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POV FROM THE BEGINNING – THE BANE OF NEW WRITERS

May 11, 2022

One of the most dreaded “rules” of fiction writing, and one of the least understood by new writers, is point of view (POV). POV is either whoever is speaking, thinking, driving the scene, or telling the story.

Because there seems to be a host of arbitrary rules for new writers doesn’t mean they’re not good ideas. POV is the perfect example. Have you ever read a book and discovered there was something about it that didn’t sit right? Maybe you skipped whole paragraphs, sections, or reached certain points where you were confused, lost, and had no idea what was going on. POV could be the problem.

Before we get into the mechanics of using POV, let’s discuss a few (but not all) types of POV. There’s first-person, where the story is told through the eyes of the character. In this type of story, you’ll see a lot of I’s, me’s and my’s throughout. I picked myself off the ground and rushed to the door. Many authors prefer this viewpoint as they feel the reader will become more immersed in the character if they’re seeing what that character is seeing through their eyes. I personally despise that point of view, but that’s a whole ‘nuther blog and not the point of this presentation.

Another type of viewpoint is omniscient. The story is told through the eyes of “God,” an omnipotent viewpoint as if it were being told by an all-seeing being. The story is not seen or told by a character but by a narrator (the author). Things are not seen through the eyes of the characters. If it’s told well, the viewpoint is neutral. If not, it gets into something called author intrusion which jerks the reader out of the story and into the personality of the author. The characters see and know things they shouldn’t and couldn’t because the author (or God) tells you ahead of time. The author might spoil things for you by foretelling events you shouldn’t know until the characters discover them.

The most commonly used POV and the one I prefer is third-person, past-tense (versus present tense). In third-person, the story is told through the eyes of a character, but as it has happened. In other words, instead of “I put on my hat and rushed through the door.” It would be “Jim put on his hat and rushed through the door.” In third person, you, as the author have a lot more leeway to describe things and show things that first-person doesn’t allow. In first-person, action scenes don’t play out near as well as they do in third.

Since I mentioned past-tense, I should also mention present-tense. Either first or third can be written in present-tense. Some authors feel that the story is more immediate or more urgent if written in present-tense. For example, in first person, “I put my hat on and rush through the door.” Or in third person, “Jim puts his hat on and rushes through the door.”

For me, as a reader, I find that anything written in present-tense drives me nuts. It’s a personal preference, but I’ll put a book down because I can’t get through one written in that style. I won’t mention the author’s name (but her initials are PC… cough cough). I’m still a big fan when she writes third-person, past-tense. Unfortunately, she tends to write this wretched first-person present-tense. It’s so irritating, I can hardly get through a paragraph let alone an entire book. I know another author that writes third-person present-tense. Same thing. Can’t read it.

Some authors like to mix POV’s. In the writing world, that is perfectly acceptable and seems to be a trendy thing to do, though it can be hard to pull off successfully. The most common used to be third-person and omniscient. However, keep in mind that these POV shifts are from one chapter or scene to the next, NOT mixed together (or there not supposed to be)! Another style that is becoming more common is first and third-person. That’s why I always leaf through books by authors I haven’t read. I’ve been tricked before. I don’t like first-person, and I don’t like present-tense, so I specifically leaf through a book and look for those features.

Regardless of which POV you decide to go for, there are some mechanical rules you need to follow. We’ll go over them in part.

MECHANICS

To use POV effectively, each scene should be told through the eyes of one character, the one driving that scene. In other words, that scene is seen, heard and felt by a specific character, not several at the same time. Every sentence should be how that character would see or perceive what’s going on. Unless your character is a mind reader, he or she cannot tell what another character is thinking. At the same time, they cannot see something that’s physically impossible for them to see, or understand things they have no knowledge of (this is where first-person can become awkward, especially in intense action scenes). Other characters can speak and perform actions, but any thoughts or feelings must be expressed only through the eyes of the character driving the scene.

If another character expresses feelings or thoughts within a scene, they must be visual or audio so that the main character of that scene can see, hear or feel them and perceive them. For example, the POV character of the scene is Jane. During the scene, Alex is disappointed in something. How do we know this? Jane has to see or perceive this by something Alex says, the expression on his face, or something he does, like his body language. Since it’s Jane’s scene, she has to perceive everything that’s happening. It can’t be Alex. That would be a POV violation. It can’t be you, the author, or that would be author intrusion. Both of these violations can jerk the reader out of the story. If Jane perceives Alex’s disappointment, it’s a perfectly natural way to keep the reader immersed.

Randall didn’t like the idea of walking down that alley. This first sentence establishes the scene in Randall’s POV. He had been attacked before. He was sure some deranged killer lurked behind that green dumpster on the right side. Now this continues his POV as he thinks of all the bad things that could happen by walking down that alley.

The next paragraph continues. Jeremy had to laugh at Randall’s paranoia. The guy was a total wimp. This is a POV violation. The scene is Randall’s, yet the author jumps into Jeremy’s head within the same scene. Now the reader has two different heads to contend with, and has to shift POV. This is likely to confuse the reader. Randall can’t possibly know what Jeremy is thinking, so how does he know this?

You can correct his by changing what Jeremy sees into dialogue. Jeremy laughed. “Man, you’re the most paranoid guy I know. You’re a total wimp.” Turning Jeremy’s thoughts into dialogue keeps the scene in Randall’s POV because now Randall can hear and react to what Jeremy says. The dialogue reflects what Jeremy is thinking.

Randall stepped down the alley with Jeremy in tow. His eyes bored into every shadow. What he didn’t know was that the alley was empty and he was worried for nothing. The first two sentences are solidly in Randall’s POV. However, the third sentence is omniscient and author intrusion. In other words, Jeremy couldn’t possibly know what is going to happen, and the author is blatantly telling you. The fix for that third sentence is: When they reached the other end of the alley, he sighed with relief. It was empty. This puts the same thought solidly into his POV.

When the POV changes within a paragraph or a scene, it’s known as head-hopping. This is the sign of an amateur and should be avoided. Sure, you’ll see some big-name authors doing it, some because they can get away with it, others under the guise of style or technique, but those are garbage excuses for poor writing. The thing is that as a new writer, no editor or agent worth their salt is going to let you get away with it. Not only that, you’re going to make it harder on your readers and that’s something you don’t want to do.

There’s nothing wrong with changing POV within a story. However, it needs to be done in the right way. If you want to get into another character’s head, change scenes, or start a new chapter.

Another thing about POV. First, always start and stop a scene or chapter in that character’s dialogue, thoughts or actions. I’ll go more into that in another blog on structuring chapters, but always start a scene or chapter with either dialogue, some action or thought from that character. Second, always end it with their dialogue, thought or action.

By keeping your POV’s straight, your readers will appreciate it whether consciously or unconsciously and you’ll have one less excuse for an agent to toss your submission into the reject pile.

Happy writing!

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