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July 4, 2013

7 Methods for Handling Point-of-View Changes

Relay race baton pass with text: Point of View: Handling Hand-Offs

Today’s a holiday in the U.S., so I’m dusting off and updating a post from the archives. While you’re here, don’t forget to comment on my Blogiversary post for a chance to win “me.” Want me to beta read for you or pick my brain about a writing or story problem? Now’s your chance! *grin*

The old version of this post recently came up in one of my writing loops because many beginning writers want to share everything they know about their characters and their story. We see this issue in information dumps of backstory or story research. And we also see this issue in the desire to share everything that every character is thinking and feeling.

However, once we gain experience, we realize it’s good for readers to have questions and to figure things out from the subtext. The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is excellent at giving suggestion on how to show emotion, both from the point-of-view (POV) character as well as from a non-POV character. Simply wanting the reader to know the emotions of another character is not a reason to switch POV. *smile*

Once we’ve determined a POV change is really needed—think emotional arcs, plot turning points, or who has the most at risk—we need to know how to do changes in close third person POV properly. I hope you enjoy!

How to Avoid Head-Hopping

We’ve learned that head-hopping should be avoided if we want to maintain a strong connection between the reader and the characters, and we’ve learned that just calling something omniscient doesn’t solve the head-hopping problem.

This brings up the obvious question: How do we avoid head-hopping?

The answer might be different for each story we write. Remember how we defined head-hopping previously? If a story uses a character’s voice for narrative introspection/internal monologue, we need a transition between each character’s point-of-view (POV). Otherwise, we risk confusing the reader, taking them out of the story, and breaking the reader’s connection to the characters.

So let’s look at our options, starting with the smallest transition and continuing up to the biggest.

Paragraph Break

The vast majority of agents and editors consider a paragraph break to be an insufficient transition for a POV change, especially for a character-focused story.

In contrast to plot-driven stories, character-focused stories are page-turners because the reader cares about what will happen to the characters. It’s harder to create a sympathetic/empathetic relationship between the reader and characters in one-paragraph chunks. If the characters don’t matter, they might seem little more than puppets to the plot.

Baton Pass

Some best-selling authors look like they’re getting away with merely a paragraph break transition, but a) they’re best-selling, and b) in actuality, they usually include some action or prop as a “baton” to pass between the characters. This technique is taught as the correct way to do a mid-scene POV shift without head-hopping. Here’s the example I posted in the comments of that previous post:

Cynthia stared at Maurice in disbelief. Who would think wearing a neon-green shirt with mustard-yellow plaid pants was a good idea? Her gaze then landed on the mismatched button on his shirt.

Maurice looked down to see the button she’d noticed and shrugged. Like he cared what that know-it-all thought.

There the button and the action of first her looking at it and then him looking at it acts like a baton passed in a relay race. However, in general, non-big-name authors aren’t “allowed” to do this because agents and editors don’t trust them to know what they’re doing.

And honestly, I got confused when I read the main author held up as the prime example of how to do this right, so I don’t think it can be done “right enough” to not take some readers out of the story. Even the best-selling author I read used this method only once in the whole book.

Camera Zoom Out/Omniscient

Sometimes omniscient POV is used as a transition between close third POVs, like a camera pulling back from one close-up to zoom in on another. Note that these stories are still considered close third person and not omniscient.

This technique can be used mid-scene, with omniscient paragraphs of observation between the deeper POV of two characters. More commonly, it’s used as one scene ends and another begins. Here’s my no-talent-for-omniscient example:

Thank goodness that day was over with. She pulled the covers up to her neck and prepared to sleep like the dead. But she didn’t know that more was in store for her.

Across town, her meddling soon-to-be mother-in-law had other plans. Kathy tapped her pencil on the list of extravaganzas the wedding planner had put together. Why, oh why, had her son found the most high-maintenance woman in the county to marry?

Notice that the first line of the first paragraph is written in the character’s voice. The next two lines each pull back a step to an omniscient viewpoint. Then we do the reverse in the second paragraph, going from omniscient to a deep third person with the new character’s voice. Check out my friend Simon C. Larter’s blog post for more (better?) examples along these lines.

Line Break

This is as simple as it sounds: Add a blank line between one character’s POV and another’s POV. At the very least, this lets the reader (including editors and agents) know that we meant to change POVs and aren’t changing perspective willy-nilly.

Scene Break

With this technique, the line break signals both a POV change and a scene change, interrupting the reader as efficiently as possible with a two-for-one.

This is the method I use, although my definition of a scene might be different from that of others. For me, a scene ends not only when the setting (In the next room…) or time (Two weeks later…) changes, but also when a character’s emotional arc ends. So I insert a line break and change POVs when one character’s arc ends and another character’s arc begins, even though the setting and time might continue from the previous scene.

Chapter Break

Here the POV switches only at the break between chapters. With a multiple-first-person POV, this technique is often used with the name of the POV character as the chapter title.

Only One POV Character

Sometimes the entire story is told from the perspective of one character so the POV never changes. This is often the case with certain genres (women’s fiction, urban fantasy, cozy mysteries) or when the story is told in first person.

Which Method Should We Use?

There is no one right answer for which method to use. The best method for a first-person POV story is going to be different from an epic tale with a large cast of characters. In most romances, both the hero and heroine’s POV are expected, but other characters’ perspectives are not typically used, except in some romantic suspense or thriller stories.

Any story that changes POV should anchor the reader in the new POV as soon as possible. Note that in the examples above, I started the new paragraph with the POV character’s name along with a thought or action.

With whatever method we use, we need to be consistent. We can’t train readers to think that a baton pass equals a POV change and then suddenly do one without a change. Specifically, in stories using the paragraph break or baton pass method, writers have to be careful not to accidentally signal a transition at each paragraph starting with a character’s name.

A scan of some of the recently published books piled on my desk revealed that some authors used only chapter breaks (and some of those chapters were very short). Other authors used scene breaks—typically only when the time and place changed—and at most, once per chapter. Only rarely did an author use just a line break—again, usually once per chapter.

Other than one best-selling author who used the baton pass technique, no published books I checked used anything less than a line break. The vast majority used either the scene or chapter break methods.

Does this mean we can’t use anything else? No. But just as with everything we write, the choices we make have consequences. Choose what will work for you, your story, and your readers.

Which method do you prefer when reading? Which method do you use in your writing? What does a scan of your library reveal as to the most popular methods? Does it depend on the genre or publication date? And don’t forget to comment on my contest post!

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What do you think?

55 Comments on "7 Methods for Handling Point-of-View Changes"

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Melissa Maygrove

Woohoo! The browser auto-fill setting worked!
*smooths lapel and blushes* Sorry for that outburst. 🙂

When writing in close third, I switch POV at chapter breaks, scene breaks (###), and occasionally during a scene, but I leave a space if I do. I try, whenever possible, to make a new POV clear with the very first line. Definitely within the first paragraph.

While I do sometimes ‘zoom out’ for a more distant POV when needed, I do not cross into omniscient. As a reader, I don’t like it. Lines like ‘Little did she know…’ make me grit my teeth. The writer/editor in me chides, “If she didn’t know, then how can she tell us?” It totally yanks me out. And, honestly, it’s more chilling (tension-producing, whatever) to just make the shift and *show* us what’s going on ‘across town.’

I have seen authors (Nora Roberts comes to mind) switch POV mid scene without leaving a space. She did it well and, once I got used to the pattern, it didn’t bother me.

I second the recommendation: Whatever you do, do it consistently.

Carradee

Key to any POV is consistency—but even then, some methods (like the baton-switching) I almost always recommend writers to avoid, because a large (or at least loud) percentage of readers believe that all head-hopping is bad writing, even when it isn’t.

And then there’s the detail that most writers who try to use that method do so because they think it’s easy…and they end up producing more proof that the method is to be avoided. Or some writers think they’re using one POV when they’re actually using another, which can really screw them up.

Omniscience and such are okay, in my book, as long as it appears throughout the book. Don’t use a close third person limited, then drop a “little did she know” in chapter three. That contradicts the POV you’ve spent the previous scenes setting up. If you’re going to use that, do so from the start, and sprinkle it throughout.

Considering I’ve actually sold a story written in 2nd person, I firmly believe that any POV or method can be gotten away with. But if you’re going to buck convention, there should be a reason for it. The POV should be selected to suit the story, especially when you’re using something other than the standard close third (or first) person limited.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Yeah, I personally like scene breaks or chapter breaks best, in both my writing and reading. Line breaks seem weird and abrupt. Paragraph breaks I actually prefer to line breaks, though they can still be a bit disorienting.

But sometimes, for some reason, even when the POV change is within the same paragraph, we’re not confused! It’s very strange how things that are usually bad sometimes do work–at least on certain readers. Unfortunately, I didn’t pay much attention to what exactly helped me to be not confused whilst I was reading those books. 🙂

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[…] Gold: 7 Methods for Handling Point-of-View Changes. Excerpt: “How do we avoid head-hopping? The answer might be different for each story we […]

Melissa Sugar
Melissa Sugar
I’m querying my first novel and in the early stages of my second so I fall within the category of ” not yet able to break the rules.” This is one rule, I don’t foresee me ever veering too far off track because doing so is just too dang confusing for readers. I write in third person deep POV and I only switch POV characters at scene or chapter breaks. None of the authors come to mind at the moment but I clearly recall reading the work of best selling authors and making a mental note of the mid scene POV changes. I’m not sure how much this bothered me in the past, but the more I learn about the craft of fiction writing, the easier I am distracted by this. My husband ( a lawyer – non writer ) just someone who loves to read fiction, recently stopped reading a book by a well known published author and when I asked him why, he couldn’t give me a concrete answer. He just told me that he could not put his finger on it, but something wasn’t clicking for him, with the book. I didn’t think too much of it until a week or so later and I was out by the pool, without anything to read and I saw the book on the table and I picked it up and began reading. I immediately noticed the mid scene POV changing- the pass the baton method. So, while my husband… Read more »
Taurean Watkins
I’m of two minds on this. While I get the logistics of what Caradee is saying from the writer’s perspective, as a reader I’m personally not as averse to multi-POV stories in general, but I know as a writer it’s hard to do well, but it’s NOT impossible, to parrot someone who told me this more than I wanted to hear when I was struggling with query letters, and I still hate writing them because they turn me into a person I’m not proud of. But I won’t go there today… I have more problems getting through dialect-heavy from pre-my-birth books of the 19th century and before, and even many 20th century books have this frustrating feel to them that’s hard to access as a reader. I’m not pressed to call it “Bad” because there’s obviously reasons why Dickens and Shakespeare are force fed to students, and learning curve for the modern reader aside, not being EMOTIONALLY ready for those author’s works is part of why there can be apathy toward certain authors and/or their books, stories or poems. I wish more educators at the high school and college level understood that not being ready to read Tolstoy sometimes has NOTHING to do with technical ability, but emotional readiness, that’s NOT just relevant to preschoolers and elementary kids, it’s true for ANY kid, or adult for that matter. At least in elementary school, teachers are more sensitive to this aspect of reading, sometimes to overzealous extremes (Prohibiting books read in… Read more »
Amanda Martin

I recently got my novel back from my beta readers and one of them pointed out that I shifted POV all the time, once both protagonists were together. I hadn’t even noticed, because it was natural to me: I’d been writing from both their perspectives so, once they were a couple, it seemed natural to continue writing from both their perspectives.
No other beta readers commented on it. I suspect the person who did noticed it because their own novel is from male and female POV.
Once it had been pointed out, I went through and made (where possible) each complete scene focus on one POV. Where it was necessary to keep both, I left a paragraph break. The best part was that it cut nearly 10% off the length of the novel, which it needed because it was massively over-length. I think I was so desperate to show both characters’ perspectives I got a bit carried away! It’s definitely something I’ll be watching out for in my next novel.

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Jessi (@WriteRead_Think)

This was so very helpful. Thank you very much for taking the time to write this.

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[…] 7 Methods for Handling Point-of-View Changes […]

Cobalt-Blue
Cobalt-Blue

Thanks. I’m currently in the process of rewriting one of my paranormal romance novels to change the setting from modern to pre-Victorian (The ascension of Victoria to the throne will be the end of the story arc) and was considering how best to handle POV changes. Head hopping is not a problem I experience, but I don’t want to knock the reader out of the setting with an abrupt change or cheat them with too short of chapters and the stress of writing in a new style can sometimes make that a problem. This gave me several good ideas.

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[…] 7 Methods for Handling Point of View | Jami Gold […]

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[…] multiple POV characters does not mean we’re writing in omniscient or head-hopping. There are several ways to change the “ownership” of the story from one POV character to another and avoid […]

Laura Wilson-Anderson
Laura Wilson-Anderson

So glad I found this! I have my novel up on Scribophile, and a critiquer has gone through saying that I head hop in many scenes. I have followed the line break rule, changing the POV with a break within the scene, and I am completely OCD about NOT head-hopping, so it has been very frustrating. She told me that I could only change POV at the scene break or by using a # symbol. I am planning to self-publish, so I don’t think I need the # symbols in the manuscript, do I? I do have *** in between scenes – not sure how that will translate when I self-publish…

Anyway, this made me feel much better. I would say it is an old vs new way to do things, but she is younger than I am. 🙂

Zona Rosa
Zona Rosa

Thank SO much! I’m having all kinds of hell with POV in my novel, and this is one of the only sites I’ve found so far that actually gives helpful advice.

Because my story’s entire theme revolves around misunderstandings and people’s different backgrounds and points of view, it won’t work to limit it to one POV like “Harry Potter.” But because it’s also an adventure story, I often have more than one major character experiencing something very important during the same scene. (Unless I go the “DaVicni Code” route and make the chapters VERY short.)

I do try to *limit* the times I switch POV, find other ways to show what a character is experiencing before jumping into their head, but sometimes it just can’t be done. It’s really kind of aggravating, that movies can just nonchalantly show you whatever POV is necessary or entertaining at the moment, even if it’s a minor character, but books have such strict rules about POV shifts.

The “baton passing” is what I’ve been relying on lately; basically, make it seem like the end of one POV is leading up to the beginning of another, make the reader *want* to know what the next character is doing/thinking. But the fact that most editors/publishers dislike this is very…concerning.

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[…] 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 […]

Kirk
Kirk
So, I have a short story which is basically about two kids in a room, and I’m trying to write it in what I think is omniscient third person–since I don’t really think the story is focused on any kid in particular, and their dad obviously joins in once he arrives too (so there’s three characters I’m constantly switching between as each one talks). And I don’t really want any of them to be the protagonist, as “outside” is kind of the real “character” of the story, as I see it. Am I doing it correctly? Sally let out a yelp from the other side of the room. “No, don’t. Daddy told us to stay in the room at night time.” She figured he maybe wasn’t bluffing after all. “I don’t care. I’m going to go outside right now. I’m going to open the door.” Jack stomped forward—which became more of an edging forward as he got closer to the door. He raised his hand, as if reaching for the night latch below the door handle, faking bullishness but secretly feeling a little scared. “Nooo!” squealed Sally, clasping her hands over her face and shielding her eyes. “I don’t want you to go outside. I don’t want to see what’s out there.” She spun around, turning her back to Jack. “Anyway, daddy will be upset with you.” Jack stopped in his tracks. “Well okay. I’ll keep the door closed, but only because dad said so.” He lowered his hand, before… Read more »
Gale

Generally, I like to keep to one point of view, be it close third person or first person, as I feel it makes the story more “real”—closer to the way we humans view the world. But every now and again I will pop out to an omniscient narrative when my POV character leaves the scene that needs something else to happen (behind her back, as it were), or when I need to include elements of the story that happen but not to her.
I agree with your analysis and appreciate your re-blogging about it today when I needed it! I’ll check out your other posts later on, too.
Merry Christmas!

Chelsea
Chelsea

I’m working on a story that goes between times a sort of “Now and Then” setting rather than chapters, for the main character, so it’s usually her POV, however, later, I was thinking of inputting some other characters such as when I run out of “thens”, but I don’t know how to break that up suddenly since the story will all be told in the “now”. Would making the book two parts help that? Like Part one is the series of “now and thens” and part two is a sort of free for all?

Carys
Carys

I am writing a book and part way through I want to add a second POV just for one chapter, would it be better to extend the second POV to more than one chapter or add it to the whole story

PeterR
Jami, I think I have my question answered. It seems a bit hard to pin down. I recently started writing again after a very long break (Better part of 20 years). Just a fanfiction right now, a little one off that made my inbox explode and compelled me to continue. After almost 45k words I took a step back and started researching just what the hell I’m doing…watched some lectures by Brandon Sanderson, read some sites but I was still fuzzy on one thing. I’m writing in subjective omniscient. A lot of action takes place in almost third person but I fairly often delve into the thoughts of the two primary characters and it deals a lot with the things going on between the two as they figure things out. My problem is when the start the next paragraph. Below is quick example of what I’m unsure of, but ultimately have gone with the latter: Judy ‘hmmmed’ and kept her eyes forward. “I could call Fru, or her father,” she said thoughtfully. Nick’s eyebrows shot up and he looked down at her. “Why Officer ,” he said in mock shock, “Are you suggesting we use your questionable connections to a crime syndicate to intimidate some poor individual?” VS Judy ‘hmmmed’ and kept her eyes forward. “I could call Fru, or her father,” she said thoughtfully. Nick’s eyebrows shot up and he looked down at her. “Why Officer,” he said in mock shock, “Are you suggesting we use your questionable connections… Read more »
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[…] one of my commenters left a question on my post about handling point-of-view changes. (Thank you, Peter!) Peter Reynolds […]

Riley H.
Riley H.

Jami,

I write as a hobby mostly for my own catharsis, though I’ll sometimes share with friends and family, and I’ve been wondering about the edicate on POV changes for awhile now, so it was great to read this. Thanks a ton for the tips!

As for which POV method I prefer, chapter and scene breaks, I think they tend to transition more seamlessly than the others you mentioned.

Chapter breaks I feel transition the best, but as a reader I often grow impatient/frustrated when one character is doing something very interesting (or is just personally more interesting) then there’s a chapter break and I have to read through something less exciting to get back to the interesting character.

I still do enjoy it as a reader though, I love getting multiple perspectives on things especially when it comes to characters on opposite sides of a conflict. Also personally as a writer using only one POV sometimes feels like being stuck in a box, so it’s refreshing and fun to switch and get into different mind sets once in awhile. I just worry about being to shallow and not being able to come up with enough to do for each character.

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[…] de sus escenas de 500-800 palabras, cortar sus escenas cortas en los momentos importantes, y alternar entre POVs […]

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[…] a reason. Serafina and Neela aren’t together until the very end of this book, they are in a chapter break . That is what the characters needed though, Serafina is able to shine when she is by herself and […]

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[…] Changing points of view within a scene may jolt readers. Especially if you change from one type of narration to another (for example first-person to third-person narration). At worst, this simply has a confusing effect: […]

ATI Wells
ATI Wells

So this may be a bit strange of a question but I am writing a fiction in which the main character is subject to trauma and their brain’s responce is a period of depersonalization and disassociation (sorry for spelling). The story is told in first person perspective but I want to be a bit more subtle with the nothing feels real than just having the character state that and I was thinking that for the time that the MC is disassociating that I would switch from first person to third. The story would not shift away from the character and still be limited to what the character can see/hear. Do you think this would be an effective way to indicate depersonalization in the main character along with other less sublte clues in the first time so as to associate with the reader what is happening?

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