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Point of View–Giving POV the Third Degree

Monday, July 2, 2007

As hinted at and promised, here is the “nuts and bolts” explanation of what “Point of View” means. (Remember, for the purposes of the discussion here, POV is the narrative style for the story, while Viewpoint refers to which character’s head we’re inside of.)

There are three main aspects to consider when choosing a Point of View narrative style: Person, Omniscience, and Tense.

Good things come in threes. There are three “Persons” (did “Holy, Holy, Holy” just start running through your head?):

    FIRST: I went to the store. We had a conversation. (Viewpoint pronouns are I, me, mine, we, our, ours.)
    SECOND: You went to the store, and you had a conversation with the butcher. (Viewpoint pronouns are you, your, yours.) Run, do not walk, away from this Person. Several authors have experimented with this in the past, and it hasn’t done well.
    THIRD: Connie went to the store. She picked up bread and milk, then stopped in the meat department and had a conversation with the butcher. (Viewpoint pronouns are he, she, him, her, his, hers, they, their, theirs.)

Here, we have three choices, as well.

    OMNISCIENT: Also known as “head-hopping.” The narrator is all-knowing and exists outside of the characters’ heads, dipping into any character’s thoughts at any given time throughout the story. This is the style of POV where the narrator is truly a narrator—almost an additional character who is telling this story. The voice/tone of the story is that of the narrator’s, not of the individual characters. Key signpost phrases are along the lines of: “little did he know . . .” or “he didn’t see the maniacal smile that overtook Gordon’s face at his words.” The narrator is allowed to tell the reader things that the characters might not know or haven’t experienced for themselves.
    LIMITED: Camping out in only one character’s viewpoint per scene. There is no obvious narrator. The story is told completely from the characters’ own thoughts and experiences. The author cannot include anything in the narrative that the viewpoint character does not experience/know for him- or herself. When in one characters’ viewpoint, another character’s thoughts can be surmised from her body language, tone of voice, or facial expression, but it cannot be known.
    OBJECTIVE: This really is not used in fiction as much, but more so in Journalism. This is the “just the facts, ma’am” narrative style.

Ready for another set of three? This is the tense of verbs you choose to use in your narrative style. (And this is by no means exhaustive, just the three that usually show up in prose.)

    PRESENT: I go to the window and open it. Outside, birds sing, and the wind blows gently. (Action is happening in the here-and-now.)
    PAST/ACTIVE: I went to the window and opened it. Outside, birds sang, and the wind blew gently. (Verbs are past tense, but because this is the most common form of storytelling, it still seems to be immediate action.)
    PAST/PASSIVE: I had gone to the window and had opened it. Outside, birds were singing, and the wind was blowing gently. (Usually a form of the “be” verb plus a gerund—word ending in -ing—or a form of the “have” verb + past-tense verb.)

Maybe it’s a stretch to separate the two Past Tenses (I did need three, after all), however, some authors choose to use one or the other. Passive past tense is usually much weaker and slower than Past/Active. One thing that most critiquers, contest judges, and editors will tell you is to choose a strong active verb instead of a was + -ing combo. Sometimes, though, a was + -ing is okay, maybe even necessary in a Past/Active story. The “have” + past-tense verb, when used in a Past/Active story can indicate that something happened before the immediate action: Rory slipped into the back row of the lecture hall. Last time she’d done this, the professor had called her out and made a spectacle of her for being late.

So what are the combinations?
FIRST PERSON/OMNISCIENT: Yes, you can have an omniscient first person narrator. This is a narrator who does know what’s going on in other people’s heads because he or she is telling this story not as it’s happening, but after the fact. (“Little did I know, at the same time, Julianne was stealing my boyfriend from me.”) This is, for obvious reasons, going to be best told in past tense.

FIRST PERSON/LIMITED: This is the most familiar form of first person and can be told in present or past tense. It is told from the “I” viewpoint, the story unfolding as events unfold. The “I” character is experiencing everything as it happens. The limitations of this is that the “I” character is the only one whose thoughts/experiences you can reveal to the reader. You can never get into someone else’s head. The other liability of this POV is the issue of mortal danger. If the character is telling the story from an “I” viewpoint, the reader is going to know that the character will most likely survive whatever happens.

SECOND PERSON/ANYTHING: Run, do not walk, away from this POV.

THIRD PERSON/OMNISCIENT: In third person, again, this is “head hopping.” It can be told in past or present tense, but past tense tends to work better. Some readers/writers prefer the “god-like” feel of this POV, the ability to know what any and every character (even sometimes nearby animals) think about what’s going on in the scene. The difficulty with it is that it has a tendency to keep the reader at arms’ length from the characters, because there is no true intimacy built by staying inside a single character’s thoughts for any length of time.

THIRD PERSON/LIMITED: This is the industry standard for third-person narrative. To reiterate what I wrote in a previous post: this means seeing/experiencing the action through only one character’s eyes/thoughts. It’s camping out for a full scene in the head of just one character. This POV gives your reader the opportunity to get to know your characters MUCH better than you may with omniscient/head-hopping POV. This POV is very similar to the first person/limited POV in that it’s taking place inside the character’s head as the events around them unfold. There is no obvious narrator-character in this style; the reader is experiencing everything from the viewpoint of the character whose head we’re in for that particular scene. Again, as I mentioned before, in this POV, it is much easier to build tension, to heighten the conflict, when the reader only knows as much as the viewpoint-characters do. Past/Active tense is preferred, but many authors are starting to use Present tense in this POV.

Tomorrow, my crit partner Erica Vetsch will be sharing with us her experience with learning POV and incorporating it into her wonderful historical novel, Drums of the North Star, a finalist in the 2007 ACFW Genesis Contest!

  1. Monday, July 2, 2007 2:58 pm

    I soooo remember a ‘going down for the third and final time’ feeling when all the options were laid out for me the first time and I tried to get a grip on them.

    I know this series is going to be somebody’s life-preserver, tossed out just when they need it.



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