Saturday, October 11, 2008

Pet Peeve: Shifting Points of View

Everyone has a pet peeve that doesn't necessarily match up with industry standard. For example, I despise shifting Point of View. Now, let me clarify: the Edgar Rice Burroughs style of intertwining several kick-butt sub-plots and shifting us back and forth at chapter breaks is pleasurable. I've no gripe at all with that.

Shifting PoV in Fast-Paced Trade Books That Make me Growl:
  • Done within the scene. He thinks, "Oh, my foot's on fire," while she notices his delightfully curly hair, desiring to run her fingers through it like she would rub down little Totsy, the French poodle.
  • Done scene-by-scene within the same chapter. One chapter includes five separate point-of-view shifts that are completely unrelated: He thinks about selling his car; she wonders if she should have an affair; the dog decides tinkling on Ms. Harper's gardenias would add the cherry of the day. Umm. Ok. I'll try it for a little while.
  • Done by multiple characters ad nauseum, only one (or two) of whom is at all important in the Huge Scheme of Things. When there are twenty or so point of view shifts, it makes it difficult to identify with any one person -- and since I as a reader want to identify with and delight in and be willing to die for that one protagonist, I find this hugely annoying.

The Publishing Central website has a great line that resonates with the PoV shift hater that I am: "The beginner in writing makes no study of view-point, and his story is usually a wandering, aimless, shifting affair, quite lost in the hazy changes of view-point and utterly inconsistent." Of course, this doesn't make me right. It just means that I have company on the topic.

That being said, many great authors have used the shifting Point of View masterfully. Evidently Katherine Mansfield did so in "The Daughters of the Late Colonel," though I must admit I couldn't get past the first six pages. And what would Pulp Fiction be without those shifts? Don't forget Faulkner's Light in August, though certainly no one makes the mistake of labeling that a "fast-paced trade book," least of all, me.

All of that aside, I don't like it. But enough about me. How about you? How do you handle it in your own writing? Do you enjoy books that dabble in the Shift or do you throw them across the room?


Dogtrax said...

I think the POV shift is difficult to pull off and if it isn't done right, it just distracts the reader (and brings the reader into a critical view of the writer, and not the characters, which is a bad thing).
But, as you note, some writers have such a talent and it can be an interesting way to tell a story through unreliable narrators.
Thanks for the post

Anthony said...

I do not like shifting POV close together. It pops up in my writing and I try to squish it when possible with one key exception:

I use shifting POV in action scenes, but only with a clear differentiation between combatants.

Modern combat is dynamic and fluid. Unlike slinging swords and arrows, a 21st Century engagement between people has a complex ebb and flow. If you narrow the entire battle scene to one person, then it is extremely difficult to convey just how extremely difficult it actually is.

Hope this makes sense. It is hard to explain. It is the difference between describing an engagement and describing a battle.

Now, if we are talking about the shifting POV you get in, say, “The DaVinci Code,” well that just drove me nuts. The POV shifting novel sold a bizzilion copies however, but still… ewe.

Anthony said...

Okay I take it back. I shift POV outside of complex action scenes in the same chapter, but each POV is interdependent on the other POVs. Its either like a dance, or in some places, I have two things happening at the same time in different locations, so I switch back and forth.

Now I am looking at my current novel, which does not change POV at all, at least for the first two chapters.

Interesting. I made a stylistic choice between the two novels. I hope it works!

Anonymous said...

I've been mulling this ever since I read it yesterday. I don't mind the omniscient POV, for example, that dips into everybody's heads equally. I like stories that shift back and forth at chapter breaks, which is what I tend to do. In the novel I'm currently working on, though, I'm seriously contemplating breaking some rules. I've written a scene that shifts back and forth from his head into hers, because I really want both POV's. I've put his thoughts in italics and hers not. So far I haven't decided whether it will stand or not.

Bottom line for when I'm reading: If it jolts me and pulls me out of the story reality, I hate it. If it's smooth and seamless, it doesn't bother me at all.