Thursday, April 19, 2012

Point of View

This quote only loosely illustrates our subject today, but it struck me as funny, so I’m sharing it.

If you’re a fiction writer, you’ve heard the term POV. It’s an acronym for point of view, which is shown through a story’s characters. Three basic points of view exist within the context of a narrative.

  • First person – Story is told by the main character with words like I, me, and mine.
  • Third person – Story is told from the perspective of the main character driving the scene. Short stories are typically told from the main character’s POV. Novels often utilize more than one character’s POV, though never within the same scene. (More about that in a moment.)
  • Omniscient – Story is told from an all-knowing perspective. The author gives information the characters don’t know because events and/or their limited interaction with each other haven’t revealed the information yet. Sometimes authors slip into omniscient POV without intending to.

Here’s an omniscient example from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers:

“In small South Carolina towns, most houses are built in the shadow of tall trees. Each autumn, the children charged with the yard care curse the leaves that seem to multiply on their way to the ground…One such tree, a tall oak, stood in the front yard of the house Coral Blake rented from a man who had long ago moved his family north.”
Here’s the switch to third person from the same book:

“Coral Blaze mopped the gritty sweat out of her eyes and gazed up at the dusty green underside of the oak. The dog days of August had settled in, it seemed, and like most folks in Greeleyville, South Carolina, she took cover from the sun on her front porch under that grandfatherly tree. My, how she hated that tree in the autumn.”
The difference between the two scenes is stark. One is distant, omniscient. The other draws the reader into the story.

Recently, I read about a contemporary author whose latest book has mixed POV, meaning a switch between first and third person. I’ve not read the book, but it’s not the norm. It’s also not something you want to try as an unpublished author, or you’ll likely stay unpublished. Select your voice and stick with it.

However, the beauty and freedom of third person is you can change whose POV the reader will see. This must be done with scene changes.

When an author changes POV within a scene, that’s referred to as head-hopping, which is a no-no in the literary field. In the past, legendary writers like Larry McMurtry, author of the Lonesome Dove series, have utilized head-hopping and have done so effectively. Believe me, you and I are not in his league—yet. You might as well put a banner on the cover of your manuscript that says “newbie,” if you intend to try it to find out.

I used this scene in a previous post about tag lines. It also serves well to show POV.

“Have some juice.” John extended the orange juice pitcher.
Brenda didn’t want juice. In fact, she didn’t want to be sharing a table with someone who had betrayed her. Besides, she hated orange juice. And he knew it. Probably the reason he offered it. “No, thank you.”
John thumped the pitcher on the table, sloshing the juice over the top.
“Now you’ve done it.” Brenda reached for a dishtowel. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times.”
“You’ve told me what?” John scowled over his forkful of eggs.
“Clumsy.” Brenda returned his scowl and picked up her fork. If she tried hard enough to ignore him, maybe he’d take the hint and disappear. For good.

The POV in this scene is obviously Brenda’s. As a writer, I can show John’s mood or nature without showing you his thoughts. I do this by his clumsiness, scowling, and apparent disregard for Brenda’s feelings. He doesn’t seem to have a clue as to what makes her tick. Yet, I’ve not revealed his thoughts. While we might assume John’s thoughts, he would be scene-stealing to interject them here. However, in another scene, I could switch POV, and we’d learn what he really thinks about Brenda.

A writer must guard against slipping into another character or omniscient POV. I mention the proofreading/revising stage of a manuscript almost weekly. This is another item to put on your checklist when proofreading.

If you have any questions or would like to comment about POV or another writing subject, please do so in the comment section below. I’d love to hear from you.


  1. This is a very timely post for me, Laura! I've been having a POV dilemma for my WIP today, but your examples have cleared up my concerns. Thank you :D (I found you on twitter under #writers by the way)

    1. You're welcome, Catherine. I'm glad the post helped make POV clear for you. Thanks for your comment and letting me know how you found my blog. I love feedback! Please stop by again and let me know how your WIP is progressing.

  2. While I'm not a fiction writer, I love learning more about this. Thanks for sharing such great info. I have to say that Mabel L. Robinson's description of a human from a dog's point of view struck me as a little strange..."elongated" seems like an odd descriptive word, especially coming from a dog. But then, how do I know what words dogs think in : )
    Thanks for giving these writing tips.
    By the way, Laura, consider turning off your word verification. Studies show they cut down on comments, and I couldn't figure out the first one so was given a second one on my comment. Blogspot has employed a double word catcha that is a pain. If you feel you'll get a lot of spam, you can moderate comments, but I use neither comment moderation or word verification on my blogs and have no problems.

    1. LOL, Gail. The quote is strange, but it made me laugh. As a dog owner, I often wonder what my dog thinks. Thanks for the tip about the word verification. Blogger has made some changes recently that I don't enjoy, but what can you do? Thanks for the advice and for stopping by!

  3. Nice job.

    By the way, I just read Francine River's book, A Voice in the Wind, for our book club at church. She head-hops all over the place! I wanted to shout, "No fair!"
    Actually, I wanted to edit it, because I often had to reread a paragraph to figure out who was thinking it.
    That proves your point, though. We have to follow the rules to get published.

    1. I feel the same way when I read a book with head hopping. However, Francine Rivers is in that elite group who can break rules because they've proven they can follow them very effectively. Yet, rules are there so readers don't get confused. I still prefer no head-hopping in the books I read. Thanks for stopping by and joining the conversation!

  4. Thank you Laura, I would love to have you share more about pov.

    1. You're welcome, Glenda. I'm glad you stopped by again. I will keep that in mind for future blogs. Meanwhile, do you have a specific question about POV that I could try to answer?

  5. I catch myself slipping into different pov...although I wasn't aware of this team. Thank you for drawing my attention to the need to be careful.

    1. You're welcome, Shanda. I do the same thing. I often catch slip-ups in the revision process.

  6. I want to learn to be a better writer. You make it sound so easy and I know it is hard to do. Funny coincidence, I used the word omniscient in my post today. I'm learning to write in different styles, but it's scary and I need to learn. I'm glad I found you.

    1. Learning to write is not so much hard as it is a learning process. Once you have the tools to learn and put the time into it, your writing will improve. I agree--the process can be scary. I'm glad you stopped by. I post every Thursday for writers, so please visit again. I look forward to hearing more about your writing.