The Perils of the Perspective-Shift

Post number two is about writing. Again, this is my personal, fallible opinion as a reader and an editor of short fiction.

This is in response to something I’ve been seeing a lot in my role as an editor; it’s something I would have thought would go without saying, but apparently not. When you’re writing a short story or a single chapter of a book (or a whole book, if the entire thing is told from one person’s perspective), pay attention to POV (point-of-view), and put effort into keeping it consistent.

If your story is told from the perspective of one of the characters (not necessarily by that character, but even just exploring the thoughts and feelings of that character while the story is being told), make sure that the details given-the emotions, but also the sights, sounds and smells described-are things that that character is experiencing. I’ve read tons of stories that include nice, intimate detail from the perspective of the protagonist and then random little pockets, sometimes no longer than a sentence or two, of the inner thoughts of another character in the scene, usually just to move the plot along.

Unless you’re James Joyce (and his POV shifts were systematic) or your narrator is omniscient (which I think can be a very boring way to write a story if not done correctly; where’s the fun in know everything that’s happening in everyone’s heads at every minute of the story?), don’t do it! It breaks up the flow of the story and takes the reader out of the headspace of the protagonist. The most compelling stories have tension and emotional impact at least in part because they’re a clear, realistic rendition of another person’s thought processes and state of mind, and because they use POV shifts to strategically reveal to the reader things that key characters don’t know.

If you switch out of a character’s POV without warning it “breaks the spell”, so to speak, of what it’s like to be that character. Give the reader a break first if you’re switching POV: for example, between sections or chapters, and if you’re writing a work of less than 10,000 words (though this might be a strict maximum) keep the whole thing restricted to one person’s perspective.

It’s easy to slip up and include some detail you find compelling but which isn’t experienced by the protagonist, so try not to worry about this until you finish a draft of the story, and then go back to self edit. But make sure you do check POV, it’s one of those things like tense shifts and timing errors that is easy to miss because you know the story already, but which will stand out to the reader, and is a great way to get your story summarily rejected by an editor or reading panel.

Other readers and editors out there: how do you react to unexpected POV shifts when you’re reading something? Writers: do you struggle with this? If so, how do you double-check your work?

[note: this is a slightly old post that has been transferred from my original book blog, apiomancy.tumblr.com, which I will delete soon]

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