The reader experiences a story by reading about it, usually through the eyes of one of the characters in the story. (Yes, there’s also omniscient POV, where you’re outside all the characters in a “Godlike” perspective. That’s not a good plan for mainstream genre fiction. Forget that one.)
Typically, the POV character for a given scene is the character who fits one or more of these:
- She’s the character with the most to lose in the scene.
- She’s the character with the scene goal.
- She’s the character with the greatest emotional investment in the scene.
Often, these are all the same person, so don’t think this has to be an either/or kind of choice.
Sally Smartypants POV
Suppose you’re writing a scene where Sally Smartypants is negotiating with Curt Cutthroat to buy a new minivan. The scene goal for Sally is obvious: buy the minivan at a price she can afford. The emotional investment for her is that she really, really needs this specific minivan because her old minivan just died and she can’t take Granny to her floating poker games without it. She’s motivated in other words.
She also has a lot to lose because this minivan is the only one in town with the proper layout to hold Granny and her fellow poker addicts. She hasn’t told Curt that, of course, because Sally Smartypants is, well, a smartypants. She doesn’t want Curt to know how desperate she is to buy this specific vehicle. Sure sounds like Sally is the perfect POV character, doesn’t it?
So to stay in POV, you imagine yourself to be Sally.
When you write the scene from Sally’s POV, you write only what Sally can directly observe, such as what she hears, smells, tastes, feels, sees, or what she is thinking while she’s negotiating. She might see Curt Cutthroat wipe his forehead and think something like, “Aha! He knows he’s in trouble now!” But those mental inferences are based on something she observes or has previously observed or known about Curt Cutthroat.
When you do this right, the reader is right there inside Sally Smartypants’s head. The reader experiences the negotiations in exactly the same way Sally does. The reader can relate to Sally because he is living the experience right along there with Sally. This draws an important emotional connection between the reader and Sally, and keeps the reader turning pages.
Disaster Strikes Sally Smartypants
The likely disaster at the end of this scene can be anything really. Maybe Sally doesn’t have enough money to buy the minivan she needs. Or maybe she buys the minivan only to find that Granny doesn’t like the color of the upholstery. Or maybe she buys the minivan and finds out it’s a junker.
Maybe she buys the minivan only to discover it was formerly owned by a gang of ruthless pre-teen marbles-players, and the police end up raiding Granny’s poker game.
The point is, whether Sally Smartypants succeeds at her car purchase or not, the result of the scene makes things worse for Sally.
Curt Cutthroat POV
But what if you don’t choose Sally’s POV? What if you are more interested in Curt Cutthroat’s perspective? What if Curt is about to lose his car dealership because he runs an illegal floating marbles game in the repair shop at night and he got in deep with the local 10-year-olds? What then?
Okay, you want to write the scene from Curt’s POV. What’s his scene goal? Well, the obvious one is that he wants to get his asking price for the minivan. But maybe he’s sneaker than that. (He sure looks sneaky in that photo, doesn’t he?)
What if he knows this was a car formerly owned by a gang of ruthless marbles-players, so he wants to get rid of it. But he doesn’t want Sally Smartypants to get suspicious–she’s a smartypants, remember? So he wants to give a good pretense of negotiating, all the while knowing he only has thirty minutes to conclude the deal and get her and the car off his lot. After that…the cops will show up.
Again, when you write the scene from Curt’s POV, you can only include the details that Curt sees, feels, hears, tastes, smells, or knows from some other source. His back can itch because he knows he’s being observed by that ruthless marbles-playing 10-year-old ruffian hiding in the shadows of the garage. He can feel himself sweat. He can stop himself from shuffling his feet. He can force himself to smile. The most important thing, though, is this:
Curt has no information about what is going on inside Sally’s head. Just as she has no information about what is going on inside his head.
Disaster strikes Curt Cutthroat
At the end of this scene, written from Curt Cutthroat’s POV, we have to have a disaster. So what are the possibilities? Remembering that it has to make things worse for Curt, it could be any of several things. For example, Sally Smartypants might simply walk away without buying anything from Curt. (Remember, he doesn’t know she’s desperate to get this minivan!) Or he might have to sell it at too low a price. Or the negotiations might take too long. Or he might sell the minivan, only to have the police bust his marbles-playing ring anyway.
Again, the point is, the result of this scene is that life for Curt Cutthroat is worse than it was before.
The POV Bottom Line
There are several key points to notice about this little storylet.
The choice of POV character matters.
The scene will play out very differently depending on whether you write it from the POV of Sally Smartypants or the POV of Curt Cutthroat. The scene goals are different, the conflicts are different, and the scene disasters are different.
The disaster is specific to the POV character.
How you choose to design the disaster at the end of the scene has to be specific to the scene goal and the POV character’s conflict. You can’t pull out Sally’s disaster if you write it from Curt’s POV. So choose your POV character carefully.
Most importantly, all information in the scene must be from the POV character’s observation or direct knowledge.
The POV character does not know what actually goes on inside anyone else’s head. Unless she’s a telepath. Therefore, any inferences made about other people by the POV character have to be either guesses (and identified as such) or conclusions based on what the POV character observes or knows about that other person. Anything else is breaking POV.
A good editor will catch any POV breaks you make and chastise you for them. Seriously. If you want to present professional prose, you have to get POV under control. So make sure that every detail in your scenes is something your POV character really can know.