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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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Responses to this blog

Susieq 7 Jun 2014 at 14:08  
There seems to be some confusion on CC about what constitutes head hopping. Head hopping occurs when the writer is writing in a limited viewpoint (not omniscient) and moves from one character's head to another's for a couple of paragraphs (or less) and then back to the first character. It is NOT a smoothly done handoff from character A to character B where the pov then stays. The latter is acceptable. The former can be a deal breaker.
Kazahari 7 Jun 2014 at 16:41  
I agree. The example passage is what I would classify as third omni. The actual point of view is that of a godlike narrator, not either of the characters. You have maybe one internal thought here, and it was generic enough that it could have come from anyone.

I don't think the POV changed, just the perspective/emphasis. If we'd been getting internal thoughts from both characters, you would have probably wound up with a mess. Instead, their thoughts are conveyed indirectly, through body language and reactions. That alone can be hard to do well, much less almost seamlessly. A finicky reader will still notice, but if it's done well, it's forgivable.

Good transitions are hard in third omni, harder still in close third...and dang near impossible to do well in first person short of using a chapter break. Even then, the setup for it needs to be phenomenal. Most first person stories I have read struggled there.
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Fairchild 8 Jun 2014 at 15:45  
What is third omni? Can omni be anything but third?
Kids_table 8 Jun 2014 at 15:55  
No. There's:
-First person
-Second person
-Third person

There are also tenses (past or present, primarily).

And there are degrees of closeness when you're talking about POV. You can keep it distant, close, or zoom in and out.
Didn't your mother ever teach you not to click on strange links?.
Devils need advocates too.
"And there's always edits."

Bsdolphin 15 Jun 2014 at 13:40  
I am so glad someone pointed this out. I recently began but didn't finish two separate stories (both done in 1st person). One writer switched from male to female point of view at each chapter break. It was jarring. The first time it happened, it was so confusing that I was completely lost. Once I realized what had been done, I was able to move better with the story. The second book, the writer named each chapter with the character's name when they changed from M to F and back again. Although, it gave both character's inner thoughts and such—the writer could easily have done so by description verses this back and forth. Both times, it was draining enough on my mind to distract from the story. The latter story even threw the reader backward to previous points in the relationship. It was not a smooth transition.

This was my first experience seeing an author do this back and forth in first person. I would love to hear if other authors have read this type of work and how do you feel about it?
Susieq 15 Jun 2014 at 15:30  

This was my first experience seeing an author do this back and forth in first person. I would love to hear if other authors have read this type of work and how do you feel about it?
I find roving first person jarring. I deal with it better if the MC is first person and any other viewpoint is third. For me, "I" should belong to one character only because my reading mind treats it like a character name.

Hessian6 23 Jun 2014 at 15:24  

Hessian6 23 Jun 2014 at 15:27  
Great comments. I certainly do agree that hopping back and forth from the head of one character to another in a short space can be very confusing. However, I think change of POV that is maintained for a few paragraphs, esp when used with a break (***), can be very effective. I have read quite widely and have seen this done to good effect in many novels. It is a technique that may take a little practice to pull off, but it's certainly not a hard and fast rule not to change POV within a chapter, or even a scene.
Larrue 23 Jun 2014 at 16:23  
As long as the author lets me know they are switching POV, it does not bother me.

If they want to have a few paragraphs in Bob's POV, then a few in Fred's POV, all they need to do is something like:

Bob shook his head. What an idiot. He thinks he can jump that far? Stoopid. "You'll never make it."

Fred looked at the gap. Hell yes I can make that. He's just a chicken. "Can too, because I have Nikes on."

I'm fine with it.
Irondomain 1 Jul 2014 at 19:16  
There's first, second and third person omni (:
Monica67 7 Jul 2014 at 14:23  
If I hadn't been looking for the switches above, I would have been confused. The paragraph that starts with "She did" would have thrown me off, because it is clearly not from Eugenides's POV, but then the next paragraph doesn't have a clear POV to confirm I was still in Eugenides's POV or someone else's.

When he "disappears from sight" I'm thrown off again, because I have to ask whose sight. Only when Eugenides is gone and the queen dismisses the soldiers is it clear we are now in her POV.

What I don't understand is why this scene can't remain in Eugenides's POV, provide the family background from his POV, then switch to the queen's POV for the next scene. If Eugenides doesn't know the family history, then add the information in the next scene. I don't see any pressing need to switch POVs within the scene here, or any advantage doing gives the scene.

Dil 8 Jul 2014 at 15:34  
I really struggle with POV - but many novels I read seem to switch quite happily (not necessarily at the beg of a new chapter) and I don't find it disconcerting. If the writing is good, I am too enthralled with the plot to care!
Now switching tenses does throw me...
Jkang 8 Jul 2014 at 15:51  
I would say that when writing in Omniscient, where you can change the narrative distance, a headhop would be when you switch from a close narrative distance to another character's thoughts without panning out.

For example (off the top of my head):
The blazing heat of summer melted man and dog alike. While people stayed indoors, the dogs congregated in the tree's shaded canopy. Jed looked out, wondering if his puppy Skippy was with the others. Surely he would have come indoors by now!
Skippy didn't know where his boy was, but where that was, it surely couldn't be any hotter than the sidewalk.
"Absorb what is useful, Discard what is not, Add what is uniquely your own."
— Bruce Lee.

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