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May 26, 2020

What Do Readers Want from a Story’s POV?

View from airplane of Rocky Mountain snow-capped summits with text: POV, Readers, and the Big Picture

We’ve been talking a lot about point-of-view (POV) here lately, most recently with a post exploring how the POV of our story shapes readers’ impression. As we discussed, from our readers’ perspective, our story is—in many respects—what our chosen POV tells readers it is.

The same plot and story events will feel very different to readers depending on if we use omniscient POV or 1st-person POV. Or if we write a story of a murder only from the perspective of the case’s detective (mystery genre) versus from the perspective of the murderer (dark anti-hero) versus from the perspective of the victim’s closest family member (emotional tragedy).

In every way, the POV we choose shapes and creates what our story will feel like to readers. So when deciding on our story’s POV, we might want to stop and think: What do we want readers to get out of our story and chosen POV?

The POV Serves a Purpose for Readers

Thinking about storytelling from a reader perspective can help us decide how to approach our story’s POV:

What POV should we use for our story? What would be best for readers? Click To TweetYears ago, I pointed out that our story’s structure—how a story is put together, acts, beats, etc.—isn’t just a writing rule born out of tradition. Instead, story structure exists because it serves a purpose for making our stories more enjoyable and satisfying for readers.

The same can be said for POV. Getting a clear understanding of POV and applying that knowledge to our story isn’t just an obstacle or to-do item that happens to exist on our learning curve for “how to write.”

Rather, POV serves a purpose for readers, and understanding that big picture can help us with all those questions above. Let’s take a look…

The Reader View of POV

When we talk about POV, we usually use terms internal to our story: Which character are we following? How deep do we go into that character’s head? Etc.

However, think for a minute about whose perspective are we really shaping? When we change POV in our story, whose perspective are we really changing?

Answer: the reader. The choices we make—from the style of POV we choose to the character we follow—change the reader’s perspective of the story.

5 Ways a Reader View of POV Affects Our Storytelling

Last week, Noel Winter asked in the comments of one of my recent POV posts if including a second character’s perspective just at the end of a scene would be okay, or if that would count as headhopping—jumping from inside one character’s head to inside another character’s head without an appropriate transition. Some might not call that example headhopping, as there’s only one switch, but from the reader’s perspective, it could cause similar problems.

To understand why, we first need to understand the big picture of some of the ways our story’s POV can affect our storytelling. If we put reader impressions and satisfaction front-and-center of our decisions about POV, we might be able to strip away many of the confusing writerly issues about the “rules” and instead focus on the big picture.

Stick with me through these five points to see how we can view the big picture of POV and how it connects to headhopping…

#1: A Reader’s View of Story Flow

Readers are carried through our story by its flow, its cause-and-effect chain. A causes B, which causes C, etc.

Each event builds on the events that happened previously and creates a transition to the next event with a “but” or a “therefore/so,” making later events affected by what’s happening now:

  • A happens so B happens.
  • A happens but B happens to disrupt events.

This flow makes the past, present, and future of the story all matter. The pieces tie together to form a larger whole for readers.

Without a cause-and-effect chain, our writing becomes episodic, and consequence-free events don’t work for most long-form writing. Even in complex storytelling with many narrative threads, we still need a sense of flow within each of those threads (such as a subplot or separate character arc).

We need to build momentum and a sense of forward movement in our story. We need tension for that anticipation and dread that carry readers through our story. We need events that build up to a story. We—as writers and as readerswant meaning in our lives, not randomness.

The POV we choose can either help or harm readers in their attempt to understand our story’s flow and see how events matter.

#2: A Reader’s View of Scenes

As I’ve discussed before, a scene within our story often doesn’t fit in with the definition we might have learned in school: Events that occur in a specific time and/or place.

That’s because in storytelling, a scene is often more of a mini-story that doesn’t always line up with time/place changes. Each scene has a goal, conflict/obstacles, and some sort of “resolution,” such as…

  • a reaction
  • a pivot to a new goal
  • a new epiphany or priority or vow
  • a new worry, etc.

In other words, a storytelling scene is about feeling emotionally complete. It feels like it’s fulfilling its purpose (and both to itself and to why it exists in the story).

Unless we’re using an omniscient POV (and sometimes even then), part of feeling “emotionally complete” is tied to the reader following the scene’s viewpoint character through their emotional journey during the scene’s events: What happens to the character? How does it affect them?

Changing a reader’s perspective on the scene by switching to another character’s POV midway can disconnect the reader from the first character’s journey, leading to a lack of the scene feeling “emotionally complete.”

The POV we choose can either help or harm readers in their attempt to experience the scene’s emotional journey.

#3: A Reader’s View of Hooks

The term hooks in writing refers to phrases, sentences, ideas, questions, etc. that compel readers to keep reading. Hooks raise questions for readers. In turn, they make readers feel guided through a purposeful, consciously constructed story.

We can find hooks throughout our story, from the start of our story to get readers interested and all the way toward the end. They’re especially powerful at the ends of our scenes to prevent readers from putting down—and then forgetting—our story.

In fact, the last line of a scene is often one of the most important sentences in a scene. The last line…:

  • sticks with the reader during their break.
  • acts like the last line of a story.
  • helps the reader trust the author and the story, with evidence of storytelling skills that give hope for a point to the story.
  • emphasizes the point or arc (plot or emotional) of a scene.
  • can give a sense of meaning or purpose to the scene.

Scenes that end with strong hooks increase readers’ sense of the “emotional completeness” of the scene and of the story flow—that all the events matter. When each individual scene is strong, readers more easily trust that the whole story will be strong.

The POV we choose can either help or harm readers’ sense of the strength of our writing and their drive to keep reading.

#4: A Reader’s View of Immersion

Many readers enjoy immersing themselves in a story when reading. Story immersion is the sense that we’re not just reading words on a page—we’re experiencing the story.

Depending on how our brain works, we might feel and see and imagine the story, or the real world around us might simply fade into the background. We’re no longer aware of the world around us. Others might ask us questions that we don’t hear. Our promise to go to bed at the chapter break is for naught because we don’t notice the formatting change for the start of the next chapter. All our focus is on the story.

This enjoyment of story immersion is one of the big reasons that deep POV and showing rather than telling has become more popular. In general, the deeper the POV, the deeper many readers fall into the story and the experience, right down to tandem visceral responses along with our characters.

On the other hand, anything that takes readers out of the story, from typos to implausible story events, disrupts that sense of immersion. Forcing readers out of one experience—one character’s POV—and into another (especially when the reader doesn’t want to switch) is a sure way to take readers out of the story.

The POV we choose can either help our harm readers in their attempt to remain immersed in our story.

#5: A Reader’s View of Headhopping Issues

All of this brings us to the issue of headhopping and Noel’s original question, who also brought up an interesting point:

“it is so easy to write a paragraph that has two voices or multiple personalities….after all, all of those personalities are inside of one writer’s head.”

That’s very true! All those personalities are inside our heads, so we might “hear” multiple voices of our characters at once. However, unless we don’t care about publishing for others to read, we need to write with readers in mind.

Yet every time I post about headhopping, I get pushback from some writers who try to claim it’s imperative that they share what a second character thinks or feels in response to events:

  1. No, it’s not. Headhopping just to share information is lazy writing because there are many other ways we can share what a non-POV character is thinking or feeling without forcing readers to change their perspective with a POV change. If that character’s experience is so important for understanding the story, maybe they should get their own independent POV scenes rather than butting in on someone else’s scene. *smile*
  2. As I mentioned at the start of this post, we need to think about this situation from the readers’ perspective, and a “need” to share information from inside a non-POV character’s head is usually a writer-thing, not a reader-thing.

Yes, we might have many voices speaking in our head, and it often takes more writing skill for us to figure out how to share info from a non-POV character without jumping into their head. But unless we’re using an omniscient POV, we’d usually choose one character per emotional-journey/storytelling scene to filter everything through.

If we don’t limit what we expose readers to, from their perspective, all those voices would be like attending a party with people you barely know all yelling at you to get your attention. Yikes!

In that situation, we couldn’t really get to know anyone at the party, and the same applies to readers and our characters. Changing POVs without a good storytelling reason (not just an information reason) makes it harder for readers to connect.

The POV we choose can either help or hurt readers in their attempt to connect to readers and our story.

Why Are POV Switches Often Bad from a Reader Perspective?

As I mentioned in the sections above, our choice of POV can either help or hurt many aspects of readers’ satisfaction with our story. The benefits and risks increase every time we force readers to switch POVs—even without headhopping.

Do readers want to change perspective? Would the new POV help them experience something they’d find interesting but couldn’t experience otherwise? Or would it frustrate them or ruin their concentration?

We should choose our story's POV—and when to switch POV—by what would be best for readers Click To TweetThose questions apply to any POV switch, but the potential risks greatly increase with headhopping. Unlike with scene-by-scene switches—where each scene is already emotionally complete and thus readers feel a natural break to move around and check out the view elsewhere—headhopping forces readers to switch without a break, like jumping from one group at a party to another…mid-conversation.

In other words, we first need to choose the right when for the switch (such as when the switch would increase reader satisfaction, like a sense of emotional completion after a scene). If we don’t get that right, even the best how (such as avoiding headhopping) can cause problems.

Would a Switch Partway in a Scene Help or Hurt?

Getting back to Noel’s question, let’s figure out how to tell if that switch of a paragraph at the end of a different POV character’s scene would help or hurt.

Would a paragraph from a different character’s POV at the end of a scene…

  • negatively affect readers’ understanding of the story or why events matter?
  • interrupt the emotional journey readers experience in the scene or make the scene feel less emotionally complete?
  • negatively affect readers’ sense of being guided through the story by a strong authorial purpose or decrease the sense of the scene ending strongly?
  • force readers to change their perspective when a switch isn’t wanted or interrupt readers’ immersion in the story?

For the vast majority of examples, the answers to those questions would be yes, and we wouldn’t want to change POV within a scene. Even just a paragraph at the end of a scene could negatively affect readers and their impression and satisfaction of our story.

If readers’ perspective of midway switches is like being at a party with multiple people yelling at us to get our attention, it’s easy to understand how they could become overwhelmed and withdraw from our characters—which is the opposite of what we want. The most common way of preventing overwhelmed readers is to keep one character’s POV front and center for the whole scene or chapter.

One Extra Reason to Not Mess with Scene Endings

The endings of our storytelling scenes also often fulfill the function of what Dwight Swain calls sequels. Scene endings are where we frequently set up the “heart” of our story with our character’s reactions to events: the emotions, themes, meanings, reader anticipation, internal character elements, etc.

As mentioned above, the ending of a scene often brings elements of the scene together, much like a story’s Resolution. The ending is what gives the scene a sense of purpose and helps readers feel like they’re in strong storytelling hands.

Just a paragraph (or even a single line switching from deep POV to a shallower POV or from literary past tense to normal past tense) at that all-important ending of a scene can interrupt readers’ impression of the strength and purpose of that scene.

Are There Any Exceptions to the Problems of Switching Midway?

Obviously, different genres can have different expectations for POV. Some use omniscient regularly, and some never would. Some stick with a single character for the whole story, and some switch from scene to scene. So of course we can find exceptions to all the above advice. *smile*

Most commonly, some romance authors will start a scene in the POV of one member of the couple and switch midway to the POV of the other member (especially with love scenes). Due to being a romance, these scenes might blend a single emotional journey across both characters, so readers still feel a sense of completeness between the two characters in one scene.

However, many (if not most) romance authors still add a line break (and sometimes a flourish or chapter break) at these divisions. That formatting prepares readers for the switch and ensures they won’t be taken out of the story just due to confusion about whose head they’re in.

Anything else—including Noel’s example, technically—is considered head hopping. That said, a one-way switch just at the end of a scene is certainly less bad than going back and forth, but the risks still apply.

Guidelines for Deciding Whose POV to Use

Now that we all understand how important POV is to reader satisfaction, we might wonder how we choose which character’s POV to use. I’ve talked about this before, but I’ll share my list here again…

We’d usually show the scene from the character’s POV that falls into one or more of these situations:

  • Higher Stakes: Which character has more at stake in the scene? Which one has more to lose or gain? Which one has more energy or passion about the events in the scene because the consequences mean more to them?
  • Higher Emotion: Which character has more emotional change in the scene? Which character has stronger emotions? Which one is falling the furthest or has the epiphany?
  • Which character has less obvious motivations or goals and readers would benefit from the insight of their POV?
  • Which character knows the least (or not too much) about something we want to keep hidden?
  • Which character knows the most about something we want to make clear?
  • Which character can act as a reader stand-in for learning lots of information (like worldbuilding rules) in a gradual or natural way?
  • Which character’s experience will be most compelling to readers? (Keep them immersed.)
  • Which character’s experience will be most relatable to readers? (Keep them interested.)
  • Which character’s experience will best maintain or increase story tension? (Keep them turning pages.)
  • Which character’s experience will best provide enlightenment for the story’s theme? (Think of stories like The Great Gatsby, where the central character is not the POV character.)

What If the Choice Isn’t Clear Even with Those Questions?

If you’re familiar with beat sheets or turning points, you probably recognized how some of those questions coincide with the turning points of our story, such as epiphanies, black moments, etc. For our turning point scenes, we want to maximize the emotional impact for the reader, so it’s especially important to choose the right character for those scenes.

But in some turning point scenes, multiple characters might be going through upheaval at the same time. For those scenes, we might want to take a couple of minutes before drafting and think about the stakes and emotions for each POV of the scene’s main characters.

Whose POV should we use for our story? How should we choose? Click To TweetWe can think about the motivations and what will be revealed with one character over another. And then we can think about which character’s situation feels more resonant to us. Hopefully those answers would help us make a choice.

From those questions above, you can also probably tell that high stakes and high emotion (the first two multi-part questions) are the most important considerations. But I included the other questions because sometimes we might really want to use a different character than those answers would lead us to, and the standard advice might make us doubt our decision. So I wanted to show why the exceptions might not be the wrong choice.

Sometimes it is most important for readers to understand motivations. Or sometimes it is most important to hide or reveal information. Or sometimes it is most important to keep the reader’s experience (such as the relatability factor) in mind.

The point is making sure we’ve thought it through enough that we have a reason, especially when our gut doesn’t give us an answer or when our instinct leads us away from the obvious answer. And the good news is that we don’t have to get this right in the first draft either.

After we finish our first draft, we might discover that a character was going through more internal upheaval in a scene than we thought or maybe their actions were more central to the plot than we realized. Revisions are the perfect place to do a sanity check on our POV choices because we can always fix it in rewrites. *smile*

Do you struggle to stick to one POV in a scene? Or do you struggle to know whose POV to use? Does it make sense how the POV we choose affects readers so much? Do you disagree with any of these points about our readers’ perspective? Can you think of other ways our POV affects our storytelling?

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Sam
Sam

Please, do a blog post on “Word choice”. Thank you.

Dawn

You’ve given me some food for thought regarding switching the PoV character mid-scene. I don’t do head-hopping. I switch by using astricts to divide the chapter. I usually change the PoV like this, though, because of the emotional stakes of the characters. Still, I will have to take a closer look at this to see if it’s a problem.

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