I shudder to raise this topic because it is one that writers freak out about. More than scene structure. More than characterization. More than anything else. Point of View (POV) is one of the most difficult skills to master.
All stories are told to the reader by someone. POV defines who the narrator of the story (or a part of the story) is. If you maintain good POV, you tell one complete piece of the story with a single narrator, so the reader gets that narrator’s perspective on the events of that piece of the story.
The problem with POV
The problem, of course, is that so many best-selling writers don’t maintain proper POV. Many of them originally published in the 1970s or 1980s when the need for craft wasn’t as extreme as it is today. More than that, many others are so skilled with their writing that they not only know and understand POV, they know when and how it’s okay to break the “rules.”
The problem comes when beginning writers, who do not understand POV, what it does, or how to maintain it, try to emulate those best-selling writers. POV in their manuscripts flies totally out of control, destroying the mood and the story. I’ve seen enough beginning writers in contests to know that this ranks right up there as one of the top three problems in stories. So here’s the first piece of advice:
Until you become a bestselling author, write each scene from only one person’s POV. No exceptions.
Of course, you all know what a scene is, and how to write one, right? If not, check out my post on scene structure.
When you violate this rule, it’s called “head-hopping” because the reader is hopping from head to head of the characters within the scene. The reader gets a disjointed, fragmented understanding of the scene–it’s like giving the her the scene through a kaleidoscope. It’s distorted, confusing, and frustrating.
What is POV?
There are whole books written about this topic, so this is going to be the short and sweet version. My comments below are specifically about mainstream popular fiction (or genre) novels and no other kind of fiction. If you’re writing short stories, or literary fiction, feel free to ignore what I’m saying. Otherwise, heads-up, folks.
First thing is, I’m not going to try to explain all the various types of POV out there. I’m focusing here on the POV types that popular fiction uses almost to the exclusion of all others.
Second thing is, people use the term “POV” in several very different ways:
- It’s used to describe the “person” of the story: third-person (i.e., he said, she said, they did…) or first-person (i.e., I said, I did…).
- It’s used to describe how many narrators there are in the story (i.e., one POV character throughout the whole book, or multiple POV characters).
- It’s used to describe how deeply the emotions of the narrator are revealed (i.e., shallow POV in which only current actions and reactions of the narrator are described, and deep POV in which the inner angsting and deepest thoughts of the narrator are revealed).
Depending on genre, you might choose various combinations of the above. I’ll just provide a few examples:
- Mystery/thriller/action-adventure novels are often (but not always!) written in first-person, single narrator, with relatively shallow emotional content.
- Romance novels are nearly always third-person, generally have at least two narrators (hero and heroine) and tend to have strong emotional depth. (Like, duh. Of course! That’s why readers read romances–for the emotional experience of falling in love!)
- General popular fiction probably most often uses multiple third-person POV, with moderately deep emotional depth.
But these are all generalities. There are romances written in first person, though not that many. There are plenty of mysteries written in third person, multiple narrators. And so on. As a writer you get to choose the POV you want to use, but once you’ve made that choice, you have to stick with it.
Unless you’re writing literary fiction. Or you are highly skilled and have a whole-lotta control over your writing. If you’re a beginner…forget it. Pick a POV combination and stick with it.
One of the ways you can make your story stand out from the crowd is by playing with POV.
If most of the “cozy” mysteries don’t have a lot of emotional depth, write a story with a lot of emotional depth to it. In fact, many mysteries written in the past, say 5 or 10 years, have moved away from that “shallow depth” thing.
If you’re writing an action-adventure novel–not known as a genre with a lot of touchy-feely stuff–try adding some moderate-to-deep emotional content to your story. It may just lift your story out of the slush pile.
If romances don’t generally use first-person POV, try writing one in first-person using only the heroine’s (or hero’s) POV. (Caveat: A number of romance publishers will not even consider a first-person, single narrator story. So be sure you know who you’ll submit your story to before you try this!)
The point is, once you understand POV, it becomes another tool in your writing tool chest to help you tell your story in the most effective way.
This post is already long, so I’m going to stop here. Look for a second POV post shortly!