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This question came up in another forum, so I thought I'd share it here. Should there be only one POV per scene? Is it OK to go with multiple POVs?

An example is a scene with two characters facing off, in a tense situation. The POV shifts evenly between the two of them, and the reader gets to see that one of the characters is in full control of their emotions and their perception of control during the encounter, while the other is mentally falling apart, but manages to keep their outward appearance strong.

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I made this more specific to the question you were asking - "any rules on this subject" seems unfocused, but asking about single/multiple POVs in particular is great :) –  Standback Aug 4 '11 at 19:49

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I agree with Lauren that consistency is important, but I also think it's important for an author to consider some possible negative effects of switching POVs.

The big one, for me as a reader, is that I LIKE being in a POV character's head, and switching too often keeps me from settling in and getting comfortable. I can't care about too many characters at once. I like to see the scene from one perspective, and REALLY understand it from that POV.

Another possible draw back, one that I've become more aware of since I've started writing, is that switching POVs can detract from tension and mystery. Character A doesn't know everything. There are times when it's exciting, as a reader, for me to know something that Character A doesn't know, and this could certainly be achieved by switching POVs. But there are other times when it's actually better for me to be asking the same question that Character A is asking, and having the same frustration with getting answers. If the author has set up a pattern of switching POVs, and then doesn't switch at the exact time that I most want him/her to, I'm going to be pretty frustrated. Not in a good way.

I also think that too-frequent switches can be disorienting, unless the author spends a lot of words clarifying who's POV we're in, and those extra words can break up the flow of the story.

There may be other problems - anybody?

But I wouldn't say that it's wrong to switch POV, under all circumstances. I just think that it's a technique that should be used judiciously, and consciously.

I think there may be a link to the old 'show, don't tell' rule. There are obviously times when the author should 'tell', and there are times when the author should decide to establish shifting POVs. But often, with a little craft and effort, the author can find ways to show what s/he wants known without having to switch over to the other character and telling the readers what the character's thinking. And spending the time to figure this out often, in my opinion, leads to tighter, more satisfying writing.

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"Judiciously and consciously": yep, I'm with you there. I didn't want to rule it out in my answer because a good writer can make it work, and sometimes the writer actually wants to confuse the reader with shifting POVs. I didn't want to make the claim that confusing the reader isn't a valid choice -- it's just a difficult one to pull off. –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 5 '11 at 11:54
    
@Lauren - I agree. It's very tricky to do well. And I think too often, beginning writers try it before they're ready, because on the surface it seems easier. –  Kate Sherwood Aug 5 '11 at 12:56

This is fine with me. You can have just one POV, multiple POVs, you can even have multiple first-person POVs if you really want. (That might leave your reader confused, but that could be what you intend.)

The only rule might be "Be consistent." If your story is consistently from one person's POV, don't show someone else's unless there's a really compelling reason for it. (Example: The Harry Potter books are all told third-person with Harry as the focus, with the exception of two or three first chapters — Books 1 and 6, IIRC — because the reader couldn't get the information otherwise.)

If your story consistently shifts POV from one chapter to the next and you have multiple main characters, that's fine. If you have a chapter with two main characters, you can shift POVs between them as long as there's a reason for doing so.

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3rd Person Omniscient is the usual course for multiple POVs in a single scene, and therefore those types of stories.

The sun hated everyone it saw. Sandy hated the sun right back, longing for a long bath and a good shiraz. Jacob watched a dust cloud in the distance while he wondered who won the pennant. Freckles was a cat, so she just sat there under the porch. Her thoughts were uninteresting, unless you enjoyed a critical assessment of pretending to sleep.

1st person POV extremely difficult within a scene because everyone refers to themselves.

God, I wish I had some wine and a working bathtub. Hell a shower would be nice.

I bet Cincinnati won this year. They looked good last year.

It's so much better if you close your eyes while in the shade.

Changing 1st person POV each chapter has been done quite well, even as well-defined sections within chapters. There's a Susan Grafton novel which tells the main story in 1st person and the sociopathic killer chapters are in 3rd person, giving a distance, emotionless feel to that character.

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Depends what kind of POV switching are you doing, which depends largely on the narrative mode employed:

  • If the narrator is in 3rd person this is rather common; especially if narrator is established as all-knowing, omniscient entity - “where you will know more than one person's point of view”.

  • If the narrator uses 1st person's voice this should be done in a clean fashion. There are efficient devices for this purpose, for example switching at the end of chapter or a story retold through a series of letters or by following certain object (for example a camera with different owners).

  • There are also other possible switches, from first to third for example, which can be employed for a specific effect: for example to denote different time epoch, or significantly different perspective.

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