How to Write Point of View, Part 6, Common Pitfalls

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Hi SErs! Harmony here 🙂 Today, I’d like to talk about how to write Point of View (POV) and the common pitfalls to watch out for.

As you have seen, each POV choice comes with its pros and cons. So, too, choice of perspective comes with common pitfalls that you’ll find it useful to be aware of.

The Common Pitfalls of Various POVs:

  1. Head Hopping
  2. All characters thinking in the same style
  3. POV impossibilities
  4. Passive Writing
  5. POV doesn’t fit your story

How do you address and avoid these POV pitfalls?

Let’s start with number one on the list … chronic head hopping happens when the narrative switches from the head (pov) of character A to character B or C, etc. without warning. Generally, the best way to change POV is to give your readers a clue that a shift is taking place. Such a clue can be a simple extra line break so there’s a larger space between paragraphs.

The downfall to this method is that this extra space can often be missed by your readers if the gap falls at a page break. Another option is to use a symbol to physically show the change. Alternatively, some writers prefer to give a complete chapter for each POV rather than scene breaks.

Writer’s that have handled head hopping well include Stephen King and Winston Graham. While many readers hate head hopping, this is usually due to the shifts being confusing and unclear. One of my pet peeves if where I have to stop reading, go back, and work out who’s head I’m in now. So, if you want to write in multiple POVs, the best advice I can offer is to show the change clearly and keep the shifts as simple as possible. Absolutely do not EVER make such a shift in the middle of a sentence. I would go so far as to say, at least give each character POV its own paragraph if nothing else.

Head hopping is more common when Third Person Distant (Omniscient) POV is being used, but it can happen in other POVs too, especially where the writer isn’t clear about the boundaries and uses of each POV choice.

Number two on the list is where all your different characters read like the same person. Avoiding this issue takes skill, creativity, and practice. Each character needs to come across as unique in some way and must have their own voice, body language, and characteristics. That isn’t to say you need the differences to be obvious to the point of caricature–even subtle distinctions have a huge effect.

While each author has their own unique voice, which they need to develop, it doesn’t follow that all of that author’s characters have the same voice. The two are completely different aspects of writing. People watching can offer a great resource for injecting unique and separate personalities into each character. Another tool is to pay close attention when watching a movie you enjoy … what makes a character stand out for you? What makes you love or hate them? What are their modes of speech? Their body language? Joan’s series of posts on character types offers some great examples, the latest of which you can find HERE, with links to her earlier posts at the top.

Number three on the list is POV impossibilities … what do I mean by that? A POV impossibility is where something happens that your character can’t possibly know about, yet it’s written into the narrative. Third Person Omniscient is the only viewpoint where this issue cannot happen. From this perspective, all is known, all is seen, and all is heard.

However, all the other POVs can suffer from such impossibilities of awareness if you’re not careful. Here’s an example:

By the time I get home, my husband will be dead. It’s hard to not smile at the thought. I have the best alibi an abused and beaten wife could ask for, sitting here having dinner and drinks with three of my oldest friends. It won’t matter how strong the police believe my motive to be. Not when I have all these people, and my credit-card bill, putting me right here from 7 until 11 pm. By the time I get home, at around 11:30 pm or so, it will all be over. Engrossed in my thoughts, I missed the sudden commotion outside.’

As the above is written in first person, if Jen misses the commotion, then it cannot be written into the narrative. This is a POV impossibility. The character who’s head we’re in cannot know of something if she actually is unaware of it. The only POV where this can be written is Third Person Omniscient. With any of the other character viewpoints, you need to change to a different head …

So, that final line of Jen’s would have to be told from another character’s perspective: ‘Jen sat with a glazed look in her eyes, and she missed the sudden commotion outside. Becka shook her head and gave her friend a nudge.’ This way, you can include the same information but from Becka’s head not Jen’s.

Number four on the list is passive writing … as well as choice of POV, your choice of tense will have an impact on how passive or not your writing is. In my experience, First Person Present Tense lends itself to passive writing more than any other combination. (More on choosing tense in a later post.) Many writers use such constructs as ‘I am going to.’ A more active way of saying the same thing: ‘I go to.’

Below, I show a table of all the possible combinations of POV and tense …

The fifth issue is where the POV doesn’t fit your story. Often, the POV comes to me along with the characters and plot, but not always. Sometimes, I have begun the writing from one perspective, gotten so far, and realised that my chosen viewpoint just does not work. At which time, I have gone back and re-written the whole thing from an alternative lens. The same with choice of tense. We will cover choice of POV and Tense in later posts. Suffice it say, you’re not ever stuck with your original choice. Not even if you’ve written the whole novel. While it’s a pain to go back and redo the thing, it is possible. The important thing is to stay alert to such discordancies as they arise.

In Summary: Each choice of POV has its pros and cons and possible pitfalls. While many readers and publishing houses disapprove of passive writing, second person narrative, and / or head hopping, these can still be used if done well. Personally, I don’t like too much passive writing, but that’s because it’s often done badly and reflects unpolished writing in general. With some books, while they embrace passive terminology, the rest of the writing is done so excellently that I cease noticing all the wases and weres, etc. Once again, I offer the refrain: You can do anything you want, as long as you do it well.

That’s it from me today. I hope you’ve found this post useful. I’ll see you again on Wednesday 17th November, when we’ll take a look at Switching POV 🙂

Bio Box for Harmony Kent that links to her website

Part 1, Overview, can be found HERE.

Part 2, First Person, can be found HERE.

Part 3, Second Person, can be found HERE.

Part 4, Third Person Limited, can be found HERE.

Part 5, Third Person Distant, can be found HERE.

©2021 Harmony Kent

92 thoughts on “How to Write Point of View, Part 6, Common Pitfalls

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  7. Excellent post, Harmony. You laid out the pitfalls of writing from multiple points of view very well. Like you, I find it frustrating when I have to go back and figure out who’s point of view we’re in. Reading should be enjoyable, and I don’t want to work that hard to understand what’s going on.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Another great post on POV, Harmony! It really pulls you out of a story when you have to figure out who is talking when there is a lot of headhopping. Good point about passive writing and how to make it more active 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I can’t even imagine rewriting an entire book to change POV, but I bet it happens. A lot of work. I did add scenes to a book once to make it multiple POV, though, and it made it a lot stronger. Good information!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Fabulous post, Harmony. I’m really bothered by head-hopping, so I’m glad you spent some time on that one, including ways to avoid it. And your comment about knowing which pov will work for your story is great. That isn’t discussed much, and yet it makes a big difference. I’m waffling on that decision with my current WIP. 🙂 Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. This is an excellent post, Harmony. You really drilled everything down into a nutshell.
    I’ve frequently had instances where a particular character POV I’d chosen for a scene didn’t work and I had to go back and redo it. As a writer, I stick with third person limited POV, but as a reader, I enjoy everything accept second person. And when an author pulls off omniscient well, that is still my favorite POV. I’ve also become fan of present tense (both 1st person and 3rd) from reading psychological thrillers. I also like to use it now and then in a random scene or two when working on a longer work.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I used to enjoy classic literature (and still do have favorites among the genre), but most are omniscient POV, and if I were to read a modern omniscient narrator now, I’d put down the book. I hate it. It feels like cheating. I’d have to be sucked DEEP into a story not to notice. It’s so interesting to me that it’s your favorite POV. I used to be a snob and hated present/first, but I’ve grown comfortable with it. I still default to past/third, though.

      I once challenged myself to write a story in second person. It was HARD. I’m glad I tried it, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.

      I’d love to see you write something in omniscient POV. With your lyrical prose, I’m certain you could pull off the style. It would remind me of Faulkner, I bet. And how could anyone complain about that?

      Liked by 3 people

      • I applaud you for doing second POV. I’d make a total wreck of things If I tried.

        I do think a lot of old books and classic literature were written in omniscient. I guess I like it so much because those were my earliest reading experiences.

        Thank you for the lovely compliment, too. You have me blushing!

        Liked by 2 people

  12. I absolutely detest head-hopping, which is why I don’t try to write in omniscient POV. It takes skill to pull that one off.

    I like what you said about certain stories demanding a certain point of view. Although I generally write in third person past tense, a short story I recently wrote demanded first person present tense.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Pingback: How to Write Point of View, Part 6, Common Pitfalls | Legends of Windemere

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