March 26, 2020

Writing Craft: How Point-of-View Affects Dialogue

Tangle of wires on telephone pole with text: Keeping Dialogue & POV Clear

With all the chaos in the world, my concentration is shot as far as writing. I’m probably not alone.

Luckily, my readers are helping me out with questions that I can use for topic ideas. *grin* (So keep the questions coming!)

Eshaani asked:

“My questions are:

1. Is it a change of POV when two characters are talking & one of them reacts to what the other said, but not loudly, not even physically (just a comment of scorn or disbelief but within his/her mind) & that happens frequently?

2. If so, how do I indicate it? Do I leave a line break, or space between the paragraphs, or with asterisks? Too many line breaks or asterisks in the same scene looks a bit odd to me.

3. Or should I continue as usual, only making it into a new paragraph?”

This is a fantastic question, and I’m so glad Eshaani brought it up! Last time we covered the dialogue formatting and attribution basics we need to understand before we can get into the more advanced knowledge necessary for this question.

To answer Eshaani’s question, we’re going to dig into head-hopping, point of view, and how to show emotions for different types of characters, all while keeping dialogue attribution clear. *whew*

Dialogue, Head-Hopping, & Point-of-View

As we explored last time, when we write dialogue between characters, we often include information beyond just the actual quoted words of the characters. The attributions, action beats, and/or additional narrative adjacent to the dialogue can create point-of-view (POV) issues.

For example, like in Eshaani’s question, our-non-POV characters can react to the dialogue or conversation events. Those reactions sometimes lead to head-hopping and/or out-of-POV problems.

Let’s review each of those craft issues so we can then understand how to watch out for them in our dialogue…

What Is Head-Hopping?

I’ve written before about the different POV options we have and how POV relates to head-hopping. As I mentioned in that post, many people use the term head-hopping incorrectly, referring to issues with multiple POVs or out-of POV phrases.

How does head-hopping affect dialogue? What should we watch out for? Click To TweetHowever, head-hopping is when the reader-experience “camera” hops from inside one character’s head (meaning that it has access to their thoughts, feelings, perceptions, etc. without filter words) to inside another character’s head without using an appropriate transition.

Unless our POV character is a mind-reader, the writing can’t simultaneously share their emotions and know how another character feels. In other words, the camera can’t be inside two characters at the same time without potentially confusing the reader and creating distance. (Those dangers are the reason to avoid head-hopping, not just because it’s a rule. *smile*)

What Is Out-of-POV?

Out-of-POV words or phrases occur when our writing includes information that our POV character could not know. Out-of-POV issues are tricky to avoid, find, and fix because they can hide in innocent looking sentences:

Sally took deep, calming breaths as Roger loaded the rifle to get ready for the next set of zombies.

In omniscient-third-person POV, this sentence would be fine. There’s no obvious “inside” camera work here. That lack of inside camera work also means this technically isn’t head-hopping.

However, if it’s meant to be 3rd person limited or deep POV, there is a problem with an out-of-POV phrase (that’s also telling and not showing). Sally can see Roger load the rifle, but how can she know his motivation of “to get ready” for the zombies? (Maybe he’s getting ready to kill her for all she knows. *grin*) Instead, the writing should just show what she sees to understand the conclusion she draws, such as him glancing toward the door.

How Can We Share Multiple Characters’ Internal Experiences?

Readers experience our story through the POV we choose. Each change to POV forces them to see the story through a different perspective, so we want to be careful and deliberate each time we choose to change POV.

How can we share reactions from a non-POV character during dialogue? Click To TweetIn other words, to prevent whiplash in our readers, our story’s perspective should stick with one POV at a time—generally that means for around a scene (although this might be an emotional-arc type of scene and not a change-in-time-or-place type of scene). There are exceptions of course, but too many changes can leave our readers feeling disconnected.

So how can we share multiple characters’ reactions to dialogue without changing POV for every speaker’s paragraph?

Option #1: Use an Omniscient POV

If we write in omniscient POV, we might be able to get away with a limited dual insight into both characters’ internal experiences. We wouldn’t be able to delve as deeply into those experiences as we could with deep-third POV, but omniscient would allow us to share aspects of both characters’ thoughts and emotions.

However, many writers intending to write omniscient are really just head-hopping. If a story uses a character’s voice for their introspection/internal monologue, it’s not omniscient and we’d need a transition between each character’s POV. Omniscient POV requires strict use of filter words to remain in the author/narrator voice and keep the necessary distance.

For example:

Susan thought she’d never heard anything so ridiculous. “Did you really think I wouldn’t catch on to your little scam?”

“I just didn’t think it was a big deal is all.” George flicked his hand, feeling a desire to dismiss her as easily.

(Sorry for the poor examples, but I have zero talent for omniscient POV. *smile*)

The “thought” and “feeling” filter words keep the reader at a distance, allowing the writing to share both characters’ internal experiences at the same time. If we lose those, we’re head-hopping, like this…

Susan had never heard anything so ridiculous. “Did you really think I wouldn’t catch on to your little scam?”

“I just didn’t think it was a big deal is all.” George flicked his hand. If only he could dismiss her as easily.

Without the filter words, we get moderately deep into Susan’s POV and deep into George’s POV with a near-quote of his internal monologue. Unless our characters are telepathic (I write paranormal romance, so this is a possibility), this second example is head-hopping.

Option #2: Use Indirect Cues for Non-POV Characters

If we’re not writing in omniscient POV but we still want to give insight into our non-viewpoint characters, we can do so. We just have to give that insight indirectly, such as through actions our POV character can observe.

Despite what we might think when we’re first learning writing craft, there are many non-head-hopping ways to get information across to readers. My top suggestion is to get The Emotion Thesaurus and use the physical cues to make non-POV characters reveal their thoughts or emotions. As Angela Ackerman, co-author of the ET, pointed out here, there are even ways to hint that a non-POV character is lying.

In other words, just because we—as the author—know every thought that goes on in our non-POV character’s head, that doesn’t mean we should share it with readers. But knowing their thoughts and emotions helps us figure out ways to show their reactions through the senses of our POV character.

Example: Sharing Insights from Both Characters

Getting back to Eshaani’s question, yes, an actual POV switch from one speaker’s paragraph of dialogue to another speaker’s paragraph would be clearer with a line break or asterisks in between to transition readers for the jump without head-hopping.

Obviously, however, we don’t see books with that type of formatting between every dialogue paragraph. That’s because we have so many other ways of sharing information from both parties of the conversation without a POV switch.

Let’s go back to one of our examples from Tuesday’s post:

Susan’s mouth gaped and she shook her head. “Did you really think I wouldn’t catch on to your little scam?”

“I just didn’t think it was a big deal is all.” George flicked his hand, emphasizing his dismissive tone.

“Oh, it’s a big deal all right. You’re going to pay for this.”

“You’re blowing things out of proportion.”

“And you’re breaking the law.” She stormed toward the door but stopped to add a low-pitched threat over her shoulder. “I’ll see you in court.”

There’s not any deep POV for either of the characters in that example. But the action beats are enough to get their respective emotions and thoughts across, all just by showing what’s observable from any character’s perspective.

However, let’s add some deep POV information for Susan to show how this works:

Susan’s mouth gaped. The nerve! “Did you really think I wouldn’t catch on to your little scam?”

“I just didn’t think it was a big deal is all.” George flicked his hand, emphasizing his dismissive tone.

“Oh, it’s a big deal all right. You’re going to pay for this.” She’d make sure of that if she had to call in every favor she had.

He rolled his eyes. “You’re blowing things out of proportion.”

“And you’re breaking the law.” She stormed toward the door but stopped to add a low-pitched threat over her shoulder. “I’ll see you in court.”

Now we’ve added a line of internal monologue (The nerve!) and a thought of how she’d make sure he paid. And just to make the situation extra clear, we have an additional—observable—physical cue of George’s thoughts and emotions with the roll of his eyes.

Emotional Cues and Dialogue Attribution

Now here’s where POV and sharing information from both characters can get tricky: dialogue attribution.

As we covered in my last post, with action beats, the speaker’s actions should be in the paragraph with their dialogue. Keeping them adjacent is what provides the context readers need to know for who’s saying the lines.

With every character reaction to dialogue, we might confuse readers. How to keep dialogue attribution clear... Click To TweetSo what happens when we want to include an immediate reaction from one character in the middle of the other character’s dialogue? What does that do to dialogue attribution? For example, what if we wanted George to roll his eyes at Susan’s insistence of “Oh, it’s a big deal all right”?

We couldn’t include the line “he rolled his eyes” right after Susan’s line of dialogue because standard dialogue formatting would then make it look like he’d spoken those words:

“Oh, it’s a big deal all right.” He rolled his eyes. “You’re going to pay for this.”

The immediate reaction and standard dialogue formatting don’t play well together. So how can we share immediate feedback from the non-speaking character without messing up dialogue attribution?

Option #1: Make the Speaker React

The most straightforward way to keep the speaker in charge of actions in their dialogue paragraphs is to filter all reactions from the non-speaker through the speaker. For example, let’s see how we could fix that sentence in the previous section:

“Oh, it’s a big deal all right.” She ignored his eyerolling and pressed on. “You’re going to pay for this.”

Obviously, just like with the rest of our writing, we need to watch out for tricky out-of-POV words and phrases with this technique. Just because the speaker is acting as filter doesn’t mean they’re suddenly the POV character.

The example above, with the word ignored, would probably work for whether the speaker was the POV character or not. We know what being ignored looks like. However, other observations wouldn’t work if the speaker were not the POV character.

For example:

“Oh, it’s a big deal all right.” She pretended not to see his eyerolling. “You’re going to pay for this.”

The word pretended assigns motive and intention. It’s more internal than ignored. So that wording would work with the POV character, but it wouldn’t work if the speaker were a non-POV character.

Option #2: Keep the Speaker as the Main Actor

The non-speaker’s actions can be “downgraded” to a subordinate clause of the sentence, such as with an at or when or after clause:

“I believe you.” At her scoff, he emphasized his point. “Really, I think you’re completely right about this.”


“You think I should leave?” When she didn’t disagree, he sighed. “I guess I’ll hope to see you tomorrow.”


“Are you ready to go?” After her confirming nod, he held open the door. “On to our next adventure.”

With all those examples, he’s the main subject of the sentence even though the other character contributes a reaction to the dialogue. As the main subject of the sentence, readers assume the dialogue is attributed to him.

Option #3: Keep the Speaker’s Actions Closer to Dialogue

If we have multiple subjects and actions in the paragraph, the action for the speaker should be most closely adjacent to the dialogue. Here’s an example from my novel Stone-Cold Heart:

She yanked against him, but he didn’t let her go. Instead, he gripped her other wrist as well. “You feel me because I am real.”

Here, the paragraph starts off looking like she’s the “owner,” but the second half of the sentence, as well as the following sentence closer to the dialogue, all establish him as the speaker.

With this technique, it’s the second sentence of his actions that really makes the attribution clear. The second part of the first sentence, going first from her actions to his, acts more like a transition, and attribution might still be confusing without the second sentence to back it up.

Option #4: Use Paragraph Breaks

The most basic option is to simply use lots of paragraph breaks, keeping everyone’s dialogue and actions separate. That way the non-speaker’s reaction would be in their own action paragraph before the speaker starts up again with their separate dialogue paragraph.

“Oh, it’s a big deal all right.”

He rolled his eyes.

“You’re going to pay for this.”

The tricky aspect of this technique is that sometimes if the dialogue paragraph that follows doesn’t include attribution, readers might not know who the speaker is, such as with this example. Dialogue that follows a reaction line in a short paragraph could be from the reacting character changing the subject rather than returning back to the original speaker.

So it’s best to ensure the dialogue paragraphs include attribution with this method. The simple back-and-forth assumption of standard dialogue formatting doesn’t always make attribution clear enough.

Obviously, all these cautions and options make it clear that we need to be careful with lazy writing when it comes to dialogue. We have to worry not just about the dialogue words themselves but also keep track of attribution, POV, head-hopping, and sharing cues and reactions in appropriate ways that don’t confuse or create the other issues.

Getting things right takes more work on our part because these techniques might not come as naturally to us as telling/head hopping, but readers will understand them because it’s how the real world works. In the real world, we don’t know others’ thoughts or feelings unless we intuit, guess, or they tell us in some way. *smile*

Have you run into any of these issues before? Do you struggle with head-hopping or out-of-POV problems with dialogue and character reactions? Have you thought about how character actions and reactions can confuse dialogue attribution? Have you run across that problem with confusing attribution in stories you’ve read? Do you have any questions about this topic?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks Jami, stay well!


This is very extensive information. For the most part, I believe I use PoV properly. I aim for deep PoV but occasionally make mistakes similar to your first example where Sally somehow seemed to know Roger’s motivation. But don’t people in real life tend to make assumptions on other people’s motivations? In this example, if Sally and Roger had been previously killing zombies, her assumption of his motivation is highly probable. But what if he does turn the rifle on her to kill her? Wouldn’t this unexpected action be a surprise and a twist?

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