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Am I changing POVs if I'm describing what two or more characters are sensing (touch, smell, sound, etc.)? I know it's not okay to jump from one POV to another. Example:

Anna was afraid he'd notice she was embarrassed, but Ian thought she was the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen.

However, I want to know whether that also counts for explaining what a character is sensing. Example:

Nina was hit by lavender smoke as she walked past the house. Jenny's nostrils started to itch, and her eyes water when she took a whiff of the flowers.

Is the second example okay, or does it count as changing POVs?

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"Am I changing POVs if I'm describing what two or more characters are sensing". Not necessarily. If you are writing in what is awkwardly called "omniscient POV" then you can can tell what any number of characters are sensing without changing POV.

Also, don't confuse POV with narrative first person. Just because a character is narrating does not mean that they can only narrate what that character sees in the moment. That is just one particular and very restrictive narrative mode, which we might call first person stream of consciousness.

" I know it's not okay to jump from one POV to another." You are misinformed. It is perfectly acceptable to jump from one POV to another. Good writers do it all the time. It is, of course, possible to do it in a way that is jarring, and that sometimes gets described as head hopping. But just because a technique can sometimes be done badly is not an argument that it should not be done at all. Indeed, since every technique can be done badly, not doing anything that can be done badly would mean not doing anything at all.

Also, there is nothing wrong with explaining what a character is sensing. Often this is the only way to let the reader know what is going on. The phrase "show don't tell" can be very misleading in this regard. In prose all you have are words and all you can do with words it tell.

The question is, which things do you tell directly, and which things do you tell indirectly, allowing the reader to work some things out for themselves. So, do you say, "Tom was nervous" (direct) or "Tom shuffled his feet" (indirect) or "Tom shuffled his feet nervously" (both)? The answer is, it depends on what impression you want the reader to come away with. The impressions that people form for themselves can be more powerful so telling them that Tom shuffled his feet may make them feel his nervousness more acutely.

But this is still telling. It is telling something physical so that the reader may intuit something emotional. But you can't do this for everything. You would end up in a pattern of infinite regression and you would bore the socks off the reader in the process.

She saw Jenny's nostrils flare, as if they itched

This is not preferable to telling us that Jenny's nostrils itched, if that is the information that matters to the reader. It might be appropriate if what you wanted to get across to the reader was that the Nina is obsessively concerned with the state of Jenny's nostrils. But if you are doing it simply so we know that Jenny's nose itched, then what you are actually doing is giving us a false impression of where Nina's attention is focussed.

Fiction is all about focus. Obsessively trying to remain in one POV or trying to give all information obliquely dissipates focus rather than creating it. But if you can focus the reader's attention where it is supposed to be at all times, variation of POV and the various methods of exposition will pass entirely unnoticed.

  • Thank you! It's a very subtle thing, but it makes a great difference, I suppose. I'm working on this current project using 3rd person omniscient, and was worried me describing what various characters are sensing (not thinking) might still be considered head hopping. But I guess that's really what the 3rd person omniscient is FOR. I guess it all depends whether or not the way you put the words together confuse the reader or not. – Klara Raškaj Apr 1 '18 at 20:55
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It's only a POV switch or "head hopping" if you are close third person or first person. Your examples sounds like 3rd person omniscient. Third person omniscient means the narrator has its own voice and knows everything. You write things from the narrator's viewpoint. Classicly, books were written in third person omniscient, but today the most common viewpoint is third person close. When you write in third person omniscient, it is expected that you will tell people everything that is going on including what is going on in each person's mind. So it can be appropriate but you should stay in third person omniscient for the entire story and this will have consequences that you should be prepared to deal with.

A good example of third person omniscient is the book Dune. In that book you know who the antagonist is and what their plan is from the very beginning. In a single scene you will see the thoughts of every person who is in the room. Instead of relying on mystery to drive the tension you rely on people knowing that everybody hates each other to create tension. The mystery is what people will do not what people are doing. Dune is considered to be a classic. It's sold a lot of books and made its author rich. So you can do this and be fine.

Clearly it would be a problem to move from third person omniscient to another point of view almost as bad as switching tense in the middle of a book. Without clearly defined framing devices switching point of view or tense can make it very difficult to read a book. And if you choose to write in third person omniscient will be writing the unexpected given today's norms. You should be clear about what you're doing if you go this route because even if there's nothing wrong with it there's a price to be paid to do something different.

Good luck.

  • I'm not planning on going from 3rd person omniscient (3rdPO) to something different. I've heard that in 3rdPO, it's very bad to head hop within paragraphs or even the same chapters, and that we should stick to one person's thoughts for as long as possible so as not to confuse readers. I wanted to know whether describing senses (not thoughts) was something this rule would also apply to. – Klara Raškaj Apr 1 '18 at 20:49
  • Senses/feelings are acknowledged via thought and would fall under POV switching if it's said with certainty. Consider, "Joe saw Mary scratch her arm. He too knew what that itch meant." Essentially, deliver the sensory information only if your POV could see it and give it through the POV's filter. If your POV is the narrator (not your example) you can share more. If your POV is a character, you can only tell what they know. 3PO can head-hop effectively. You just have to use the tool correctly. Improper use of any tool leads to ineffective writing. – Kirk Apr 3 '18 at 22:34
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I see both examples as "head-hopping". Stephen King does this a lot, and it made him rich, so you can certainly do it too, but, yes, both examples show a change in POV.

(I like your first example better, because the "but" serves as a transition from one POV to the other. In your second example the different viewpoints are abutted without any transition, and this feels wrong.)

What you can do, if you want to avoid viewpoing switches but show what characters beside the viewpoint character feel, is have the viewpoint character "see" or "understand" or guess what the other characters are thinking and feeling:

Anna was afraid he'd notice she was embarassed, but Ian's dumbstruck expression made her realize that he thought she was the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen.

and:

Nina was hit by lavender smoke as she walked past the smoke. She saw Jenny's nostrils flare, as if they itched, and she saw how Jenny's eyes began to water when she took a whiff of the flowers.

Not great writing, but you get the idea.

But be careful with this. If your viewpoint character understands more than a normal person can read from another's face and behavior, your readers might wonder how they are able to read the minds of others.

  • Thanks! Ugh... This was what I was afraid of. I personally don't consider describing senses as head hopping, but... I could be wrong... – Klara Raškaj Apr 1 '18 at 20:50
  • @KlaraRaškaj Sensation happens "in the mind". You don't sense what others sense, do you? – user29032 Apr 2 '18 at 5:46

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