a question the reader might have at that moment.

That’s an interesting question–and I don’t know the answer–but I just don’t want your worrying over a craft issue that might not stand out to readers. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to prioritize the reader experience. 🙂

Plus, if we look at genres, books like Harry Potter make it clear that sometimes a limited POV can get away with including objective passages along with the subjective passages. It doesn’t have to be all deep POV all the time. (Many books–especially those in MG or YA categories–start chapters with a “camera zoom in” POV approach.)

So if a more objective description passage flows well (especially at the beginning of a chapter), this might not be an issue for you. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) November 4, 2015 at 2:36 pm

Those are good points, Jami,

While I might overly worry on this particular issue, I do see it as an ongoing issue in my work (not just my debut, okay?), so perhaps you overall have a better grasp on this than me, at least to better know the difference-even if the little things elude you, thus why we have beta-readers (Though finding them in my case is harder because of the bias toward animal fantasy, at least with the writers I know who are primarily YA, and rarely have nonhuman characters in their books, even within the paranormal landscape you’re in).

I know people often say “HP broke rules left and right and still read fine” but I don’t count it in relation to my work only because people cite HP as “defying all established writing from a technical, not just a story standpoint” but even taking into account the “many rejections HP got” not all books can be HP, and I don’t mean from a literal or sales perspective, either!

I read HP (and LOVE HP, don’t get me wrong), and admittedly I don’t read from a writer POV very well (I couldn’t tell you when tense shifts happen in any given book, even if I read it multiple times, I still need to read for entertainment, but that makes learning from writers harder for me personally) but I feel people cite it took often and I don’t want to be that naive writer who points to HP (or in a different way, Twilight or FSOG) and say “These books do it, why can’t I?” if you know what I mean.

Often this involves discourse among authors and we get into the “Us vs. Them” debate, which in this context is “No-Name, Debut, or Midlist Authors vs. Bestselling Brand Name Authors.” You’ve spoken to this in your post about the last RWA conference about the changing attitudes towards indie publishing, despite the challenges to do at the pro level when you don’t have a foothold in trad. publishing and the finances to do it all on your own (Or turn to crowdfunding and HOPE, as in my case) and I sometimes fear “Brand Name” authors or proud indie authors lose touch with the limited finances of authors like me who don’t have a dozen side hustles to keep them afloat, and NOT for lack of trying to create them.

This is why the “Everyone IS an Entrepreneur” movement angers me sometimes, Regardless of your level of education (Or lack thereof, but I don’t want to debate that here and now, Jami or I’ll say things I will regret…) this is not easy, and I feel we treat “Being our own boss” like a skill that’s as easy to acquire as learning to walk, and sadly it’s not, and it doesn’t mean we can’t or don’t want to broaden our skills and make money from that. Period.

While we all have to learn constantly, some skills do come easier to some than others, I have an easier time writing about nonhuman characters versus authors who thrive on “Keeping it Real” and you know we’ve had many discussion on your blog about this.

All that said, thanks for hearing me out, if nothing else I hope writers in my position genre or business wise feel less alone if they come across this post and my comments here.

Still, I’m glad there is more wiggle room than I sometimes feel is the case.

Sometimes I think I’m doing this in a workable way only to find out that I’m not, and again unlike you, Jami, I can’t say I’ve got collegiate-level understanding of craft (I know you didn’t study literature specifically at college, but I’m talking figuratively here).

So, maybe I’m even more of a pantser in this respect than you are, Jami.

After all, there are dyslexic authors who have to find ways to go through this and still get published, I’m not dyslexic, but I also can’t tell you how to use a comma properly every time…(LOL)

But even though I can’t tell you when any random book shift tenses, or think about books from solely a technical perspective (BEYOND basic SPAG issues).

I don’t take pride in that. But I’m just trying to humanize what often is something that authors snipe each other over.

Even in prioritizing the “Reader Experience” as you frame it, Jami, that doesn’t always mean it’s all in the writer’s head, and I know you didn’t say that.

But again, I see your point, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on certain specifics here.

As I said, in regards to “Gabriel” specifically, many of my 100+ beta-readers had this “Hard to visualize the character” problem, it wasn’t just one or two outliers, or this wouldn’t bother me.

Even most in my genre were confused at times, never mind those who don’t read/write nonhuman characters.

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Jami Gold November 4, 2015 at 4:34 pm

Hi Taurean,

Yep, I understand, and you’re quite right that HP or other bestsellers shouldn’t be held up as examples of exceptions we can get away with. 🙂

With that particular technique of going from distant-to-near at chapter openings, I know I’ve seen it plenty of other places–as well as the editor I originally learned POV from mentioned that it’s acceptable to go deeper or shallower as needed–and it’s just that HP was the first book I thought of for how I’ve seen it work.

I think as with so many things writing, some “rules” are okay to break–but we want to make sure we’re breaking them intentionally. If we’ve thought through the best way to do something, and it involves bending the rules, we shouldn’t feel hamstrung.

Going back to this particular example, to make sure we can properly judge which way is the “best” way, we’d have to understand the pros and cons–the risks of giving out-of-POV descriptions and making the reader feel more distant, for example. If those risks are worth it–if a bit of distance is better than confusion and nothing else can prevent that confusion, for instance–then there’s nothing wrong with considering breaking the rule. IMHO. 😉

Just my two cents, but obviously the fact that I don’t automatically avoid these POV issues in my rough drafts tells you that I’m far from perfect when it comes to POV. LOL! Good luck figuring out an approach that works with your sense of story and your readers’ needs, and thanks for bringing up the topic! 🙂

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Mike November 4, 2015 at 7:51 am

Excellent suggestions for catching these sneaky little errors. They also manage to be a problem when you’re writing in 1st person.

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Jami Gold November 4, 2015 at 7:58 am

Hi Mike,

Very true. For some writers, the errors might stand out more in first person to make them easier to find, but that’s not always the case. You’re absolutely right that they can still be an issue. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

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Marcy Kennedy November 6, 2015 at 7:06 am

Very true. Because first person is also a limited POV, these apply equally to it. Thanks for the comment 🙂

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dolorah November 4, 2015 at 1:36 pm

I’m always learning something new about the craft of writing, and sometimes relearning things. When I’m desperately trying to get a scene written, I forget to go back and check for those niggling errors that my inner editor screamed about and I wrote anyway. And yes, it always seems to be the small stuff that slips in there.

An excellent POV lesson Marcy. Thanks for sharing it.

Hi Jami 🙂

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Jami Gold November 4, 2015 at 1:46 pm

Hi Dolorah,

Yes, I’m at that same point for many aspects of writing. I know how to fix them, but it’s not automatic yet. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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Serena Yung November 4, 2015 at 3:49 pm

Oh, I do have a question! For some or all of the above examples of “errors”, it could be because the reader assumes that the author is writing in a third person limited POV, i.e. only through the eyes of the current POV character. However, the author might actually be writing in an omniscient point-of-view that focuses on one character’s mind each scene.

I think I haven’t read enough non-literary-classic English novels to see if this is a style in modern English books, but in the Chinese martial arts novels I read, it’s always written in this omniscient POV that has one “main” POV character per scene. So for each scene, you would see thoughts, feelings, and perceptions mostly from one character’s mind, yet you may occasionally get glimpses into other characters’ heads too, though usually these glimpses are relatively brief. Thus, a reader who is used to reading limited 3rd POV stories might mistake this particular kind of omniscient style for the limited third person, and feel that there are POV errors.

What do you think of this issue of the reader possibly misinterpreting what POV it is?

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Jami Gold November 4, 2015 at 4:46 pm

Hi Serena,

I think it’s certainly possible for readers to be confused about POV, especially at the beginning of a story. (I’m almost always thrown when I first encounter a present tense story, for example. 🙂 ).

However, as Marcy and I mentioned in some of the comments above, a true omniscient POV wouldn’t have narrative (as opposed to dialogue or internal thoughts) written in the voice of character. The narrative would be in the omniscient voice (whether that’s an off-page narrator or the author’s voice, etc.).

I’ve seen that omniscient-but-mostly-follows-one character-around approach in some Middle Grade books in English, but I’m not sure how much it exists in other genres. You’re right though that the style could be mistaken for a shallow limited-3rd-person POV with occasional head-hopping issues. As an editor, when I encounter stories like those, the author has always wanted to go deeper POV and just didn’t know how, but the Chinese standards and expectations might be completely different. 🙂 Thanks for the question!

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Serena Yung November 4, 2015 at 5:31 pm

Lol, yeah, it’s a tricky issue. It’s fun to read books from two different languages so you’re exposed to different norms and styles. Unfortunately I haven’t read very many French novels so far, so I wouldn’t be too familiar with French novel norms, haha.

Oh my. I wrote a very long comment talking about keeping the omniscient POV in the narrator’s voice rather than sometimes jumping into the characters’ voices, lol! I think it’s a pretty intriguing topic to discuss. 😀

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Jami Gold November 4, 2015 at 5:37 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! I saw. 😉

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Serena Yung November 4, 2015 at 5:40 pm

Oh, actually I just thought of something. Internal dialogue can be written in the character’s voice even in omniscient, right? Hmm, then I think what I was doing when mischievously switching from “Qing Er” to “Qing Le” to “Shao Zhangmen”, etc. (see one of the above comments), was a kind of free indirect discourse. So instead of using filter words, I directly put in the character’s internal dialogue; yet, instead of blurring the character and narrator POVs like the free indirect discourse cheekily does, I use the different appellations to signal a switch from the narrator’s to a specific character’s internal dialogue/ perspective, like “Shao Zhangmen” instead of “Qing Le” to show it’s the henchman’s thoughts.

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Jami Gold November 5, 2015 at 6:47 am

Hi Serena,

LOL! Got it. 🙂

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Marcy Kennedy November 6, 2015 at 7:09 am

Hi Serena,

Internal dialogue is in the character’s voice even in omniscient, yes 🙂 Then you get into questions of formatting, which is another post entirely!

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Serena Yung November 10, 2015 at 4:29 pm

Oh! Okay, that makes sense, haha, thanks and sorry for the late reply–I completely forgot to check back on this comment. As for how to format it, hmm, well at the moment, I’m just imitating how authors in my genre all do it. For some reason, I’ve never seen writers of Chinese martial arts stories use italics before, let alone italics for internal dialogue, but they do seem to use internal dialogue tags like “he thought”. But sometimes they seem to be doing some free indirect discourse so you don’t know whether it was the narrator or the character who thought it!

There seems to be some variations of internal dialogue style too, like sometimes they put it in quote marks (like with spoken dialogue) and sometimes it’s not in quotes. So that’s what I do too, as readers in this genre would be most used to this style.

However, I might change the style for the English translated version of my story, though, lol, just to accommodate my English readers. I won’t be able to use ” smiled” and “laughed” quite as often in English, for instance; it’s funny how in Chinese stories, at least in my genre, it’s actually a norm to use the word “xiao” (which either means smile or laugh) all the time. Maybe “xiao” isn’t as ubiquitous as our “said’s” in English, but it’s still pretty astonishingly ubiquitous!

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Jami Gold November 10, 2015 at 4:49 pm

Hi Serena,

Oh wow! I never even considered the italics issue with Chinese characters. LOL! Yes, I bet the norms are completely different, which would then necessitate a change in how to approach the craft.

I have a fascination with how language shapes our thoughts, like how those without a word for pink don’t see much of a difference between pink and red. So yes, writing craft would have to be different in Chinese just because of the italics issue. All the techniques and agreed meanings for italics would have to be adapted to get the intention across a different way.

So of course Chinese stories would have different styles of internal dialogue, etc. 🙂 Thanks for bringing it up–fascinating stuff!

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Serena Yung November 11, 2015 at 10:48 pm

Haha actually we can italicize Chinese words (at least for the fonts I use), though I heard italicizing doesn’t work on certain Chinese fonts. Let’s see if it works here:

冰河銀朔
to
冰河銀朔

But whether italics work on Chinese fonts or not, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in Chinese novels before, or if I have, they must have been so rare that I don’t remember them, lol.

Oh on colors, there is a color word in Chinese that confuses me. It’s the word qing 青. From the dictionary, this can mean light blue/ dark green, green, dark blue, or even black. This really confused me because when I learned the word in my Chinese classes as a kid, I got the impression that it meant light green…Since they use 青 to describe water and grass a lot. And I know from reading lots of Chinese martial arts novels that there are 青馬, which means a horse in the Qing color. Ha, I’ve never seen a green horse before, so I had no idea what it meant. Checking an online dictionary shows that it means a grey horse, though some other dictionaries say it means a horse that is of the Qing color, so I guess that’s a black horse.

I have no idea whether it’s a black or grey horse, but I’ll just assume it’s black for now.

But anyway, isn’t it interesting that Qing still feels like green or light green to me, yet it actually means dark green, light blue, green, dark blue, or black? And isn’t it astonishing that this one word can have so many possible shades of colors? Well anyway, it still looks green to me personally, haha. (I suspect that I’m not the only Chinese person who is confused by this color word Qing, though, lol.)

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Serena Yung November 11, 2015 at 10:49 pm

Oh! The italics worked. Yay! Yeah, so that’s how Chinese italics look like, haha.

Serena Yung November 11, 2015 at 10:53 pm

Sorry, I forgot to add that 冰河銀朔 that I typed up there, is the title of the story I’m writing. Literally translated, it approximately means Ice Lake and Silver Wind. Since the heroine’s main martial arts teacher is from the Ice Lake fighting clan and the hero’s main teacher is from the Silver Wind fighting clan, “Ice Lake and Silver Wind” really just symbolizes my hero and heroine.

Yeah, just so you know I wasn’t writing Chinese swear words or anything up there, hahaha!

Feel free to delete these two small comments if they’re clogging up too much space on this page!

Jami Gold November 13, 2015 at 3:56 pm

Hi Serena,

Oh, interesting! And those are quite different colors to be all referenced at the same thing. LOL! at the thought of a green horse. 😉

J'aime November 6, 2015 at 6:28 pm

Augh, I read this blog post, and then today I started reading a fantasy novel, and now I can’t stop spotting these issues all over it. LOL I’m only in the Prologue of the thing and the POV issues are already driving me nuts.

I guess it will be good practice for me, if I don’t give up and delete the thing from my ereader.

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Jami Gold November 6, 2015 at 7:21 pm

Hi J’aime,

LOL! Oh, the perils of becoming an author. Been there, done that. 🙂

I’ve learned that there are some types of errors I can ignore and some I can’t. But you’re right, learning how to spot these is good practice. 😀 Thanks for the comment!

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Anne BB November 10, 2015 at 6:36 am

POV was the first big “problem” in writing I encountered when I let someone with writing experience read my work. Since then it has been a major hurdle in designing my approach to different stories. (So all this discussion about it is great!)

Now when I read, I am very conscious of POV where before I hadn’t a clue.

I’m stuck right now on writing a review for a British thriller I read recently. I haven’t decided if the head-hopping was part of the omniscient POV, part of the genre expectations in British lit or just plain wrong. I enjoyed the book: the premise was interesting, the plot excellent, and the characters intriguing. But I struggled throughout the book with the POV. I don’t want to give it a lower rating simply because I’m not educated well enough.

Any suggestions? (FYI: The book is The British Lion by Tony Schumacher.)

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Jami Gold November 10, 2015 at 9:37 am

Hi Anne,

Sorry! 🙂 I notice issues so much more now as well, so I understand.

I was curious, so I checked out the “Look Inside” for that book. From what I saw in the sample, the book is written in omniscient. Any insights into the characters thoughts or feelings were done in the neutral voice of the rest of the story and kept distant. Headhopping would be when those insights were done in a deeper POV–that of the character.

For example, here’s a line (trimmed) from the book:
He pondered the offer, weighing his options.

That’s distant (it even includes the filtering word “pondered”) but in a neutral voice. We’re being “told” that he’s thinking, but we’re not hearing his actual thinking voice (What should he do?).

  • If some or most of the story went deeper than this (leading to the impression that it was supposed to be from that character’s POV) by using the character’s voice, the “pondered” filtering word would be adding unnecessary distance to what could be a deep POV story.
  • If some of the story went deeper than this by using the character’s voice, but also used other character’s voices in the same scene (no transitions)–leading to the impression that it wasn’t from a single POV–the story probably head-hops.
  • If this is as deep as it went into any characters’ thoughts or feelings–staying in the neutral or narrator voice–then it’s omniscient.

That said, I reviewed only the free sample, so there might be headhopping instances later on. 🙂 But I wanted to give a rundown for how to tell the difference as a reader.

However, the review is really about you–as a reader–did the POV (even if it IS well-done omniscient) not work for you? Or was it just that writer-you was distracted by the question? 😉

It would be fair to say in a review all the good stuff but then mention (and potentially take a star off) that the distant POV prevented you from feeling as connected to the characters or as immersed in the story as you would have liked. (If that’s indeed the case.)

I hope that helps! 🙂 Thanks for the question!

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Serena Yung November 11, 2015 at 10:17 pm

Hey Jami, I just had a thought. Since going from one character’s head to another without a proper transition is called “head hopping”, then going from one character’s head to another one’s head WITH a good transition should be called “head walking”, lol. Walking implying that there are steps you need to take to get to the other head (a transition); you’re not just hopping/ leaping into the other head and skipping all that space in between.

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Jami Gold November 11, 2015 at 10:20 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Make it a trend. 😉

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Anne BB November 11, 2015 at 10:36 pm

That helps bucketloads! Thanks! Thay’s why I value your opinion: succinct, clear answers to the questions asked. You are a priceless resource.

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Jami Gold November 11, 2015 at 10:48 pm

Hi Anne,

I’m happy to help, and I’m glad that made sense! 🙂

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Jami Gold November 13, 2015 at 3:56 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Yep, but maybe they can be hard to read and are thus uncommon?

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Jami Gold November 13, 2015 at 3:57 pm

Hi Serena,

Oh, how pretty! LOL! And thanks for the explanation. 😉

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