Great question, Caren! Thanks for asking.
First, let's define POV:
In any work of fiction, you as the writer have the option to tell the story from one of three points of view. There’s first person (I, me), second person (you—rare, but I’ve seen it done really well!), and the most common, third person (he/she, him/her). There is a fourth POV, omniscient, wherein the author is the viewpoint person. But omniscient wreaks havoc with Show vs. Tell (a lesson for another time).
Third person POV is the most prevalent because it allows an author to tell more than one side to a story. But…it has a major drawback: the possibility to waffle between characters’ heads from one sentence to the next, aka head-hopping.
When you’re in one character’s POV (or shoes, if you will), you can only describe what that particular character sees, feels, tastes, hears, etc. So if I’m in Joe’s POV in a particular scene, I can’t tell my reader Daphne is hungry (unless he hears her stomach growl), afraid (unless he sees her pale features and wide eyes) or hot to jump his bones (unless she actually does jump his bones.) If your viewpoint character doesn’t personally experience something, you cannot tell (or show) the info to your reader through his POV!
Joe can’t (or shouldn’t) describe the color of his own eyes, hairstyle, build, or facial expression. So a sentence like, “Joe brushed his sandy brown hair from his cobalt eyes and set his firm jaw.” should be avoided as much as possible. Does this type of sentence happen? Sure. And it’ll slip past an editor, too. But the more you write and become cognizant of the pitfalls, the more these errors will leap out at you when you’re reading someone else’s work—or your own.
This is why a lot of writers have their characters describe their features while staring at their reflection in a mirror or other shiny object. (Please don’t do this. It’s weak and easy. Your reader deserves better.) And please don’t tell me you should be able to head-hop because “Nora Roberts does it.” When you’re churning out as many bestsellers as Nora every year, then hop into a different head in every sentence if you’d like. ‘Til then, you might want to stick to one person’s mind at a time.
So, we're clear on POV? Good, let's back to Caren's question.
How long do you have to stay in one character’s head? Generally, I like to remain rooted for a full scene, but there are exceptions. Love scenes, for instance, are a perfect place to show two different points of view. But like lovemaking itself, the act requires some delicacy, balance, and good timing.
Does every POV switch require a page or chapter break? Not necessarily. Many publishing houses prefer at least a scene break, but if the scene is seamless, you can generally get away without it. By “seamless” I mean that there’s been no change in time or location. There are ways to transition from one POV to the other without actually skipping lines or ending a chapter. I like to use a touch. Almost like playing tag, if my POV character touches another character, I use that device to seamlessly switch POV. Dialogue can help transfer you from one POV to another. For instance, if your POV character, Joe, says, “What do you think, Daphne?” you can describe Daphne’s thought process and seamlessly move into her POV. Just don’t slip back into Joe’s POV the moment Daphne stops talking! Once you’ve switched from one POV to another, spend some time in the new surroundings.
POV purists will insist you need at least a page break for either of these instances, but I’ve yet to have an editor force me to make the change. So if your critique partners bust your butt about it, you can choose to add the page break or to leave the scene whole until an editor or agent won’t acquire the manuscript unless you make the change.
Email questions to Gina at firstname.lastname@example.org!