POV: What It Is And How To Keep It Straight

Point of View

Ok, so what do we mean when we talk about point of view?

Put simply, it’s the angle from which the story is being told.

Who is telling the story here? Whose thoughts and feelings are we as the reader experiencing? Answering these questions lets you know who the point of view character is.

There are several ways to tell a story utilizing one or more point of view characters.

1st person POV – This is when the reader listens directly to the character. This type of story is typically told by one person. We experience only one person’s thoughts and feelings. We’re in his or her head. We experience everything that happens in the story through his or her eyes.

2nd person POV – This one is rarely used. It occurs when the narrator speaks directly to the reader. This is characterized by using “you”. This format works great for things like blog posts (see what I did there?) but reading an entire, novel-length piece of fiction like this will get old pretty quickly.

3rd person POV -This one is arguably the most common. Here we also get the narrator speaking but about the characters in the story as opposed to speaking directly to the reader. The narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of the characters and makes you, the reader, privy to them as well.

3rd person POV can be further broken down into two kinds; omniscient and limited. 3rd person limited gives us typically one main POV character. We may get other’s character’s thought and feelings here and there but for the most part, we are spending the book inside one character’s head. 3rd person omniscient is when the narrator knows and shares everything, the thoughts, and feelings of all characters. In other words, they spill ALL the tea.

OK now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about how this applies to you and your writing.

Rule number one, and this is such a huge rule that we’re going to go ahead and call it a commandment: Choose One!

What does that mean?

It means that you need to:

1. Choose one POV style per work 

That means you will elect to write in either 1st person, 2nd person (though I really hope you don’t), OR one of the 3rd person styles. Not all. Not even two. Do not flip back and forth. You will confuse (and therefore lose) your reader.

Now there are exceptions to every single rule. And so with that said, there are instances (though few and far between) where I’ve seen this done and done well. Typically this happens when a book is written primarily in the 1st person, but will scatter some 3rd person narrative throughout the book. If you’re doing this, it’s crucial to change chapters when you are changing the point of view. A good example of this is The Afrikaans by Nick Pirog. The majority of the book is told from the main character’s POV. But there are interludes where we get third person narrative that lets us in on events that are crucial to the story that Thomas, the main character, doesn’t know and can’t particularly see. We get a much better sense of the antagonistic force than we would if we relied solely on Thomas’s POV. Which begs the question, why not just write the entire book in 3rd person then? Well, in this case, Nick had created quite a loveable character in Thomas. I’m guessing not telling the book from Thomas’s POV would have disappointed some fans (myself included)

2. Choose one POV per scene

This means that even if you’re writing in the third person and have leeway to give us more than one character’s POV, you really should only give us one at a time. Stick with one character POV per scene and stay with that characters thoughts feelings and observations through the entire scene.

When you’re writing in the first person, there’s only one POV, the one of your central character. Everything that happens in the book has to be seen, felt and experienced by this character (and in that respect, 1st person POV can be limiting, but the tradeoff is that it affords the reader and intimate look into the POV character). Now again, there are exceptions to this. This will mainly take the form of a multi-POV style book where the story is told from several characters 1st person points of view (but never more than one per chapter). Good examples of this are Disappearing Acts by Terry McMillan and My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.

A trick for writing in Close Third Person is to first write the piece in FIRST person, and then go through and edit it. You may end up doing more than simple word replacement (“I” to “She”) but your end result will feel more consistent.

Writing in 3rd Person Cinematic Style

We’ve been talking about POV in terms of whose thoughts and feelings we as the reader experience. But what if we don’t get inside a character’s head at all? What if we experience no inner landscape, thoughts, feelings and instead are only presented with what can be seen or heard? This is called the cinematic style.

Cinematic POV is a description from the outside, as if a movie camera were set up to film the proceedings. You don’t deliver the thoughts of the characters. It differs from the other points of view in that we never “drop into the head” of the character to reveal thoughts and emotions. It’s all done as if looking at the physical details through an open window or on a movie screen. Almost always the cinematic POV focuses on one central character. – James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing for Publication

Here’s an example from The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Spade sank into his swivel-chair, made quarter turn to face her, smiled politely. He smiled without separating his lips. All the v’s in his face grew longer.

The tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perine’s typewriting came through the closed door. Somewhere in a neighboring office a power-driven machine vibrated dully. On Spade’s desk a limp cigarette smoldered in a brass tray filled with the remains of limp cigarettes.

Why would you want to write this way?

Well first off, you probably wouldn’t want to use the cinematic style for a whole novel. But it could be very useful for part of it, especially if you wish to show a certain detachment in a character or scene. Another use can be when a scene contains a lot of characters, and there’s a lot going on, and you want to capture all that everyone is doing.

Remember The Golden Rule

Don’t confuse your reader. You want them completely engrossed in your story, not wondering which character’s head they’re in at the moment. POV issues will take them out of the flow.

Homework: Go through your current work in progress and look for instances of switching POVs within the same chapter, scene or even paragraph.

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