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Editing tips for romance writers: make sure you check your point of view!

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I’m lost

Last week I wrote a post about what a romance editor does.  It was a brief introduction to editing, and left a great deal more to be said, so I thought maybe every week I could outline a few of the areas that writers and editors need to look at closely when polishing a manuscript.

First up is one that I still struggle with, and that’s keeping a consistent point of view.

What’s so hard about that?  you might say.  And yes, according to the rules it all looks cut and dried.  Here are “the rules”  – that is, the types of POV:

  • First person (‘Reader, I married him’ or ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’);
  • Third person (‘When Elena told people she was a vampire hunter, their first reaction was an inevitable gasp’ );
  • and omniscient.  This is a bit harder to differentiate from third person, but I’ll try and explain.  In the third person, basically the author just follows one of the characters round and tells the story from this character’s point of view, with sometimes the occasional shift to someone else.  In the omniscient POV, the author stands outside the scene and we find out what EVERY character thinks and sees.  Here’s an example, from Gone With the Wind:

She meant what she said, for she could never long endure any conversation of which she was not the chief subject.  But she smiled when she spoke, consciously deepening her dimple and fluttering her bristly black lashes as swiftly as butterflies’ wings.  The boys were enchanted, as she had intended them to be, and they hastened to apologize for boring her.  They thought none the less of her for her lack of interest.

In that extract, we find out what both Scarlett and the Tarlton brothers are thinking, in the same paragraph.

In this post I’m just going to discuss the third person point of view, since this is the point of view that by convention is mainly used in contemporary romance.  Chick lit writers (sorry, I hate that term, but don’t know what else to call it) will often use the first person.  I don’t know why these conventions have started and are carried on, but I’m quite happy writing in the third person in my contemporary romances, so I don’t mind.

When you write in the first person, you only ever get to see one person’s point of view.  We can never know what Mr Rochester is thinking – we can only guess at it from how he talks and acts when Jane Eyre is in the room.

I quite like writing romance in the third person, because unlike the first person, sometimes you can write from the hero’s point of view.  (Note: this isn’t the same as being omniscient.  It’s just an occasional sidestep from the heroine’s to the hero’s POV.)  And as a reader, too, sometimes I enjoy knowing exactly what’s going on in the hero’s head.  And in any case, there are some romance publishers who actively require authors to occasionally show the hero’s point of view.

But this is where it becomes complicated.  Sometimes shifting the point of view back and forth can damage the flow of the scene, and you must be rigorously careful that there is only one person’s point of view per scene.  If you keep switching, it’s known dismissively as head-hopping.

Take a look at the editing in this paragraph from my novel The Silk Romance, for example:

“Things must have been hard.”  He tried to keep his tone as gentle as possible, but could feel her retreating again.

“We managed OK.  As you said yourself, I was earning good money.”  Sophie made her answer deliberately dismissive.  She was sick and tired of being constantly reminded of the difference between their situations, but every topic of conversation seemed to lead back to one thing

 Jean-Luc filled her wine glass patiently and tried again.

Since this scene is supposed to be mainly in the heroine’s POV, I have struck through the elements that are in the hero’s point of view.  How can we know what’s going on inside his head, if we’re looking at the scene from the heroine’s POV?  We can’t.  Even the use of the adverb patiently is a guess at his feelings, which Sophie can’t know for sure.

romace, writing tips, point of view
Who’s thinking what about who?

It’s fine to show the hero’s point of view from time to time, but when you do, you must create a clean scene break.  Each publisher will have a different convention for this.  Some publishers use a blank line between each scene.  My own publisher uses four asterisks as a scene break every time there’s a switch to another character’s point of view.  The physical scene break helps the reader be prepared:  it can be disconcerting to be flung too often from one point of view to the other.  If there’s too much head-hopping, in the end, instead of the reader feeling closer to the characters, she just feels distanced.

Another thing to look out for when editing is descriptions of the characters’ expressions.  I can’t write “Sophie’s eyes sparkled like diamonds and her lips were red as rubies” if we’re in Sophie’s POV (and not just because they’re cliches!)  How does Sophie know what she’s looking like?  She can’t see herself.  If you have missed this in your writing, a good editor will pick up on it, but it really helps to be aware all the time whose head you are thinking in, and to look at the world in that character’s eyes only throughout the course of a scene.

The reader often has a far richer experience if you stick with one point of view, too.  If you do this, you are forced to show how the other characters are feeling through their actions and dialogue alone.  It’s a harder scene to write – you can’t just say “She thought this, and then he thought that” – you have to SHOW what the hero is feeling through his actions.  If you can master this, you have cracked it.

Since writing my first novel I have become far more conscious of the use of POV when reading other people’s books.  In fact, I’ve read a few recently published more “literary” novels where there’s been some head-hopping, and it’s made me feel better knowing that even the best writers are occasionally guilty of it.

How about you?  Do you like to know the hero’s point of view from time to time?  Do you prefer to read books in the first person?  Are you a writer, and do you struggle with POV as much as I do?  If you have any comments or questions at all, please let me know!

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18 thoughts on “Editing tips for romance writers: make sure you check your point of view!

  1. I just finished reading a novel that was flooded with head-hopping. I found myself confused and having to re-read a lot of parts (which, as any reader knows, is not only annoying, but also diminishes the flow of the story). Great post!

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    1. Head-hopping can be really confusing. When I started writing, I used to think it was helpful to the reader, but I’m really conscious of it now and try and tighten it in my writing, because you’re right – it just diminishes the flow of the story. Thanks for your comment!

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  2. I too am very conscious of POV after having excellent, gentle editor Karen McGrath guide me through my first editing process for Sunshine Boulevard. It wasn’t so much the head-hopping, it was so many POV’s! She suggested I trim it down to 3 POV’s instead of 6 or so!! When I read a story with “head-hopping” I am constantly complaining to myself about the author’s editor who should have caught that! LOL. I think you clearly explained POV and gave good examples. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks, JQ. Nancy Bell did my edits for my next release, The Antique Love, and she was brilliant. There was many a comment saying “Can she see herself?” I think I learned a good lesson!

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  3. Yes, POV is confusing, especially to a new writer. I didn’t realize just how much one little word could trigger a change, like you pointed out with ‘patiently’. I wrote ‘Sweat glistened on her brow’, and, of course, without a mirror, she couldn’t have known that.

    Thank you, Helena, for a very informative post.

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  4. Thanks Helena. I’m pretty good with POV, but sometimes a thought slips by me. Thank the writing gods I have a good editor. If you ever write a post on the omniscient POV, be sure to let me know. I’ve always wanted to try it, but I’m afraid my third person trained head will get everything jumbled.

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    1. Thanks Eric. I’d love to try the omniscient POV, too. I think it’s perfect for epics such as Gone With the Wind and The Lord of the Rings. It’s not as easy as you’d think to keep your POV consistent. Thanks for coming by!

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  5. A very interesting post, Helena. I really enjoy changing into my hero POV. It enables me to use a different style, sharper, more to the point, and sometimes a few restrained ‘swear words’ too!

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    1. Hi Marie, yes, you’re right, the writing style is different when you use someone else’s POV. That’s why I enjoy writing in the third person – it’s fun to write like this. I was going to write more on this aspect of it, but thought the post would be too long. Maybe I could write a post on POV – part 2 :)

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    1. Hi Tina, yes, it’s something I’ve struggled with in the past. Just starting a new passage in my next novel, and wondering whether it would be better to show it from the hero’s POV. I think I’m going to start it that way – and see how it turns out!

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      1. I can understand what a challenge it is to alternate between the different POV! It is good to know what the hero is thinking some of the time in a romance as it provides a different perspective and gives the reader an insight into his character and motivations.

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  6. Hi Tina, I agree. I like finding out what’s in the hero’s head as a reader. It literally puts a different persepctive on the whole story. Writing in the third person gives you the chance to do that, and it’s really worth struggling to get it right

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