Wednesday, November 03, 2010


I had an email recently from a writer who is still at the learning stage; a rejection beneath her belt, the second book in progress. She’d been told that she should never change point of view in the middle of a scene but she’d been reading my books and was sure that I did. But wondered if perhaps she was imagining it.

I know a lot of writers and writing tutors insist that you should never change viewpoint in the middle of a scene and there are sound reasons for that, the major one being not to confuse the reader.

I have to tell you that I recently read a crime novel from an important mainstream publishing house where the mid-scene viewpoint changes were so bad that I had to keep back-tracking to catch them and whoever edited it needed a slap. This is actually rare in crime fiction, but the two detectives (both male and heterosexual) were so closely involved over a past case that their thoughts were entwining rather like a pair of lovers and I suspect that was the author’s reason for using this technique.

My first twelve books were written from the heroine-only view point, which was the norm back then. I broke out with Eloping With Emmy but stuck with one viewpoint per scene until, four books later, I wrote Dating Her Boss.

I was in the middle of a scene in which they were dancing; it was a big scene — one of those pivotal scenes that were part of the recent Mills & Boon New Voices competition — and I wanted the reader to know what they were both feeling. Not her now and him remembering later, or vice versa. It was important for both of them and I wanted the reader to feel that in the instant it was happening. So I switched viewpoint mid-dance.

Re-reading the whole scene now I can see that in places it was a little loose in execution but at no time is the reader in any doubt whose head they’re in. And that’s the trick of it. Make it clean, make it clear and you’ll keep the reader with you.

Here’s how I did it —

Putting her arms about his neck, laying his head against his chest was by no means a penance, and her lips softened into a smile as he put his hands about her waist and pulled her closer so that she was listening to the slow thud of his heart overlying the sensuous beat of the music. Two hours ago she’d been enduring hell at the hands of Rich Blake; quite suddenly she was being transported to heaven.
        Max shifted his hold slightly, so that his hands rested on the soft curve of her hips. It was heaven and it was hell too. Like the pain when frozen fingers began to thaw, and for just a moment he felt dizzy…

I did this intuitively but it’s a writing technique and therefore something that can be learned.

Using a character’s name, as I did here, is one way of doing this. Writing a short paragraph, no more than a sentence, describing something neutral such as a sound – something outside the internal thoughts of the characters – to divide two viewpoints will also help.

I confess that having once started I did get a little carried away, changing backwards and forwards with abandon. These days I think carefully about it and don’t do it nearly as much but in what is basically a two-hander romance (as with Harlequin Mills & Boon) I think it has a place, adding internal movement to what would otherwise be static scenes. As long as you make it clear whose head you’re in, because sloppy changes won’t get past an HMB editor.

But don’t just take my word for it. Nora Roberts, who’s sold more romances than most of us can ever dream of changes viewpoint at the drop of a hat and the millions of readers who love her books, send them flying up the bestseller charts time after time, don’t complain. The only people who tut are those who are obsessed with rules rather than telling a brilliant story.

Rules are for grammar. The rest is imagination.


Teresa Morgan said...

I have read some Mills and Boons (especially older ones) where there has been a change of POV mid scene. Sometimes it's done well, sometimes not so and I have had to back track or pause.

Again, I think if it's done well that it will work, otherwise it won't. (It's not something I'd be brave enough to try).

Sometimes, like a book I'm reading currently where the author has keep the pov changes to new scenes (I can use this as I read it this evening and it made me pause) there can be a pov that could be easily the other person but actually it's not. I read the sentence thinking she'd switched pov. Rereading it I realised it was still the heroine and not the hero. Possibly the sentence could have been 'stronger' so that it didn't confuse me. But that maybe where sometimes readers are thinking the pov switched, and it didn't (if that makes sense?).

Anyway, great blog post. Interesting. I know that sometimes I have written something that's supposed to be in one character's pov but it has sounded like another's and it has needed tweaking.

Lacey Devlin said...

Fascinating post Liz! I'm always disappointed when I have to keep going back to work out who's head I'm in. It pulls you right out of the story and reading becomes work.

Alexandra said...

I quite enjoy head hopping as long as it's done well to avoid confusion. The reason I like the changing POVs within a scene is because I think it moves the story on quickly and you feel what both protagonists are going through in real time, so to speak. It also prevents repetition of a scene by relating events separately in two scenes which imho slows the pace.

Nas Dean said...

When the change is done well it works for me as it shows the story from both the heros and the heroines angle, and specially if the same conflict caused misunderstanding then it is fun from both POVs.

Liz Fielding said...

It does a very strong grasp, Teresa. If it goes wrong, it's horrible.

Liz Fielding said...

I suspect that's why so many writing gurus make it a "never", Lacey. Better safe than sorry.

Liz Fielding said...

Hi Alexandra - absolutely. Gives pace, saves repetition. I sometimes have a scene that will continue over an entire chapter. One vp is v. restrictive for the writer.

On the other hand, I have written a couple in first person - no switching there. If you paint yourself into a corner there's no instant get out available. :)

Liz Fielding said...

Nas, absolutely! You can have such fun seeing things from opposing viewpoints. Thinking particularly of the scene in Love, Actually, with Colin firth and his Portuguese housekeeper. Brilliant.

Vince said...

Hi Liz:

When is a POV change not a POV change? If the author is writing in the omniscient POV and writes something like this:

James was nervous; his heart beat faster as beads of sweat formed on his forehead. The dance floor became a parade grounds.

Mary felt trapped in his arms. She was anxious to go home before anyone she knew saw her.

* * *

Do you consider the above two POVs or just one Omniscent POV?

Here is my view of two independent POVs.

“I’ve got to get out of here. She’s stiff as a board and I can’t dance.”. James looked left and right for help but he found no one. He was on his own.

Mary suppressed a scream of frustration. “Why me and why now? If I’m seen all my work goes down the drain.” She tensed up making her shoulders vibrate.

I feel the above is a true POV change while the first example is just the author being omniscient.

BTW: I think it is not enough to be clearly understood when making a POV change. The change should also be appropriate. I think of POV changes as much like camera shots. I don’t like camera shots to change too often for no apparent reason.


Liz Fielding said...

Totally agree, Vince.

"BTW: I think it is not enough to be clearly understood when making a POV change. The change should also be appropriate. I think of POV changes as much like camera shots. I don’t like camera shots to change too often for no apparent reason."

And I think that just sums it up perfectly.