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Writing tips: how to alternate point of view (part two)

point of view, POV, helena fairfax, writing tips
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Last week I wrote a post on how to make sure your point of view is consistent  and thus avoid confusing your readers with “head-hopping” (ie changing point of view too randomly within a scene).

I showed the mechanics of handling point of view in the third person, but there’s more to changing point of view than just the mechanics I outlined last week.  If you really want your reader to get inside your character’s head, there’s a subtle way to go about it, and that’s by writing each character’s viewpoint as though you are that character.  That is, by using words and phrases that your POV character would use, and by giving that character an individual voice.  If each of your characters has an individual voice, when you change point of view it will be obvious.  The reader won’t be checking back, asking herself, “Eh?  Who’s speaking now?

Think of any books you’ve read where the main character has a really distinctive voice.  Compare the openings of these two novels, for example, which I have rewritten in the third person:

  • There was no possibility of taking a walk that day…She was glad of it.  She never liked long walks, especiallly on chilly afternoons; dreadful to her was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of her physical inferiority to Eliza, John and Georgiana Reed.
  • It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.  He was wearing his powder blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them.  He was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and he didn’t care who knew it.  He was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be.  He was calling on four million dollars.

The first is Jane Eyre, and the second is Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep.  Each character has a clear – and totally different – voice.  The words Jane Eyre uses show a character who is introspective, who feels trampled on and defeated: dreadful, saddened, chidings, humbled.

Philip Marlowe’s words show no introspection.  His vocabulary is sparse and straight.  He’s just setting the scene like it is, with a little ironic in your face He didn’t care who knew it.  He’s sure he’s everything a private detective should be, and he’s obviously a much more self-confident character than Jane Eyre.

So, how do you achieve a change of voice in your own writing?  Here’s a passage from a contemporary romance novel where the point of view switches between the hero and the heroine, and the language used changes with it.  This is from Wedded in a Whirlwind, by Liz Fielding, who is a writer I admire, and who achieves the switch here admirably.

(Just to set the scene: there’s been an earthquake, and the heroine has fallen into a black cave, on top of the hero.  As you do.)

‘You’re drunk!’ she exclaimed.

Not likely.  Headache notwithstanding, he was, unhappily, thinking far too clearly for it to be aclohol-related, but he didn’t argue.  If Dame Disapproval thought he was a drunk she might leave him alone.

‘Not nearly drunk enough,’ he replied, casting around him with a broad sweep of his hand until he connected with what he was thinking clearly enough to recognise as a woman’s breast.  It was on the small side but it was firm, encased in lace, and it fitted his palm perfectly.

Alone and in the dark, Manda had thought things couldn’t get any worse until cold fingers fastened around her arm.  That had been the realisation of every childhood nightmare, every creepy movie she had watched behind closed fingers and for a blind second her bogeyman-in-the-dark terror had gone right off the scale.

Then he’d spoken…and the knowledge that by some miracle she was not alone, that there was another person in that awful darkness , someone to share the nightmare, to dispel the dark, had been so overwhelming she had almost blubbed with sheer relief.

Thankfully she had managed to restrain herself, since the overwhelming relief appeared to have been a touch premature.

The above passage shows a masterly change in point of view.  There’s no difficulty at all in recognising the hero’s voice.  He’s sarcastic (Dame Disapproval), sardonic (It was on the small side) and gives a masculine broad sweep of the hand.

pov, point of view, writing tips, helena fairfax
I hear you

As soon as the author switches to the heroine’s POV, we are inside her head.  She’s alone and in the dark, ie frightened.  She talks of the terror she feels, which isn’t shared by the hero, and talks of ‘blubbing’, which is a self-deprecating and most unmasculine choice of word.  The final sentence shows she is courageous and has a nice touch in irony.

Ensuring your characters’ voices are unique is vital if you are going to be alternating points of view. THe best way to do so is to think yourself inside your character’s head, and literally look out on the world from his/her point of view.  I find most good authors seem to be naturally empathetic people. If you don’t think this describes you, you can still make it work with practise and with imagination.

It also helps to read how other writers have done the same thing successfully.  Here are a few novels which are written in alternating points of view (that is, each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character), in case you want to check them out.

Lord of Scondrels, by Loretta Chase

Noughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

One Day, by David Nicholl

The Time Traveller’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

You might find reading these books more useful than my attempt at explaining!

Have you read any novels where you thought the author dealt well with alternating points of view?  Or any novels where you thought it was badly done?  Can you suggest any other novels you’ve enjoyed which are written from alternating points of view?  If so, please let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear from you!

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6 thoughts on “Writing tips: how to alternate point of view (part two)

  1. I’ve recently read The Power of Nine by Pittacus Lore and it kind of wound me up because it was from the pov of 3 different people and each person had his or her own font. It was so distracting that I had a really difficult time getting into the story. Also, one of the fonts was sort of sci-fi/computery and I was reading it with a robotic voice in my head.

    I can understand not wanting to label each chapter with a character’s name a la GRR Martin, but I think that there must be a better way to differentiate whose pov we’re in. The novel I’m writing is in 3 different points of view, but I’m still in the outline stage so I’m mulling over my options.

    Great post!

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    1. I haven’t read the Pittacus Lore books. They look really interesting, and have got some good reviews, but I agree with you that the font thing might be a bit off-putting. It does seem a little like a gimmick.
      Changing POV smoothly is really hard for an author to do, but I enjoy the challenge of trying to get it right in my own writing. When you get your novel finished, please come back and let me know how you dealt with it. Thanks for your great comment!

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    1. Hi JQ, thanks for your comment. When I first started writing, I was head-hopping all over the place. I had a great editor for my next novel, The Antique Love. Nancy Bell really helped me tighten it up, and change of voice/POV is something I’m really conscious of now

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  2. I just found this lovely series on POV. Thanks for taking the time to do this. Interesting cave example, which switches POV in mid-scene without a scene break, only giving a few paragraphs of each. How would you not consider that head-hopping? I ask without a disapproving tone. I ask merely because I switched for a few paragraphs within a scene and my editor wasn’t happy with it. Without a publishing house behind me I’m still trying to follow the conventions, but they seem to be all over the place, even within genres.

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    1. That’s a great comment, Lily. Interesting point! I think some of the earlier Mills & Boon (Harlequin) novels were more inclined to allow head-hopping, but nowadays editors ask the writer to try and stick to one point of view per scene. My own editor allowed me to switch point of view for a couple of paragraphs ONLY if it was essential to show what the other character was thinking, and only if it was just the odd time.
      Constant head-hopping is distracting for the reader. In my experience, romance novel editors will frown on head-hopping, but if a brief switch is well done, as in the cave scene, they will allow it from time to time. I can see why you feel the conventions are all over the place. My advice would be try and cut out head-hopping if possible. Good luck with your writing!

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