She loved how she looked in the red dress with the matching shoes, but he couldn’t help thinking she looked like an overripe cherry waiting to be picked.
Very occasionally some exceptional writers can get away with shifting Point of View (POV) between two characters within the same sentence. Most of us, however, should avoid this kind of head-hopping.
Where Faulkner and Joyce are masters at POV shifting (and they make it seem so effortless), here are a few rules the rest of us should follow when shifting between characters.
Let’s define POV
First and foremost, POV is a tool a writer selects, usually at the beginning of writing a story:
- First person
- Second person
- Third person limited
- Third person omniscient
In the majority of novels, POV is a static choice. You choose a POV and you write your entire story or novel from that decision.
We have an excellent article on the different types of POV, What is POV? And How Do You Choose the Best POV for Your Story, that delves deeper.
Shifting between POV characters
Some books are written from the POV of multiple characters, usually separated into chapters, like Allison Winn Scotch’s In Twenty Years and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. These show you how using multiple POVs can make a big impact and get the reader inside different characters' heads like the proverbial fly on the wall.
Let’s take for example a romance. You have two main characters and it’s common to switch between each of their POVs to understand the story from both perspectives. A good rule of thumb is to focus the POV on the character with the most to lose in that scene. That way you can get deeper into character development.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. The Great Gatsby is told from Nick’s POV, not from the main character’s, and it works really well.
So how do you shift between POV characters?
At the beginning of this article, we stated you should avoid head-hopping. Now we’re going to give you some tools you can use that will having you shifting POV characters with ease.
- Paragraph break. At the very least, always use a paragraph break when shifting between two characters.
- Chapter break. Each chapter in a story can be from a different character’s POV. The most common way to do this is to head the chapter with the name of the character being profiled.
- Line break. If you don’t want whole chapters dedicated to a single character, you can use a line break (three blank lines) in your chapter to signify a switch between POV characters. A line break lets the reader know that something is changing and they should look for indications of a new POV.
Scene break Some authors use a symbol or * * * to indicate a change of character POV. Others use a transition like:
- While across town
- The next day
- After the storm abated
- Two weeks later
Do what your editor or genre requires
If you’re a best-selling author, you can probably shift POV characters whenever you want. For the rest of us, we need to make sure we’re addressing the requirements of our editors and our readers.
Editors may want shifting POVs handled in a specific way. Always check with them first. And readers of certain genres, like romance or sci-fi novels, have grown used to multiples POVs being handled a certain way.
Your best bet is to read widely and notice how your favorite authors make the switch between POV characters. The more you read, the more ingrained the habit will become, and it will flow effortlessly and seamlessly onto the page as you write (wishful thinking).
More than likely, you’ll spend some time finessing your style and learning what works best for you and those you are writing for.
If you enjoyed this post, check out The Writing Process Blog or these articles from our archive:
- How to Construct a 3D Main Character
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Story Arc?
- How to Create Your Story’s World
- How to Create a Compelling Character Arc
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Plot?
- 4 Plot Pitfalls You Need to Avoid
- Map Out Your Character’s Transformation Using the 9 Enneagram “Levels of Development”
- The Four Drafts Your Novel Needs (and Why You Probably Won't Use a Single Word of Your First Draft!)