Breaking the Rules Part One: Nothing is Beautiful From Every Point of View

This post is the first in a series about writing rules and how authors can break them effectively

"Nothing is beautiful from every point of view" – Horace (translated from Latin)
Most authors of fiction are familiar with the term "point of view" as it relates to writing. In this post, I’ll be using the abbreviation "POV" to mean point of view. POV essentially means the point of view that a story is told from. We are told not switch POV too often, and to firmly ground each section/chapter in a POV. This is good advice, but we’ve all read great books that violated this rule. So when can we get away with violating it and how can we best do so?

Before I start, I want to give a quick link to author L.J. Sellers’ recent blog post about POV. I already had the notion to write this blog post, but reading her blog a couple days ago shook me out of my lethargy. That and the inspiration from my fellow authors over at The Creative Alliance.
First, let me quickly outline some of the rules you generally hear about POV. This is not a comprehensive list, nor is it universally accepted, but it will serve as a general summary:
  • Don’t use omniscient POV. Omniscient POV means that you are telling the reader things that none of the characters in the scene know. It’s also been called a "God’s-eye view". One example is spending a couple of pages describing past events that no one in the current time of the story knows about. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia Article with more details.
  • Don’t tell anything that the POV character doesn’t know. You can have other characters explain things of course, but if your POV character in a car chase scene doesn’t know that the bad guys he’s chasing have a rocket launcher, you can’t have him worry about it until he actually sees it or learns of its existence. A corollary of this rule is don’t kill off your POV character at the end of a scene.
  • Don’t switch POV in the middle of a scene. This is the biggest no-no. People also call it head-hopping. You’re going along telling the story from the POV of Jack the male nurse and suddenly you add something about how Judie the undersexed hospital administrator feels flush when Jack sits down next to her. Usually, such shifts interrupt the flow of the story and lessen the connection between the reader and the character. This obviously violates the previous rule as well.
  • Firmly ground each scene in a POV. You may have avoided the first three problems, but still have writing that could be made more compelling by addressing POV. It’s easy enough to write a scene that doesn’t include anything that the main character in the scene doesn’t know. But often you will want to actually show that main character’s reactions to what is going on, including inner dialogue. That is firmly grounding the POV, as the way the scene unfolds completely relies on the main character’s interpretation of it. When done well, that can really suck the reader in.
So if you follow all these rules, will you have good writing? You might, but as I mentioned, all of these rules can be broken. The first rule is the most obvious one. In certain types of writing, it is very important to tell things from character POV, but in work with a lot of action or with a sweeping or legendary story, you can break out of it pretty easily. One situation is when you are setting the scene for action, where you lay the groundwork with things the characters may not know, so the readers can more easily picture it. A purist would say that there are alternative ways to do the same thing; there may be, but often the omniscient POV is in fact the best way (IMNSHO-YMMV).
You can also use the omniscient POV when giving history. You have to be very careful with this, and usually it should be at the beginning of a whole section of your story so it doesn’t interrupt the flow. Frederick Forsyth does this very well in a number of his thrillers. In "The Afghan," he spends several pages on the history of Afghanistan, and it is so well-written that you can’t put it down, even though most of it doesn’t directly relate to the story.
Another great example of the omniscient POV is in Scott Sigler’s horror thriller "Infected." He sprinkles a page or two here and there with stuff that only the omniscient POV knows, and it blends perfectly with the story. In Chapter Three, he shows us some sort of seeds traveling through space, and it helps set the suspense for just what those seeds will do when they get to earth.
With switching POV and telling things the POV character doesn’t know, there is no hard-and-fast explanation of when you can violate the rules. I recently read "Shogun" by James Clavell, and sometimes he switches POV multiple times within the same page. Sometimes I think he would have been better off doing it differently, but other times it works very well. A lot of scenes contain characters from very different cultures, but it is critical that they not show their reactions to certain things. Yet it is very effective for the reader to know how those characters are feeling, right when something occurs. Clavell could have done something like show the POV character’s thoughts, knowing how the others probably were reacting. In my opinion that would have worked less well than the way he did it in most cases.
The key question you have to ask yourself when considering breaking this rule is how it impacts the flow and the reader’s connection to characters. You don’t want to do it in a scene that is primarily focused on one character’s reactions – switching would be too jarring. As I mentioned, there’s no easy answers, just the need to ask the hard questions about whether violating the rule really improves the story.
With the rule about firmly grounding the scene, you have the most flexibility. This is a rule that I have come to appreciate more over the years. Scenes are often better when the reader identifies with one character for the whole scene. The problem that I see – especially in the thriller genre that I read a lot of – is overdoing it. It’s easy for an author to spend too much time in the character’s head and not enough in the story. That’s not strictly a POV problem, but attempting to highlight a character’s POV all the time can result in it.
The key thing here is to ask yourself what the "story" is for any given scene. The more a scene needs to be about what happens as opposed to a character’s reactions, the less you want to anchor yourself in point of view. This is one that’s hard to give examples of, because it’s a range, not an either/or. Most writers of fiction today err on the side of too much, in my opinion. Readers obviously are buying it, so I’m not about to tell them to stop! Tom Clancy is one writer I can think of who used to do a good job balancing when to go deep into point of view and when not to. At least, in some of his books.
That concludes my initial thoughts on the subject. Above all, if you intend to break the rules, do it consciously. Look at the scene and the characters and decide that it works better without following them. Most of the time, you’ll find you need to follow the rules, but if you choose the right places to break them, that can sometimes be the extra spark a story needs to become really good. So let me know what you think: as a writer or a reader, how do you feel about POV?

This is a cross-posting from the Edward G. Talbot site.