Writing Lesson: Point of View join for free to get your assignments critiqued by your peers
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SynopsisStyles in writing change over time, and the current trend is to have one point of view per scene or chapter (unless you’re writing first person) and 2–4 POV characters per book. This lesson explains the different types of point of view, how to pick the right one for your scene, and how to execute a POV.
Lesson© Review Fuse 2009
Come up with a conflict for a brief scene or vignette between two conflicting characters: parent/child, boss/employee, landlord/renter, cop/criminal, or some other combination.
This doesn’t need to be a complete scene or story with a resolution, just a description of the conflict and your characters’ reactions to it—especially your POV character’s.
Which character has the most to lose in the situation? Write the situation from their point of view, whether in third or first person.
Include conflict, clear evidence of being in the POV character’s head and way of thinking, and no jumping out of the POV character’s mind. Avoid POV intrusions.
One of the biggest changes in writing over the last century or two has been in the area of point of view (POV). Back in the days of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and, more recently, L. M. Montgomery (of Anne of Green Gables fame), a writer could stand back with an omniscient viewpoint and tell us what any character was thinking or feeling at any given time.
And they did. In a single scene, you might jump from Anne’s feelings to how Marilla deliberately hides her laughter and then over to Matthew mulling things over—and all of this with a narrator who is almost a character in the story with their own voice, making commentary.
Just like big shoulder pads and pegged jeans have left the scene, the omniscient point of view is pretty much out of style. Readers prefer to be tightly connected to one character at a time.
Another reason omniscient POV isn’t done much is that it’s extremely hard to pull off well—and many beginning writers think that they can bounce from one character’s head to another and call it omniscient POV. Head hopping is not omniscient POV, and it wasn’t in Dickens’s time, either.
A few modern books manage an omniscient POV, but they’re often sweeping epic fantasies or very stylized books, such as Lemony Snicket’s The Series of Unfortunate Events, where the narrator breaks fourth wall and chats with the audience. It’s a deliberate literary technique. Another book that works with an omniscient POV is The Source, by James Michener (published in the 1960s), because of the scope of the book, which covers literally thousands of years.
In general, avoid using an omniscient POV and focus on the two other most common POVs:
Third person POV is where you’re close to a character. You’re in their head, using “he” or “she” while explaining events, thoughts, and feelings. You have options here as far as how close you are to your POV character. Are you as the writer acting more like a camera recording what is seen (what’s called “distant third POV”)? Or are you very right inside the POV character’s head, recording thoughts, feelings, and even physical reactions like a racing heart and sweaty palms (“close, or tight third”)?
Of course, there’s a wide spectrum on how distant or close you can be with third person POV.
One big benefit to using a third person POV is that you’re not limited to one character. If you have two or three main characters, you can switch between them. Be in David’s head for one scene, Joe’s for the next, and Allison’s for scene 3.
The trick, of course, is deciding which POV character to use in each scene or chapter (be sure to use only one POV per scene or chapter). Don’t pick your POV character arbitrarily. Select him or her based on the events and conflicts in that scene: whose eyes would be the most effective for telling this part of the story through?
Which character has the most as stake in this scene? As a rule of thumb, that person should be your POV character for that particular scene.
This POV has the advantage of making the reader more feel tightly connected with the main character than any other POV. We’re in their head, knowing every thought and feeling as if we’re experiencing it ourselves in the moment.
On the other hand, one drawback to first person POV is that since everything is told from one person’s eyes, you can’t write a scene without your main character being in it. Another issue is that you can’t hide information from your reader, because everything the main character knows, the reader needs to know—we’re in their head! Hiding information from the reader in first person is cheating.
Writing a POV
Whichever POV you select, let yourself get immersed in that character for the scene you’re working on. How would your particular character describe the situation? For example, a magazine cover model would likely use very different words to describe a car’s engine than a mechanic would. Be sure to use their vocabulary, thought processes, way of viewing the world and interpreting situations.
Another thought to consider: what if your POV character doesn’t always interpret situations accurately? Those kinds of misunderstandings can add additional conflict and drama as new problems arise and must be sorted out.
When revising a piece, go back to see if you’ve added any of these. POV intrusions are moments when you call attention to the fact that you’re in a particular POV. They are usually done with the five senses. For example, if we’re in Joe’s POV and a loud truck rumbles by and spits out smoke, a POV intrusion would say that Joe saw the truck, heard the rumbling, and smelled the smoke.
That’s telling. If we’re in Joe’s POV, just show the truck, describe the sound, and have Joe gagging on the smell of the smoke. If you’ve established your POV well, your reader will know he saw and heard those things. You’re showing instead of telling.
Point of view is very much connected to characterization, and when done well, not only will your scene and plot be stronger, but your character will be that much more real to the reader.