The Craft of Writing: Point-of-View

One of the first decisions a writer must make when starting a story is whose point-of-view (pov) to use? Will the author tell the story? A narrator? One of the characters? Several of the characters?

At the end of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century it was common for an all seeing/all knowing narrator to either tell the story or interrupt the story at times to inject a bit of knowledge. By the end of the twentieth century interruptions of that nature were considered “author intrusion.”

Over the years writers have strived to immerse the reader into the action of the story. This is especially true of genre fiction. The goal is to make the reader feel as if he or she is there, possibly in the mind of the character. This has led to the use of close pov. (And lately, to achieve this feeling, writers are even using the present tense to tell the story.)

Writers who use first person pov automatically use close pov. The character only knows what she sees, hears, or experiences. Rarely, nowadays would a story be written in first person with a narrator popping in to explain things the character wouldn’t know. (I say rarely because the moment I say never, someone will do it.)

Not all writers like to use first person pov, they find it too limiting. That is why, I believe, close pov has developed. The story is written in third person, but the reader is allowed to know the thoughts of the character. These thoughts can be written in two ways. For example:

Mary stared at the door that led to the basement. She wasn’t sure she could talk herself into going down there.

Mary stared at the door that led to the basement. I can’t do it, she thought.

Notice the change of pronoun from third person to first. Either way, we know what she’s thinking, but by using the “I” and italics the reader knows we’re in her thoughts.

 Multiple third person pov allows the reader insight to what other characters see, know, and feel. This is especially helpful when writing suspense. The reader knows something terrible is about to occur or has happened, but the main character(s) may not.

Some writers in the last few decades have experimented with using both third person pov and first in the same story. The main character(s) may be written using the third person pov while the villain is written using first person. Or the other way around.

Switching pov from one character to another can be tricky. A few writers can make the switch from paragraph to paragraph without confusing the reader. The more “literary” a novel, the more apt you are to see this. The main problem is when a writer doesn’t realize there’s been a switch in pov. Therefore remember, when you’re in a character’s pov, you only indicate what that character is seeing, thinking, or knows.

For example.

If I write, Sexy Sue had never seen anyone as tall as Handsome Harry. Her sapphire blue eyes sparkled when she smile up at him, and his stomach tighened, I’ve made a pov error. We start out in Sue’s pov. So how would she know her eyes were sparkling? How often do you think of your eye color when looking at someone? Another character might think this, but not Sue if I’m in her pov. And how would she know Harry’s stomach tightened. Only if we were in Harry’s pov would we know that.

I had one editor tell me by switching pov back and forth on a page, the writer lessens the reader’s ability to feel close to either character. And if more than two povs are used on the page, it can become quite confusing for the reader. Her feeling was it’s better to stay in one pov for at least several paragraphs, or switch at the end of a scene, or from chapter to chapter.

Which brings up the question: Which character is affected the most by what happens in this scene?

The answer to that question tells the writer whose pov to use.

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18 Responses to The Craft of Writing: Point-of-View

  1. Anne Stone says:

    Maris, I enjoyed this piece on POV. At least that is one aspect of my finished WIP I feel I did right. I have attended workshops on POV over the years. This is a great series of articles.

  2. Maris Soule says:

    Thanks, Anne, and I’m glad to see the words “finished WIP.” Good for you. I hope you find the perfect editor and publisher for the story.

  3. You manged to condense what writers need to know about POV in a very clear and understandable presentation. Nicelly done.

  4. Joe Novara says:

    Thanks, Maris,
    I needed that.

  5. Melissa Keir says:

    I’m doing most of my writing in first person these days. Your post really explains it to readers.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks, Melissa. All three of my P.J. Benson Mysteries are in first person. For those stories, I felt the reader needed to identify with P.J., her fears and her desire to find answers.

  6. Jacqueline Seewald says:

    Point of view is something that needs to be consciously decided upon. Mysteries that use a first person pt. of view often have unreliable narrators. This is a clever device. Generally, I prefer third person but I agree pt. of view should not skip around too much. It weakens the reader’s connection to the main character(s).

    • Maris Soule says:

      I’ve never used the unreliable narrator, Jacqueline. I’m not sure I could pull that off. Generally, if I use third person pov, I stick to two, but in the book I have coming out in 2017, I used multiple povs since I needed to have several events occurring at the same time.

  7. Lucy Kubash says:

    POV can be tricky. I love first person; present tense not so much. Thanks for this series of blogs, all helpful reminders.

  8. Excellent post, Maris. Your POV explanation will help many who don’t understand how it works.

  9. Julia Masters says:

    Thanks for condensing the key points about POV. I have been struggling with a few scenes in my current WIP and your reminder about which character is affected most by the scene was very timely. After determining who had the most to lose, I figured out which POV to use.