Point of View – the Basics

This week’s writing essay is just a “What is,” and a “How to” on an important technical aspect of story structure–the workings of a thing we call Point of View.

Understanding point of view–POV, as we usually say–is as necessary to the process of writing as knowing the rules of the road is basic to learning to drive. If you don’t know which side of the road your car belongs on, or that you’re required to signal before turning, you are doomed to have a short career as a driver. (Or to use a medical analogy–if you can’t tell a human from a horse, your chances of becoming a doctor may be rather slim.)

Does that mean POV is dull? A dry and necessary fundamental, something to be gotten out of the way before moving on to fun and cool topics like voice and scenebuilding? Definitely not. The beauty and power of this element of writing is subtle, though, and once you have a good grip on it, it tends to work invisibly, behind the scenes. When you get into your car every morning, you don’t have to remind yourself to stop at traffic lights; it becomes so basic–so completely obvious–that the sight of an orange light will trigger the proper reaction in a driver without conscious thought.

An experienced driver rarely considers the intricacies of basic traffic law, but focus your attention on a few key details of this apparently dull phenomenon for a second:

1) Millions of people understand and agree on the basic rules and follow them.
2) Those “basics” allow these same people and their passengers to hurtle through space at hundreds of kilometers per hour and to travel significant vast distances in minutes.
3) Visualize the complex simplicity of a highway system, with its multi-lane traffic and the system of entrances and exits which allows travellers to move together and then separate as needed.
4) Last, consider the tragic crashes that sometimes result when people flout these agreed-upon rules.

Point of view is crucial in just the same way, and often just as invisible.

Enough of the sales pitch. What is POV?

As a warm-up, let’s start with the concept of the Narrator. Definitions:

Narrator: 1 the entity within a story that tells the story to the reader… the Narrator exists within the world of the story (and only there^) and presents it in a way the Reader can comprehend.

Narrator: 2 someone who tells a story

The narrator is not the author, though at times writers may blur this line for the reader by pretending to speak directly to them. The narrator is an invented persona who tells your story to the reader. In Jane Austen’s Emma, for example, our narrator is an all-seeing nameless presence (an omnisicent point of view, in other words) who freely expresses Jane Austen’s opinions of her characters and their situation as it shares her tale. In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the narrator is John, a character (though not the protagonist) of the novel–one who witnesses or hears about all of the story’s important events.

The point of view you can use in a work of fiction is exceedingly variable. A story can be narrated in an objective, “news reporter”-style or it can get up close and personal. It can be delivered using that all-seeing presence utilized by Austen in Emma or in an off-beat second-person style that casts you, the reader, as an actor in the story’s events. (Try reading a few paragraphs of the opening of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler just to see how extreme a second-person point of view can get!)

And just to increase the complexity, a work of fiction’s POV can tell the story as it happens, after its events have occurred or–in some bizarre and exceptional cases–might even be written in a future tense that describes the story’s events before it has even taken place.

The good news for writers is that few–if any–of us use all of the POVs regularly. Most writers find two or three POVs that feel natural–that work well with our particular voice and storytelling style. Using those POVs as a foundation, we can build up our body of fictional work and then experiment with other POVs as we please.

The most common POVs, and how they work

First Person Past: This technical-sounding term describes a mode of storytelling many writers find very comfortable and easy to master. In it, the narrator is a distinct individual speaking in their own voice, an “I” who talks much as we would if we were describing events that have already occurred in the course of an ordinary day:

  • On my lunch hour, I went to the drug store for cough drops.
  • Note the use of the past tense of the verb “to go.” The reason we call it First Person Past is that the story’s events have already taken place. This differs from…

    First Person Present: This time, the “I” narrator is telling readers the story as it happens, in present tense.

  • When lunch finally comes, I go to the drug store for cough drops.
  • Using present tense in this fashion can convey more immediacy and increase suspense. Some readers and editors, though, may find it artificial and intrusive. It’s up to you to decide whether past or present tense is more appropriate for a given piece.

    Second Person Past and Second Person Present: In the rarely used second-person POV, the author casts the reader as narrator.

  • When lunch came, you went to the drug store. (past)
  • When lunch comes, you go to the drug store. (present)
  • Second person is high-impact and certainly gets a reader’s attention, but it is quite intrusive, making suspension of disbelief harder for readers. It’s also tough to sustain this POV in longer works of fiction. In the Calvino novel I mentioned above, the second-person chapters are short and are alternated with chapters that use more conventional points of view.

    (That’s right! You can change the point of view within a novel!)

    Third Person–Another comfortable and very accessible point of view, third person centers our narrative within one of the story’s major or minor characters.

  • Susie went to the drug store. (past)
  • Johnny goes to the drug store. (present)
  • Now here’s where things start getting really quirky, because third Person narratives can also be objective, limited, or omnisicent.

    Omniscience vs. Objectivity

    Let’s delve into the question of omniscience. With a first person POV, “I” can easily tell us what she or he is feeling or thinking:

  • If I didn’t stop coughing soon, I would simply drop dead of exhaustion.
  • On the other hand, if “I” is simply watching Susie buy the cough drops, she or he has no way of knowing what that other character is thinking or feeling.

    A first person narrator can report on their own interior reactions to the story’s events, things they see and hear themselves, and things they are told by other characters. Examples:

    1) If she didn’t stop coughing soon, I feared Susie might simply drop dead of exhaustion.

    2) With each cough, Susie seemed to droop a little more. The skin under her eyes was bruise-blue.

    3) Between bouts of hacking, Susie says to me, “I’m gonna drop dead of exhaustion.”

    With third-person narratives, on the other hand, the author must decide how intimate the point of view will be. In the third-person objective mode, your narrator is strictly a reporter, keeping readers distanced and reporting only on visible, exterior signs of Susie’s distress.

  • Tears streamed from Susie’s eyes as she hacked into a damp yellow handkerchief. The only color in her face was the bruise-blue skin under her eyes. The coughs shook her with every step.
  • In the opposite case, you can take us right into her head:

  • Each convulsion was a fist hammering against the back of her chest, and she was getting lightheaded. I’d rather be dead than keep on like this, she thought.
  • A work of fiction told in the third person which allows readers this kind of access to the point of view character’s thoughts and feelings is referred to as a limited third-person point of view, because it gives us insight into a single character’s interior world. (Obviously, this POV too can be past or present tense.)

    Finally, we come to third-person omnisicent. As in Austen’s Emma, your narrator knows it all, shifting between characters and relating the thoughts and feelings of whichever of them you choose.

  • Susie’s cough is a fist hammering against the back of her chest; she knows it’s just post-nasal drip, no big deal, but after three days of constant hacking she’d almost rather die. Johnny, meanwhile, has the deep phleghmy rasp of well-established bronchitis. He can’t afford a doctor or antibiotics, though, so there’s nothing to do but settle into a dull and weary acceptance of his fate. The pharmacist watches them both, fearing that Johnny, with his ragged coat and unkempt beard, might decide to steal the medication.
  • In the above passage, the omniscient narrator delves into the thoughts of three character in rapid succession. While this is perfectly okay, quicksilver switches of this sort should be approached with caution, to ensure that the reader doesn’t lose track of who and what is important in a given scene.

    Remember: if the reader cannot follow your narrative, the story has failed.

    Sometimes, as I’ve mentioned above, you will change the point of view within a novel or story. Most often this is done to overcome the drawbacks of limited POVs–you want readers to see into both Johnny’s and Susie’s thought processes, but don’t want to struggle with the often-confusing omnisicent narrator. (Besides, you think to yourself, you don’t need the pharmacist’s inner thoughts too–he’s just set dressing.) A limited third-person Susie scene followed by a limited third-person Johnny scene would do the trick. But will readers be all right with the change?

    The answer is Yes, as long as you follow a few guidelines:

    1) Ensure that the change is clear.
    2) If it suits your story, use a scene or chapter break or some other artificial means to mark the shift. Sometimes authors even name a new scene for the POV character they are switching to as they make a shift.
    3) You should have more than one reason for shifting POV. If you find yourself wanting to shift into another character’s head just for a couple of crucial sentences, to reveal a single facet of their thought processes or character, consider finding another way. A switch of narrators is always going to jar readers. You don’t want them to get frustrated and put your book down!

    Did I just cover every possible POV?

    I’m afraid not. As you know, authors can get rather wild and experimental. A minority of stories are told through diaries or letters (this is a variant of first-person known as the epistolary POV). One might conceivably write using a collective viewpoint (“Stepping inside the house, they found that the walls were made of spun sugar.”) Narrators looking back on past events, real or fictitious, can employ future tense verbs to give their prose immediacy: “The men on the front lines would attack the enemy as planned, only to discover that their intelligence had failed them. Instead of an easy victory, they would be charging into a slaughter.”

    That said, the points of view I’ve covered apply to the vast majority of stories. And remember–the more outlandish your POV and narrative voice, the harder you have to work to engage readers in your tale.

    What does all this mean?

    By now you’ve absorbed a ton of information about point of view. But what are you going to do with it? Returning to our traffic-law analogy, most of what you’ve just learned (hopefully, reviewed) will serve as background knowledge, useful but mostly invisible structural information that will help you avoid storytelling ‘accidents.’ A solid understanding of POV will keep you from using your “I” narrator to tell us another character’s thoughts–unless that character shares them with your narrator. It’ll prevent Susie from giving us vivid details of Johnny’s collapse and trip to the hospital–assuming, of course, that she doesn’t catch him as he falls, call 911, and ride along in the ambulance with him.

    In terms of choosing a point of view for a given piece, your writer’s instincts will almost always take hold–you’ll ‘know’ how a given story ought to be told. When in doubt, the most important consideration is this: what serves the story best? What will provide the clearest, most engaging narrative for your tale? If you’re really stuck, write your opening paragraphs in a few different POVs and see which feels most comfortable.

    A couple of optional exercises to heighten your POV awareness:

    Every scene in a film–just like every scene in a work of fiction–is shot from a particular point of view. In the 2001 movie Gosford Park, for example, viewers see everything through the eyes of the various servants at a well-to-do country house in England. Watch this film and note the POV character in every scene.

    Identify the POV for your favorite books or stories, or a few of your own previously-written works of fiction.

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    About Alyx Dellamonica

    After twenty-two years in Vancouver, B.C., I've recently moved to Toronto Ontario, where I make my living writing science fiction and fantasy; I also review books and teach writing online at UCLA. I'm a legally married lesbian, a coffee snob, and I wake up at an appallingly early hour.

    8 Responses to Point of View – the Basics

    1. Thanks, Alyx.

      Point of view is something I’ve been thinking about lately since a panel on it at 4th Street Fantasy. I’ve been thinking of doing a Mind Meld on the subject and dig into participants thoughts about it. What POVs do they like, or don’t like, as writers and readers? What about oddball POVs like second person. This post would be a wonderful primer to get people thinking about it…

      Should I do this…do you want in? 🙂

      • Sure… though I’d probably be one of a chorus saying “Omniscient scares me!” Wait, I’ve got advance warning now to think of something else to say.

    2. Nicely succinct and with wonderful examples. Are you planning on collecting your essays? Paul, that would make a great Mind Meld, I’m in if you do it.

    3. NP. It got through, and when I write back it’ll be from my main e-mail addy so you’ll be good to go.