On Writing: How to Break the “Never Shift POVs Rule” & Get Away With It!

The first writer's conference I attended was the Naples Press Club Writer's Conference in Naples, Florida,  2005 (I think). Anne Hawkins of John Hawkins Literary Agency spoke to us about what agents want. Her class and organization amazed me, and I remember my excitement at getting to listen to a real literary agent speak. That day, I learned about this little thing called POV, or point of view. No, I'm not talking about an opinion. I'm talking about the point of view from which you decide to tell your story.

Think of POV as the character who holds your story's camera. In an earlier post about killing your narrator, I mentioned the mental movie that plays in your reader's head. One of your characters is holding that mental camera, meaning you are showing your readers only what that particular character see and thinks. Some books, like the Nancy Drew series, use only one character's POV. Others, like my Elysian Chronicles series, use more than one POV. Most of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is written from Harry's POV, but Rowling changes it up on occasion.

Anne Hawkins explained one of the publishing industry's rules regarding POV: You can switch POVs, but never switch in the middle of a scene, meaning don't let your characters pass the "camera" around. In the middle of a scene, keep inside the head of only one person. If you must switch POVs, use something physical, like a space between paragraphs or a chapter break to help your readers follow your story.

I knew immediately that my A Prophecy Forgotten manuscript had a problem. I rushed home after that conference and combed through my scenes, changing them so I kept the same POV throughout a scene. Looking back, those changes improved my manuscript–especially because I had not only been switching POVs within a scene, but also dimensions.

Why publishers, agents, and editors have this rule:

  • Switching POVs between characters within a scene can often confuse readers. You want your readers sweating it out alongside your characters, not figuring out what's going on because you switched from John's POV to Fred's POV without warning.
  • Too much POV changing disassociates your reader from your story. The "Fly on the Wall" POV where the narrator gets into everyone's head at random is called 3rd Person Omniscient–a technically correct POV, but one that is hard for readers to relate to. You want your reader to be involved in your story and to root for your protagonists. Readers will root more easily when you stick to a few POVs. Case in point: imagine if Rowling had given us more of Ron's POV–especially when Ron and Harry were fighting. We would feel confusion over who to root for, and possibly disassociate ourselves.

Rowling actually breaks this rule in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

  • In the first chapter, she switches from Mr. Dursley's POV to Professor McGonagall's mid-paragraph: “Mr. Dursley might have been drifting into an uneasy sleep, but the cat on the wall outside was showing no sign of sleepiness.”
  • She switches numerous times during the 1st quidditch match, taking us from Harry to Hagrid to Harry to Hermione and so on.

Why breaking this rule worked: Rowling preserves the spirit of the "No POV Switching" rule. The purpose of the rule is to keep authors from confusing readers. In neither case does the reader become confused. I only even noticed it during my 7th time reading the book through because I've taught the rule so much. In fact, Rowling needed to switch POVs because Harry was on his broom and important action was taking place in the stands–action that affected the end of the story.

What this tells us about the craft of writing: The reader does not care whose POV you use as long as he or she does not get confused. That being said, however, try to stick to one POV in a scene except in unique circumstances. You will find sticking with one POV increases tension within your reader, and tension turns pages.

This post is part of a mini-series of posts. Click below to read previous posts in the series.

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason, which is being adapted into a graphic novel series by Wandering Sage Publications, Inc. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.

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About M. B. Weston

Award-winning author M. B. Weston is one of the fantasy genre’s new, emerging voices. The Elysian Chronicles, her flagship fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason, has been referred to as, “…filling a big part of the void that will be left by the final Harry Potter,” by award-winning author, Vincent O’Neil. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. The Elysian Chronicles is being adapted into a graphic novel, and her newest book, The Sword of the Vanir (working title), is due out in Spring 2013. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and ImagiCon. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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