Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Single Point of View...grrr..

A sacred cow of our time?

Can anyone tell me why we are all told to stick rigidly to one POV in each scene, with the limitations that entails? The idea took hold quite recently, towards the end of the last century. Why is it such a good idea? Whose idea was it? (My theory is that the person responsible was a thwarted writer running a class for other unpublished writers).

Switching POVs is something that doesn't bother a reader unless he's studied writing. My daughter (a voracious reader) is fine with it, though she pounced on my one bit of authorial intrusion like a terrier on a rat, despite the fact that she’d never heard the expression. ‘You’re telling the reader what to think,’ she said.

My favourite authors use multiple POVs. In Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault there is one scene at a horse fair where the POV goes all over the place; Philip, Alexander, Hephaistion, the royal horse trainer, the slaves, the horse seller and even the horse. I'd never thought there was anything wrong with the scene. A more recent example of an author who ignores the ‘rule’ is Philip Reeve, in Mortal Engines.

I switch POVs in scenes between two people, where I want the reader to know what each of them is thinking. Sticking to one POV impoverishes the scene. In the episode where Jervaid is intent on seducing Tor, while she plans to enlist his help with stealing a dragon egg, I want the reader to be party to the thoughts of both, and root for Tor and Jervaid.

And don’t tell me it’s confusing. If you genuinely find it confusing, all I can say is, you’re very easily confused and should probably not be allowed out on your own.

I think it’s a rule made to be broken, unlike say, rules for apostrophes, where you are either right or wrong. (Switching topics, it astonishes me that so many would-be authors don’t bother to look up and learn the few, simple apostrophe rules).

I suspect that one day, single POV will go out of fashion like the dramatic unities theory that had such a crippling effect on French drama, while Shakespeare didn’t give a damn about it.. Swap Shakespeare for Moliere and Racine? I think not…


  1. Really, it all do seem to come down to a much simpler--and yet impossible to define to everyone's complete satisfaction--If It Works, It Works.

    Some writers can take us through all sorts of mazes and still manage to see us through to the end. Others have a devil of a time even finding the reader's lapel (easy grab point) and keep losing him/her.

    As Cole Porter said "You say Single POV, I say don't bother me."

    Or something like that.

  2. Another excellent metaphor, Alan. (Thinks: perhaps I could surreptitiously hoover them up when you're not looking, and recycle them into my own writing?)

    I forgot to notice what you did when I read 'Close Enough for Government Work'. Are you blamelessly single POV there?

  3. Good Lord in heaven, no. I hop all over the place. The fact that you didn't notice (or it didn't get in your way?) means I must have done something right.

    I hope so, anyway.

  4. There are no rules, Lexi (aside from grammar, spelling etc); only guidelines.

    If you can switch pov smoothly (and if there's a reason/point for doing so) then do it. I think it's one of those things that when done badly sticks out like a fart in a library. If it's done well the reader wouldn't think much of it (and hopefull wouldn't notice it!).

    Well, that's what I think anyway. So there!


  5. Thanks, Nik, and for the arresting simile too... It's not the readers who object, it's other writers who've been told it's bad.

    Any minute now, I'll get a pro single POV comment.

    Norm, this may be your moment.

  6. I get dibs on "fart in a library"!

    Ooh, ooh, ooh, there are so many places to use that!

    As my MySpace slogan sez "Dogs and farts will always have a place in my writing"

  7. May I recommend, “Why I can’t Head Hop” on a blog ‘Me, My Muse,and I—Kellie's Spot Formerly "Experiments in Writing, Singing,and Blogging"’(
    She makes some interesting observations.

    Pedantically yours,

  8. Thanks, Norm.

    I like a balanced debate in the comments section, as a pleasant contrast with my single point of view (ho ho) in the post.

    I will look up Kellie's observations.

  9. I have no problem with switching POVs, but I think it's difficult to do well. I've tried it, can't do it without getting into a muddle, so I stick to single POV myself.

    But if it works for your story, then go with it!

  10. Each to their own... Why not start a new trend? Be the first, Lexi.

    Best wishes

  11. You're all being very encouraging. I expected more dissent. Thanks.

    I think multiple POVs is more of an old trend than a new one...

  12. I am no scholar of Shakespeare. My recollections tell me that he will have a character break the 4th wall and speak to the audience. The character will explain his intentions so that when he (often he) says "Oh you will love this..." to another we will see the subtext.

    In which play(s) does he have each player tell us their thoughts along with the dialogue to another character?

  13. For an explanation how narrative voice is affected by the point of view, check out Write a Novel (, a resource created by Crawford Kilian, Communications Instructor at Capilano College, North Vancouver BC.

  14. Quite a few. Hamlet, of course; 'to be or not to be', Othello, King Lear...not sure about Macbeth, I don't know it so well. I think quite frequently in the comedies, too.

    But you don't always notice how Shakespeare does it, as he's so good.

  15. One more thing, I like multiple points of view, just one per scene please (Michael Connelly, James Rollins, Joseph Heller, Douglas Preston, the Rocky & Bullwinkle narrator, etc.)

  16. But then you wouldn't have Katherine's last thoughts as she dies in 'Mortal Engines' which always reduces me to tears.

    Had he stuck to a single POV, Philip Reeve would have lost the emotional punch of that scene.

    Sometimes you can't do without a POV switch without impoverishing the novel.

  17. I once took a mini-course in trailbuilding. We wanted to have walkers and mountain-bikers share the same trails. The "trick" became learning how to provide visual cues to the cyclists to have them slow on blind corners, etc. to reduce the possibility of collisions. The placement of boulders that they would need to slow for looked natural but were quite intentional on our part. The obstacles required slowing and dexterity of the cyclist (hikers needed to watch their feet as well to prevent tripping) and added to the cyclists enjoyment of the trail.

    In the same way, we need to give cues to changes in character POV. The reader will know it's there but will also have an added thrill in negotiating through; the key is that it must look natural. We can't be zooming along on a long straightaway at 120 and be expected to negotiate a 90 degree turn without a signal that a change is ahead.

  18. According to Peter Selgin in the August 2007 issue of The Writer, "NO POINT OF VIEW = NO STORY... Of all the problems plaguing amateur works, none is more common or fatal than mishandling of viewpoint. Typically, the problem results not from a chosen viewpoint being violated, but because no viewpoint has been firmly established to start with, so there is nothing to violate."

    In the article titled, "The Usual Suspects," he makes clear he is not arguing against omniscient narrative. His ire is aimed at stories "where the point of view is as slippery as a greased frog..."

    I recommend the article.

  19. I will have a look at this, Norm, if I can find it.

    Thanks for telling me.


    Back issues are $7US. I don't know about shipping. The UK turned up on the list of countries.