Multiple POV

Miss Snark,

Are you bothered by deliberate changes in voice? For example:

The girl was in great peril. The mustachioed villain had tied her to the railroad tracks. Crap, she thought. How the hell am I going to get out of this?

I'm finding first person gives insight without the constant 'she thought,' or 'she said to herself.' But I don't want to write the whole story in the character's voice. Any thoughts?

It's impossible to tell if something works from just three sentences (something you can remind me about when we do the Happy Hooker Crapometer).

That said, my vote is usually to pick one and stay with it. Leave the fancy schmancy stuff until after you've finished the entire novel and you think it doesn't work.

And one of the oddities of this blog is that no one has ever commented on my tendency to shift POV from "miss snark takes exception to", followed by "I can't stand this" in the same damn paragraph.

They chomp my spelling, my punctuation, and a lot of my 'tude; no one has ever said anything about POV. Miss Snark does not conclude it's because she is such a fabulous writer. I think it's cause people don't really notice. Perhaps I'm wrong. I bet we'll find out!


Anonymous said...

Jane Austen gives a masterclass in narrating in the third person while slipping in and out of different heads and their voices. The term I've heard used is 'free indirect' for this. But it's not easy for us lesser mortals to do. At the basic level you need to know exactly what you're doing with tenses. In free indirect, this passage would go:

The girl was in great peril. The mustachioed villain had tied her to the railroad tracks. How the hell was she going to get out of this? And how could she have been so stupid as to land herself here in the first place? The rail under her head began to vibrate...

December Quinn said...

I noticed, but it's part of your charm.

Gerri said...

Nawh. The reason we don't comment on your shift of POV is because these posts are casual and put up on the fly. If you did this in an English composition class or for publication, the teacher or copy editor would flag it.

Different kinds of writing, different levels of standard. No biggie.

pjm said...

Oh, some of us have noticed, but didn't bother with it.

At least now we know why you do POV shifts: You're a whole dragoon of people.

Anonymous said...

In my view, one underdone POV is the omniscient. You don't see it much at least in the genre heavy novels I read. I write in omniscient and it allows me to really draw setting well and add tension in spots where something is happening that the protag doesn't see but the reader does. Also, it decreases my tendency to go into people's heads and SHOW vs TELL with he thought, she thought stuff. Most of that can be illustrated through actions (which omniscient enables the author to do since I can see the protag's face for example). Maybe Miss Snark can tell us why we don't see omniscient in genre fiction?

Termagant 2 said...

We all noticed, Miss S dahling, but since you're pre-forgiven for just about anything and everything...

Just don't REALLY set your hair on fire, K?


Termagant 2 said...

I can offer my $0.02 while waiting for Miss S's answer: we don't write omniscient POV in genre fiction because we're told it's not marketable. Period. Even "head-hopping," which for some agents/editors amounts to more than one POV per book, is a no-no.

Now, that said, some established writers do omniscient POV marvellously, and are allowed to. But they have sales figures, we don't, therefore our attempts are always declined.

Just wait 'til I get that multi-book deal. I love omniscient in my own writing and I've had to throttle myself back by force.


Anonymous said...

First Anonymous here again.

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is a terrific example of omniscient combined with multiple PoVs.

BuffySquirrel said...

A friend of mine who writes Dark Fantasy in omniscient encountered resistance from publishers along the lines that omniscient is now considered old-fashioned. The trend at present is towards third limited. This won't last, I imagine, but how long it will last is anyone's guess.

Personally, I like everything to be coloured by a character's POV. When I read something that's supposedly from the objective narrator (as if such a thing could exist), it feels lacking in characterisation. Not that I don't love Austen, head-hopping, author intrusion, dangling participles and all.

The whole Miss Snark/I shift I've always found endearing. Reminds me of the character in David Copperfield who always referred to himself in the third person.

Miss Snark said...

oh miss snark is so glad to hear this.
really, I am.

Jude Hardin said...

First-person, or third-person limited, are the only acceptable POVs for modern fiction, IMO. If your book is written in multiple POVs, POV change=scene change. It's that simple.

If you're writing in third person and want to show thoughts in first, use italics. It's obvious who's doing the thinking, without having to say "she thought", etc.

Read Tess Gerritsen's new one, The Mephisto Club, as a good example of this technique.

Anonymous said...

I found a pretty good example of breaking POV (apparently not on purpose) and still being sucessful. One of my favorite authors, Vince Flynn and his first book, Term limits. He did several things that bothered me. He broke POV quite a few times causing confusion to the point I had to re-read several paragraphs. AND he constantly shifted character names. One sentence he referred to the character Elizabeth Scarlatti as Liz, the next Scarlatti, and back and forth. He did this with several characters.

Yet the book was a best seller.

Bernita said...

If you can understand it and follow it - as w/ Miss Snark Dear - who TF cares?

Anonymous said...

Jude Hardin: I have been advised against italics to represent thought, not from a copy editing standpoint - the grammar is fine - but from a principle standpoint. Telling what the character is thinking, if possible to avoid, should be avoided. I like omniscient because it helps the reader to SHOW.

And to the post about the objective narrator, you can be objective when describing setting and character. What you don't do is use your authorial (word?) position to tell the reader what's going on. All you are doing in third person limited when you switch POV is in fact using your authorial powers to switch at a convenient time. That's just as bad as what you describe, imo.

Maya said...

Jude: Tell that to Nora Roberts.

I'm a fan of her J.D. Robb books, and I grin every time she head hops.

As T2 said, established writers can get away with lots of things.

Anonymous said...

The example didn't really switch POV. It's just third person intimate.

Sue said...

Head-hopping is bad because it can be confusing if the author is not careful and it indicates sloppy/lazy writing when the author doesn't know what they are doing. (By head-hopping I mean POV shifts mid-scene -- it is not the same as omniscient.)

I read one published work where the POV had shifted to a different person and I discovered this fact three pages later. (Had to retrace my reading steps to find out what was going on.)

POV is a great way to infuse mood into your writing. Omniscient third often has an ethereal quality that can slow the pace of the story, hence the modern taste's dislike for it. It is anti-action. Also, omniscient third is not the same as camera-eye third.

I see nothing wrong with switching POV's within a work, but the author needs to understand how the POV affects the pacing/tone/telling of the story.

owlhaven said...

The reason we don't comment on that is because it is just a writing device you are using. It 'reads' fine in blog writing- might be irritating in a book, however. Actually, I doubt I'd buy a book with such a condescending tone, just as I never buy a book with the words 'for dummies' in the title. Won't do that to myself. But I thoroughly enjoy reading this blog, condescension and all.


Jude Hardin said...

Anon: You SHOW by incorporating description into action and dialogue. Not with a boring eye in the sky, the see-all know-all detached narrator. Good novels are driven by the characters. Let the MFs drive.

This is my opinion. The person giving you advice obviously has another. Cool. I have no problem with that. But, if you want to sell something, read what's selling. If you don't want to sell something, model your work after Austen and Dickens.

My advice? Find another source of advice.

Jude Hardin said...

Maya: Nora Roberts sells because of good storytelling, not stellar prose. Model your work after hers at your own risk. A very high risk, I might add.

killerYapp said...

zut alors.

kc dyer said...

Miss Snark guilty of a pov crime? I think not! To shift from referring to oneself in third person (Miss Snark rules the world!) to referring to oneself in first person (Nothing can stop me now!)is not a pov shift, but merely a style shift _within_ the same point of view. However, When the Killer Yapp begins to refer himself in the royal second person -- we may have cause for worry...

KillerYapp said...

We believe you're right

Kristi said...

Dang y'all. This was my question and I'm thrilled to see so many different viewpoints. Maybe a few more details would clarify the scenario:

My protagonist is a teenage girl living with her no-good father. They have little dialogue between them, as he is no-goodnik and often leaves her alone for long periods of time. So I'm occasionally using the switch in pov to let the reader in on her thought processes. No other character will get the switch. I am using italics. And I do not give the character any narration...as in, "Now do you see what I have to put up with?"

Many thanks to Miss Snark for answering my question, and many thanks to you Snarklings for giving your opinions. I'm still debating...but I'm willing to try it both ways.

archer said...

There is an excellent summary of POV problems, with exercises, in Ursula K. Le Guin's Steering the Craft.

Kim said...

It's been my experience that one POV per scene is acceptable. You can bounce from the hero's POV to heroine's POV within the story, but not - say - within a chapter, unless there's an indicated passage of time. I write romance, where it's ok to use both hero and heroine (it's usually more slanted towards the heroine, though). I can't say about any other genres, though.

lindazbraden said...

Crap, she thought.

The aspiring author had just sent off her first request for a partial ... and she used the exact technique in question. Italics and all.

She wondered, could this be my kiss of death?

michaelgav said...

If you're asking about changes in voice within a scene, but from one character's POV, I find crime writers are generally good at revealing what their characters are thinking without having to resort to "she thought" or italics. Amazon is a great tool for this, now that you can search inside dozens of books in a single afternoon and see how multiple authors handled it.

Sandra said...

I'm not sure POV shifts in blogs count ;-) But I can't stand POV shifts within the same paragraph or within the same scene. It's a personal quirk, but I find it weakens the story for me. If I'm in the story and in the mindset of the character, then shifting characters on me every other paragraph is damned annoying.

Gabriele C. said...

I noticed David Gemmell has POV shifts mid-paragraph only after someone complained about it. And his sales numbers could make a writer pretty happy.

I don't care about what others say(the one that blamed me for writing omniscient was one of those people who read more How To books than actual fiction) and happily write multiple and ominscient all over the place, it works best for me. Of course, one should try to do it well and make the shifts smooth, but that goes for everything in writing.

grasshopper said...

My observation is that point of view matters tremendously in fiction. Switching mid-sentence can only work, for me, if the writer is signaling readers that the character is insane. Switching in the middle of a paragraph or in a run of dialog where one person's thoughts and impressions hold sway brings me up short. Most of the time these switches come off as mistakes or unpracticed writing.
Past that, changing points of view depends on one's taste. Judging fiction, loving a work or hating it, is subjective, and fiction may be the most subjective form still barely hanging on, trying against appalling odds to remain viable.
Some writers I admire state they can not abide an omniscient narrator no matter how subtle, disguised or invisible. But if used with a light touch, I find the invisible voice seductive.
Other writers, whom I equally admire, will not tolerate any changes in points of view.
Notice that I admire these writers. If they practice what the preach religiously, I may admire the work no end, but will enjoy it that much less. A single point of view too often sounds strident, and often, flat. In most cases, stories and novels give me pleasure in direct proportion to how richly layered they are.
As for Ms. Snark switching between first and third person, her character (while not insane) is unique. In first person or third, her voice really is omniscient. God Herself morphs at will and by whim. We mortals expect that.

jta said...

It goes to trust, doesn't it? A writer whose voice we trust can do almost anything without bringing us up short, as long as what s/he does has a payoff--meaning advancing the story, deepening a characterization, increasing our interest. We learn quickly not to trust those who abuse our attention with cheesy-easy narrative tricks, that take us nowhere but allow the writer to pound it out a bit faster.

And, for what it's worth, there aren't many better writers around than Miss Snark. I'm not looking for an agent; I just come here to read.

Whirlochre said...

Even if your POV character is God, a little aptly sprinkled omniscience can only be to the good - both for him and the reader.

BradyDale said...

it's just a variation on the singular, Miss Snark. The Royal "We" and "I" are the same thing. If you flip flop, we can follow.

Changes in POV are annoying and should be off-set clearly.

Faulkner did it chapter by chapter, and it worked for him, but it also resulted in this chapter: "My mother is a fish." which caused a woman I know to throw the book across the room.

And that's what I've done with other Faulkner (which would make people hate me to say if I had your clout, Miss S).

Be straightforward. I know the Academy will sing your praises if you're weird but the public won't.

Last night I started "Last Exit to Brooklyn" on the recommendation of a friend. I un-started it 3 pages (and a few quick page checks further in the book) later. The jacket copy may call it a "postwar classic" but I couldn't tell what it's point-of-view or POINT was getting set to be,
so I called it annoying.

shelby said...

I'm not really sure which point the example given is trying to make. If the purpose of the POV shift is to eliminate "she thought" and whatnot, the author hasn't done it in the example.

The girl was in great peril. The mustachioed villain had tied her to the railroad tracks. Crap, she thought. How the hell am I going to get out of this?

As far as writing books go, I've pretty much stopped reading them. I dislike blanket statements like never starting a novel with a quote because I think it works with some books. I'd rather have an astute critique group member say, "this quote isn't working for me, and I think your opening could be strengthened by..."

I was also once in a critique group with a woman who had read just about every single writing book available, and her entire novel followed that advice to a T. It was one of the most boring things I've ever read in my life. There was no spontenaity or energy anywhere to be seen. And every time we'd suggest something that could clearly benefit from rephrasing, she'd answer, "Well Stinky McBeagle said in, 'How to Write Like a Superstar' to never use blah blah blah."


Michele Lee said...

My son is autistic and often switches back and forth between first and third person so I'm past caring as long as the intent is made clear. third seems proper..
ie: Miss Snark dislikes exclusives, makes me think of you sitting straight, shoulders back, fingers on the keyboard like they're playing a piano. Then when "I think they really suck" comes it's like you've slumped suddenly and that little flash of real behind the prper just emphasizes the point more.

See, some of us happen to like that style.

Crap-O-Fodder said...

I've recently bought James Herbert's latest novel, The Secret of Crickley Hall, because it has some excellent reviews on Amazon. The opening chapters have been driving me nuts because he can't seem to choose a POV and stick with it. It changes paragraph by paragraph. The effect is a feeling of being one step back from the story, at arm's length from the characters.

The other reason I bought this book is my current work in progress is also in the paranormal thriller/horror genre, so I wanted to see a recent novel from one of the masters of that idiom. My piece has three central characters, and if I may put them into easily understood archetypes, they are a hero, a villain and a damsel in distress (though she will be revealed to be much more by the time we finish).

The narrative switches between those three POVs, but ONLY by scene, never mid scene. When in one POV it's third person limited, making each POV very subjective to that character. I'm finding that when action comes along the writing is a much more visceral experience, and hopefully the reader will find the same.

macadam said...

anonymous said: "Telling what the character is thinking, if possible to avoid, should be avoided. I like omniscient because it helps the reader to SHOW."

If that's how you feel, go watch a movie. Novels are beautiful creations because they give us the chance to show and tell. In what other medium can you get inside a person't head to reveal the thoughts that lead to action, or inaction?

Folks recite the show don't tell mantra far too often. Just don't tell me boring stuff, is how it should go. And put me in the head of the character, drown me in her thoughts until all the messed up things we do in our lives start to make some sort of sense.

Brady Westwater said...

We just understand that multi-tasking requires multiple personalites with mulitple voice.

McKoala said...

Miss Snark's POV shifts are all part of her charm. It's not always so in a novel.

I've never thought of showing thoughts as 'telling', and I am the enemy of telling.

Maya said...

Thanks, KY.

You saved me from making my own snarky response about condescension, and we all know that MS holds the license for snarky statements on this blog.

Eric said...

Frank Herbert changes POV to suit his needs in Dune, with multiple POV switches in many chapters. I'm inclined to say that it works well for him and could be duplicated by other authors.

katiek said...

I'm with Bradydale about that royal 'we' vs 'I'. And apropos in the Land of Snark. Despite the Law of the Land-- to bop the uninformed over their collective heads with that pseudo flippant voice of authority-- a kind-hearted and honest soul lives beneath the crown. so, an apt voice.

As to omniscience vs limited... I like to think the decision would be made to serve the story first; if the story required omniscience, let the criticism fall where it may. Isn't every rule tossed when a thing of brilliance comes along? As it should be. If a story needs it and the writer is not good enough, blame the messenger, not the message. ;)


Jeb said...

Omniscient is not popular in modern (presently selling) fiction as far as I can tell. However, a fair amount of poorly-written first/third person writing (which slips around sloppily from head to head and out of them all, and so could be confused with omniscient) IS apparently selling.

I prefer to experience a story from close third or first person point of view, right inside a character's head. I can take a few changes of POV, if they're done specifically at scene/chapter breaks. However, I just flunked a book at the 50-page test because we were in our fifth character's head and none of them seemed either particularly interesting OR any more important to the story than any other POV character thus far.

As for Miss Snark's blog, I'm reading it for information and a bit of entertainment, not to immerse myself in the study of the life and personality of this witty Dragoon of Agency. And I get that this is written informally. So I really don't mind when she (or THEY!) glissades from the Royal We to the intimate "I" with an arabesque or two via "She". Let S/he Who Is Without Slippage cast the first...!

Anonymous said...

Gabriele makes a great point about David Gemmell. He uses the technique beautifully. Of course, it took more than a decade for his books to catch on here, despite great sales on his novels in the UK. American publishers are extremely conservative and dogmatic, as far as I can tell.

My agent wasn't pleased when I used the technique in my third novel, even though none of my test readers batted an eye. This only strengthens my opinion on the matter.

Normal readers don't care as long as the story engages them and the shifts don't confuse them. (Which is why it's no big deal about the Snarkster's switches.) Editors, agents, critics, and writers get far too worked up about stuff like this. But the truth is, whatever works, works. Hell, look at the Harry Potter series. In technical terms, that's not the best writing in the world. And she breaks a lot of how-to-write-fiction rules. Often.

A lot of the responses on here seem to cater to a cookie-cutter approach to the matter. Authors who religiously agree with their masters. This matches the current marketplace where everything must be the same because that's what works.

But does it really work? Think about it. The fiction category is dwindling. Sales are down. Readers are dropping off or trailing into non-fiction.

Screw the rules. Write what works and what makes you happy. Editors and publishers who ignore good fiction to religiously follow rules will eventually work themselves out of business. I expect technology to destroy the current publishing models within the next twenty years anyway.

Jude Hardin said...

If you're a master of craft, or a literary genius, then you can say "screw the rules." Most of us, however, need to learn how to color inside the lines before attempting Guernica.

kis said...

If you have multiple plot threads, you are going to have multiple POV. Read any successful fantasy and you'll find yourself in practically everybody's head--including the bad guy. That said, I hate hate hate when the POV jumps in mid-para. For crying out loud, if it's that important you need to switch POVs, give the new guy his own scene. It even bugs me during the hot scenes in romances, where it's expected.

And there's a big difference between:

[Her eyes fell on Lilah standing in the doorway. Shit. How the hell did that bitch get invited?]


[Her eyes fell on Lilah standing in the doorway. Frowning, Jane wondered how Lilah had gotten herself invited, considering she was such a bitch.]

Anonymous said...


I guess I wasn't clear. I'm not saying you should screw the rules of basic writing. I'm saying folks should ignore certain arbitrary and dogmatic rules belonging to editors/publishers (or claims of such rules). Third-person limited is a far newer technique than omniscient. And head-popping is an old and valid technique as well. There's no wrong with using them if it works.

Also, you'll never know if you might be a literary genius if you don't try going outside the lines at some point. And I think early is better than later.

Jude Hardin said...


I agree with "if it works."

What I'm saying is (and I include myself in this statement), most of the folks reading this blog don't have the chops of, say, a Larry Macmurtry, and switching POVs multiple times within a scene is tough to pull off. A novel is hard enough to write without trying to get too fancy with the structure.

Keep it simple, that's my motto.

Ski said...

I can't tell you how glad I am that this subject has come up, cuz it seems to be one of those "issues" that has a thousand facets. Thanks to everyone here, what a great source this is for opinions and information. Hey Miss Snark, you still da best.