Point Of View

After years of writing and teaching novel writing, I firmly believe that perspective or point of view is the number one style problem for most writers. It is also one of the easiest problems to correct with a bit of awareness of both the problem and possible solutions. For the sake of simplicity, in this chapter I will stick with the term point of view, although it is interchangeable with perspective.

When considering how to tell your story, the first thing you have to do is select a point of view. This may be the most critical decision you have to make. Often the type of story you are writing will clearly dictate the point of view, but a good understanding of the various modes of presentation is essential because this is one area where beginning novelists often have problems. They may select the right point of view, but it is often used poorly because of a lack of understanding of the tool itself.

Regardless of which point of view (or points of view) you choose to use, there is one thing you must have: you as the author must have a good feeling about the point of view with which you are telling the story. If you don't have a warm and fuzzy about that, this confusion will most definitely be translated to the reader. Remember, ultimately, point of view is your voice as a writer.

Some people write like an MTV music video: point of view flying all over the place, giving glimpses into each character but never really keeping the reader oriented. I say this because the best analogy I can give for point of view is to look at it as your camera. You as author are the director: you see and know everything in your story. But the reader only sees and knows what the camera records: the point of view you choose. You must always keep that in mind. You see the entire scene, but your lens only records the words you put on the page and you have to keep your lens tightly focused and firmly in hand.

The key term to know, like a director, is the word 'cut'. A cut in film terminology is when the camera is either a) stopped, then restarted later, or b) stopped and another camera is then used. To a writer, a cut is a change in point of view. In an MTV music video, you can go about three seconds before having to 'cut'. Robert Altman, in the beginning of The Player, uses an extremely long single camera sequence before the first cut—another reason to watch the film.

The most critical thing to remember about point of view is that you have to keep the reader oriented. The reader has got to know from what point of view they are viewing the scene. Lose that and you lose the reader. Thus, as with everything else, there is no wrong point of view to write in, or even mixture of point of views to write in, but it is wrong to confuse the reader as to the point of view through which they are 'seeing' the story.

Take the camera point of view a bit further. When directors do a scene, they immediately look into a viewfinder and watch the recording of the take. They do this because, although they saw what happened, they have to know what the camera recorded. As an author, you have to get out of your own point of view as the writer and be able to see what you write as the reader sees it.

There are three common modes of point of view in novels: first person, third person and omniscient.

First person means you use the word "I" quite a bit. It is giving the camera to one character and letting that character film a documentary while doing a voiceover.

This point of view has its advantage in that the narrator is telling his/her own story. The major disadvantage is that the reader can only see and know what the narrator knows. The narrator can be a witness or a participant in the story. You, as the author, are absent in this mode, thus you surrender part of your control in writing. Remember, the first person narrator is not you the author, but rather the character in the story.

Note that there are certain types of genre that fit first person very well, most particularly mysteries/detective stories. That's logical if you understand the advantages of first person: by using that mode, the writer can bring the reader along for the ride, disclosing clues as the narrator discovers them.

The major disadvantage of first person is that your narrator has to be present in every scene. Because of this, many writers make their narrator the protagonist. A problem can crop up in that the narrator will then be a critical part of the plot and have many things happen to them and around them. Will the narrator be able to react realistically while still telling the story in a coherent form?

Another problem can be the logistics of getting your narrator to all the key events in order to narrate them. I have seen writers end up with very convoluted, and unrealistic, plots in order to do that. If the narrator isn't present at these important scenes, then they find out about them by other means, which can lessen suspense and definitely lessens the immediacy of the action in the story as you have major action occurring off-stage.

Some authors use a narrator who isn't one of the main characters—what is known as a detached narrator. The narrator is more of an observer. This has some advantages. Think of the Sherlock Holmes stories—who is narrating? Watson. Why? Because this allows the author to withhold what Holmes is thinking from the audience.

Something else to think about—should the reader believe your narrator? If everything your narrator says is fact, then there might not be much suspense. But think about the movie The Usual Suspects. The story is narrated by a character, who it turns out, is the man everyone is searching for. In a book, you can raise suspense if your first person narrator is caught in a small lie early on in the story—the reader will then have to be more judgmental about everything else the narrator says.

Another big issue of first person narration is the issue of tense and time. There are two ways to view time in a first person story:

1. I remember when. In this case, the narrator is telling the story in past tense, looking backward. This immediately reduces the suspense of whether the narrator survives the story. There is also the issue that the narrator is thus withholding information from the reader—the narrator obviously knows the ending, yet chooses not to reveal it to the reader.

2. In real time. The narrator is telling the story as it unfolds around him or her. A problem with this is what happens when the narrator is involved in an emotionally overwhelming event? Will he still be able to narrate the story?

The big problem with time sense is that even the best writers tend to mix 1 and 2 above. At times they will be in real time, then every so often slip into past time.

A further problem with first person is many writers tend to slide from first into second person point of view. Any time you put you in your narrative, addressing the reader, you have moved from first to second person. You should avoid doing that.

There are ways to get around the disadvantages of first person. Examine some first person novels and you will discover them. Interview With A Vampire by Anne Rice is an interesting use of first person and the title tells you why. She has the first person of the reporter start the story but shifts into a first person narrative by the vampire Louis through the medium of the interview. She can go back in time with Louis and then return to the present with the reporter, both in first person. She has two levels of interest and suspense: the present fate of the narrator, and the fate of the vampire in his own tale.

There are other novelists who have come up with novel ideas (pun intended) to tell first person stories while getting around some of the disadvantages.

I place great emphasis in my own writing career and when teaching upon reading and also upon watching movies/videos, but I watch videos and read books in a different mode as a "writer." I study them for structure. To see what the author/ screenwriter/ director did with the subject matter. How it was presented. When you pick up a novel, the first thing you should note is what person it is written in. Then ask yourself why the author chooses that point of view. What did the novel gain from that point of view?

When I give examples in a little bit, you will see more clearly the advantages and disadvantages of first person.

One thing about first person to keep in mind. It is the voice most novice writers naturally gravitate to, but it is one of the most difficult voices to do well. Because of that, there is an initial negative impression among agents and editors when confronted with a first person story.

Third person allows the author to be like a movie camera moving to any set and recording any event, as long as one of the characters is lugging the camera. It also allows the camera to slide in behind the eyeballs of any character, but beware; do it too often or awkwardly and you will lose your reader very quickly. Perhaps one of the hardest things to master is to not get in your characters' heads to learn their thoughts, but rather letting their actions and words let the reader figure those thoughts out. This is the infamous "show don't tell" rule of writing and for me, the most difficult aspect of writing.

When you are in third person, everything that happens is filtered through the five senses whatever character whose point of view you are in at the moment. The character, in effect, is the camera.

There is a strong tendency, especially when first starting out, to write everything from the point of view of your characters. If you approach every scene with the question: Which character am I primarily viewing this scene through? then you are doing this. While this is the most common and accepted mode of point of view in writing novels, it also presents several problems if handled poorly:

It can be confusing to the reader as to whose head they are in or which character's point of view the scene is viewed from unless you make the breaks clear—a common technique for this is to change POV with each chapter. The reader then grows to expect a different character POV each time they start a new chapter.

Larry McMurty is a master of POV. In Commanche Moon the last book in the Lonesome Dove series, he would change third person POV every paragraph. Larry McMurty also won the Pulitzer Prize. Most of us aren't that good. He is able to completely change his writing style for each character so that you truly can feel that you are seeing the scene from that specific character's unique point of view.

You are cheating the reader if you are constantly in your characters' heads, yet you hold back something the character knows (which is sometimes necessary for your suspense). Try to keep a consistent depth of insight into each character's thoughts.

You give the reader the characters' thoughts, rather than letting the reader figure out the character from actions and dialogue. Unless you are very skilled, you will tend to have all your characters seem alike in the way that they think.

You will also tend to give each of your character's point of views on various topics, most especially other characters, and this can be confusing to the reader who has his/her own point of view from the story you have presented so far. You also might confuse the reader if the characters themselves have disagreeing point of views which is normal if the characters are realistic. This can be an advantage if handled well— differing point of views on the same scene can make for intriguing reading.

All the above is not to say don't get inside your characters' heads—indeed, as I mentioned it is the most common form in published books—but it is to say that when you do it, do it carefully. Keep the number of characters you do it with to a minimum. Make sure switches between characters' point of views are clear. The easiest way to do that is to stick with one character for each section/chapter of the novel so that when the reader flips the page to a new chapter they grow to expect to be moving to another character's head.

Another interesting problem with third person omniscient is that there's a tendency to say, "he (or she) thought" some other character acted in a certain way. Well, did the other character act that way? It's not fair to the reader to not let them know. Remember that if you stay with your characters'

point of views, you are controlling the lenses through which the reader sees the story unfold. You must be very careful with that control because that also means you are controlling the reality the reader sees.

If you stay with one character (everything seen from that one point of view throughout the novel) then you might write first person because what you end up doing is writing a third person/first person story. I have, however, read quite a few books that were third person where the POV stayed with one character throughout. Some mysteries are written that way. An author might do this if they want a little distance from the main character—i.e. they don't want to do the first-person voice-over.

While there is an issue in first person in terms of time— looking back—the issue in third person is more one of distance. How close does the author get to each character? How much of inner thoughts are revealed? This is the distance between being in third person point of view and omniscient. An omniscient narrator can get into any character's head but from an outside-in view, not an inside out. Thus, the author can bypass the character's own flaws and deluded perceptions. This is an advantage if you want it, but that deluded perception is what some entire books are built in. It is all a question of what you are trying to achieve.

The way I think about is this: are you simply assuming the character's five senses to tell the story? Or, are you going to assume their emotional and intellectual reactions also? The depth you do the latter is the depth of the insight into the character you are giving.

Something I have found to be generally true is that you have to very seriously look at the number of characters you are going to use to frame your point of view in the story. The reason for that is, the second you go into a character's mind, the reader assumes that that character is as essential to the plot as every other character whose point of view you have taken. A general rule of thumb that I try to keep in mind is that I should spend as much time on every character whose point of view I use. That general rule cuts out using too many characters' point of views.

Also consider what you are going to do when two or three characters whose point of view you use are going to be in the same scene. Are you going to shift from one to the other? Or stay with one? But then the reader wonders what the other characters whose point of view you've used elsewhere think and feel. A trend I have been following the more I write, is to limit the number of point of views I take in order to strengthen those characters in my story. I had a tendency early on to use too many characters' point of views and this weakened my characters.

Omniscient point of view. This is also known as authorial narrative. When I first began writing I felt I had to lock in third person on a character for every scene. And that worked. But the more I wrote, the more I wanted to use an omniscient point of view at times. I tend to use it for giving the reader expository information.

I liken authorial point of view to the camera getting pulled back in order to show the viewer more. There are times you might want to pull back so you can tell the reader more information or show the reader more than the characters who are in the scene might be able to see or know.

For example, a battle scene can be written much better from omniscient point of view if you want the reader to understand the battle. But if you want the reader to see how one specific character is responding to the danger of combat, you might stick with third person from that character's point of view.

One of the most difficult obstacles for me as a writer was accepting that I could write from the authorial point of view. That I can describe things as they are or were using my own voice as the author of the work. The more I write, the more I find it important to be able to do this. There may be some information that is not going to fit using third person. Also, you may get very tired of writing "he thought" over and over again and the reader may grow weary of seeing it.

EXAMPLES: You have to consider point of view before you begin your book and before you write every scene, much as a movie director has to.

Say you are going to write a thriller about a female FBI agent tracking down a vicious serial killer. You want to open your book with a scene that will grab the reader and set the stage for the suspense of the novel so you decide to open with a killing. What point of view will you use? Now, remember, no point of view is wrong—you just have to understand the advantages and disadvantages of your possible choices and make a knowledgeable decision.

You can decide to use third person from the point of view of the victim. This can build tension well, but also means the chapter will end abruptly.

You can use third person from the point of view of the killer, but remember that the killer knows who he or she is and therefore you have to be careful how much insight into the killer's head you allow. A technique some use to overcome that limitation is to have the killer think of himself in different terms than his reality. The killer is Joe Schmo, but when he's in killer mode he thinks of himself as Captain Hook, thus hiding his identity from the reader in third person insight.

You can do third person limited, which means seeing the scene from behind the killer. You're seeing the same thing the killer does, but you're not in his head.

Or, you could use omniscient, placing your 'camera' above the scene. Here, though, you have to be careful not to show too much and give away the killer's identity. Much like a director might choose a dark basement where the viewer can't see the killer's face, you will do the same.

Another example of considering how to write a scene is if you have two characters meeting in a pub for an important exchange of dialogue. They sit across from each other. How are you going to 'shoot' this scene? From third person of one of the characters? That means you get that character's thoughts and you describe the other character's reactions— i.e. the camera is on your POV character's shoulder. Is it important that the reader know one character's thought more than the other's? Or is it more important to show one character's reactions than the others?

Or, do you keep switching the camera back and forth across the booth, going from one to the other? If you're Larry McMurty and won a Pulitzer Prize you might be able to do that, but for most of us, such a constant switching of POV is very disconcerting to the reader. Or do you shoot it omniscient with the camera off to the side and simply show actions and record dialogue?

I've written in all the above points of view. I tend now to mix third person with omniscient. I use omniscient for expository information that would be awkward to continually push through a third person POV, but I move to third person to give more depth to my characters and give their reactions and thoughts to situations.

Here is the difference between an expository scene in third person limited and omniscient:

Third person limited:

Joe walked up the dirt road leading to the Giza Plateau. As he cleared the rise he saw the Sphinx off to his right and the three massive pyramids ahead. He knew that historians believed the largest of the three had been built by the Pharaoh Khufu, more popularly known as Cheops. He'd read that it was 138 meters high. He was impressed with magnitude of the construction, noting the massive blocks of aged stone and wondering how they had been moved so long ago.

Omniscient:

Joe walked up the dirt road leading to the Giza Plateau. The Sphinx was to his right and the three massive pyramids in front. Historians believe the largest pyramid was built by the Pharaoh Khufu, more popularly known as Cheops. It was 138 meters high, built of massive blocks of aged stone that must have taken a marvel of engineering to move.

The second presents the information directly, without having to be processed through Joe's head. If you want to break yourself of always using a character's point of view to write, try using the word THE to start sentences. This will help you in writing narrative. Remember that you are the AUTHOR. You can actually write down what you want to say without having to have it come from the point of view of one of your characters.

For more examples of the various points of views try to visualize the following: Your point of view character, Joe, is sitting in a room looking out a window into a courtyard. Two men walk into the courtyard, speaking to each other. They proceed to get into a fight. Notice the various ways I can write this scene:

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