The technical term is “point-of-view shifting” or “head hopping”, but in essence, it’s when an author jumps from one character’s perspective to another’s within the same scene, chapter, or even paragraph. It’s a common craft mistake that seems prevalent in self-published works.
Not to be confused with omniscient point of view, in which the narrator is all-knowing and all-seeing (which used to be popular in fiction), head hopping is not intentional. Oftentimes the author slides from one perspective to another without even realizing it.
Here’s an example (of my own invention):
“Derek hadn’t meant to hurt her, but she needed to know the truth. She deserved that much.
“I understand,” she said. Anna tried hide her disappointment, though with little success. She thought she’d wanted honesty but maybe she was wrong.”
In this snippet the reader gets the perspective of both Anna and Derek. While it might not seem like a big deal, over the course of an entire novel, this type of issue can really have disruptive side effects. In particular, it drains the tension from the scene and takes the reader out of that close, personal experience with each character.
To use the example above again, knowing the inner thoughts of both characters removes much of the suspense. If we’re in Anna’s perspective, knowing up front that Derek didn’t mean to hurt her dilutes the sympathy the reader has for her pain because we know it wasn’t intentional. This can easily be rewritten to keep the relevant information while maintaining the tension.
Each chapter should be from a single character’s point of view. The reader can more easily bond with that character if they aren’t jumping around from person to person like some kind of poltergeist. Try to think of it as one character’s chapter. It belongs to this person alone. It’s their moment on stage, and every time the point-of-view shifts, it’s like the hook came out and dragged them away from the spotlight.
This issue is especially noticeable in first-person narratives and can be hard to weed out . I noticed a couple spots in my own manuscript that weren’t caught until the second revision when it finally hit me that lines like “I didn’t notice when so-&-so came closer” had to go. If my character didn’t notice it, then it can’t even be mentioned because, well, she didn’t notice it. Revision helps to catch these speed bumps. An editor will help get rid of any that sneak under the radar.
For another prime example of this issue, and how to address it, have a look at a first-page critique posted today over at The KillZone blog by a tenured author. The submission is of an historical fiction thriller, but her excellent advice can be applied to any genre.
In summary, do your readers a favor and make sure they hear only once voice at a time. Anything else and, well, as the title of this post suggests, things can get a bit disorienting.