Understanding PoV

Point of view in a story or a novel can be tricky.  Chances are, if you are writing a novel, then you have come across some kind of problem with point of view in the past.  Point of view (or PoV) is the perspective from which you are writing.

Before we delve deeper into this topic, allow me to present a brief overview of PoV.  This article will concentrate on the three most common points of view– First person, second person, and third person.

First person can be very difficult to write in, although many authors manage it well.  My first short story, “For I have Sinned“, was written in first person.  This PoV was essential for the atmosphere that I wanted to create.

In first person point of view, we write directly from the main character’s perspective.  This PoV is obviously very limiting.

Here is an example of first person point of view, taken directly from my short story, “For I Have Sinned“:

I touch the tender area around my eye and feel the scratch on my cheek; David’s cheap wedding band had sliced my skin the night before.

Note that this story is also written in present tense.  I will touch on present, past, and future tense in another article.  For now, before I get you thoroughly confused, we’ll continue with PoV.

In second person point of view, it is as though the author is speaking directly to the reader.  This PoV reminds me of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that I used to read when I was a kid.  This PoV is seldom used.

Here is an example of second person point of view:

You walk down the dark corridor, reaching for the gun in your holster.  You hear a strange noise and you startle, your heart pounding in your chest. 

In third person point of view, multiple characters can tell the story.  This PoV is much less limiting than the other two, and is the most common.  Most problems enter the picture when one point of view changes too quickly to another point of view.  I’ll explain that in a moment.

Here is an example of third person point of view, taken from my novel, Check Out Time:

Naomi stared down at her feet.  She wasn’t really listening to the pastor.  She couldn’t help but think that it was a little silly that someone who didn’t really know her mother was leading the ceremony.

The biggest mistake that writers make is suddenly switching from one PoV to another.  I personally made this mistake because I was thinking of how I was seeing the story in my head.  I was thinking of it as though it were a movie, and I wasn’t considering how it would come across to the reader.  I had this problem with Check Out Time.

I had one chapter toward the end of the novel where the PoV switched several times between Naomi and two or three other characters.  I did this because I wanted the reader to see how everything that was occurring was interrelated.  Instead, I only succeeded in confusing my editor, who would become engrossed in one point of view, only to be suddenly ripped away, and thrown into a completely different point of view.

Here is an example of a confusing switch from one point of view to another:

Robert looked lovingly at Alice and took her hand.  “I love you,” he said.  She smiled and kissed him, being a woman of action, rather than words.  They strolled across the lawn and toward the sidewalk.

He looked on with pride, content to see his son so happy.  It was a beautiful day, and they were a beautiful couple.  Ned walked back inside, and shut the door. 

Imagine that Ned had absolutely nothing to do with the entire chapter, other than the fact that he was standing in the front yard surveying this romantic scene.  I think it’s an issue of atmosphere.  The writer wants to paint a full picture of what is going on, and they want to include everything, thinking that it will draw the reader in.  This can also be an issue of patience; the author may be trying to show the reader too much at once.  For whatever reason, the author wants the reader to know that Ned is proud of his son, Robert.

On the contrary, this confuses the reader.    Suddenly, we are left wondering, “Wait, I didn’t realize Robert had a son!” A split second later, we are thinking, “Okay, um . . . Ned was standing there.  But where did he come from? Everything was from Robert’s perspective, and now all of a sudden we are looking at everything from Ned’s point of view.  Huh?”

There are more subtle mistakes to be made, of course.  Regardless of how the mistake is made, it often involves the author writing from one character’s point of view, and then doing one of two things:

a.)  We are suddenly and without warning seeing everything from another character’s point of view, such as in the above example.

b.) The story shifts to another point of view very briefly, perhaps for only one sentence or one paragraph.

For example, in one scene, we are with Don and Lacy while they are having dinner at Duffy’s, and all of a sudden there is this brief interlude that is something along the lines of, “Uncle Bob picked up his phone and called Lacy, but he was disappointed when no one picked up.”  End chapter.

You don’t even need to bring Uncle Bob’s perspective into it.  Maybe Lacy picks up her phone at some point during dinner and says, “Oh, dear, Uncle Bob called.  He must be trying to figure out how to use the DVD player again.”

Basically, point of view can be tricky, but it doesn’t have to be.  Your first step in mastering the art of PoV is merely understanding it.

The best advice I can give any writer when they are struggling with their story is:

Put it down and give it a rest.  Walk away for a while.  Let it go for as long as you need to.  Come back to it when you’re ready, and re-read your work from a subjective point of view.  This can take a long time, but it is worth it.  If you think you’re having a problem with point of view, be sure to look for the common signs: frequent shifting between perspectives, short scenes set in another location and from another point of view, and confusing switches of any kind.  Ask someone else to read it, and see if they spot anything that indicates an issue with point of view.

Further reading:

Writing Advice– Point of View

The Literary Lab– A mid-distance point of view

Novel Writing Advice– Point of View

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