An Author's Guide to Point of View Writing
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
I recently completed my first edit for book 1 of The Guardians’ Trust and, like many new authors before me, it soon became clear that I had a nemesis, a foe I had no idea I possessed – point of view writing.
How was it possible that I have read books all of my life (have studied them, actually, to degree and masters level), have written in a dedicated fashion for six years, and yet the finer points of point of view narrative eluded me? I was falling into the pitfalls of third person omniscient narration and that little known demon of head hopping was winning... and I didn't know it!
And right there, in this argument, I found my answer. Or answers…
1. I couldn’t see it because I was too close (in love with!) my characters and their worlds and
2. I couldn't see it because I have been reading books by great authors who have mastered point of view writing.
The first was tackled by the advice of a great editor who knows her stuff. Her name is Audrey and she gently pointed out the flaws in my narrative I was too close to see. Knowing my hero and heroine inside out, I didn’t notice the slips I made into their different perspectives… but she did. To me, the easy passage from one mind to the next was comforting. To her (and the reader) it was jarring.
Thank you Audrey for opening my eyes (so kindly!).
Once I was aware of what I was doing my mistakes slapped me about the face and I could fix them. I suspect that point of view will now become my new writing obsession replacing my need to correct apostrophe use everywhere I go (!).
But if you don’t have an Audrey, if you are writing and trying to improve your craft – whether that’s for a creative writing course, writing for pleasure, or writing in the hopes of getting published – how can you ensure your point of view is consistent and effective?
Below I run through the main lessons I have learnt (so far!) and share some simple, practical steps to help you step back and check and correct your point of view.
Why is point of view important?
In the end, no matter the reason for my errors with point of view, the bottom line is the same. Point of view has to be right. If not, your story fails and the world you ask your reader to step into and experience through your character’s perspective falls apart… so, if like me, you want to improve your writing then read on.
Point of view definition
Firstly, what exactly do we mean by the term point of view? Point of view in your writing is the perspective you decide to use to tell your story - and you have choices: first person point of view (I), second person point of view (you), and third person point of view (he, she, it).
Types of points of view
There are four main narrative points of view a writer can take.
· First person point of view definition: First person is when “I” am telling the story. The character is in the story, relating his or her experiences directly.
· Second person point of view definition: The story is told to “you.” This POV is not common in fiction (it is common in non-fiction).
· Third person point of view, limited definition: The story is about “he” or “she.” This is the most common point of view in contemporary commercial fiction. The narrator is outside of the story and relating the experiences of a character.
· Third person point of view, omniscient definition: The story is still about “he” or “she,” but the narrator has full access to the thoughts and experiences of all characters in the story.
To learn more about the pros and cons for these types of perspective read this article.
Point of view writing examples
First person point of view example from Moby Dick:
"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago, never mind how long precisely, having little or no money in my purse and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."
Writing in first person perspective is often recommended to new writers as it forces you to limit your point of view and helps you stop making point of view errors.
Second person point of view book example from Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney (written in the present tense):
"You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head."
Personally, I'd leave this point of view well alone. Second person point of view is usually the realm of non-fiction, often argue/persuade advertising texts. It takes a talented soul, indeed, to write in this style and sustain it.
A more typical example of second person use:
AMX - "It's Your World. Take Control"
In this advertising slogan the second person pronoun 'your' and the imperative 'take control' hammer a persuasive message home - definitely not the tone of voice I'm going for in a romance!
Third person omniscient point of view example:
An accessible example of this technique well done is William Golding's Lord of the Flies. The writer uses a narrator who is separate to the characters but he also sometimes 'slips into' the minds of different characters giving their thoughts and feelings. In chapter eight, for example, the perspective comes from Jack who is "happy and [wearing] the damp darkness of the forest like his old clothes", whereas later we learnt that Piggy is "flush[ing] pinkly with pride".
The telling words here are "happy" and "with pride". The writing lets us into Jack's mind to know he is happy and then into Piggy's mind to know that he feels pride.
While many classics are written in third person omniscient style, many books in the contemporary market are not. With this style comes the danger of 'head hopping', where the writer moves too often and too quickly into the minds of many characters. Golding is successful because he limits these intrusions.
For further third person omniscient point of view book examples read this article.
Third person limited point of view from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling:
'A breeze ruffled the neat hedges of Privet Drive, which lay silent and tidy under the inky sky, the very last place you would expect astonishing things to happen. Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up. One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous…. He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: “To Harry Potter—the boy who lived!”'
Also worth mentioning at this point is tense choice. Will you write in past or present tense? The majority of books I have read are past tense but some are in present tense and are incredibly successful - The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is an example. If you are tempted by the challenge of present tense (it isn't a challenge I'm tempted by as I automatically slip back into natural past tense use) then read this article .
First person present tense example from The Hunger Games:
"When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of reaping."
Narrative voice vs point of view
Once you have identified the point of view you will write in, your next step is to think about narrative voice.
Deciding your point of view in writing is more than just a decision to write in first or third person, you are deciding your story's voice. Whose perspective is the story being told from? This is your narrative voice. Will you tell the story from your heroine's perspective? Will the reader experience events through her eyes and share her thoughts and feelings? Or will the story be told from the hero's perspective? His eyes, his thoughts and feelings? Are you wanting to use more than one narrative voice? If the answer is yes to this last question there are some 'golden rules' you need to be aware of or the narrative will flop. I go through them below.
By having a clear idea of point of view and narrative voice in a book, your book, your novel will immediately be better and have a better chance of success with a publisher.
Third person, limited point of view (past tense) - this is the point of view you likely need to be using if you want to get published
Whichever point of view you select to write your story in, the first golden rule is that you must stick with it. If you start in first person, I, then this point of view must continue throughout. Joe Bunting wrote: "Once you pick a point of view, you're stuck with it."
Golden Rule #1: pick a point of view and stick with it (there are exceptions to the rule but they are rare).
Golden Rule #2: when writing in third person limited point of view stick to past tense. Present tense in this style is just weird!
To write well in third person limited perspective a writer must decide whose perspective the story will be told from (often just one character - covered above) and how limited the perspective will be? Will the writer explore thoughts and feelings often or not?
If, like me, you write in third person but want to present different points of view (for example, the hero and the heroine’s) then this is where you might find things get a little trickier.
The point of view I naturally write in is third person, omniscient.
The point of view I need to write in to be a more effective (romance) writer is third person, limited.
You may be asking why I needed to change from a third person omniscient narrator when it’s a legitimate style of writing perspective (see Lord of the Flies example above). When I became more aware of this aspect of my writing I took a step back to look at it as a reader would. The omniscient perspective left me feeling like I was watching a table tennis match. Perspective bounced back and forth making the reader dizzy. I was making the mistake editors call ‘head hopping’, diving into too many perspectives, too quickly, and this simply doesn’t work if you want your reader to suspend their disbelief and form a relationship with your characters. By adopting the limited perspective, the writer is able to disappear more easily into the book and accept all that is happening.
Anne Deveare Smith said, “The secret to editing your work is simple: become its reader instead of its writer.”
So, I am now clear on my point of view (third person limited in past tense) and I have chosen my narrative voices - two, my hero and heroine. When writing I need to ensure I stick with one point of view and make it work for the reader. To do this I will only use one point of view in a scene or chapter and if and when my point of view changes there needs to be a signal for the reader - a scene break or a chapter break to avoid head hopping.
Golden rule #3: one point of view from one character per scene. If and when there is a change there needs to be a clear scene break or a change of chapter to avoid confusion.
Jerry Jenkins writes, "I avoid that [moving away from his chosen point of view] by imagining my Point of View or Perspective Character as my camera—I’m limited to writing only what my character “camera” sees, hears, and knows. In essence, I’m limited to his or her perspective."
When writing, I focussed on a hundred different techniques. I debated over the best word choice and whether to use a semicolon or not, I crafted paragraphs and speech endlessly, and I spent literally years shaping characters and plot, but I didn't initially clearly identify the narrative voice I wanted to tell my story through. By identifying the point of view in your book, having a clear sense of who is telling the story, and following the three golden rules above, your writing will immediately read better.
Benefits of third person limited point of view
Another advantage of the third person limited perspective is that it lends itself to ‘show don’t tell’. I mention this in more detail below. If you choose to write in first person point of view you may well have problems in this area as you will be tempted to 'tell' from your character's perspective, rather than 'show' events.
Ernest Hemingway said, “Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.”
For more information on Show Don’t Tell, read this article.
Point of view prompts and practical steps that help me. I hope they help you:
1. When I first get ideas I just write and my brain goes far more quickly than my fingers can across the key board. At this stage I don’t worry about craft. It is about pleasure, the need to write. I just go with it. Later I will focus on how I have written it rather than content. I write what I want, when I want. If I try and constrain it or put something off to focus on something else, I regret it. Let your mind take you where it wants to go!
2. When I return to a draft scene I ensure I know who’s Point of view the scene/chapter is from (if I didn’t in stage 1). I will then put that POV in a bright bold font at the top of the scene and leave it there for many drafts. This acts as a visual reminder to me about whose perspective the reader is experiencing events from. 1 perspective in 1 scene only. This might sound silly but it stops me from head hopping and it also speeds up later editing as I don’t have to read part of the scene to remember the perspective choice I have made.
3. I then check the point of view as I rework the scene/chapter. Everything should be from that character’s (let’s say Ana’s in book 1) perspective. She should see events, it should be her feelings and thoughts only that are mentioned. It should be her feelings as she’s kissed and so on. The writing is third person but limited to her point of view.
4. Checking for smaller slips: once you are aware of how point of view works errors in POV are clearly noticeable. However, in repeated proof readings and edits I found I missed smaller errors. In a scene written from Ana’s point of view I might accidently include a sentence like, “Brenin looked at her, surprised.” But if the scene is written from Ana’s perspective we can’t know he is surprised as this is his feeling. One word makes all the difference. Some advice I was given was to create some distance. Show don’t tell – describe the look of surprise rather than stating it. Perhaps his brows lift? Another way is to insert words like likely, seemed, perhaps and so on so the POV is maintained, for example, “Brenin looked at Ana, seeming surprised.”
5. Point of view also links to descriptions of characters and actions. If I am writing a scene between Ana and Brenin from Ana’s perspective I might describe Brenin’s green eyes, but I wouldn’t write a detailed description of Ana’s face and eyes as this would lapse into Brenin’s perspective. Likewise, she wouldn’t be able to see someone holding hands under a table she's sitting at – she’d need x-ray vision!
Finally, proof reading is your friend.
George Eliot wrote: “…the fallibility of human brains is nothing more obvious than proofreading.”
I am a firm believer in proof reading. I can’t tell you how many times I re-read passages, or indeed the whole manuscript but I can tell you that it is many, many, many times.
But how can I proofread for point of view?
What I now do is a separate edit of the completed manuscript specifically for point of view. Once I am happy with the book, I take a mental step back and focus on this one area (because I have already gone through the 101 other areas to be checked). I go through scene by scene and carefully check that there are no accidental slips into another character’s thoughts, motivations or feelings. I use the steps above and if there is a change of perspective I ensure there is a clear scene or chapter break.
Again, I repeat this many times.
I’m sorry, but there are no short cuts...
Cory Booker said: “If you want extraordinary results you must put in extraordinary effort.”
If you are like me and you write because you love it then this quote should make your day!
Point of view writing exercises
A range of point of view activities can be found here.
For further information about point of view and narration read this article.
If you'd like to learn more about how critique partners can help your writing style develop have a read of this blog about the ups and downs of critique groups - by author Susan Stradiotto.
Good luck with your writing!