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The great Point of View mystery (POV)

Written By: Eddie Snipes - Jul• 05•11

What is Point of View?

When I began writing, POV was a mystery to me. After joining a critique group, I kept getting comments like, “Watch to Point of ViewPOV.” I didn’t even know what POV meant. By the way, POV means Point Of View. Then someone started talking about ‘Deep POV’. It was confusing until something clicked in my brain.

Even experienced writers can find it challenging to maintain a correct point of view. Head hopping, or jumping from one point of view to another, can confuse the reader. The last thing you want is for someone to be asking, who is thinking what? Here’s an example of head hopping.

Jill looked at Tom and smiled. She always felt weak in her knees when he looked at her with those brown eyes. “Hi, Tom,” she said, and he gave her a warm smile. The scent of perfume was captivating. It reminds me of my mother, he thought.

Jill’s feeling of weak knees indicates that we are viewing the world through her point of view. But when Tom thinks about his mother, our involvement in the story is derailed. I thought Jill was thinking until I saw ‘he thought’. Now I have to stop and reread to gain Tom’s point of view.

Sometimes POV violations don’t confuse the reader, but they still make reading sloppy. Even if the reader is tipped off on who is thinking, it still pulls them out of the story as the analytical part of our minds tries to keep track of whose perspective is being communicated. Good writing loses the reader in the story and leaves the analytical part of our minds out of the experience. Analyzing hinders the emotional experience – even if we don’t consciously realize it. All we know is that we aren’t enjoying the book. I try to finish every book I start, but there have been occasions when I realize, I don’t really care how this story ends. So I quit wasting my time on that book.

A good way to remember to keep POV in the right perspective is this: if the person in the current point of view can’t see or know something, it can’t be added to the story. If Tom walks out of the room, closes the door, and shakes his head in frustration, Jill can’t see it. Therefore, if we are in Jill’s point of view, Tom leaves the scene when he closes the door. When characters are interacting, if the story is being told from Jill’s point of view, she can’t know that her perfume reminds Tom of his mother. Not unless he says it. If the reader needs to know it, this fact must be spoken in dialog, or shared in a different scene.

Misconceptions of Point of View (POV)

Don’t confuse preferences with rules. I’ve heard several rules that simply are not true. Here’s one: You can’t have mix point of view. If you write a first person point of view, you can’t use third person, etc.

Actually, you can mix POVs, but you must take care to do it right. You can have third person and first person in the same story.

First person is to tell the story through a character as though the reader is the person. For example: Through the mesh of the eyes of my costume, I looked around the mall. Please don’t let anyone recognize me. This has to be the worst job I’ve ever had.

Third person: Through the mesh of the eyes of his Herby the Hippo costume, Tom scanned for any sight of his friends in the mall. They would never let him live this one down. This is the worst summer job yet.

First and third person can be mixed in a novel, but not in a scene. If Tom is in first person, Tom should always be in first person when looking at the world from his point of view. But it can be mixed with third person when a scene is needed where Tom isn’t present.

Steven James does an excellent job of this in his Christy Award winning novels. The main character, Patrick Bowers, is written in first person. But the problem with first person is that nothing can be introduced that the main character doesn’t see. Patrick Bowers is an FBI agent hunting down a violent criminal. When switching to the criminal’s point of view, third person is employed.

Keeping the point of view timeline.

One important rule / suggestion is to maintain a consistent timeline. When the story is moving along, switching scenes from the first person character to the third person character(s), you wouldn’t want to jump in time. The first rule of writing is to keep the reader in the story. Jumping back and forth in time is worse than head hopping. If Patrick Bowers is chasing the criminal through the woods, and dashing around trees, jumping over creeks, and entering a cave, you wouldn’t want to switch to third person and have the criminal entering the woods. If you switch points of view, do so with a consistent timeline.

Mixing point of views without confusion

Another rule – and yes, I would call this one a hard and fast rule, don’t mix POV in a single scene. Let me first define what I mean by scene. A scene can be a series of events from beginning to end, or it can be a specific event within a scene. I’ll give an example in a moment. Let’s say Patrick Bowers is in the chase scene. He is in hot pursuit, dodging bullets, and leaping over brooks. The criminal runs into the cave. Up to this point, the scene may have been only from Bowers POV, but to build tension, you may want the reader to see how the criminal plans to take out the FBI agent.

The first step is to do a scene break. Though it’s still the same scene, a scene break can be at any event within a scene. It could go something like this:

Come on, legs. I can’t let him get away. Why did I have to find this loser after lunch? Running on a full stomach is not my…oh no! He just went into that cave. The flashlight is in my car.

***

The cave offered little light, so Slimy Bart knew he had an advantage if he surprised the agent in the darkness. He could see Bowers, but the agent had no idea where Bart was hiding. After easing into the crevasse, he gripped a rock tight, trying to remain quiet. Could the agent hear his pounding heart? Or the breath rushing out of him like a leaf blower? The agent was now within a few feet. Bart’s muscles tensed. The agent passed by, looking around in the darkness. When the shadow of Bowers passed, Slimy Bart eased out of the dark corner and raised the rock high. The agent sensed movement and turned, but it was too late. The rock made a strange clank on the agent’s head.

***

Stars blasted through my eyes. Something jarred my head. Hard. I staggered back a few steps and shook the fog out of my skull. When my head cleared, I thought, “Good thing I wore my steel beanie today.” (Not an actual scene from a Bowers novel.)

Changing point of view isn’t confusing if it’s done properly.

To review, Point of View changes are fine as long as there is a scene break to clue the reader in. Don’t show the world from two people in the same scene without indicating a break. Don’t show feelings, intentions, or thoughts from someone that isn’t the current point of view. You can communicate this information by showing, or by introducing the information in an earlier or later scene.

Once you understand how to maintain a good point of view, the scenes you write will flow smoother and will help keep readers engaged in the story.

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9 Comments

  1. Lisa Lickel says:

    Good post! The deadline for the first novel contest approached when I was in the Christian Writers Guild, so I finished my first whole book–awesome! Then I got to the lesson on POV, and realized I messed up Everything! I quickly rewrote, but am still making sure all things work together.

  2. Tracy Krauss says:

    Some excellent ‘points’ on ‘Point of View’. This is often something that really stands out when reading the work of an author who hasn’t taken the time to get proper critique, but just went ahead and self published. I’ve come across it time and again and it makes me want to yell and say, “This could be a good story BUT …!!!”

    • Eddie Snipes says:

      Very true. The biggest criticism against self-pubbing is sloppy editing. I have my work edited. Some things still slip through, but my goal is to keep mistakes from hindering the story.

  3. Beth K. Vogt says:

    I always like to read about POV–always appreciate another take on the topic. One of my pet peeves is head-hopping, within a scene, for sure, but I’ve seen it done within the same paragraph. Ugh.
    As an editor, I’m always surprised what slips through in both standard publishing and self-publishing. That’s why I say the “eyes” have it. The more cycles of the editing, the better. The more eyes on a ms or article,the better.

    • Eddie Snipes says:

      Beth, you are definitely right. Even high quality, traditionally published work has a few minor errors. I rarely read a book that doesn’t have something slip through, but the more eyes who read it, the fewer things that slip through unnoticed.

      That’s why I say, writing is a solo journey, but publishing is a group effort.

  4. Tessa says:

    Thankyou so much. I really needed this!

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