Sunday, January 17, 2010

Words Come Alive

When Should We Shift the POV?

Your character’s falling into a trap because he didn’t know his wife was waiting for him. You did — you were in her head in the previous chapter. That’s an example of when we should change the point of view (POV). If most editors advise shifts in POV only rarely in a novel, why do you often see shifts within the same chapter? Dare you ask when you should shift?

Much is written about POV because the device aids writers in character development and conflict setups. Yet, the many faces of how to use the device require examination. Many experts prefer one POV throughout although they will also see advantages in a shift, so what’s the guideline? Newcomers are advised to avoid the technique because the misuse comes across as confusing. Some editors advise to keep within one POV for a length of time, usually for the span of a chapter. Others allow a shift after a scene. So the answer must be related to time — right?

Not quite. The answer is more appropriately linked to the timing of when you want information shown about the conflict or characters. In a scene where information shows the protagonist hesitating to call the police because he fears their action from a previous encounter, that info has to come from his POV. That scene has to show him hesitating. You have to exist inside his head to understand his past thoughts.

Yet the interaction from that scene could spur the need to shift in the following scene. The protagonist’s friend doesn’t know about the reasons for the hesitation. You probably showed the friend in a confused state earlier. If you develop a new obstacle for the protagonist by having the friend confused about the hesitation, then the following scene could show the friend’s confusion. Now you’re inside the head of the friend because you want to show how he feels about that hesitation. You can’t be certain about the ideas of the protagonist because you’re not in his head. This could lead to a new direction for the friend.

Develop the POV to get inside the friend’s head from the timing of the information you develop about the conflict. Part of this setup reveals another aspect about the timing of the shift. You don’t want to shift POV unless you have a decent amount of space devoted to the character. You don’t want to get inside the character’s head just to answer a question from someone. You want to get inside that person because you have material only that person knows. Despite the confusion about the shifting, think about your timing of information. The timing of when to shift can depend on the information held by each character. Let that be the guide. Let the tool happen because you have the vital details needed to shift that POV.

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