Point of view is one of the last things I “got” as a student of writing, but when I did, it was an “aha!” moment that changed my writing. Point of view is one of those things that we don’t actively realize as we’re reading, but it’s necessary for good storytelling.
We are human. By nature, we are limited in our perspective on the world. If I’m sitting in a room full of people, I’m going to be focused on things that interest me—perhaps dynamics between couples, or maybe I’ll be checking out hairstyles in anticipation of my upcoming appointment at the hairdresser. If I’m an athlete training for a triathlon, I might be checking out body figures, looking for muscle mass peeking through clothing. The point is, my focus in any given situation will be limited.
When writing, it’s important that each scene is told through one particular point of view. The “point of view character” is the character through which we experience a scene. It may sound counter-intuitive, but to help the reader better understand and enjoy a scene, we must be limited in the amount of information we are given. When we provide details, they must come from the perspective of the point of view character. If I’m the point of view character, for instance, I might not know what my face looks like, but I do know how others react to me.
As an example, let’s examine a scene that will be told in third person limited to me. Here are two versions:
She stood at the counter staring at the cute shop clerk. Her face turned into a crooked smile that looked like the paisleys on her shirt. Then she blushed as the guy behind the counter smiled back.
She stood at the counter. Her lips contorted involuntarily. He really was that cute. She smoothed the folds of her paisley shirt to calm her burning cheeks, but when she looked back up, he was still staring at her, smiling back.
In the first example, we step out of the point of view character. Unless there’s a mirror at the counter, she would be unable to see her smile in order to compare it to her shirt. Likely, the man behind the counter is the one comparing her smile to the design on her shirt. Since we’re supposed to be in her POV in this scene, we can’t step outside her body and look at her.
Instead, she can FEEL her lips contorting, and she might GUESS at what they look like, but she wouldn’t know, and it’s not a detail she’s likely to notice. Think about it: when was the last time you compared your smile to something (unless you were looking at a picture of yourself)? Similarly, she cannot see herself blush, but she can feel her cheeks heating up. In the second example, “he really was that cute” allows us into her mind.
Staying within a single point of view character (per scene) is important because if we experience a story in an omniscient way, we become overwhelmed and bored. As humans, we want a character to latch onto, to know, to root for. Any character is going to be flawed (this is a good thing), and experiencing a scene through the character’s flaws lets us understand that character as a human being.
Here is that same scene written in an omniscient point of view.
She stood at the counter, thinking about how cute he was. Her lips curled into a smile that looked like the paisleys on her shirt. He couldn’t help checking out her curves, and she smoothed her shirt as a way to hide her embarrassment. She looked a little bit like his ex-wife, but he couldn’t tell without seeing the eyes. He continued to stare at her, willing her to look up. When she finally did, she was blushing, and she hoped he didn’t notice too much. The last date she’d gone on had been disastrous. Her face had stayed red the entire time. But now, he was smiling back, and he couldn’t wait to ask her out for drinks. While he continued smiling, she tried to remember what in the world she had come to the store to buy.
In this example, there is too much information. I’m in her head, then his, then hers again. It’s overwhelming. Instead, I need to experience the scene through just one character’s perspective. Even if you’re not a romance reader, a good way to fully understand point of view is to pick up a romance novel. These books are written in alternating perspectives, usually third person limited from the lead male and lead female roles. Usually, these novels switch point of view by chapter—sometimes by scene within chapters.
Editors may refer to switching points of view as “head hopping.” If you hear this comment, it means you have left the perspective of your point of view character and are giving us information that your character couldn’t possibly have known.
When editing, I often scribble the point of view character’s name at the top of each chapter. Then, as I go through the scene the first time, I make sure there is no head-hopping going on. On the second read-through, I try to add details that provide even more perspective from the POV character’s perspective. This is a great way to add indirect characterization. If I’m trying to show that a character is afraid, for example, without blatantly saying “she was scared,” I can use this technique. For instance:
She stepped up to the doorway. A reflection in the glass storm door made her shudder, pulling her jacket tight against her frame. She glanced behind her, but she was alone. She shook her head, wondering what her lawyer would say if he found out where she was. No matter. She was here now. She rang the doorbell and waited. She glanced at the evergreen bushes behind her, the ones screening the porch from the street. The ones that had screened Timmy’s body from view. Her throat tightened, and she pushed against the memories…
In this scene, we can tell this character has had a negative experience with this house, and she is trying to reconcile the past. Because we’re in her head, we know that she’s at the house against the recommendation of her lawyer, and we know she is mourning for someone named Timmy. We can tell she feels vulnerable when she pulls her jacket tighter against her, and we know she is worried when she thinks she sees are reflection in the doorway.
For point of view, you can always use first person point of view as the narrative perspective (think Katniss of The Hunger Games). Some publishers dig it; some don’t. Just make sure the narrator’s voice is likeable and will offer you a wide enough perspective to tell the whole story. (In The Great Gatby, Nick Carraway becomes a nearly omniscient narrator since he is telling the story years after it has happened, a workaround for the limits of first-person narration.)
If you’re having trouble writing third person limited, write in first person first; then switch. For instance:
I stepped up to the counter, worried that I had imagined the whole thing. I wondered if maybe the silly smiles we exchanged last time had been a product of my boy-crazy brain. I smiled at him, and I breathed relief when he smiled back.
This is written in first person POV, and the switch to third POV is easy enough:
She stepped up to the counter, worried that she had imagined the whole thing. She wondered if the silly smiles they exchanged last time had been a product of her boy-crazy brain. She smiled at him and breathed relief when he smiled back.
A plethora of often-contradicting POV advice resides on the Internet and in books on writing. Some editors insist that the main POV character stay “in control” for at least the first fifty pages. Others are more tolerant of switching perspectives. In any case, it’s a good idea to experiment with point of view early on in the drafting stage. Doing so allows writers to find the best voice (or voices) for the story.