Here on my writing journey and most recent trip down the research rabbit hole, two subjects have collided: Scenes and Point of View (POV)—proving just how difficult it can be to break the writing process up into discrete parts.
First, let me relieve some of you—if you’ve chosen to tell your story through a single POV character (first person or third person limited), none of this applies to you. You can stop reading right now, and go do something else because you already know who the POV character will be in every scene, you lucky thing, you!
Why is it so important to choose the right POV Character for a scene? In “Multiple Narrators? How to Choose the Right POV,” Alida Winterheimer explicitly states that the problems with using the wrong character’s POV in a scene are that you can lose the scene tension and you can bore the reader. Things we definitely don’t want to do.
So for those of us who are using multiple POV characters, once we’ve decided which characters are going to share POV duties, the job becomes deciding which character gets to tell which scenes. And that is not always as simple or easy as it might seem.
Sometimes it will be easy, for instance when a POV character is in a scene with only non-POV characters. But if there are multiple POV characters in the same scene, now we’ve got a decision to make.
The most common advice I came across was to decide which character has the most at stake in the scene. Generally, this is whose POV you want to use because with the most to lose, this character’s perspective is likely the most engaging.
A number of people distinguished between stakes and goals, suggesting that if the POV character whose goal drives the scene isn’t the same as who has the most at stake, this POV still might be the most compelling and the one to follow—especially if this character is the one with the most agency in the scene.
Keeping a secret was another common consideration. If one POV character has a secret and sharing that information would spoil the tension of the scene, that is a good reason to stay out of that character’s head.
Beyond these three common questions to ask about scenes and characters, the sources I found each came up with interesting additions.
In her article, “Who’s Telling Your Story?”, Alicia Rasley differentiates between external stakes and internal stakes within a scene. The same character may not have both the highest external stakes and the highest emotional stakes. If this is the case, then you need to decide which POV would be most gripping and use that one.
Rasley also has questions that I found useful when I couldn’t decide who had the most at stake in a scene: “Who will change the most because of the scene event?” and “Who’s going to have to make a big decision or take a great action in the scene?”
Her parting advice is to think about the effect you want the scene to have on the reader and choose the POV character most likely to help you achieve that.
Michele Keller’s “Choosing the Right POV Character” makes a distinction between scenes and sequels, advising that in a sequel the POV character should be the one with the most at stake emotionally, even if this is not the same POV character from the preceding scene.
One of the “5 Tips for Choosing the POV Character for a Scene,” by Laura Silverio, is another question that’s helpful for when the stakes aren’t clear in a scene: “Who is experiencing the strongest emotions (failure, elation, envy, shock, etc)?”
Another tip is to “let the plot dictate,” by which she means that sometimes certain things need to happen or be described to keep the plot in motion and that one character will be better suited to that role.
Silverio also makes the bold move of suggesting head-hopping. Of course she does so with the caveat that it must be used intentionally and judiciously so that you don’t fall into the pitfall of head-hopping: confusing your reader.
Jordan McCollum had a tip I liked quite a bit in her article, “Choosing the Right POV Character.” Choose the POV character “we just don’t get,” that is, the character who is hard to understand or whose reaction to the events of the scene might not make sense unless told from their point of view. It is often easier to relate to a character’s position or beliefs or reactions when we’re in their POV.
If you’ve already written your story and are noticing some issues with it, it may be worth going back and looking at the POV choices you made.
Returning to Winterheimer, her suggestions can help with this as they are geared more toward the revision phase of writing rather than the drafting phase. For instance, she suggests asking yourself how emotionally charged scenes are—if they are emotionally flat, you should consider changing the POV.
Sometimes it can be surprisingly hard to figure out who has the most at stake in a scene, so I think all of the questions are going to be very helpful. In fact, I have a scene I could use these on right now . . .
Alicia Rasley, “Who’s Telling Your Story? Choosing your viewpoint (POV) character,” https://www.aliciarasley.com/index.php/whos-telling-story-choosing-viewpoint-pov-character/
Michele Keller, “Choosing the Right POV Character,” http://themanuscriptshredder.com/pov/
Laura DiSilverio, “5 Tips for Choosing the POV Character for a Scene,” https://careerauthors.com/5-tips-for-choosing-the-pov-character-for-a-scene/
Jordan McCollum, ”CHOOSING THE RIGHT POV CHARACTER,” http://jordanmccollum.com/2012/04/choose-pov/
ALIDA WINTERNHEIMER | @ALIDAWINTERN, “Multiple Narrators? How to Choose the Right POV,” https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/multiple-narrators-choose-right-pov/