P.O.V. Prostitution is Strictly Forbidden

Okay, today we are going to discuss some of the finer points of writing fiction. I am putting on my editor’s hat. Many of you decided to become writers because you love to write. Duh. I’ll even bet most of you, back when you were in school, also made very good grades in English. Thus, you might assume that you naturally know how to write a novel that is fit for NY publication. Maybe you do. But, if you are anything like me when I started out? You might not know as much as you think you do.


Our high school English teacher didn’t care that we used 15 metaphors on one page. Why? Her goal was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor…NOT to prepare us for agent submission.

As you might be able to tell from my latest posts, I think self-publishing is becoming an increasingly viable option for many writers. Yet, I also want to be forthcoming. Self-publishing is not a panacea, and there are too many writers who rush to self-publish instead of understanding why their story wasn’t working. Generally, I can see in three pages why a manuscript was rejected by an agent.


There are a number of ways, and I recommend you check out my earlier post, Novel Diagnostics  for a detailed explanation of some of the most common newbie novelist oopses.

But, beyond that list, the single largest mistake I see in new manuscripts is the author does not understand P.O.V. This is an easy mistake to make, in that, as I stated earlier, our college Literature classes aren’t there to teach us how to be great novelists. Some writers pick up on P.O.V. intuitively, but most of us need to be taught, lest we leave the reader feeling as if she is being held hostage on a Tilt-A-Whirl.

 POV–Prostitution (Head-Hopping)

Let’s step back in time to the days before we all made the decision to become writers. I would guess all of us were readers. We loved books, and books were a large part of what prompted our career choice. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you ever tried to read a book, but eventually had to put it down because it was too confusing? You couldn’t figure out who was doing what, and you needed Dramamine to keep up with the perspectives?
  • Have you ever read a story that was so good you actually felt as if you had taken on the character’s skin? His success was yours, as was his failure. By the final page, you were sad to say good-bye?

P.O.V. used properly can create entire worlds, and breathe life into characters. Used improperly, it can make your reader feel like she’s been bungee-corded to Hell’s Merry-Go-Round—not good.

First, you have to know what P.O.V. is if you hope to use it to your advantage.  “P.O.V. does not stand for ‘Prisoners of Vietnam,’” as author Candy Havens would say. P.O.V. stands for Point of View.

Although this literary device is one of the most vital tools an author possesses, it is probably the number one style problem I encounter as an editor. I cannot count how many new writers (and, sadly, some not-so-new writers) give me a blank stare when I write P.O.V. in big red letters all over their manuscripts (and H.H., but we’ll get to that later).

The best way to describe point of view is to think of your story as viewed through the lens of the video camera. How many people (characters) are going to be permitted to hold that camera?

Is your camera going to travel with one main character through the entire story? Or, do others get a turn? Is “God” holding the camera? These are simple questions you can answer to help you select the point of view perfect for your story.

There is no wrong P.O.V., but we do have to be consistent. P.O.V. is a HUGE factor in determining our writing voice.

What are the types of P.O.V.?

A quick overview:

First-Person P.O.V—uses “I” a lot. Only one character (the narrator) has the camera.

There are three major disadvantages to this P.O.V.

1. This P.O.V uses a lot of “I” which can become repetitive to the point of distraction.

2. The reader can only see and hear what the narrator knows. This limits the flow of information. Probably good for a mystery, but if you aren’t writing a mystery this may not be the right P.O.V for you.

3. First-Person P.O.V is a bugger when it comes to tense. Why? Because First-Person breaks into two camps.

There is the I remember when camp and the Come along with me camp.

One is in past tense, a recollection. “I remember the day my father and I were attacked by a pack of Mary Kay ladies gone feral….”

The other is in present tense, and the reader is along for the ride. “I walk these streets every morning, but today I am just waiting for something to go wrong….”

Note of Caution: It is extremely easy to muddy the two camps together. Tense can be problematic…okay, a nightmare.

The benefit? First-person P.O.V. adds an intimacy that no other P.O.V. can, and is useful for stories where we might want to withhold information from the reader.

Third-Person P.O.V—is when you, the writer, permit one or more of the characters to lug the camera through your story.

Third Person Locked allows only one character access to the camera. The entire story is told through what that particular character can experience through the 5 Senses. So, if your character’s eyes are “shining with love,” then she’d best be holding a mirror, or you are guilty of head-hopping.

Third Person Shifting allows more than one character access to the camera. Here’s the rub. Your characters must to play nice and take turns. Only one character with the camera at a time. When the next character wants a turn, there has to be a clear cut. Think of the director’s clapboard ending one scene before shifting to the next. It is usually a good idea to limit one P.O.V. per scene. When we switch perspectives inside the same scene, that is called head-hopping, and it will confuse and frustrate our readers.

There are advantages to Third-Person Shifting

1. It can add additional depth and insight to your story.

2. It can allow you (the writer) to hold back information and add to suspense.

3. Third-Person Shifting can allow other characters to take over during emotionally volatile points in the story.

For instance, if your protagonist walks in on her brother lying dead in a pool of blood, the emotions experienced are realistically too overwhelming to be properly articulated by your protagonist (what Bob Mayer calls an EOE–emotionally overwhelming event). In this scenario, First-Person P.O.V is probably not a good fit. The scene would be more powerful if told from someone watching your protagonist react to discovering a deceased loved one.

There are inherent problems with Third-Person Shifting.

1. Your characters must play nice and take turns. Otherwise, your reader will likely become confused and eventually frustrated.

2. It is best to permit camera access to key characters only. The reader has to stay in one head long enough to feel connected. Too many perspectives can easily become overwhelming and dilute the strength of your characters.

Omniscient P.O.V is when “God” gets to hold the camera.

Oh stop mucking it up and give Me the camera…

This P.O.V is like placing your camera up high over all of the action. The narrator is omnipresent and omniscient. “If Joe had only known who was waiting for him outside, he would have never left for that pack of cigarettes.” Joe cannot experience anything beyond the 5 Senses (third-person). So, unless Joe is actually Superman and possesses X-Ray vision, it takes an omniscient presence to tell us someone bad is lurking outside waiting to do Joe harm.

There are advantages to Omniscient P.O.V.

 1. Omniscient can relay information that would be far too overwhelming to describe if limited to the 5 Senses. Battle scenes are a good example.

2. Omniscient can give information critical to the story that the character doesn’t have to personally know. For instance, in Bob’s Area 51 Series (which I HIGHLY recommend), he relays a lot of factual and historical information that is critical to understanding the plot. But, it would really seem bizarre to the reader if his characters just started spouting off the history of the pyramids like an Egyptologist. To avoid this jarring scenario, Bob uses an omniscient presence to relay the information so the prose remains nice and smooth.

There are disadvantages to Omniscient P.O.V.

 1. Third-Person P.O.V. and Omniscient P.O.V. are VERY easy to muddy together.

2. Omniscient P.O.V. and Head-Hopping are not the same, but are easy to confuse. I have edited many writers who believed they were employing Omniscient P.O.V. In reality, they were just letting every character in the book fight over the camera simultaneously, leaving me (the editor) feeling like I was trapped in the Blair Witch Project.

Whose head am I in? I can’t tell. Help meeeee…..

Proper use of P.O.V. takes a lot of practice to master. It is very easy to shift from one type of P.O.V. to another, or what I like to call “P.O.V. Prostitution” or “Head-Hopping.”

Key Points to Remember:

  • In First-Person–Come along with me stories can easily turn into I remember when stories (or vice versa). Tense is a big red flag. Do you shift from present to past or past to present? Pay close attention to verbs.
  • In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting)–Characters will only play nice and take turns if you, the writer, force them to. Make sure whatever is happening in a scene is something that could be filtered through ONE character’s 5 Senses.
  • In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting) –“God” is really bad about grabbing your character’s camera, so keep an eye on Him. If there is suddenly information your character has no way of knowing through the 5 Senses, that is a big clue the Big Guy snagged your camera. Just remind Him nicely of commandment number eight, and ask Him to give the camera back.
  • In Omniscient–“God” is in charge. Be careful your wide-lens isn’t zooming in and out and making your reader dizzy in the process.

P.O.V. is one more reason it is critical for writers to read if they hope to become great authors. Read, read, read. Read all kinds of books by all kinds of authors using different P.O.V.s to see how it is done well.

Suzanne Collins brilliantly employs First-Person in the Come Along with Me fashion in her Hunger Games Trilogy. Her choice of P.O.V. gives an intimate feel no other P.O.V. can, and, since it isn’t an I Remember When story, Collins is able to maintain reader suspense.

Stephen King does a great job of using first-person in an I Remember When style in The Green Mile. King chose this P.O.V. for a very specific reason, which I will not say so as not to spoil the ending.

Dennis Lehane does an amazing job of employing omniscient in Mystic River. If you think you might want to use omniscient, I’d recommend reading him.

James Rollins uses third-person shifting very well in the Doomsday Key. Third-shifting is generally a great P.O.V. for thrillers in that it helps manage/reveal a lot of information that the protag may or may not know.

I would also recommend reading Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo. She actually mixes third-limited and first-person and the effect is impressive.

P.O.V. when used properly can take a story to a whole new level. Read, experiment and practice. I know I just touched on a handful of suggestions, so feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments .

I highly recommend NY Time Best-Selling author Bob Mayer’s  The Novel Writers Toolkit for more in-depth explanation.

What is your favorite P.O.V. and why? Which ones do you like the least? Why? Have you never heard the term P.O.V. before? Does this post clear up some big questions about why your manuscript might have been having problems? Do you guys have any resources you would recommend? I want to hear from you!

And, to prove it and show my love, for the month of February, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention WANA in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel.

Happy writing!

Until next time….

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

Also, I highly recommend the Write It Forward Workshops. Learn all about plotting, how to write great characters, and even how to self-publish successfully…all from the best in the industry. I will be teaching on social media and building a brand in March. For $20 a workshop, you can change your destiny….all from the comfort of home.



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  1. When I watch film, I really focus on where the director put the camera. I ask myself WHY did he/she put it there? As a writer, you have the same issue. Where is your camera (POV) in each scene.

  2. Great post as always! POV is one of my favorite things to talk about, and I like to experiment with different angles of vision. Eventually you learn what works for you and what doesn’t. For instance, I’ve written some short stories in first-person that turned out okay, but I cannot write extended fiction in first-person to save my life. I simply CAN’T do it. And I tend to prefer Third-person shifting, but I always limit myself to shifting between three characters tops, and I usually stick with two. Otherwise it gets too confusing and messy.

  3. Great breakdown. As you know, I’ve mostly left the fiction world, but I spent years in that challenging land. I managed to overcome head hopping early on, but you are right about the difficulties of tense.

    Rewriting a novel 3 times was the best learning experience of my life. The book that really allowed me to make a huge leap in understanding was Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King. That remains the only book I ever finished reading and immediately started over at page 1 again.

  4. I wonder what happens when a pack of MK reps goes feral – lipstick graffiti on trees?

    I’d like to add another P.O.V. to the list: third person “close” – this is different from third person “locked,” in that the narrator has a voice that is not necessarily always the attitude/outlook of the character. With 3rd person close, it’s still the case that we are primarily seeing things from the protagonist’s perspective, that the only scenes of the novel take place in the presence of the protagonist, and that we have no access to the inner workings of any other characters.

    Maybe that’s a subtle distinction, but just putting it out there! Thanks for another great post, and happy V. day 🙂

  5. Has shifting POV ever been used to purposefully unsettle the reader?

    1. Third shifting always takes turns. Now, there is what is known as the “unreliable narrator” (Shutter Island), but that has more to do with plotting/character than POV. Unsettle the reader too much and they get a headache and put down the book.

  6. Great post. I used first person “I remember when” for my first manuscript and it really worked well. I have been going back and forth on my current WIP, however. First I was torn between first and third person, but I think the intimate feel is important, so I will keep first person POV but deciding between past and present tense is tough. It is a YA (the only genre I write in) and magical realism/historical, so I can see the fun of putting it in a “come along with me” perspective . . . I am just nervous I will get myself all confused. It is definitely tricky.
    Thanks for the tips, I am bookmarking this one.

  7. As a newbie writer, I had a HUGE problem with POV. I was head hopping all the time! I had to learn the three different types, like the ones you described (though you break it down rather well!). I’m writing an epic fantasy so the story is huge but the first book focuses on one major character. So I use (and love!) third person shifting. My main character gets to tell the story only through her camera and every third chapter, a key character gets to borrow that camera and show the story through their eyes, so my readers get the information that my Main Character wouldn’t know and make sure that information relates in some form or way to my main character. By breaking up POV’s every third chapter would that confuse the reader?

  8. Harry Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” series is a great example of doing “First Person present” well, but it can be really, REALLY hard to duplicate. Since this series was a favourite of mine as a younger writer, I started many of my attempts like this, only to have them founder because of the information and activities that the protagonist wasn’t aware of, but were central to the plot. Plus, as you say, that tense issue is a killer. A fun rewrite on my first completed novel was changing it from first person present to third person. It was tremendously freeing, and expanded the whole thing wonderfully. Didn’t fix the plot holes, unfortunately!

  9. Awesome explanation! Thanks! I’m in the middle of deciding whether or not to start my third chapter with another POV. This post is just what I needed.

  10. Great post! I recently did a series on POV on my blog, and one of the posts was specifically about how omniscient is different from head-hopping ( http://bit.ly/eBeYGQ ). As you mention, too many people claim they’re using omniscient when they’re really just head-hopping. And like you said, POV determines voice. In my post, I theorized that the way to tell the difference between omni and HH is voice – omni doesn’t have internal monologue in the characters’ voices.

    Sorry, not trying to divert people from your post here, just trying to help add some more information in case that point wasn’t clear to some of your readers. 🙂

    1. LOL…no, you are great. I asked for you guys to post additional resources, so rock on.

  11. “P.O.V. Prostitution” ~ love it. And so guilty of it. That and the runaway train effect completely scrambled my last attempt. Maybe I’ll go back and try to clean it up by changing the POV…and sticking with it!

  12. Thanks for an interesting post, Kristen…A post that deals with technique that affects writers at all stages.

    You might be interested in an article, “The Tense World of Writing Tense”, I wrote about two years ago…You can view it at http://alturl.com/t5vgu

  13. I have not attempted to write a story yet. The only writing I do is blogging. This is really helpful for when I do take that step. Thanks!

  14. Thanks for clarifying a complicated topic. You have a gift for that.

  15. One of the side effects of my shift from pure reader to reader/writer is my lack of patience for POV violations in the books I read. Absolutely nothing pulls me out of the story faster, and I suspect it was something that I found jarring even before I understood why. As a result, I am vigilant in my efforts to track down any hint of head hopping in my own work. Vigilant, and hopefully, successful ….

  16. I really need to stop reading your posts at work. I get the strangest looks as I try to strangle my laughter.:D

    I used to be very guilty of HH poorly disguised as omni, but since I’ve started writing 3rd person locked things flow better. I still have mirror issues on occasion, though I’m getting better.

    Thanks for simplifying a difficult topic–and making it fun.

  17. I like using both 3rd person and 1st person P.O.V. depending on the story. I like the depth of the 1st but I also like going inside the other character’s heads. No resources to recommend. Just read and dissect like what Bob Mayer wrote in his book.

    • Gene Lempp on February 14, 2011 at 9:19 pm
    • Reply

    Great post! The use of the terms “locked and shifting” really hit with me. I’ve seen this explained dozens of times but that is the first time with those terms and finally it makes more sense. While 1st is more personal it can become laborious if there is a large amount of information to place in, unless the protagonist is an expert like in some of Asimov’s work. Third person shifting and Omniscient hold a great deal of appeal but you are so right that head hopping becomes a massive danger.
    Thanks to Jami for the link, I’ll be reading that one today as well.
    Happy Valentines to you all!

  18. As always, this post was timely. I was literally sitting at my desk pondering which POV I should use for my WIP…this provided just the clarity for me, Kristen.

    Bob Mayer’s book has also been my trusty sidekick, as I traverse this road to novelism.

    • Ashley on February 14, 2011 at 10:08 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you, Kristen, for this interesting and timely perspective on POV. I just began writing my first book (or whatever it might be), and I realized about 10 pages in that I was vacillating between present and past tense. I am sure I will revamp/edit/rewrite it at some point; right now, I’m simply trying to get the story onto paper. It was nice to have different types of POV explained, as well as tips on what to look out for while writing.

    As I embark on my first writing journey, I greatly appreciate your daily blogs and the information that you provide!

  19. I love the term “P.O.V. Prostitution!” That’s brilliant and memorable. As a writer, I love the 1st Person p.o.v. I like the intimacy and the sense of connection it creates. Also, I like to write very strong, quirky characters, and the 1st person lets me have fun with their internal dialogues in a way that would, indeed, be confusing if I used 3rd person more. Just my 2 cents. 🙂

    • Terrell Mims on February 14, 2011 at 10:30 pm
    • Reply

    Great blog. What are some clear-cut examples of third person (locked & shifting) and Omniscient. I know I have problems with that. 😉

  20. Great Post! I appreciate all the POV advice, really makes me want to pick up that ‘novel’ I have stored away and try again. I also recommend the “To Kill a Mockingbird” POV. Using a child’s POV is a challenge.
    Don’t put my name in the hat, give someone else an extra chance because I would not be able to supply you with 15 pages at this time, and there are plenty of other writers that would ‘kill’ for your wisdom on their work. Another time, and I will work on being prepared.

    • Madison Woods on February 14, 2011 at 11:18 pm
    • Reply

    Great blog post. Generally, I like first POV although I’m trying my hand at 3rd person locked more lately. I’m going to reblog your post, which will give me a link to your blog on mine – AND I’m going to mention WANA 😉

  21. I’m in the midst of major edits on my story and P.O.V may play a big part of that. Thanks for this toolkit to refer back to as we’re writing.

    • Tamara LeBlanc on February 15, 2011 at 2:14 am
    • Reply

    When I first began writing romance, I was a total P.O.V. hussie. I switched in and out of character more often than Cybill off her meds. It wasn’t pretty.
    But I think I’ve learned alot over the years. Brutally honest critique partners, RWA and Georgia Romance Writers sponsored conferences, workshops, blogs, and books have helped give me a handle on most things. Granted, I’m still learning everyday, and hope to continue to learn for the rest of my life.
    I think you broke down the differences in P.O.V. perfectly. And I’m glad to say that I learned a new one; third person locked. Never heard of it before, and I’ll have to re-read what you wrote to let it sink in.
    I usually write in third person shifting. Actually, I always write in that tense. It’s comfortable for me. I’m a comfort junkie.
    But I think it might be time to step outside that warm, fleece lined, Febreeze scented box. First person sounds like a challenge..
    And after I finish my WIP, I’m going to give it a try.
    Thanks for the info!
    Have a great evening:)

  22. As always, another entertaining and informative post! Head-hopping is one of my greatest complaints with some books, and the fastest way to make me stop reading. My last book and current WIP are written third person shifting, with chapters alternating between the two main characters. It allows the story to progress in a linear manner yet allows me to selectively reveal information and build suspense. I’m amused that most readers seem to really connect with the more unreliable of my two narrators, because the deeper you get inside his head the more apparent it becomes that his grasp on things is somewhat precarious.

  23. Clear, on topic and to the point…And a big “Heck yeah!” to the answer in the first question posed: I hated reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses”….It drove me toally bonkers! When I figured out that he was using words for sounds, I was able to muddle through it easier.

  24. I agree with several other comments that your explanation of the different types of POV was on point! My current WIP includes 1st person POV for my female protagonist and 3rd shifting for two other characters. It’s a thriller and allows me to get around the fact that my protagonist has amnesia for the first half of the story. Your reference to Linda Castillo was reassuring!

  25. This is by far the best p.o.v. post I’ve seen. I was shocking for head-hopping in my very first story, I hope I have improved since then. Thanks!

  26. So what is it called when it’s in first person, but the chapters alternate between two or three characters’ POVs? First-person shifting?

    • Joanna Aislinn on February 19, 2011 at 1:11 am
    • Reply

    Fav POV=third person shift. Gives me an opportunity to really get to know these folks as their stories unfold. As each takes on more dimension, I find nuances within their personalities I didn’t necessarily catch the first, fifth or fortieth time.

    BTW, when I was totally green in this gig and not even aware of what H.H. was, I was seriously guilty. (But I was lucky enough to ‘inherently get it’ once it was explained in words of one syllable that made sense to me, lol.)

    Wrote for a house that chose NOT to use the traditional ‘break’ in the scene to show POV shift. They went straight from one POV to the other, something I didn’t like. I DO like it very much when it’s done Virginia Kantra style. She advocates ‘pulling the camera away’ from one POV character then zooming back in on the other. (Example: I ‘zoom out’ by incorporating an action that can be attributable to either character and ONLY in a scene where ONLY the POV characters are present. I then ‘zoom back in’ by moving into the other character’s POV, sometimes with a subtle action that might not necessarily be ‘caught’ right away by a reader who is savvy in POV to begin with.

    If you’ll allow me: a brief example of what I mean, from a wip that’s about to undergo massive renovations 🙂

    Michael reached up and was surprised again when she permitted him to smooth some of the windblown locks from her face. “You’re very wise, Samantha.” (Michael’s POV)

    “I will love Jake and grieve for him everyday of my life. Anyone who winds up involved with me will have to accept he’s part of me.”

    “As he should be.” Michael’s hand had slipped to her neck, was sweeping slowly the curve from its base to her shoulder. (Either character can perceive this action.)

    She swallowed, steeling herself against the lure of his touch, against the imminent crumble of her resistance. (Samantha’s POV).

    Show vs. tell, right?

    (BTW, POV awareness messed with my reading pleasure big-time.Now I’m in constant ‘edit mode’–messes w/my reading pleasure unless the darn work is beyond awesome.)

    Thanks, folks!

    Joanna Aislinn
    Dream. Believe. Strive. Achieve!
    The Wild Rose Press

  27. BIG HELP this post was. I’ve been reading Barbara Kingslover’s Poisonwood Bible and it is an excellent example of POV. She seamlessly transitions from one character to another all in first person. Reading her work has given me a good idea of writing in that POV and now reading your blog has fine-tuned my understanding of POV, so much that I’m ready to ATTACK my WIP. Thanks Kristen!

  28. I’m rather odd in that I prefer First Person, Come Along With Me to all the others. Something in my nature just finds it the easiest to imagine. I always end up in the central character’s skin. The stories I write are also the ones most suited for this POV as well. I’ve done I Remember but it was difficult as I kept sliding into the other mode.

    On occasion I write in Third Person Locked as it’s closest to First Person and so more comfortable. If I tried Shifting or Omniscient I’m sure I’d raise the stock of who ever manufactures Dramamine.

    I believe the best way to avoid POV problems is to find the POV a writer is most comfortable with and work in that. Then the writer can spend more time worrying about the story and less on style.

    The story is always the most important thing.

    Good article, Kristen. I did struggle with these problems and I’m sure this will help many other starting writers.

    Oh, and I failed English repeatedly. Nothing like over-analyzing literature to take the fun out of it. 😉

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kristen Lamb, Kathy Owen and Cynthia L Moyer, Laura LaRocca. Laura LaRocca said: Great post by Kristen Lamb. POV Prostitution is Strictly Forbidden. http://bit.ly/fR31VH […]

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