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Point of View–How Important Is It?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

“If all but one of the instruments on a surgeon’s tray had been sterilized, that exception would be a danger to the patient. It can be said that one slip of point of view by a writer can hurt a story badly, and several slips can be fatal.”
~Sol Stein
(Stein on Writing, 129)

What is point of view, anyway?
Point of view is the vehicle through which a reader experiences the story. When you tell someone about the idiot who cut you off in traffic, you are telling the story through a First Person Limited point of view—you’re using “I” and “me” to refer to the character (yourself), and though you may conjecture at the thoughts of anyone else involved, you cannot actually know what was going on inside his or her head. (And this paragraph is an example of second-person POV.)

“So what I told you was true . . . from a certain point of view. . . . 
You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
~Obi Wan Kenobi
Return of the Jedi

Point of view, as Master Kenobi so cryptically and frustratingly pointed out, is the perspective we bring to what we experience. If I go through the exact same experience with someone else, and then each of us is questioned separately about it, whoever is hearing the stories is going to hear different details. I am a sight-oriented person, so I may give a lot of information about the visual details. If the person with me is a sound-oriented person, they’re going to give more description of the sounds . . . each of us tells the story from our own point of view. This is what makes us unique individuals. This is what we want to give to our readers—a unique, individual perspective on the story that’s going on.

“Nothing’s beautiful from every point of view.”

Have you ever noticed when you’re writing “as” one character, your words come out differently than when you’re writing “as” another character? Part of this is the personalizing process you went through in your character development. But you’ll find as you get deeper into your characters’ heads, as you let them start talking, the story really does start to be told from the character’s point of view and not from yours.

“He’s a real Nowhere Man,
Sitting in his Nowhere Land, 
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody. 
Doesn’t have a point of view,
Knows not where he’s going to . . .”
~John Lennon

Establish POV Immediately
Point of view needs to be established in the very first chapter of your book. If you are going to write in first person, obviously, you start out with a first sentence/paragraph told using “I” and “me” pronouns. Yes, some first person narrative can be written without using those pronouns, but you don’t want to use a more omniscient tone (i.e., telling about someone else right off the bat without personalizing it to the character who’s seeing/thinking it) and then suddenly throw the reader into first person. If you are going to write in third person/omniscient, make sure you establish a pattern in the very first few paragraphs—or as soon as you have more than one character. Using an unseen narrator helps in establishing this POV. If you are going to write in third person/limited, give the character at least five or six pages (about 2,000 words) before switching to another POV . . . then make the POV change very clear—with a double-carriage-return blank space or with some kind of physical divider such as *  *  * or ### centered in the blank space between the scenes.

Whatever you chose, DO NOT SWITCH BETWEEN STYLES, as it will come across as inexperience and a lack of knowledge of writing craft. Although some new writers have done it and been published, most experts, editors, agents, etc., strongly recommend against mixing first- and third-person or having more than one first-person narrator in a story, unless it is absolutely vital and the story can be told no other way. Of course, if you’re Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Danielle Steel, you can pretty much do whatever you want to (as people are buying the books for the name on the cover, not the craft of the story between the pages).

“I think you have to have a real point of view that’s your own.
You have to tell it your way.”
~Mary Ellen Mark

Give Third Person/Limited a Try
Give your characters a chance to tell it their way. I used to write third person/omniscient. I loved being able to hop from head to head to head within a scene, to see how each and every character reacted to a situation, to know what they were thinking at any given time—sometimes even within a sentence. Non-writing folks aren’t usually bothered by head-hopping as much as writers are. They’re used to it. We all grew up reading head-hopping novels. But the industry standard has swung, for third-person, anyway, to LIMITED POV. That means seeing/experiencing the action through only one character’s eyes/thoughts. That means camping out for a full scene in the head of just one character. That means getting to know your characters MUCH better than you may with omniscient/head-hopping POV.

After my first writers’ conference in 2001 where I really learned what POV was and that limited is what publishers were looking for, I started forcing myself to write in limited POV. And I discovered I love it. I now prefer writing in limited POV. Not knowing what every character is thinking raises the conflict and tension of every scene. It’s easier to keep secrets from the reader until the right time to reveal them. It’s easier to generate misunderstandings and conflict in relationships between characters that are believable, because the reader isn’t given the chance to see things from both perspectives—they’re only seeing the truth . . . “from a certain point of view.” Even if you don’t stick with it as your POV of choice, you will learn a lot about how to write descriptively—because you will only be able to describe other characters’ thoughts by their facial expression, tone of voice, body language, etc., that the POV character can experience. It’s a great craft-strengthening exercise.

What POV do you typically write in? Have you ever tried writing more than one style of POV (i.e., first- and third-person) within the same story? How did that work out for you? What are some examples of stuff you’ve read where you really liked or disliked the POV the author chose? How would you have done it differently?

Next time, we’ll start getting into some of the nitty-gritty of the different POV styles . . . pros/cons, strengths/weaknesses.

  1. Wednesday, June 27, 2007 8:10 pm

    In Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment he frequently goes inside characters’ heads, and I liked the insight I gained through the exercise, but it was always jarring and required re-reading after (sentences in) I figured out he was “doing it again.”

    There was nothing in the typesetting to indicate a new POV, no italics (my method of choice for recognizing thoughts) or in textual clues or double carriage returns.

    Certainly motivates me to be very clear at all times who’s talking/thinking. It totally changed the way I perceived something to hear another character say the same words.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wednesday, June 27, 2007 9:40 pm

    I typically write in 3rd person limited. At least that’s what I’m striving for! I’m one of the people that 1st person grates on my nerves for the most part. I can handle short stuff done that way, but a whole novel in that POV is a big turnoff as a reader, and I’m not overly fond of writing that way.


  3. Thursday, June 28, 2007 10:37 am

    What I’m working on now with POV is getting into really deep POV. It’s amazing the little nuances that come out as you study this and work at it more.


  4. Thursday, June 28, 2007 12:23 pm

    Ahh I’ve gotten into countless debates over this one – not on what POV is and the importance of it – believe me it’s probably one of the most important aspects of writing.

    I always argue with people the difference between Viewpoint and POV. To me they’re different.

    To me:
    Definition of Point of View (POV): HOW the narrator is telling the story. Your basic POVs (that I believe everyone is familiar with) First Person and Third Person. (as you explained)

    Definition of Viewpoint: WHO is telling the story.

    Therein lies the difference between the two. POV tells us HOW the story is being told, first person, third person… Whereas Viewpoint tells us WHOSE head we are in. You can have multiple POVs but typically you only find one POV in a book (It’s either in 3rd person or 1st person, but not both–typically).

    However you almost always (with the exclusion of children’s books) find multiple viewpoints. Typically there are at least two in most novels. The Heroine and Hero’s. There could also be the Villain’s…and so on.

    When we’re in critique sessions though everyone calls viewpoint –> POV and it drives me nuts. They say you switched POVs in this paragraph…they didn’t switch from 3rd person to 1st person. They switched from one characters thoughts to another…that’s viewpoint.

    Okay sorry to go ranting. 🙂 I just got back from a session were everyone talked about head hoping and referred to it as changing POVs drove me nuts. 😀

    Love your post 😀 You actually describe POV as i think it should be described 🙂


  5. Thursday, June 28, 2007 2:49 pm

    I have to be in the mood to read first person POV. Not sure why. Maybe it just feels like it takes more work. So I mostly read third person POV and I only write third person.

    Jennifer, I think you’ve got something there. The way you explain the difference between POV and viewpoint took me all the way back to junior high English class. Makes perfect sense, and I agree that a lot of folks confuse the two. More clarity on this issue would help a lot of folks, including myself.


  6. Thursday, June 28, 2007 3:22 pm

    I write in third person/limited POV. (Though the occasional goof-up happens, but that’s why I have such stellar crit partners.) I used to do my private scribblings in third person/omniscient, and I still remember that lightbulb moment when I learned what limiting the POV could do for the tension in the story.

    I liken strict limited POV to the Hindu proverb of the blind men and the elephant. One man touched the trunk and thought the elephant must be built like a snake. Another touched a leg and declared an elephant was built like a tree. A third felt the side and said elephants are built like walls. Another felt the tail and said elephants are like ropes. Each interpreted the world according to his limited exposure.

    Our characters do the same. They, unlike the author, don’t know what the other person is thinking, or what’s going on in the other room or behind curtain number one.

    The reader will invest a bigger stake in the book if they don’t know it all either and must discover it along with the characters.

    Yay for strict POV! 🙂


  7. Friday, June 29, 2007 9:15 am

    Headhopping drives me nuts! And it amazes me still how much there is out there, and how even some non-bestselling authors are getting away with it. A trend, I wonder?



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