This article, by Marg Gilks, originally appeared on her Scripta Word Services site. In it, she discusses how to tell when your point of view has shifted, and how unintentional shifts in POV can undermine your characters and make your work difficult to understand.
Dalquist was shaking with rage, tears streaking down her face. "Get out," she whispered. Then she lunged for the other woman, shrieking, "Get out! Get out!"
Tamlinn managed to hide her surprise at the doctor’s reaction; she’d expected an angry denial, not near-hysteria. With an exultant laugh, she dodged Dalquist and ran for the door to the head. It hissed shut behind her.
Shaking uncontrollably with the roiling emotions the other woman had dredged up, Dalquist collapsed onto the bed, sobbing, and covered her face with her hands.
Yikes! Reading this excerpt from my first novel now, I’m not surprised that agents bounced it back to me so fast, the glue was barely dry on the stamp.
If you can see what’s wrong with this excerpt, congratulations. You understand point of view (POV). If not, don’t feel bad; of all the skills a writer must learn, maintaining point of view seems to be one of the hardest. As a freelance editor, I see POV slips in almost every manuscript I work on. Once attuned to it, a careful reader will even notice subtle POV switches that slip past editors to wind up in published novels.
What’s wrong with the above excerpt?
Paragraph one is ambiguous. Who’s the POV character? The tears streaking down Dalquist’s face could be either felt or seen. Referring to "the other woman" implies that this scene is from Dalquist’s POV. But then, in paragraph two, we are inside Tamlinn’s head, privy to her thoughts. There is no way that Dalquist can know what Tamlinn had expected, so Tamlinn must be the POV character. However, in paragraph three, our POV character, Tamlinn, has left the room; the door has shut behind her, leaving the reader behind to see what is impossible for Tamlinn to see. More, the reader knows not only that Dalquist is shaking — something Tamlinn could have seen, had she stayed — but that she is shaking because her emotions are in turmoil. Tamlinn may have suspected rage, but "turmoil" suggests more. This is Dalquist’s POV.
Every scene should have only one POV character, and everything must be filtered through that POV character’s perceptions. Only the POV character can know what he or she is thinking — he can’t know what anyone else is thinking, so the reader can’t, either. The POV character can’t see what’s going on behind her or what the person on the other end of the phone line is doing while they are talking, so the reader can’t know what’s going on in those places, either. Keep that in mind — stay firmly inside your POV character’s head — and you’ll rarely have trouble with point of view.
But, isn’t it so much easier just to tell the reader what character X is thinking, rather than trying to show it in ways the POV character (and thus, the reader) can see and understand? Why stick to the one-point-of-view rule?
Let’s look at that again, and we’ll see a hint: isn’t it so much easier just to TELL the reader what character X is thinking, rather than trying to SHOW it in ways the POV character can see and understand?
Yup: "show, don’t tell."
"People become, in our minds, what we see them do," says Orson Scott Card in his book, Characters and Viewpoint. We believe what we see more readily than what we’re told. And what are readers learning, watching through our POV character’s eyes? They’re learning about the characters. Firstly, they’re learning what character X is like by viewing his actions, and secondly, they’re learning about our POV character by how he perceives character X’s actions.