I finished the first Harry Potter book last night. And I don’t remember where I read it, but I remember someone commenting that the HP books were all written from Harry’s POV. They are not. At least not this one.
Yes, the majority of the book follows Harry, but if I had to characterize the whole book as one specific type of viewpoint, it would actually be omniscient.
For example, in Chapter 11, “Quidditch,” the fourth section starts with Ron and Hermione as they sit in the stands and then switches to Harry in the locker room. And then there’s a substantial scene with Hermione lighting Snape’s robes on fire. (A scene that also includes Harry’s thoughts as he almost falls off the broomstick.)
I don’t bring this up as a criticism of whoever made the original comment. They were trying to make a point that one of the challenges in the Harry Potter books was to make sure that Harry somehow saw all the important moments. And the book is telling Harry’s story so does stay very close to him, so that comment is still valid.
But, as you can see from Chapter 11 of the first book, when Rowling needed to move away from Harry’s experience to show a crucial scene, she did.
The reason I bring this up is to remind everyone that the most important thing about telling a story is that it work. However that happens. Readers (unless they’re literary professors, aspiring writers, or pretentious asses) aren’t going to worry about what point of view or tense you use to tell your story. They’re either going to read what you wrote and think, “I liked that, that was good. I wonder what else they’ve written.” Or they’ll think, “Wow, that just sucked.”
If you tell your story well, people don’t notice how you do it.
Before I decided to do this writing thing, I was reading a book that had an atrocious example of head hopping. And I noticed it. As a reader. The point of view was some young girl and then suddenly we’re in the head of the guy she’s talking to and then we’re back with the girl. It did throw me out of the story, because it was done poorly. (The whole book had issues, so by then I was hanging on by my fingertips.)
But with the first HP book I wouldn’t have even noticed the transition unless I’d had that person’s comment stored somewhere in the back of my mind. It was done smoothly and it was critical to the story.
So, here’s the tricky bit. Sometimes the things we write suck and we need to be told that. Sometimes we don’t have mastery over our writing and our betas can see that where we can’t.
But sometimes, especially if you’re dealing with someone who has read one too many writing blogs or forums, the feedback you get on your writing is canned regurgitated crap. (I’ve been fortunate that none of my betas are like that, but I’ve seen it dished out enough in the forums to know it happens.)
That writing conference I went to last year had a session about point of view issues. But I honestly think that about half of the examples used in the session weren’t actually problematic for a reader. And that’s the key. Unless you’re writing with the goal of being reviewed in graduate-level literary theory classes or patted on the back by a bunch of fellow writers who tell you how brilliant you are, your audience is your readers.
So, in your own writing, be careful that the advice you’re getting is a valid critique of your ability to tell a story and not just someone telling you to “follow the rules.”
And how do you learn the difference? Experience. Write. READ. (If someone tells you that x technique doesn’t work and you can think of ten successful novels that use that technique well then you know that either you failed in using the technique or that the person has some inherent bias against the technique. Without that reading experience you just think that you failed.)
A semi-relevant post by someone else to top it off: Rachelle Gardner on Are Writers Too Insulated from Their Readers?