Beware the Point of View Police!


WARNING!  This post is for writers, and it’s not for the faint of heart.  If you think your writing can’t be improved, go stick a crown on your head.  Gloat.  See if I care. 

Call me anal.  I’ll readily admit to being dragged kicking and screaming into ending sentences with a preposition.   I may be one of the last holdouts, but I was finally convinced that the 21st Century literary Nazis wouldn’t draw and quarter me for being more conversational in my writing.  I still, however, resist ending phrases with “at.”  Just can’t do it. 

Likewise, I occasionally write sentences that aren’t sentences.  For emphasis.  (Note:  not a sentence.)  But on pain of the point of view police (otherwise known as my critique group, the Pink Fire Writers), I will not head hop in a scene. 

Some very good writers do it, but aspiring writers (at least those who want to get published) will get deep-sixed faster than a school of mullet in a barracuda’s gullet should they turn in a head-hopping manuscript.  To break the rules effectively, you have to know the rules, backward and forward.  Take Picasso.   (Yes, he was a painter, but read on and you’ll get my drift.)  He first gained a significant reputation painting realistic portraits.  Not until he was renowned as a portrait artist was he able to paint people who looked more like milk pitchers…and get away with it.

Early in my writing career, I took a class in “fiction process.”  Sure, I knew what point of view was.  That’s my opinion on something, correct?  I didn’t have a clue.  And even after I’d taken several classes, the notion of point of view didn’t click until I segued into character development.   At that juncture, I realized that if I wanted my readers to truly care about my characters, I was going to need to be in one head per scene.  Now, I understand this is evolving in erotica.  Readers want to know how both characters involved in the sex act are feeling, but let’s not concern ourselves with correctness-while-panting. 

Let’s talk about our run-of-the-mill hero and heroine, perhaps at their first meeting.  Let’s say we’re Jane in this scene, having just run into Jack on Madison Avenue.  Jane’s heart is racing (we’re clearly in her head) and she’s just caught her heel in a manhole cover, causing her to careen into Jack.  At this point, Jack’s muscles tense as he reaches out to break her fall.  STOP!  If we’re in Jane’s head, we can’t know his muscles tense unless Jane can SEE them (highly unlikely through his Brooks Brothers suit).  We could say that Jane saw his shoulders scrunch under his ears as he lifted her, but we can’t know whether his armpits are wet or his swelling manhood is making his pants tight (unless, of course, he’s strategically pressing against Jane, in which case she can observe and internally comment).

Point of view snafus are easier to catch when your characters aren’t in close proximity.  I’m sure you’ve read a telephone conversation between characters where you know what each character is doing.  Jane’s sipping her coffee, and Jack’s scratching his nose.  If we’re in Jack’s point of view, he may be able to hear Jane slurping, but if we’re in Jane’s head, she could be imagining him scratching his nose, but she can’t know for sure. 

One trick a former critique partner of mine uses is to note at the beginning of a scene (usually in a margin notation) whose head she’s in.  That way, she’s less tempted to add those pesky adjectives and adverbs to her non-p.o.v. character’s actions.

Over Christmas, I sipped coffee with a multi-published (and super talented) Harlequin/Silhouette writer.  With more than 30 books to her credit, the woman knows the writing process, and she’s a stickler for point of view.   We lamented what we both consider point of view violations in the romance genre, and I reminded her that when I’d begun my writing journey some 10 years ago, she’d told me, “you have to be better than romance to write romance,” MEANING, don’t assume romance writing is easy.  As I learned, it’s not.

Anyhow, that’s my assessment of point of view.  I’d be interested in what you think.  Most particularly, I’d love to hear examples of what you’ve found jarring…or effective…in your writing and reading. 

Susan Blexrud’s first print book, Love Fang, is currently available online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.   Love Fang is a compilation of Ms. Blexrud’s four fang novellas.  She is currently working on the fifth story, Black Fang, as well as a novel for young readers entitled Minerva Greensleeves.  

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32 Responses to “Beware the Point of View Police!”
  1. bill says:

    Why is this character POV thing being held up as gospel? What about the writer’s POV? He/she is entitled to explain things otherwise it all becomes dialogue. You may as well be writing a script. Enough established writers do it.

    • Roseanne says:

      Actually, that’s not true. A writer’s POV should never enter a story. It distracts the reader from the characters and it’s telling, rather than showing a story. You show a story through Action, Dialogue, and Thoughts. Also, thoughts can be paraphrased and, in my opinion, should be. Example – rather than – I wish he’d quit looking at me like that. Use – She wished he’d quit looking at her like that. A continuous use of I and me begins to sound clunky and you often have to use, he/she thought.

      I was guilty of head hopping and didn’t even realize it. Sadly, none of my critique partners pointed it out to me. And my first book, Satin Sheets, was loaded with it. The editor should have caught it and didn’t. I’ve had to rewrite several of my books to fix it and that’s even harder than writing the story in the first place.

  2. Barbara says:

    Because my stories are all deep POV and character driven, I’ve learned what I consider to be devices for getting around the no head hopping rule in order to give the reader a full, rich experience.

    I don’t head hop, but I do use POV breaks within a scene to give both characters view point. I also use introspection after intense scenes to give the other view point. (Learned this from Linda Howard. One of the reasons her books are so hot is because the intensity of a love scene or an encounter scene isn’t lost as quickly as it’s lost in other books. If you’ll notice, the hero always thinks about what happened after its happened and we get his emotions, physical reactions etc. It’s almost like a quick, heated flashback or a two for one sex scene. Yum!)

    Also, as you mentioned, having the POV character notice the other character’s physical reactions and expressions adds more to a scene. Occasionally, you just have to give in and use “seemed”;>

  3. Lyn says:

    Great article , Susan. Bill, the way I understand it, even when you’re narrating and there’s no dialogue, you should still ‘see’ things through the ‘point of view’ character’s eyes. i.e. Mary looked at John’s impassive expression and wondered if he had noticed her mistake. The writer is in Mary’s point of view and if she were to then write ‘John was annoyed at Mary’s slip up but decided not to let her know.’ she’d be jumping into John’s point of view, or ‘headhopping’ which is distracting to the reader and prevents them from being able to relate closely to the pov charater, Mary. You can be in a character’s point of view even when they’re not speaking. Have I got this right, Susan?

  4. Susan Blexrud says:

    Bill, I’m not lobbying for extensive dialogue (though Elmore Leonard is great), but I think you have to be very careful about author intrusion. I agree that many great writers break the rules, but I think when you’re starting out (unpublished and clamoring for an agent), those point of view errors stick out like a bad cliche.

  5. Susan Blexrud says:

    Lyn, yep that’s it exactly. If you start explaining something through the author’s eyes, you pull your reader out of the story. One of the benefits of having a critique group is that you catch those snafus in someone else’s work easier than in your own. And, oh, my critique group LOVES to catch errors!

  6. KATE HOFMAN says:

    Hey Susan, I found you!
    That is a major achievement in itself, don’t you think?
    But you left very clear link instructions.

    I am in total agreement with you, BTW.

    Hugs, KATE

  7. Susan Blexrud says:

    @ Kate, We’ve commisserated in the past about quality in the romance genre. Thanks for being in my camp, as I’m in yours.

    @ Barbara, Excellent comments. I’m proud to be associated with the great writers at EtS. Thanks for including me in the team.

  8. I’ve made all the mistakes regarding POV in my writing. In the novel I’m writing now, I’m sticking with one character–first person–present tense. I tried to change POV in one section and was flogged by my critique group, The Pink Fire Writers. They were right. I love them for it.

    Love the blog.

    • Roseanne says:

      Is there a reason you’re using present tense? I mean seriously, once you do something it immediately becomes past. I walk to the store, I buy gum. To me it sounds so much better to use past tene. I waled to the store and bought gum. How can 300 pages be all present tense. Sorry, it’s another pet peeve. I’ve never read a first person/present tense that I’ve liked. In fact, if I seldom buy a book written that way. Just a suggestin, try changing to past tense and see if you like it better.

      • Hi Roseanne,

        I’m LOVING present tense. It makes my writing so much more immediate. Obviously, since the period I’m writing about is mid 19th century, it poses its challenges, but so far, I’m sticking to it.

        Thanks for your comment.


  9. With you loud and clear, Susan. I work hard at not head hopping. It’s irritating me that I just found a big head hop in the ms recently sent to my editor at Loose Id. Even though it’s a little slip, it’s annoying to me. It’s right where two people are switching povs and I messed up and did it too soon. Some best-selling authors do this all the time. How do they get away with it? One reason is they are telling a good story. Another is that they are clearly changing character (usually) even without a visual cue such as asterisks or space. But I still don’t like it.

    One thing that gets to me is when authors say things like “Susan watched John walk away.” *buzzer sounds* That’s author intrusion. We are outside Susan watching Susan watch John. How much better to simply say “John walked away.” Now, we’re seeing John walk away without being told we are seeing him. We just observe and that’s it. Much stronger pov.

    Good article, well written, and oh so true!

    • Roseanne says:

      Great advice. Authors need to be careful of words like watched, seemed, heard etc. There’s always a better way to write it.

    • Excellent advice, Kayelle. Thanks for commenting!

    • Gwyn Lacy says:


      I love your Fang series-okay, you know that-lol. I really enjoyed your article on POV. My first attempts at writing resulted with “cuts and slashes” (which I appreciate from my former critique group) regarding: head-hopping (POV), too much exposition instead of dialogue, and author intrusion. It took a few years and several classes and conventions and the time and patience of generous writers–and I finally understand. I appreciated Kaylee’s comment about author intrusion-it is so easy to do. Great topic and great job!

      • Thanks, Gwyn. Wish I could be with you at RT this year. Have a great time! Next year is L.A., and that means a big push for Armando for Mr. Romance, don’t you know.

  10. Agree with you, Susan. I may have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, but I pray I won’t be head-hopping while the trasition takes place. Or afterwards, either. (Making point.) It’s too annoying to have to go back and clean them up.

  11. Jean Watkins says:

    Wonderful article, Susan. And I like a lot of the comments that follow. You all have pointed out some very big pitfalls and some wonderful ways around them. As an editor, I don’t mind some head hopping, but not a lot and especially not in the middle of a scene to show me both sides! I have turned down many books for things such as this. I try to point it out to the writer some of the problems I see with it when I send it back to them. I don’t know if they ever listen or fix it, but at least I try.

    • @ Jean, LISTEN TO THE EDITOR, FOLKS! Honestly, I’m not sure some writers fully grasp what p.o.v. is and how jarring a bad transition can be. I was clueless when I wrote my first book, but luckily, I received a very nice rejection letter (from Vintage Romance Publishing) telling me what I’d done wrong. Aha!

      @ Miriam, As a writer AND editor, you see it from both sides. If anyone tries to drag you kicking and screaming, I’ll bop them on the head with my Strunk & White.

  12. Wonderful article, Susan!

    It annoys me when I’m reading a book — especially by a favorite author — and the POV bounces from head to head like a ping pong ball. The funny thing is, I never even noticed head-hopping until after I started writing.

    When you write in my preferred genre, it’s very easy to find yourself in Pronoun Hell. Add head-hopping to the mix, and it becomes extremely difficult to tell who’s doing what to whom without a schematic.

  13. POV can be a nightmare. When I started writing, I headhopped, a lot. At a conference I attended years ago, the question of POV was posed to the editor on a panel. She said to stay in one character’s POV for at least one and one half pages before changing POV. But then, you’d have to make sure it’s done smoothly if it’s in the same scene.

  14. Kathleen says:

    Susan, you’ve put it so well. Ever thought of being a teacher? 🙂 I couldn’t agree more. If you stick in one point of view, it’s quite difficult to convey everything you need to get across. It can be done, though, and it is so worth the effort! Writers don’t realize sometimes how long it takes them to get a reader invested in a character’s goals and feelings. The minute you hop into another head, the reader has to drop everything and race over there, into another person’s goals and feelings, and try to figure out what they are. During that transition period, the reader has no investment, and therefore no tension. It’s in those moments that it’s easiest to put down the book!

    Thanks so much for such a great analysis of this skill!

    • Thanks, Kathleen, and I LOVE to teach. I’m hoping to do a workshop this summer at the University of North Carolina-Asheville’s Center for Creative Retirement on “Writing Romance,” so teaching is defninitely a big interest. You explained the importance of point of view so well! Reader investment is key. I can’t count how many books I’ve put down because I was catapulted into someone else’s head…without warning.

  15. Kathleen, what an excellent way to describe that! You are absolutely right. There is no investment when you write that way. That’s been annoying to me since forever. Tom Clancy is a best selling writer, and I read one of his six-inch thick books a number of years ago. I counted five headhops in one paragraph. We enter the room as an agent, see us coming in from the tech’s point of view, jump into the partner’s head to check out the tech, and quickly segue into the cop locking the door behind us, then back to the agent. It’s enough to make one dizzy.

    I threw that book against the wall more than once while reading it. I finished reading because the story was good. However, I’ve never read another of his books, and won’t, because the writing is too annoying. Apparently the reading public doesn’t hold my views.

  16. Cat says:

    You know, I had never give it this much thought before, I just generally try not to switch POV’s too often or too quickly. And if at all possible i will wait for the next scene to switch.

    But sometimes I cant help it. I need for readers to understand why B is acting that way and since A is clueless, I must switch into B’s head for a few moments (then try and at least stay there for a while).

    Sidenote: I wrote a novel in first person format once, just to try it, and found it so restricting to see every single event through the lead characters eyes only. And it turned out rubbish, I never did anything with it.

    • Roseanne says:

      I agree first person POV is way too constricting. Pull out that old manuscript and change it to 3rd person. It’s not as hard as you think. When I first started writing I worte in first person all the time, it helped me get in my character’s head and then I changed it over to third, which gave me the leeway to add other character’s pov. It actually wroked out pretty good. Now I never write in first person. But some stories are done better that way. I’ve seen some that are first person for a chapter and then they switch to another person in another chapter and do it in third. Not sure if I like it, but it is a way to get around the limited POV.

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