Two recent reads and a surprising blog on POV have made me think about perspective in novels. I’m a POV purist. I write from one character at a time, with no peeks into the future. I prefer that style as a reader too. I bond with characters when I see the world only through their eyes.

Head hopping drives me crazy. So do phrases like Mike didn’t notice the man with gun. (Are you sure? Because I thought Mike was telling this story and he seems to know about him.) Maybe I’m just cranky because I do evaluations for a lot of fiction manuscripts from novice writers who don’t understand POV. (I’m not talking about my editing clients. 🙂 )

As a writer/editor who has been immersed in the publishing industry for decades, I’ve also been led to believe that major publishers typically won’t sign a manuscript unless it adheres to first- or third-person POV. In other words, no omniscient voice (unless you’re already a bestseller).

Yet a novel I read recently, which was nominated for an Edgar, has omniscient POV and little head hopping too. The novel I’m reading now, published by St. Martin’s Minotaur, also has short little segues into other POVs and settings. For example, the author describes in detail the person on the other end of the phone, even though he has no real connection to the story. It struck me as unusual.

Then I read this blog in which an acquiring editor says there are no hard/fast POV rules. All that matters, he says, is whether the book works. Yet he also goes on to talk about keeping the POV limited and how most manuscripts suffer from POV problems. So he’s not exactly encouraging anyone to write in omniscient voice.

Yet I wonder, is there a new trend toward omniscient POV?

Readers: Which POV style do you prefer? Does head hopping bother you?
Writers: Which POV do you write in? How does your editor/publisher feel about omniscient voice?

  1. Eh. I’m of the mind that omniscient is along the lines of telling instead of showing brand of lazy writing. I’m sure it has its place (and I’ve caught myself doing it), but I can’t think of a better way to ruin the suspense or a good mystery by telling us the heroine is going to be kidnapped soon or that things will get worse as the novel progresses. Or maybe lazy writing isn’t quite the right description. Maybe it’s just bad form to spoil the story, like flipping ahead a few pages or reading the last page of a novel before you begin just to see what’s going to happen. I think there are more effective and entertaining ways to draw a reader into a story. Omniscient POV is just unnecessary.

    And head hopping? Ooh. I had to train myself not to do that. It can get confusing and can feel almost sloppy if done too often. I think the best approach is to stick with one character per scene or per chapter, if not the whole book. I feel I enjoy a book more if the writer isn’t trying to tell me everything about every character and every relationship.

  2. Omniscient almost never works – maybe in a thriller you could end a chapter with something, but that’s about it.

    I have no idea what editors are looking for, but I would be surprised if an agent would sign a new author who didn’t follow POV rules pretty closely. I am not a purist myself, but we do need to understand that the POV “rules” exist for a reason – because most of the violations of them make the work worse, not better.

    I am actually composing a blog post which will be the first in a series of when/how to break writing rules, and POV is the first rule I am looking at. It is a pretty hard rule to break effectively, but authors manage it all the time. As with anything, you have to know how to follow the rule before you can effectively break it.

    One other note about POV – another interesting thing to look at is the difference between a scene that has a strong POV and one that doesn’t. Both cases are following the “rules” and not head-hopping, but in one of them the focus is really on the character and in the other one it’s on what’s going on in the scene. I actually find that in the thriller genre, authors are going overboard in rooting things too strongly in POV, but I recognize that as just personal preference. To me, though, doing a strong POV in an action scene is kind of lazy writing – I find it much harder to write an action scene that bounces off the pages on its own than it is to write one that is all about the character’s tension.

  3. As a freelance manuscript editor specializing in fiction and YA fiction, I point out frequent point of view shifts (head-hopping) all the time in the manuscripts I’m working on, and suggest ways of dealing with that issue. Most of the authors who do this a lot have trouble seeing it, and get frustrated when I point it out, as they want to present the other main character’s point of view as well, in the same scene, especially romance writers.

    So I end up being the “bad guy” and spoilsport for bringing this issue up, and gently guiding them to the “one chapter, one point of view” guideline, or at least “one scene, one point of view.” But a lot of the authors I work with still don’t like those kinds of restrictions. I also think it’s important to stay mostly in the POV of the main character or characters, and that it’s best not to get into the point of view at all of minor characters, although sometimes that’s necessary.

    But then in my own reading, I pick up novels by bestselling authors like Nora Roberts or Sandra Brown and see all kinds of examples of head-hopping! Granted, some of those books are ten or more years old, or re-releases…. I’ll have to have a closer look at their more recent ones and see if they still do that. I guess if you’re a bestselling author, you can make your own rules! John Grisham likes to do the omniscient thing, and manages it well.

    I sometimes edit erotica, and the authors seem to like to present both sides, I guess so women can imagine themselves being the heroine, but also hear all the wonderful things the man is thinking about “them.”

    Personally, I think it’s important to mainly keep the point of view of the main character (or maybe two) so the reader can get into their heads and empathize with them and identify with them….

    But it’s late and I’m rambling! Sorry about that. Great topic, LJ!

    Jodie Renner

  4. I encounter the same resistance. I keep pointing out to the authors that readers bond with a character when they see the world through that character’s eyes for a length of time. Head hopping creates distance so readers are watching the story instead of living it.

  5. Y’all are makin’ me feel self-conscious! Actually, I really do think that anyone who’s grown up on TV and movies (and face it, many many people do) is fully prepared for shifting PoVs. I use omniscient a lot — personally, I find first-person PoV stories MUCH more annoying — but try to avoid head-hopping within scenes. If you’re showing simultaneous events, for example, happening in different places w/different main characters of the story, well, you can’t exactly tell those scenes from a single person’s PoV — and since movies and TV series (and comic books) do it all the time, I think readers are well primed to follow right along. As for bonding w/a character, that’s at least one thing I’ve not had trouble with. Everyone who reads my stuff latches onto the main character(s) hard and fast, if nothing else.

    Variety’s the spice of life, right? I want to pick up a book and experience something DIFFERENT, not just the same thing I read last week or last year or whatever… So I really want to see unique approaches to PoV, style, imagery, plot, everything…

  6. PS: After reading the blog post you linked to, I see that I’m a “third-person unlimited” sorta’ writer, instead. And I like anyone who says “there are no monolithic rules…” 🙂

  7. I write from multiple third-person perspectives as well, but one at a time, in chunks or chapters. And in each perspective, the reader only sees/knows what that character experiences.

  8. I write in one character POV at a time and those are the types of books I prefer to read. I find head hopping POV can be very confusing to read unless it’s done really well and there is no doubt about which character’s head you’re in.

    Do you think with all the self-published authors and the many small publishing houses that are cropping up, all the rules of what you can and can not do are loosening up?

  9. Good question. I think it might have the opposite effect, to make the rules of good writing even more important.

  10. I’ve written only in 1st & limited 3rd, and I’m getting very weary of it. I am starting work on what I would describe as a magical realist style novel, and I REALLY want to try omniscient POV. I tryly feel that it will work best for what I want to do. That’s how I found your blog, actually–by googling OPOV. It does seem that more and more authors are trying it. I think that old argument that the narrator will be too evident and intrusive is actually a crock of… It totally depends on HOW one approaches it.

  11. As a reader, I’ve found that the keepers that I go back and reread are all omini–there’s a quality to them that makes the book something special. Most noticable was when I read an author who wrote her first three books in omni, and the fourth in close third. The fourth book just wasn’t as good.

    I don’t think it’s “coming back” because it’s always been here. Omni a lot more common than people think–many omni books get attributed to third because, when it’s well done, you can’t tell it’s omni. It’s when its done badly that it gets the bad rap.

    As a writer, it’s my viewpoint of preference. Omni allows me to do a lot of things that I wouldn’t be able to do in the confines of first or third. Pretty much, it allows me to color outside the lines when the story needs it. When I was doing a novel in third that should have been in omni, it was very difficult for me because there were so many things I needed to do–and the viewpoint wouldn’t let me do them.

    Omni itself doesn’t head hop–it’s one narrator voice touching all the characters. Done right, it’s seamless.

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