Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Shifting P.O.V.

Shifting Point Of View
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Here is a succinct, graphic, iconic way to depict what Lovers fight about, sometimes break up over, and occasionally become enemies about.  It depicts the reason that "The Far Left" reviles "The Far Right."  It's all in the Point of View, and that different vantage point is what creates the best dramatic Conflict, the Essence of Story.  Think hard about this graphic.

On a Yahoo Group zinelist where fanfic writers who are as good as professionals discuss fanfic, the topic of fanfic preference for single POV (Point of View) came up.

I learned to spot POV in narrative when I was in High School and read in a Writer's Digest that the POV in a story is what you would see through a camera set on the shoulder of the POV character. The POV character might not be the main character, the hero, or the character whose story is being told. The POV character can be a "Watson" -- a chronicle writer, a journalist traveling with, a Bard dogging the footsteps of King-to-be Arthur.

But knowing the definition of P.O.V., seeing it done by others in narrative, is not the same thing as writing it yourself.

I struggled with POV as a beginning writer and still focus on it as a professional SF/F reviewer for an on-paper magazine.

Choosing the wrong POV for a story, or shifting POV during a story can kill reader (and reviewer) interest.

I've been teaching writing craft since I was writing my Kraith Series of Star Trek fanfic, a series which had 50 creators working their own notions in my sub-universe under my editing.

Kraith is now available online FREE
with other classic trek zines. (and we're open to posting more classics). Kraith won the Memory Alpha Award.

I went on to launch my professional SF novels, the Sime~Gen novels, then several other SF universes (one of which, DUSHAU, won the first Romantic Times Award for SF (so long ago the award isn't posted on their website!)) and now may be revived as webisodes in full color images.

Some writers who have studied the POV issue closely may have missed one key (very invisible) element in a good POV shift that I had to discover for myself.

The issue is not whether you shift POV or not.

The issue is when and why and how you shift POV.

Shifting POV is an art, but also a craft. And it is very difficult to pull it off correctly, or even to define what "correctly" is.

As you read this, please remember Art always trumps Craft in POV shifting. But without Craft there can be no artistic statement. Art requires discipline, and it is the discipline that makes the Art shine forth.

So there are a few craft rules, which if violated ruin both the fine-art aspect of the narrative and the commercial art aspect.

So when you violate a craft rule, (note, I said when not if -- as with all writing, POV rules are there to be violated) as an artist, you must telegraph that you know the rule, that you know why it became a rule, what your readership gets out of your obeying that rule, and that this violation intensifies or delineates an artistic point, and that it will be worth it to the reader by the final line of the story. (i.e. suspense).

For the most part, it is best to use such rule-violation technique with an audience you have established and wooed into trusting you. Your violation of the rule should come as a shock and a frisson of alertness to your reader. "She never writes like THIS! What's going on here?"

And it should come across as your promise to your jaded readers that you know what they generally get out of your stories, and that you will deliver that charge despite the rule violation -- or because of it.

Now, how in the world can a writer accomplish all that with a rule violation? And how can a writer know they have accomplished it, not just lost their base readership?

The answer lies in craftsmanship. Seasoned craftsmanship.

The reason single POV is absolutely, beyond question, the best choice for a beginning writer is that it takes years and millions of words to learn to manage a single POV.

You can't (really can't) manage the discipline for two POVs simultaneously if you can't manage just one by itself. It's a strength, like the strength of a muscle.

You can't lift 100 pounds if you've never lifted 50, or if you managed it only once then dropped the weight.

The reason many novels get published professionally where the POV shifts are not done correctly (blending Art and Craft smoothly = correctly) is that many editors don't have the education to know what they're buying -- and today, a lot of novels are bought by committee, not individual editors. The editor you submit to may be the only one who reads the whole book, then describes it to the committee -- who wouldn't know a POV shift if you put it before them.

Readers, however, still respond subconsciously to the Art and the Craft of the POV shift the same way they always have -- with some added sophistication because of the influence of TV shows.

A badly crafted POV shift will flip a reader right out of the story. They'll put it aside and not come back. Ask them why, and they say "Well, it got boring." or "I lost interest." or "I forgot what the story was about."

Readers don't know where their emotional responses to the character and story are coming from. And it's better for the writer if they don't. Better yet if the editor doesn't know where his/her emotional responses are coming from.

Writers must know -- at least subconsciously -- where their emotional power comes from in the story. It's structure. It's all structure.

A good novel, or movie, can be graphed for emotional pitch and volume. The name of the composition (novel, short story, movie, TV episode) tells you exactly where the peaks and valleys of emotional pitch and volume must fall throughout the work -- by percentage of the way through, by page number. Exactly.

Any writer can produce a work which has originally placed peaks and valleys of emotional pitch dictated by their personal sense of art -- but that work won't be a "novel" or a "feature film" or a "short story." Thus, it won't be "marketable" by the current marketing mechanism.

The name of the kind of work it is dictates the placement of peaks and valleys of emotional pitch -- and thus by derivation, of where the POV shifts may be, and how they can be structured.

Violate any of those unwritten (and un-taught in classes) rules, and your work will not become a marketing success even if you can get it mass market published.

Robert A. Heinlein, quoting an old adage of stagecraft wrote the motto of our WorldCrafters online school of professional writing (at http://www.simegen.com ) -- "Sounding spontaneous is a matter of careful preparation." And from Alma Hill, "Writing is a Performing Art."

And that's the secret behind POV shifting and not losing your readers attention. CAREFUL PREPARATION. It's all stagecraft, a performing art.

The seeds of the shift are planted 10's of pages before the event -- the upcoming shift is telegraphed clearly, but not blatantly.


1) Use single POV unless forced out of it by the THEME, the underlying art.

2) When you introduce a second POV, (or go to Omniscient Narrator) you blow your suspense line to smithereens, and totally change the reader's mood and engagement with the material. If that's the artistic effect you need -- to break the reader's concentration and building emotional involvement -- then you must shift POV because nothing is as effective at loosening a reader's hold on the material than a POV shift. But you must be "strong" enough, disciplined enough, in enough control of the material to redirect the reader's attention smoothly right at a peak of emotional tension where you have precisely foreshadowed what will happen next.

3) In preparation for a POV shift, plant the questions answered from the other POV, and make the reader pant to learn this information. Take two or three chapters if necessary to foreshadow the new POV. Plant the thematic and most especially the visual clues, the symbolism that works on the unconscious, way before the new POV.


1) Never shift POV because you don't know any other way to show the reader some information. Instead, learn the information feed techniques.

2) Never shift POV by accident.

3) Always know exactly what the entire story looks like from ALL the characters' POV's and what they're thinking, feeling, planning, hoping, dreaming.

4) Never shift POV to let the reader know what another character is thinking.

5) Craft the POV transition with the same care you use crafting a time-shift ("Let's go get pizza!" *** The pizzeria was hot and steamy.) or a flashback shift back and forward (another really complex set of operations).

6) At the outlining stage of your story, when you cast your vision of the beginning, middle and end plus the theme and conflict of the story, DIVIDE (or as they say in Mathematics, "factor") those monolithic elements into philosophical fragments that ADD UP TO the story you're telling, and assign each factor to a POV. (that's how Gene Roddenberry created the original Star Trek ensemble cast, factoring the underlying theme. Or so he told us.)

7) Never shift POV in a story under 30,000 words or so, preferably only in a story that's at least 50,000 words. It's too jarring to the reader and there isn't enough space to smooth the transitions. That's why romance novels tend to be longer than action novels.

That all sounds very cold, calculating and distant, maybe more work than fun, and fanfic writers write for FUN above all.

So not all writers do all these operations at the same stage of production.

Craft Step 6 above may be done on the 4th or 5th rewrite. For an example of me doing that, see my first Award Winner, Unto Zeor, Forever. It is in Hardcover & paperback. An early draft of it called SIME SURGEON is posted online for free reading, so students can see how that sort of rewriting process works, step by step.
http://www.simegen.com/sgfandom/rimonslibrary/surgeon/SURGEON1.html Compare with the published, award winning novel, and see how the POV is tightened and the theme sharpened.

So, the trick to POV shifts that don't leave the reader bored is the same as the trick that lets a writer include information in a flashback. As you move over the transition point between time or character, you must KEEP THE PLOT MOVING FORWARD.

That forward motion is accomplished by the foreshadowing and planting of thematic questions and symbolism long, LONG before the first POV shift -- by ensuring that the reader is anticipating what will happen to the character you're leaving as soon as you return to that character's POV -- and by ensuring that the reader is ready to leap into the new POV and the whole new STORY that comes with it, trusting you to take care of the character they already learned to love.

The more information you allow your reader to have, the harder you have to work planting the questions that produce suspense that will ultimate break explosively at the climactic moment where the conflict is resolved.

When you have two POV's, you have to craft the story's ultimate climax so that both POV-stories resolve in the same incident.

Marion Zimmer Bradley worked for over 20 years struggling to craft that moment for CATCHTRAP. One of the peak highs of my life was when I provided the comment that gave her the key to creating that moment. Publication of Catchtrap opened the door to publication of Mists of Avalon which became a TV Miniseries and a long series of long best selling novels. Crafting that final moment where two stories climax in one event is the secret of that kind of success. It's worth 20 years of hard work.

In a Romance it is customary to use 2 points of view, the two people who are falling for each other.

The first chapter opens in the POV of the person whose story the envelope plot is telling.

The second chapter opens in the POV of the secondary character who is the complication to the main plot. Or who might be a main plot of his/her own.

The questions that generate suspense in a Romance arise from the very POV shift itself, each understanding the other's behavior to be generated by different motives than the reader sees.

By introducing POV's in that order in that way, you telegraph to the reader that these two people are in conflict over a Romantic spark or involvement or misunderstanding. You also telegraph that you know what you're doing, that you understand the form of the Romance novel, that you will deliver what the reader wants.

Another way to work POV is to use Arthur Conan Doyle's motif of the objective narrator who watches events unfold, and is usually only peripherally involved.

I loved it on Sanctuary (the Sci-Fi Channel TV show) where they had Watson and Jack The Ripper faced off against each other in modern times. And Watson was the one who had actually been The Detective, not Holmes.

Writing a multi-POV story requires writing several single POV stories simultaneously, thus the rule 7 above, that it takes more space to construct a story with POV shifts. The single story has to be factored into 2 stories, each with plot, theme, and conflict, all derived from a single unifying theme .

For all those stories to be in the same volume, with events interwoven, the single stories must share a single thematic set. (Otherwise the reader gets confused, disinterested, or remains unsatisfied by the ending.)

I've discussed thematic structure in:


That post has a discussion of the lengths of novels by theme structure and how to achieve that.

A discussion of the Art of theme construction is at:


Our current plan at WorldCrafters Guild is to post PDF files edited from these long blog posts to put related subjects together for easier study. You will be able to download those volumes in PDF, and maybe HTML and .lit formats.

You can follow me on twitter as JLichtenberg -- or on LinkedIn or Facebook -- to get notice of when those books get posted.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Jacqueline, thank you for your writing craft lessons. They are such a help.

  2. I agree that short pieces of fiction are better kept in a single POV (although I would set the length of "short" shorter than 30,000 words). That's what I do with my Ellora's Cave "Quickies" (upper limit 15,000 words). The Silhouette Nocturne Bites market (also upper limit 15,000 words), however, absolutely demands that the POV be split between hero and heroine. The editorial policy requires it. I'm presently waiting for the editor's response on a rewrite in which she wanted to see more scenes from the hero's POV and an expansion of a love scene. To make room for those changes, I had to simplify the plot, deleting one character altogether.

  3. Margaret:

    Absolutely correct -- the editor rules!

    But the audience those short pieces are aimed at is well seasoned and expecting to pant across POV shifts.

    It's become a genre of its own with its own rules.

    And like every other genre, you work within the rules set by the readers ever changing taste.

    It's a technical challenge to your craftsmanship, and it will hone your skills for larger more original works.

    The main technique for that kind of sex scene is to make every movement, every described sensation, part of a silent conversation -- a DIALOGUE where information is exchanged, combat is waged, one-upmanship is played, and character is revealed.

    Oddly, my captcha for this post was CORGI - the British publisher of Star Trek Lives!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  4. This was great. What a wonderful blog you have here. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Leon:

    Thank you! And thank you for connecting with me on Facebook. I try to remember to note my writing craft blog posts on Facebook, but am more likely to remember twitter and LinkedIn.

    The other writers who post here on Alien Romances often have really insightful clues to impart about writing craft, too. We'd like to hear about anything you learn elsewhere on the web.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg