Getting the Skinny on POV
edited: Saturday, March 21, 2009
By Amber Leigh Williams
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Saturday, March 21, 2009
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A closer look at the point of view argument in the romance genre
Bring up POV (writer’s lingo for “point of view”) and the same discussion always crops up: single POV or
multiple POV? “POV is one of the first issues us writers deal with, I think, when we start learning our
craft,” says Donna Marie Rogers whose first print book, Welcome To Redemption, earned a four-and-a-half
star review from Romantic Times. Jordanne Ford, winner of the 2007 First Kiss Contest and finalist in
Karin Tabke's 2006 First Line Contest, adds, “POV is such a great topic… One of the biggest problems
I’ve faced.” Should a writer stay in one person’s head or switch from one character to another within a
scene? There are some who believe firmly that single POV is the way to go and others more naturally
inclined to multiple POV. There are many who are on the fence, undecided. “Reading and writing are both
horribly subjective,” in the words of Amy Atwell, a multi-contest finalist who runs a writing goals group
for PROs and up at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/WritingGIAMx2/. “Everyone has their own style, their
own opinion, their own likes and dislikes.”
For someone who grew up reading Nora Roberts (who writes very smooth multiple POV), it was natural
for me to switch from one head to another when necessary while writing a scene in which more than one
character played a part. As a reader, it’s important to know what everyone is thinking and feeling. Amy
Atwell goes on to say, “I enjoy books that allow the author to narrate—we are, after all, storytellers. I like
getting into multiple POVs. I enjoy writing that way, and I enjoy books that are well-written that way.”
Admittedly, multiple POV is not for everyone. Author of Dragonfly Dreams, If Tombstones Could Talk, and co-author of Welcome to Redemption, Stacey Joy Netzel (www.staceyjoynetzel.com) admits, “I used to be a major head-hopper. From one paragraph to the other… I was even in the horse's POV. I've seen it done like this—namely Nora—and it's okay. But I've also seen it done and it's so hard to read I won't finish the book.” Transitions from say a hero’s thoughts to a heroine’s must be seamless. Jordanne Ford explains: “[For horse riders], I always thought a seamless POV switch was like a flying lead change. It can be abrupt and disjointed, or it can be smooth, seamless and a beautiful thing.”
How often should you switch within one scene? In other words, how much is too much? Is there a limit to how many characters’ heads you can jump into in one scene? Not a written one, no. But it should only be done when it’s absolutely necessary. Sandy Marshall just went to contract with Forbidden Publications for her novel Addiction and recently signed another for The Catalyst. She says, “I can't stand to read a story that every few lines change POV. I always go 'huh?' and have to go back to re-read it, which draws me totally out of the story.” Chiron O’Keefe is a writer and performer of sketch comedies who has published multiple non-fiction articles and hosts the challenge forum in the RWAOnline chapter. She also provides inspiration for writers with a weekly motivational essay on her blog, The Write Soul (www.chironokeefe.blogspot.com). In her words, “One thing that drives me bananas is when the POV jumps too much. Head-hopping, I think it's called. I do get confused and like Sandy, back up and try to figure out who's thinking what. Once I read a popular book by a NY Times Best Seller where the POV jumped six times in one paragraph. Talk about mind-boggling. While I didn't give in to temptation and slam the book against the wall, I did make a note to myself to avoid buying another book by the same author.”
For the most part, sticking to the hero and heroine seems to be the common practice. If one of them is absent and the other is conversing with a secondary character, the author might jump in for a quick insight from their standpoint. It’s also important to note that switching should not occur in every paragraph or even on every page. For Wendi Darlin, an erotic romance author published through Siren Publishing and BookStrand (www.wendidarlin.com), “It's important to stay in one POV for a decent length of time before switching.” The only exception to this might be extremely emotional scenes like love scenes. Jill James is a writer of paranormal romantic suspense (www.thescribersmuse.blogspot.com). She agrees that love scenes are an acceptable place to switch. “For me, I think this is one place to safely head-hop and show what each h/h is feeling at this special moment.” Wendi Darlin uses a similar method: “I don't think love scenes need to be in one POV. I think they're usually better in both viewpoints. Again, though, I don't switch back and forth too quickly. I'll give a good chunk of the scene in one POV and then let the other take over. From what I've picked up in my reading, this seems to be the usual way of doing things.”
What about single POV? What are its pros and cons? It allows the writer to get deeper into their character—to gain a better understanding of who he/she is and subsequently strengthen that person’s storyline. But it also limits the writer’s emotional range with other characters within the scene. The only way a single POV user can explain how another character is thinking/feeling is to use imagery—gestures, expressions, and tone for dialogue. “You can show so much in the other person other than thoughts,” Sandy Marshall explains. “The reader doesn't need to be told everything.” Kris Kennedy, who writes historical romance and is represented by the Irene Goodman Agency, adds, “For me, I find actions and particularly the sub-text of dialogue to be really helpful in communicating the depth of a character when I’m not in his or her POV.”
Why does all this matter? POV choice is an element of style. When readers open a Nora Roberts novel, they expect multiple POV because it’s a part of Nora’s style. When readers open a J.R. Ward novel, they expect single POV because it’s a part of J.R.’s style. Both use their POV choice with ease and to their plot’s advantage. In the words of Kris Kennedy, “I used to hop all over. I think the 'rule' of one POV/scene really helped improve my writing, and so now I feel I've 'earned' the right to sometimes flip about, although hopefully very smoothly.” When readers open your novel, they expect something. It’s what makes them come back for more: your individual voice and style. The best way to choose between single and multiple POV is to practice writing both. Pick the one that makes your writing stronger and more natural.
On a personal note, I was very comfortable with multiple POV until I began working with my editor for Denied Origin. During edits for Fox & Hound, the editor didn’t mention a thing about the numerous POV shifts. When I got the edits for Denied Origin, it was a whole different story. Though we agreed that I could include shifts without a break in the page, I had to limit myself to one shift per scene. I approached the revision with dread and doubt. Switching to single POV was like trying to walk in oversized shoes. Then I picked up the rhythm and technique and it began to flow. When the revision was finished, I realized the story was stronger and tighter. If a writer stands on one side of the POV argument and refuses to cross over and explore the other, they risk missing out on an essential growth opportunity.
The choice between multiple POV and single POV is a vital one. It may not be something the reader thinks about, but for a writer it’s a fundamental choice. Try both out. Pick the one that suits you. Always be on the look-out for ways to grow with it. The decision isn’t everything. Like all else in life, there’s always room for growth with POV. Once you decide on your POV path, stay consistent for your readers. In the end, it’s your audience that matters most!