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Breaking the Rules: Changing POVs mid-scene -- by Lexi Ng

One of the first rules of writing that most people learn is not to change POVs mid-scene. Perhaps you read it in a writing book, or a fellow critter here pointed it out to you. It’s bad, it’s confusing, and it’s all but a hard and fast law of writing - don't do it
But as always, rules are made to be broken. I was very firmly in the "do not head-hop camp" until I (re)read the following scene from The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (henceforth referred to as MWT). MWT is a master of conveying information between the lines. She's also a master of breaking all the generally accepted rules of writing - and getting away with it.
The passage a bit long, but bear with me:
He turned. The queen stood at the end of the passageway, flanked by two more soldiers and a third man.
“What do you mean, I’m not allowed on the roof?” said Eugenides, outraged.
The queen walked toward him. The third man, Eugenides saw, was one of Galen’s assistants. He glanced from the assistant back to his queen.
“You have someone watching my door,” he accused her.
She looked uncomfortable. Eugenides turned to the guard beside him and cursed. He turned back to the queen, still cursing. The soldiers on either side of her looked shocked.
“You think I’m going to throw myself off the roof?” he asked.
She did. The people in his family tended to die in falls. His mother, even his grandfather. When the palsy in his hands had grown so severe that he could no longer feed himself, he’d been unable to climb to the roof, and he’d tumbled over the railing at the top of one of the back staircases. It hadn’t been a hard fall, but enough to kill an old man.
“You started a war without mentioning it,” Eugenides snarled. “You have my rooms watched, and I’m not allowed on the roof. What do I find out next?” He pushed past her and the soldiers. He walked backward away from her. “Tell me you’ve enrolled me as an apprentice bookkeeper. You bought a lovely house for me in the suburbs. You have a marriage arranged with a nice girl who doesn’t mind cripples!” he shouted. He had reached the corner and disappeared from sight still shouting. He was making enough noise to wake every sleeper in that wing of the palace, and he didn’t care. “I can’t wait to hear!” He spaced his last words out and finally was finished. There was no sound, not even that of his receding footsteps.
The queen sighed and dismissed the soldiers who’d accompanied her.
“Shall I go back to watching his door, Your Majesty?” Galen’s assistant asked.
“Yes,” she answered heavily. “Watch him as carefully as you can.”
Returning to her room, she sighed again. The accusation about the arranged marriage had been a home shot. It was a good thing Eugenides hadn’t realized it yet.
Did you notice? It starts off from Eugenides’ POV, and we walk out with the Queen. But it happens so smoothly and naturally that if you’re not paying attention, you might even miss it. The main reason we're told not to change POVs mid-scene is because it gets confusing, but the way MWT handles it here is smart, subtle, and not confusing in the least.
MWT starts the transition at this sentence: "She did. The people in his family tended to die in falls. His mother, even his grandfather."
Note that the following paragraph could be from either Eugenides’ or the Queen’s POV. It’s not until we hit the following sentence that we’re now in the Queen’s POV: "He had reached the corner and disappeared from sight still shouting."
Blink and you’ll miss it. The “disappeared from sight” is easily overlooked, but it can only be the Queen’s perception. Even the next few sentences could still possibly be from Eugenides’ POV. It’s not until we get to the end of the argument that it’s strongly established we’re now in the Queen’s POV: "There was no sound, not even that of his receding footsteps. The queen sighed and dismissed the soldiers who’d accompanied her."
But of course, there’s no point to breaking the rules if you have no purpose for it. Here, we start with Eugenides facing off with the Queen. We see things from his eyes - his perceived unfairness of the situation, his opposition to the Queen. Then MWT draws the POVs together, where Eugenides questions her motive and hits it on the head. There’s a shared awareness that those in his line (Thieves) tend to die from falls - and that she’s determined to prevent it from happening to Eugenides.
Finally, MWT tears them apart again when we go into the Queen’s POV. Despite that shared awareness, they both have different views on how to handle it. Eugenides, still yelling at the Queen, disappears from sight. They part on angry words, and the Queen leaves. She sighs, and we know she’s disturbed by their altercation. She cares… and we know she’s hurting too.
It’s a beautiful dance of POVs, drawing that of the two characters' together before splitting again, to show the underlying relationship between them. Food for thought, next time you're thinking about the POVs in your own story.
(I do want to put a disclaimer here: This is not an excuse to go off and start head-hopping like mad. This is simply an analysis of the writings of an author I greatly admire, and a reminder why it is okay to break the rules when you have good enough reason... and skill.)


Posted by Lexi Ng 7 Jun 2014 at 03:39
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