Tag Archives: third person limited

The Red Pen: POed at POVs

red penHappy Monday, my Monkey friends! I’m putting my editor hat back on today to comment on an issue that’s plagued me a lot as of late: POV. I ranted on this topic a while back in my post “POV for Vendetta,” when I feared a colleague and I were nearing impasse, ironically because we shared different points of view on point of view. As I eventually related in my follow-up post, “The POVerdict,” we did find compromise, and, in retrospect after gaining more experience, I do think the book is better for it. At the crux of it, though, was when sharing multiple POVs is head-hopping or not. The reading and editing community at large has become increasingly intolerant toward shifting between characters’ thoughts and prefers the nice-n-tidy confines of limited POV. But even when multiple POVs are limited versus omniscient, when can such perspectives alternate without having to denote the shifts between them with an obvious section or chapter break?

Now, I’ll be honest that I do personally prefer when a scene or chapter is kept to one character’s perspective. It’s simply easier to understand and allows me more intimacy with that character, provides me more insight. Even JK Rowling’s expert use of third-person omniscient in The Casual Vacancy drove me a bit nuts at times, purely because I don’t care for those shifts occurring on a sentence or paragraph level. For me, it always comes down to the story and the writing, whether the alchemy of the two produces an effect that works for my brain or not. It can be a very personal choice and difficult thing to articulate.

What perplexes me at the moment, though, is a novel I just finished: the NY Times and international bestseller The Expats, by Chris Pavone. No doubt the writing is good (better than mine fo’ sho’), and the story well crafted (though arguably a bit underwhelming and in need of a wee bit of tightening), yet I can’t reconcile the straying POVs within it. The story is 99.5% told through the protagonist’s point of view, but every now and then, we jump inside another character’s head. It’s an easy mistake but a just-as-easily fixed one, leaving me to wonder how these shifts got through—via oversight or justification? If the latter, I’d love to know what that was. Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong.

But allow me to share a challenging POV predicament that recently came my way—something I could and did do something about. Unlike The Expats, this manuscript tried for third-person omniscient narration, not limited, so shifting between perspectives was acceptable. But unlike the omnisciently narrated The Casual Vacancy, these shifts were intolerable. Rather than recreate the wheel, I’ve pasted an excerpt of my actual notes (with specific story information removed for sake of anonymity):

The aim here is evidently third-person omniscient, in which an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator is observing from the outside yet still able to know characters’ thoughts. Consistent with that, we do get to follow everyone around […]. The dilemma, however, is that it treads a fine line between omniscience and head-hopping that our acquisitions and editorial teams found dizzying.

Head-hopping and third-person omniscient narration are not the same thing, so I’m not going to claim that a story can’t reveal different characters’ thoughts in the same scene or even same paragraph. Omniscient narration is common in classic literature, after all; it’s just less common these days for assorted reasons. For some, it sounds old-fashioned; for others, they prefer the intimacy they can have with characters under a limited POV. Those are largely personal preferences—for readers, it’s a choice of which POV they like to read, and for writers, it can also be what they like to write, but first and foremost POV has to suit the story. Regardless, many writers shy from third-person omniscient because it’s very difficult to pull off without lapsing into head-hopping.

The strength of your narration is that it does maintain a consistent sense of voice. Even if it dwells with one character a while, it doesn’t assume that character’s voice instead. That’s vital for omniscience. There are also times when ducking in and out characters’ minds lends comic relief and a colorful storytelling quality to that narrative voice. But the main thing you have to ask yourself when approaching any story is whose story is it? Who is the hero? Whose perspective matters most?

As one of your first readers, if I were to answer these questions for [your manuscript], I’d say [A] is the story’s heroine with [B] as her leading man. Next in the hierarchy are [C] (the heroine of her own subplot, which triggers [A]’s main plot) and [D] (the villain of the story). These four are very tightly intertwined, though, and drive the story collectively, so I like your choice to use multiple points of view. Each of them is worthwhile to follow around, and their individual POVs can take us places where the others don’t go to provide us important information to be gleaned from different locales at once.

But note that I didn’t list anyone beyond those four characters. [P]resenting bits of the story through secondary characters’ POVs is more difficult to justify. There’s the comic relief, yes, but that’s embedded in the narrative voice itself and certainly shines through the four main characters. This quality of your storytelling wouldn’t be lost even if we don’t get to hear every minor character’s internal quipping (like I said before about killing your darlings, if it means editing out a good joke or clever wordplay, use it another story that shares similar dynamics. Maybe write a sequel with the same cast of characters but different leading roles, etc.). And even if their thoughts have important bearing on the plot, most likely we can acquire that information ourselves through their body language and dialogue.

[Example from the text.]

The other factor at play here is not just that [A]’s, [B]’s, [C]’s, and [D]’s POVs should be the main ones but that they already are. We spend more time in their heads than anyone else’s, so the story seems to already want to limit itself to their perspectives. And I think that’s where the overall POV has an identity crisis of sorts between omniscient and limited that lends to the head-hopping quality. When we’re in one perspective for most of a scene, it’s jarring to shift out and then back into it during that scene. On the other end of the spectrum is when we’re not oriented in any one POV at length but, rather, shifting around frequently among several people. Even between a couple of characters, shifting on such a sentence/paragraph level is really disorienting.

Very long story short, I’m generally not inclined toward using a third-person omniscient POV for this story because it:

–   detracts from the main characters, whose perspectives matter most
–   can easily slip into head-hopping or produce a similar whiplash effect when shifting POVs across too many characters too many times in a scene

So based on my own observations and those across our acquisitions and editorial teams, I highly recommend switching to third-person limited POV. You could (and should) still use multiple points of view […], but try to keep scenes within a single character’s POV and use a section/chapter break whenever there’s a shift.

The idea is to keep readers oriented and not jar them by shifting without warning. If POV does shift at all within a scene, it needs to be very, very carefully controlled on an absolutely as-needed basis. And weed out the strays if one character’s POV clearly dominates a section—e.g., say you have five paragraphs in a single POV except for a few sentences of an alternative POV interspersed within them. The best solution is to delete or rewrite those few sentences into the dominant POV.

When your main characters separate, it’s easy to choose which one’s POV to follow for that scene. But remember also that they’re often in the same room with each other, so even having to choose one POV among them doesn’t mean we can’t still see and hear the other characters and draw conclusions based on their spoken/body language (and whoever’s head we’re in at the time can form those conclusions for us in their thoughts, too). And if you’re dealing with one scene but really, really want to show it through more than one perspective, look for shifts that naturally lend themselves to a section break. If we see a situation in [A]’s POV for several paragraphs but then [B]’s POV kicks in with his viewpoint of the same time and place for the next couple pages, those are sizable chunks that can be divided with a section break marker but, together, still constitute a single scene. Section/chapter breaks aren’t the end-all, be-all way to handle shifts, but they’re the safest when in doubt.

So there’s my two pence on that topic. And in case you’re wondering, yes, the author was on board with shifting POV from omniscient to limited multiple. Very enthusiastically so, actually. And yes, my editorial plans can be long-winded. 🙂 Especially when they go to the author for a preliminary rewrite rather than straight to the editor, as I try to be as specific as possible in my guidance for newer writers.

As a reader and/or writer, what are your thoughts on omniscient vs. limited point of view? Limited vs. limited multiple POV? And how do you define the difference between true omniscience and head-hopping?

The Red Pen: Stylistic Variation, Story Arc, and Other Manuscript Concerns

Hey there! I haven’t shared any editing anecdotes in a while. To date, my first assignment has been published, the second has been passed on to the managing editor, and I’m getting started on my third. I’d never commented on the second one, so thought I’d retroactively share the issues addressed.

To start is advice I gave the author on stylistic variation:

Where sentence structure is concerned, you describe a lot of consecutive or simultaneous character actions, and, to convey that, “as he” and “as she” are very frequent (as are –ing verbs following a comma—these are called present participial phrases). While not technically incorrect, it’s when repetitions of this structure become noticeable that they can be an issue, so just keep an eye out and consider ways to vary the syntax of your sentences to mix it up. Reading aloud is an awesome way to work through sentence/paragraph flow and catch where words/rhythms might repeat!


“As she turned on her heel, she smiled and took his hand to lead him through the forest.”
“She smiled and turned on her heel as she took his hand to lead him through the forest.”
“She smiled and turned on her heel, taking his hand to lead him through the forest.”
“She smiled while she turned on her heel, took his hand, and led him through the forest.”

Etc., etc.

Story arc also needed work. This happens to be a rather sexy romance, so:

A key element to pacing is varying the functions each chapter serves. Too much of the same “function” served by too many consecutive chapters risks flattening the story arc. In this case, the recurring function I see is sex, either with purpose or gratuitous. The sex is of course what readers will love about it, but from a story development standpoint (not a prude one :)), I’m concerned that the frequency of sex scenes is making the middle/third quarter of your story fall flat, with the underlying plot getting a bit lost. There can be too much of a good thing, and too much of anything can make reader attention wane no matter how exciting or saucy the action. And the function that sex serves in a romance novel is not only entertainment, but a vehicle for moving the central relationships forward, so it really ought to only appear when it does move the story forward, rather than be there for its own sake.

Don’t worry, if you ever read it, there’s still a-plenty left in it to warrant hosing yourself down afterward (hot damn!). Other issues addressed:

  • more than one dialogue tag used in a paragraph of the same character’s dialogue (not technically wrong, but judge when it’s superfluous)
  • dialogue tags used for almost every line of dialogue in a conversation – starts to sound overly “he said/she said” when it’s otherwise easy enough to tell who’s talking. Sometimes a corresponding character action suffices in place of tag; e.g.:
    • “Wait a minute,” she said as she held up her hand.
    • “Wait a minute.” She held up her hand.
  • redundancies in description / tendency to over-describe using lists of adjectives when one or two suffice
  • overly repeated (verbatim) words and phrases
  • use of “began to”/”started to” for actions that are followed through, not interrupted.
  • keeping each section within only one character’s POV (in keeping with 3rd person limited, multiple perspectives)
  • time continuity – matching the time-frame of an intermittent subplot to the main plot.
And regardless of how polished the new manuscript I’m editing is, I’m still encountering pretty common grammatical errors—I’ll pop back later this week to share these. Good luck with your own writing/editing!

The Red Pen: The POVerdict

Hiya! Crap, it’s been a while, and I apologize for that. Especially when I have so much I want to share with you!

For today, though, I’m pleased to just announce that we’ve finally found compromise on the POV issue I’d related earlier. To quickly recap, an author I’m editing for had been writing through a sort of hybrid 3rd person limited/omniscient POV. The story alternates between POVs such that we have the sort of “head-hopping” found in an omniscient perspective, but it’s only between two characters (not all), which would signify the POV is limited.

So we originally thought entire scenes/chapters would need to be rewritten from one character’s POV or another to keep within 3rd person multiple limited perspective. This would entail extensive revision and kill some of the playful back-and-forth between the two main characters. On the other hand, revising it to be omniscient would be a lot of work, too, as additional characters’ thoughts would have to be written in. The solution proposed, then, is to simply insert section breaks between paragraphs where the POV makes the jump. The section breaks will serve as a visual cue to the reader that POV is going to shift, so the author can jump between her main characters’ thoughts within the same scene. In short, it hopefully means hardly rewriting anything; instead, it’s more of a structural revision. We’re lucky in this case that most of the scenes are in multi-paragraph chunks within a single POV to make this possible.

In the instances where we see a POV shift on a sentence-by-sentence level, on the other hand, the author will need to commit to one POV or the other and rewrite them as such. Again, though, this should be easy, as in a lot of cases, one character’s POV is definitely dominating, so it’s only a matter of revising stray sentences here and there.

I can’t share the author’s work here, so let me make up some BS text on the spot to demonstrate what I’m talking about:

Lucy was livid when she found out she had to revise her manuscript. She simply didn’t understand the problem with the way she approached point of view.

Bob, on the other hand, didn’t understand what the big deal was. Why couldn’t Lucy just suck it up and do it the right way?

Lucy looked at Bob and huffed; it figured he wasn’t going to take her side on this. [and this paragraph continues in Lucy’s POV…]

[Another paragraph in Lucy’s POV]

[Another paragraph in Lucy’s POV]

[A paragraph in Bob’s POV]

[Another paragraph in Bob’s POV]

[Another paragraph in Bob’s POV]

So, obviously the red font denotes Bob’s POV. We can see at a glance that Lucy’s POV dominates the first few paragraphs of this “story.” The first section, then, should be solely from her POV; therefore the two sentences from Bob’s POV that have strayed into there need to be rewritten into Lucy’s POV—what is there needs to be reasonably inferred by what Lucy can observe of Bob’s outward actions or dialogue. What we can also see at a glance here is that, once Lucy’s POV ends, we have a few paragraphs solely from Bob’s. This is okay. Nothing requires rewriting; all we need to do is insert a section break before Bob’s POV begins. Then the reader hopefully won’t be as confused when the scene suddenly continues in his head.

The revision (in bold) can look something like this:

Lucy was livid when she found out she had to revise her manuscript. She simply didn’t understand the problem with the way she approached point of view.

“I don’t understand what the big deal is,” Bob said. “Why can’t you just suck it up and do it the right way?”

Lucy looked at Bob and huffed; it figured he wasn’t going to take her side on this. [and this paragraph continues in Lucy’s POV…]

[Another paragraph in Lucy’s POV]

[Another paragraph in Lucy’s POV]


[A paragraph in Bob’s POV]

[Another paragraph in Bob’s POV]

[Another paragraph in Bob’s POV]

Alternatively, the rewritten portion above could still have Bob not say anything. Something like:

Lucy looked at Bob and huffed. She could see from the way he screwed his face that he didn’t understand why it was a big deal. It figured he wasn’t going to take her side on this.

In a case like this where part of the original does get cut, if it’s something the author really likes and doesn’t want to lose entirely, she can try to find somewhere else to fit it without infringing on the wrong POV.

I don’t know how much sense I’m making with this, but let’s just say the author seems happy about it, which makes me happy. And let me also say there are entire scenes only in one POV, so the whole thing is not going to be chopped up in small sections all the way through. That would be a whole new issue if so.

I can’t say, though, that I’ve read many (if any) books like this. What do you think? Is this a reasonable approach that you’ve seen before (and that’s been done well), or do you think it’s still confusing for the reader?

POV for Vendetta

“[F]airness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives…[I]f you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to stand beside me…”

V for Vendetta

In the time since my last post, my eyes healed (thank you for your well wishes on that!), and I’d come to trade my sunglasses for a different mask of sorts…one that had tried to preserve an eternal grin to bear the POV debacle that was crashing down on me just as I set off on holiday last week.

Don’t fear. Though I now live in London, it is not my intention to load a tube train up with explosives and send it on its merry way to Westminster. (I did infiltrate Parliament once, though, back in ’98 when my friend—an intern—snuck me in. I stood on the MPs’ terrace and drank a Carlsberg in the pub they have in there. Oh, and I bumped into a blind MP, which made me feel really bad. In all fairness, however, he should have been able to smell me from a mile off, as I’d just gotten in from a train from Spain via Paris and hadn’t showered in all that time. But I digress…)

Anyway, the real issue at hand concerned the manuscript I’m editing for my freelance work with an independent publisher. I will certainly assume the title of “Dufus” on this one, but the whole situation really has had me reevaluating my perspective on, well, perspective…a.k.a. point of view.

So here’s the deal. The author intended the novel to be 3rd person limited POV, which is precisely how I read it as well, correcting here and there for stray thoughts of other characters to which the POV was not limited. This is a romance, and the two lead characters that comprise the central romantic couple share the limelight 50/50, as do their thoughts. The writing was strong, so it honestly didn’t confuse or distract me through my many reads of this ms that the POV was head-hopping between the two, sometimes on a paragraph level. I made sure the POV didn’t shift within a paragraph, but I didn’t see anything wrong with it doing so between these two characters within a scene.

Okay, technically, that’s more omniscient than limited where 3rd person goes, and that’s what the managing editor at the stage beyond my developmental edit called us out on. For 3rd person multiple limited, shifts in POV between the multiple characters should be denoted by a section or chapter break. If this author is asked to revise for this (which she was last week and, thank goodness, spoke up about it, as I agree with her), it’ll be like rewriting half the novel, and the playful sexual tension that the omniscience delivers so well will be squashed. If she’s required to adhere to this technicality of 3rd person limited, that is…

As it stands at present, our appeals induced the managing editor to forward the ms to the other MEs for their opinion on whether it can work as-is or be revised as 3rd person omniscient instead. The author and I are strongly preffing this option, as it’ll not only be a significantly less extensive revision, but will preserve said back-and-forth tension. It’s not that this tension couldn’t be brought about otherwise, just that it hasn’t been written that way all along, so in the direction the story has since gone, it would be difficult to change and really sap it of its spirit, at this point and in this particular case (you’d have to read it to know what I mean).

So this is my question to you: Why can’t a 3rd person limited POV (limited to multiple characters) head-hop between the characters it’s limited to if it’s been done in a skillful manner that is not confusing and actually enhances the tone and conflict of the text? Now, if this author is given the go-ahead to switch to omniscient, she’ll be adding thoughts of secondary characters as well, which is only promoting further head-hopping and extremely unnecessarily, all in the name of convention. Why would it be okay to hop around several different heads instead of just two if it’s all about ensuring clarity for the reader? Why can’t an “omniscient” POV be limited to two characters? Am I making myself sound like even more of a dufus?

My fear stems from the true limited POV being that of these editors who shun 3rd person omniscient (along with 1st person multiple perspectives—in that case, um, hello? Time Traveler’s Wife? Poisonwood Bible?)  from the get-go because they so often see it mistreated by inexperienced writers. I understand that perspective, I do; green writers can easily make a mess of either one, and do. Yet I don’t think it’s quite fair to essentially adopt as a policy when there are more skillful writers (even first-time ones) who do pull it off. So it’s my latest bone of contention that is rendering Point-of-View my Pain-in-Ass.

By the way, this is really, really humbling for me to share as both a newbie editor and former English teacher, for cripes sakes! I guess the wonderful world of creative writing will always be full of surprises, just when we think we’ve dissected it down to a science. If there’s anything to be learned in this, it’s that I have a lot to learn…which makes it difficult to know when to fight for what I think is fair, just, and promotes creative freedom or to just grin and bear it.

Have you encountered this issue with POV in your writing? Can you think of examples of literary works that somehow defy narrative convention and pull it off?

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