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Point of View - POV

I don’t subscribe rigidly to POV “rules” –I say learn the effects of POV changes and apply them for the best storytelling.

Point of View Part 1 (for beginners)

One of the most difficult things new writers struggle with is managing character point of view [POV]. It is difficult partly because some of the conventions surrounding its use are relatively new.

Many of the classics of literature used the omniscient POV — a narrator told the story. Sometimes the narrator was the author, sometimes it was the main character. sometimes it was someone else. The omniscient authorial voice has become virtually obsolete in modern fiction (with some exceptions).

In modern fiction, particularly popular fiction, the story is most frequently told through the eyes of the stakeholders – one or more central POV characters. In romance, it is the hero and heroine’s POV we expect to see. Rarely are other character’s P’sOV included, though there is no “rule” against it. (For discussion of this, see POV part 2)

For me, initially, the issue of POV was clarified by this passage by David Lodge in his book, The Art of Fiction:

“One of the commonest signs of a lazy or inexperienced writer of fiction is inconsistency in handling point of view. A story — let us say it is the story of John, leaving home for the first time to go to university, as perceived by John — John packing his bag, taking a last look around his bedroom, saying goodbye to his parents — and suddenly, just for a couple of sentences we are told what his mother is thinking about the event, merely because it seemed to the writer an interesting thing to put in at that point: after which the narrative carries on from John’s point of view.”

If you’re not clear about what POV is, try this article, by Lee Masterson, which gives a good basic foundation with examples.

Point of View – Part 2 (more advanced)

Now you understand what character point of view (POV) is, let’s have a look at some of the issues and conventions involved in using POV in your story. 

The choice of POV

One of the most important decisions a writer makes is whose POV to use, whether in a scene or for the whole book.

The choice will affect the way the reader will respond to the characters and their actions. If the aim (as in romance) is to have the reader engage emotionally with the hero and heroine, then choice of POV is crucial.

In the past, the dominant romance convention was that romance used only the heroine’s POV. This was because it was believed that most readers identified only with the heroine.

When authors began to include the male POV — entering the hero’s mind — readers loved it (to publishers’ amazement!) and the dual POV became pretty standard.

Romance readers enjoy identifying with both the hero and the heroine’s POV, we love cheering them on, we want to take the journey with them as they struggle to achieve their happy ending.

The effect of knowing and not knowing

POV is all about knowing and not knowing. Readers gain an intimacy with a POV character, an understanding not only of what they are seeing and thinking, but also how they are feeling. They learn most about the POV character and if it’s done well, they’ll bond emotionally with the character.

When you can see what a person’s doing and hear what they’re saying but you don’t know what they’re thinking — this creates a tension. 

It is like light and shadow in a painting. The light reveals: in the shadows lie the mysteries. Use POV to reveal some aspects of character and also to hint at mystery.

The Rules about POV

I don’t subscribe to the view that there any “rules” in writing. I think a writer can and should use any technique to get the effect they want. Writing is about good storytelling and sometimes the most conventional response won’t be the best way way to tell your story. 

If it creates the effect you want, change POV whenever you like. But you need to know the effect of what you choose.

“Only one POV per scene”

A convention I’ve heard often (in fact it’s often put forward as a “Rule”) is that you should only use one point of view in a scene – two at a pinch. However I’ve never heard any reason given why POV swapping is “bad” other than it confuses the reader because they don’t know what’s happening.

I once read a book where there were many and frequent POV changes between a range of characters. The writer changed POV so often it could be called “head hopping”. It wasn’t the least bit confusing to read — at any point in the story I was quite clear on what was happening and whose head I was in. But it did have a strong effect on me as a reader, and I was so intrigued, I made notes. This book taught me more about the power of POV than any POV workshop or article I’d come across. 

What head-hopping does:

  1. Defuses tension
    You get every character’s thoughts all the way through, and so there’s nothing to keep reading for. It’s all laid out on the plate for you. There’s nothing for the reader to guess at & nothing to work out, so the reader doesn’t get involved. (for more on this, see article on Creating Active Readers).
  2. Removes clarity and focus
    The story ends up seeming like a loosely tangled thread of yarn with many offshoots, all apparently of equal value and significance. The feeling you get is that the story could go anywhere with anyone — but it’s not an exciting sort of unpredictability, it’s a feeling of “who cares?” You don’t know what the point is. You don’t know what’s at stake. You don’t know what the issue is.
  3. Confuses reader identification
    Readers need to know whose story it is. Most fiction has a central character or characters to whom the story “belongs”.

    It changes things dramatically and raises a whole set of different questions when a story is told from someone else’s POV.

    Readers simply accepted the wife’s madness in Jane Eyre, told from Jane ‘s POV, and readers spared little sympathy for the madwoman. It was Jane’s story.

    But that same mad wife was explored from a very different angle in The Wide Sargasso Sea and the madwoman became the heroine. It was her story and Jane and Rochester were the baddies.

    Readers like to have someone to cheer on — or even to boo!

    A lot of pleasure for readers comes from identifying with a particular character whose side we are on, through thick and thin — the hero and/or the heroine. We cheer them on, we worry when things are going badly for them, we trace their ups and downs with avid interest.

    If a writer uses too many POV characters, it’s difficult to identify with any one character. The reader tends to sit back at a distance and watch it all happening, without caring particularly about anyone.

  4. Distracts from the story
    Readers assume, consciously or unconsciously, that there is a good reason for everything included in a book or a movie. If we get a minor character’s inner thoughts or observations, we assume they are important, that they must have significance. But if they are included for no reason other than “it felt right”, it distracts from the story and end up as pointless and annoying red herrings.
  5. Can give miscues to the reader.
    Because the writer is treating a number of characters with equal importance (by letting the reader into their heads, even for a short amount of time), it is the reader who is forced to assign significance to whatever the character is noticing or thinking. 

This might be the effect the writer wants to achieve. However in my experience, too much of this becomes irritating. It’s as if the writer has simply gathered up a pile of scenes and characters and said, “Here it is: you work out what it means.” A reader expects to be taken on a well orchestrated and designed journey, not led into a tangle of vines and abandoned.

Good and effective use of POV can…
— increase tension and suspense. 
— explore characters and motivation in depth
— increase readers’ emotional involvement with the characters
— keep readers intensely focused on the story
— engage the reader

Whose POV do you choose?

There’s no simple answer. You need to ask yourself what effect you want.
Try rewriting it in different POVs and see what the results are.

One tip I’ve heard is to write it in the POV of the person who has the most to lose. In other words, the biggest stakeholder in the scene. But again, it’s not a rule. It’s a choice.

Another tip is to think about which person in a scene will have the most interesting and perhaps surprising POV. Experiment with the possibilities.

E.g.. You have to write a scene: your heroine is alone in the house. A man breaks in through a downstairs window, planning to murder her.

Which POV will achieve the effect you want?

a) The woman’s POV as she hears the noises….
b) The killer’s POV as he creeps closer, thinking about how he’ll kill her…
c) Someone else watching helplessly unable to do anything…

If we choose the woman, she will experience the sort of emotions most of us would have on hearing someone creeping about the house at night. So it will be fairly easy for a reader to identify with the female character. This may be useful to your purpose. However, it may also be too predictable – an “everywoman” sort of reaction.

If we used the killer’s POV, it would give us an insight into the mind of this man, and we would identify with (be frightened for) the heroine even more. On the other hand it might take away some of the mystery about the murderer.

If we used the POV of the person watching, it gives a different slant again. If it’s a bystander, that’s one thing. But what if it was the hero of the story, watching on a video security camera, miles away… Or in the apartment across the way, like Rear Window… Or a psychic, or a child or… — you get the idea. 

Your choice will depend on whose story you’re telling. And the effect you want.

POV is not a rule — it’s a writers tool.
Don’t simply accept “rules” handed down about correct use of POV. 
Know what POV is, how it can be used and the way different choices will affect your story — and the readers of your story — then choose the one in which to tell your story in the very best possible way.

Further reading
This article by crime writer Alex Keegan is an interesting discussion about choices
SF writer Robert Sawyer also discusses choices and gives examples

© Anne Gracie