April 3, 2010 by Renee
Ah, POV, the pesky little rule that seems to mystify and frustrate a surprisingly large number of authors. When I started writing ‘seriously’ I had no idea that there were rules to this POV thing. I didn’t even realize there were different kinds of POV. I head hopped like it was an Olympic event and I was going for the gold.
So, for all you noobs out there who are completely lost as I was, I’ll give you a few definitions here. I’ll also give you some ‘guidelines’ I’ve learned to help keep me on track.
POV (Point of View): the perspective from which a story is told. These are broken into three categories; first, second, and third.
First person point of view: “I” or “we” serves as the narrator. The narrator may be a minor character, describing the events as he or she sees them. The Great Gatsby is a good example of this. Often it is the main character narrating. Of course, in first person you have to consider whether or not the narrator is reliable. Is he or she relating what ‘really’ happened, or pulling the reader along showing events skewed by his or her perceptions and biases? A lot of beginning writers get stuck in the first person narrative, as generally it is the first one they attempt. I recommend writers try every POV, especially if a story isn’t ‘working’. Sometimes just switching the POV changes the whole feel of it, and you turn a lump of crap into a diamond.
Second person point of view: the narrator is telling the story to another character using “you”. Second person is the least commonly used POV in fiction. Why? It requires the reader to become the protagonist and the writer to become ‘at one’ with the reader. The writer must convince the reader that these events are happening to them, and that they are seeing and experiencing them. Writers often write second person in present tense (we’ll get to tense another time) because the combination of both adds a sense of immediacy to a scene.
Second person point of view is most often used in shorter works and more often in nonfiction. (instructional or advice giving articles). I’ve seen second person quite a bit in prologues. I think this is because it draws the reader in, making the story personal right away. “You don’t know me. My name is Joe Blow and I’m going to tell you my story. Oh, and did I mention I’m dead?” Sucky example, but you get the idea. Writing an entire book in second person would be very difficult, it’s hard to sustain for too long. Many writers choose to use it in a limited way; as a prologue, in random chapters to heighten suspense, or in a short story.
Third person point of view: the narrator relates all action in third person, using pronouns such as “he” or “she.” Third person point of view may be omniscient or limited. Although new writers tend to feel more comfortable in first person, many soon realize that third gives them more freedom in how the story is told. This is the most common POV used in fiction writing. Now which type of third should you use?
Third person limited: the narrator knows only the thoughts and feelings of a single character, while other characters are presented only externally. Third person limited gives the writer more freedom than first person, but less than third person omniscient.
Third person omniscient is a method of storytelling in which the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story. A writer may bring to life an entire world of characters.
Now what are you supposed to do with all of that? Well, as the author, it is your job to choose—carefully—the POV for each scene and to use equal caution when switching the POV from one character to another. Some good rules to follow:
1. One POV per scene. The tension is better when the reader doesn’t know the non-POV characters internal reaction right away. Sometimes the balance shifts and a switch might enhance the scene. But do NOT just switch it. My God, that’s one way to make a reader’s head swim. POV switches should always be clearly marked. Section breaks are there for a reason, use them, but sparingly. Of course, these are guidelines and experienced authors (key word: EXPERIENCED) have been known to shift POV within a scene. It’s very difficult to accomplish this without making the reader feel as thought they’re watching a tennis match and they will get confused real fast if you don’t know what you’re doing. Head hop if you want but remember the next point if you do.
2. Make the POV switches clear. This is a rule, not a guideline. A MUST. Don’t make your reader struggle or work just to know whose POV they’re in. If they’re having to think too much about where the hell the story is, who is talking, thinking, etc. they’re missing the story, or the big picture. Bad. Don’t do it.
3. You can improve the dramatic effect, or tension, by telling the story through the POV character with the most at stake. Often you may find that the scene falls flat, the tension just isn’t there. Try rewriting the scene from another character’s POV and see what happens.
4. I read in another blog about ‘I’m so Gawgeous Syndrome’ and I had to laugh. This is common to beginning writers and usually unintentional. Here’s an example:
“Joely stood atop the cliff, gazing down at the raging waters below. She had to do it, she wanted to do it. Her rich red hair whipped about her pale face, stinging her eyes. She stepped to the edge, and watched the loose earth crumble, sending bits of sand to the tempestuous sea. Her haunting blue eyes stared up to the heavens, a frown upon her face. She wondered if there really was a God, because if there was, surely he’d stop her.”
Now, this passage alternately switches, from Joely’s inner turmoil to what is called ‘author intrusion’. I’ve slipped in bits that pull the reader out of her inner thoughts simply to make it dramatic, and really, I’m ruining the effect. The blogger in this case calls it “I’m so gawgeous syndrome’ because if you put the scene in first person, it reads unnatural, as though the character is Paris Hilton.
“I stood atop the cliff, gazing down at the raging waters below. I had to do it. I wanted to do it. My rich red hair whipped about my pale face, stinging my eyes. I stepped to the edge and watched the loose earth crumble, sending bits of sand to the tempestuous sea. My haunting blue eyes…” Get it? No one would describe their hair as ‘rich red’ or their eyes as ‘haunting’. It’s not natural unless they’d also say “I’m so gawgeous, I can’t stand it.” If you’re trying to describe your character then try to relate the description to the environment or through her inner dialogue. “her hair whipped about her face and stung her eyes. She hated the red hue, often tempted to cut it short.” Or something like that.
5. Make sure that your POV characters actually add something to the overall story. Some authors give a POV scene to every character in the book. If it’s a simple, walk-on type of character that does not impact the story at all, don’t give them a POV. The reader will expect their purpose to be revealed eventually. When you do this you screw with the reader, slow the pace and ruin the tension. Plus, the reader will be really pissed when they realize they’ve been waiting for something that never happens.
Now I haven’t covered everything, just the basics. I’m trying to keep these posts fairly short. Remember? This one I consider medium, not overly long. Give me a break, I’m trying.
Which POV is best? To switch or not to switch? That, my writer friends, is up to you. I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions. Anyone have tips that might help a budding author wade through this messy, confusing thing called POV?