POV – SHIFTING

We’ll talk more about shifting from limited omniscient point of view from one character to another.  But first, there are other point of view shifts that usually occur rather naturally and seamlessly – from omniscient point of view to second person point of view and from omniscient to character.

Establishing shot – Omniscient to Character (think cinema).

INTRINSIC SHIFTS [beginning with an omniscient establishing shot, leading into a limited omniscient character point of view] Between nine and ten p.m. on any weekday in late Spring, Connecticut Avenue was still a constant flow of  tired office workers trudging up the hill toward the bridge across the Park and the neighborhoods beyond.  May the 27th, a Thursday, was no different, except that lightning was flashing in the distance, and nobody seemed to know whether or when it might become necessary to scurry for shelter or cover one’s head with a newspaper.  The lucky ones were beginning to arrive at the vestibules of the old and over-priced apartment buildings that most young and usually newly-arrived Washingtonians seem to covet.  [now a shift to the limited omniscient POV] Angela Jenkins was one of these lucky ones, and she was exhausted.  She didn’t know whether she’d be able to take another step up the three long stair-flights to her apartment.  [Now here is another intrinsic point of view shift – this, a second person natural lapse]You do what you can to keep your job, and you always do your best not to be the first one to leave your office, but thirty six straight hours closing a real estate deal has got to be above and beyond the call of duty in anybody’s book. [now the shift back to the Angela POV]At the second landing, Angela decided she deserved a dinner at the restaurant of her choice, courtesy of Master Card.  She turned around and headed back downstairs.

SHIFTING FROM CHARACTER TO CHARACTER

They call character point of view “limited omniscient” because the author remains in control and is free to occupy the positions of several or even all of his or her characters. But when it comes to shifts from character to character, things become a little trickier than from omniscient to character or in and out of second person narration. This is not to say that you shouldn’t do it.  Just be careful.  People get used to guides and companions, even virtual ones.  And the character you choose to drive a story from his or her point of view tends to become comfortable to the reader, even if the reader doesn’t like that character.  (Always imagine Dan Rather on vacation.  His fans always had difficulty getting used to the guest anchor!  This is true for any host in public media.  I use the Dan Rather example because he seems to me to be the least likely public personna to command a following.  But he did, simply because people got used to him.)

When in doubt, don’t.  You CAN find alternatives. For example: Just from looking at his face, Nancy could see directly into Jeff’s easy mind; she’d always been able to tell exactly what he was thinking.  No way he was going to buy into this nonsense they were both hearing for the first time now. He’d call it a load of crap and just dismiss it. [etc] This way we never have to shift into Jeff’s mind, because we believe Nancy when she says she can see into his mind.

In similar fashion, you can avoid a shift and yet still hear from another character by having that character speak: "Do you know what I'm thinking?" said Jeff. (and then break into Jeff's monologue while Nancy remains in command of character point of view.  When he stops talking, her internal thoughts continue).

But when shifts are necessary, the secret is transition.  It shouldn’t be a tennis match.  Readers like to bond with a single celebrity guide through the story.

In a novel, different characters can have limited-omniscient pov control in separate chapters, or sections or book subdivisions. In a short story, there can be a mini-chaptered asterisk transition.  It helps if the shifted POV character is in a different geographical place (or time) than the initial POV character.  This minimizes the confusion-potential.

Possible devices for character POV shifts

MINI CHAPTERS
OBJECT BRIDGE (focal point)
BATON-PASSING (or, like the old two-way radio transmissions: “over”)
CROSS-TOWN
CROSS-TIME
NARRATOR-INTERMEDIATED
RASHOMON REPLAY

[Here is the omniscient narration our earlier example used.  We’ll do some variations on it to illustrate the shift devices]

The young man with the fine blond hair left the rail and returned almost at once with a victorious air and a pair of binoculars. These he fixed to his eyes, turned upon the focal point, and began to manipulate with nimble fingers. At once others whose cabins were close got binoculars. They appeared determined, as if to say the original inspiration was not what mattered here, but the use made of it. Those who either had no binoculars or had to go too far to get them, divided their attention between the ocean off the starboard bow and the blond  young man, who had taken on the shining aspect of the clairvoyant. They watched his face minutely for signs of recognition, and were affected by his slightest movement. He bore their worship grandly, almost with an air of not suspecting it.(from "Why Don't You Look  Where You're Going?" by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, from The  Watchful Gods and Other Stories, 1941)
Owen Rank / Randall Jenks

OBJECT BRIDGE – There it was! Now he knew what everybody was looking at! The first time he’d ever been able to focus on anything through these infernal binoculars, and what a magnificent sight! “It’s a whale,” he shouted. “Right there!  Right there!”
    Leaning on the same rail, Owen Rank had fixed his binoculars on what had to be exactly the same thing. How could anybody think that was a whale!  Fat chance!  A rusted fifty gallon oil drum, plain as day, bobbing in the swell.  Who was this jerk, anyway?

BATON PASS - Owen was now bored to the point of shrieking, and because the ship was beginning to roll in these infernal afternoon swells, he was beginning to feel unsteady on his feet.  Suddenly he was wondering whether he’d be able to make it to dinner.  In a desperate effort to shatter the tedium and steady his balance, he leaned in the direction of the quiet man beside him and declared: “I can’t see a damn thing out there.  What do you see?”
         Randall Jenks was startled out of a quiet reverie.  He looked up from his binoculars and focused his gaze on Own Rank.  The guy must be drunk. “I think you have to be patient and concentrate,” he said, turning back to gaze through his binoculars. Fat chance of that ever happening.

CROSS-TOWN / CROSS-TIME – Yesterday, the trawler Evelyn McGill had been fishing these same waters. Salty Stevens had been trying to stay awake.  They’d been hauling mackerel since before daybreak, and that had just about done him in. The skipper had told him to lash the drum to the boat davit, but what the hell, he knew that nobody’d ever miss it.  He opened the cap and pushed the drum overboard.  It’d sink by midnight.

NARRATOR-INTERMEDIATED – (after Own Rank pov) The interesting thing about ship cruises is that all different kinds of people are forced to spend quality time in near-proximity together, when otherwise they might never have anything to do with one another.  Randall Jenks was about as different from Owen Rank as anybody could be.