Getting It Right – PoV for dummies

Point of View (PoV) is arguably the single most important skill in the storyteller’s armoury. Handled well, the story will benefit enormously; handled badly, the story will suffer enormously.

There are three basic storytelling PoVs: First Person, Second Person, and Third Person.

1. First Person PoV is when the writer tells the story through the eyes of the character, e.g.: “I waited at the checkout, but the person in front of me couldn’t make up their mind. If they didn’t hurry, I’d be late for my appointment.”

The main advantage is that the reader is as close as possible to the character’s feelings, and thus should become invested in the character’s story. The main disadvantage is that the writer is restricted to giving only the information which the First Person PoV character knows.

2. Second Person PoV is how people describe events to each other in real life, e.g.: “You know when you’re waiting at the checkout, and then the person in front of you can’t make up their mind? And then, because of this, you’re going to be late for your appointment?”

For the beginning writer, there are no real advantages to this PoV. It requires a high level of skill to avoid sounding irritating, patronising and condescending. Quite a few novels have been written in Second Person PoV, but very few people can name any of them.

3. Third person PoV, which divides into two main sub-PoVs:

3A. Omniscient Third Person, which consists of description generally detached from the character’s feelings, e.g.: “John waited at the checkout, but it soon became apparent that the person in front of him couldn’t make up their mind. Little did John know that this delay would make him late for his appointment.”

The advantage is that the writer is free to describe all of the surroundings and events that relate to the story, but the disadvantage is that it is extremely difficult to make the reader care about the character(s). In addition, Omniscient Third Person has been around so long that any attempt to create reader sympathy (“little did he know…”) will likely sound clichéd.

3B. Limited Third Person, which tells the story in Third Person, but close to one character’s PoV, e.g.: “John waited at the checkout, but soon he saw that the person in front could not make up their mind. John realised that this delay would make him late for his appointment.”

Limited Third Person PoV is the most common PoV in storytelling, leaving the writer relatively free to tell broader aspects of the story, while at the same time provoking reader sympathy for the character.

Common PoV problems among beginning writers

Most beginning writers try desperately hard to make the reader care about the character(s), but in doing so run into PoV problems.

Mixing Limited Third Person and First Person often by using italics, e.g.: “John waited at the checkout, but soon he saw that the person in front could not make up their mind. Damn, I’m going to be late for my appointment!

Popularised by Dan Brown, among others, most serious writers still regard this as hack fiction. Ultimately it is a question of style, but if a scene is written with half the text upright, and half the text in italics, any reasonable reader will get irritated and wonder why the writer couldn’t decide which PoV to write the scene in.

“Sliding” Limited Third Person often happens in scenes with two or more major characters, e.g.: “John looked at Maria and wondered when he should try to kiss her. Maria stared out of the window trying to remember whether she had any milk in the fridge.”

The above is a simplistic example, but the question is valid: whose PoV is this scene supposed to be in? If the PoV is John’s, then the reader should not be told what is going on in Maria’s head, and vice versa.

Moving from Limited Third Person to Second Person, e.g.: “The rain beat down on John, the cars, and the street as he waited to buy milk for Maria. It was the kind of rain that soaks your hair and drips from your clothes.”

This is a mistake, and should be caught at the latest during editing. However, it’s worth noting that it takes a skilled editor to spot PoV problems in a text; family-and-friends beta readers might not catch these things.

Changing PoVs

The generally-accepted rule is that a change of PoV – even from one Limited Third Person PoV to another – requires at least a scene break, preferably a chapter break. A PoV change in the same scene is taken as a sign of inexperience, and it is difficult to argue that it is some kind of writing “style”. Many writers and readers still believe that each, whole story should be told from one PoV only.

However, more stories are being written where chapters alternate between different PoVs, beginning with a Limited Third Person chapter, then followed by a First Person chapter, then back to Limited Third Person, etc. It’s difficult to argue against it as a style, although detractors will still consider it hack fiction, in that the writer is struggling to tell the story in one PoV, so changes PoV because he/she doesn’t have sufficient writing skill, while supporters regard it as a valid way to deliver a more entertaining story.

Unlimited PoVs

Finally, I want to stress that the number of PoVs is limitless. For example, there’s First Person Plural, which would be useful for telling a story from the lemmings’ PoV (“We decided to jump over the cliff because we thought it was a really good idea!”); or how about reporting a family feud around the Thanksgiving dinner table from the PoV of, say, a grain of salt on the table, or a flake of peeling paint on the ceiling, or a leaf on a tree outside the window, or… You get the picture. You can take any scene, with any number of characters, and write it from an unlimited number of PoVs (you see what I’ve done there? Up to now, this post has been in Third Person PoV, but I’ve changed to Second Person to speak directly to you).

Handling PoV is like driving a car. When you begin, you need to concentrate consciously on each movement of the controls. As you gain experience, you start doing things automatically, until you become proficient and can enjoy the pleasure of driving safe in the knowledge that you have an idea of what you’re doing.

If you’re serious about creating well-written stories, then it is certainly worth a little money and a few hours of your time to buy and read any of the numerous books on using PoV successfully. Most books will contain much better explanations than any single blog-post could, and will also offer PoV writing exercises to help you practise and understand not only the limits of PoV, but also the exceptional opportunities that knowing how to use PoV well can offer.

Author: Chris James

Chris James is an English author who lives in Warsaw, Poland, with his wife and three children. He has published three full-length science fiction novels and is currently writing a series of short story volumes inspired by characters in songs from the rock band Genesis. For more information, please visit his website or Amazon author page.

17 thoughts on “Getting It Right – PoV for dummies”

  1. Thanks Chris! That’s very informative. I have a tendency to fall into ‘Mixing Limited Third Person and First Person.’ Just one more thing for me to look out for 😉

  2. Great explanation of a difficult subject. I still remember the first rejection I got, citing too many POVs. I had no clue what the agent was talking about. Now, however, I’ve grown more proficient at using various POVs, and find that if used right they can be a major strength of a book. Thanks for making it so clear for so many.. 🙂

  3. OMG, Chris. Thank you for laying these basic fundamentals down for anyone who doesn’t understand the differences between P.O.V. I do know Indie authors who have decided that it’s just fine to switch back and forth between POV, So tricky, and only for the most nimble of writers (not necessarily authors) who know how and why they are using that as a vehicle for telling the story.

  4. You know how sometimes you’re minding your own business, reading blog posts, and then somebody like Chris James comes along and explains PoV to you? Man, when that happens, you’ve just gotta give the guy kudos. 😉

  5. This is really helpful, Chris and when I edit books for people who have this problem of POV and mixing them or ‘changing POVs’ (headhopping), I am going to provide a link to this post.

    You’re: ‘John waited at the checkout, but soon he saw that the person in front could not make up their mind. Damn, I’m going to be late for my appointment!” ‘ under your mixing of the Limited Third and First Person POVs and whether or not to use italics. My thought or reasoning on this is that it is totally unnecessary most of the time to use italics when using third person limited because as the reader, WE ARE ALREADY IN THE CHARACTER’S THOUGHTS/HEAD. Its like hitting us over the head with the same thought.

  6. Re the italics: They are still useful if they are clearly the unspoken thoughts of the person involved. It helps me distinguish spoken from internalizing words. My opinion…

  7. Question:
    I recently read “The Maltese Falcon” and I remember thinking that Dashiell Hammett wrote limited third person moving to second person. I just looked it up and they called it third person objective POV. I thought it was marvelous. What do you think?
    Great post, very informative!

  8. Chris, this is a an excellent primer! I tend to go with what sounds right or sounds wrong when I’m reading my writing but PoV can be much trickier than that. It must be tricky because I think I recently broke one of the rules noted in your post. Yikes!

    This is valuable info, sir. :))

  9. -cringe- I used to head-hop in multi character scenes – like a camera panning from one character to another to capture a subtle emotional reaction. Nice in theory, but almost impossible to do with words. Now I restrict myself to one POV per scene. It was a hard lesson to learn, but worth the effort.

  10. A very clear exlanation. You say it’s too big a subject for one blogpost, but I think you have nailed it.

    I write my protagonist in first person, past tense which seems natural to me, but used short interim chapters to write the antagonist in close/limited third person. This gave the reader a break from my protagonist’s head, but also gave them insight into the bad guy’s motivation.

  11. My eyes lit up when I saw the topic. I’d never come across this as a technical thing in writing until a couple of years ago and it’s still sinking in! That and ‘head hopping.’ Thanks Chris!

  12. Dear All,
    Many thanks for your comments. Unfortunately I was travelling this week and unable to reply in a timely manner. I’ll behave better next time 😉

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