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Answer: What is POV switching? Why is it bad?

Question: pronker asks 'What is POV switching? Why is it bad?'

Before we can discuss point of view switching, we should first define what point of view means and the different flavours that exist. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I'm going to point you towards a great article called "Tenses and Point of View in Fiction: Is Present Tense More Desperate?" which you can find here. So go and read that, then come back.

Okay, now you understand point of view (POV), and that it's our position as the writer or narrator in relation to the story that we're telling.

So what is POV switching? Sometimes called "head hopping", bad POV switching is where the writer quickly switches between characters in the story without it being clear to the reader which head you, the writer, are in. This is bad because it makes the story difficult to follow and because it takes away the connection that the reader has with the characters. An example of head hopping is as follows:

Jack looked down into his empty coffee cup. He wondered if he'd be able to continue to avoid a difficult conversation with the rest of the team about why he hadn't trusted them when he'd been investigating Maybourne's organisation.

Jack was obviously avoiding a conversation he'd rather not have and had been drinking his coffee or changing the topic every time he'd been asked a question. Now that he'd finally emptied his cup, he'd started looking towards the exit to the mess, obviously hoping to make an escape in the near future.

The first paragraph here is from the point of view of Colonel Jack O'Neill. However, it's very unclear which character is the narrator for the second paragraph -- even if you're familiar with the Stargate: SG-1 universe. It's obviously someone who is thinking about Jack O'Neill, but it could be pretty much anyone. If you're very familiar with the show, you can probably figure out that it's Daniel Jackson because he's the only member of the team to call Colonel O'Neill by his first name. But the reader shouldn't need to try and draw that sort of conclusion. It should be obvious to them which character's head the writer is in.

Some people insist that the only time POV should be changed is when there is a break in the scene, or better still a break in the chapter. But this isn't necessarily true. Many popular authors will switch POV in the middle of a scene or in the middle of a chapter. Not every author does this, but it can be made to work. The key is ensuring that the transition is deliberate. So you need to ensure that the POV change doesn't just "happen" and that the change seamless to the reader. The last thing you want the reader doing is trying to figure out what point of view you're writing from.

So if we look again at our example from above, this could be done using a POV switch as follows:

Jack looked down into his empty coffee cup. He wondered if he'd be able to continue to avoid a difficult conversation with the rest of the team about why he hadn't trusted them when he'd been investigating Maybourne's organisation.

Daniel stared across the table. Jack was obviously avoiding a conversation he'd rather not have and had been drinking his coffee or changing the topic every time he'd been asked a question. Now that he'd finally emptied his cup, Jack had started looking towards the exit to the mess, obviously hoping to make an escape in the near future.

With a few minor changes, it's now much more obvious that it's Daniel's POV in the second paragraph. This allows for a much smoother transition in the narrative and doesn't leave the reader confused about what they are reading. But you'll note that this still seems somewhat forced and might be better with a transitional paragraph, if you really want to make the POV change.

This sort of POV switching isn't necessarily recommended, though. If you can't make the change work (and this is where it's critical to have a beta who will help make sure that's the case), then you should limit any POV changes to more obvious breaks in your story – scene or chapter changes. That doesn't mean you shouldn't experiment, because a change in POV can make your story better. But make sure that it really is working before you include it in your final draft. And, in the end, you're much better off sticking with POV changes at scene or chapter breaks than trying to force a POV switch elsewhere.

Hopefully that helps provide some thoughts on POV switching, and why it isn't necessarily bad. If you do want to try and use POV switching in your stories, here are three basic guidelines:
  • Make your POV changes intentional, not accidental.

  • The reader must always know whose POV is being used.

  • If it looks or reads strangely, don't switch POV!

References
The Rules of Writing: Switching POV, or "Head-Hopping"

Tags: !answer, author:chiroho, writing tips, writing tips:pov
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