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Point of View
by Pam McCutcheon
I've judged quite a few unpublished manuscripts lately and I noticed that one of the things that appears to separate the amateur from the professional writer is an understanding of point of view (POV). What is POV? Basically, it's whose head you're in--whose emotions and feelings you're going to let us experience. It's a powerful tool in your writer's kit, and one you need to understand thoroughly.
There are several different types of POV commonly used in fiction: omniscient, first person, and third person. In omniscient POV, you're in the viewpoint of the author or of God. You see and know everything; nothing is hidden from you. Example: Unbeknownst to Sarah, this would be the worst day of her life. While omniscient viewpoint makes it very easy to introduce backstory and give the reader a good feel for the atmosphere of the times, it doesn't allow them to identify with your story people. You view the characters as if from a distance--you aren't in their head living the experience along with them. Since you know everyone's feelings and motivations, it's also hard to build suspense. Though this technique was frequently used in the nineteenth century, it's seldom used today.
In first person, you're only in one person's point of view, the character who is telling the story. In this POV, the author uses "I" to tell the story. Example: Mary's uncertainty cut like a knife in my gut. The advantages are that you get right into one person's skin and you live the story along with him. It's very immediate and compelling--but only if your viewpoint character is interesting. The problem is, everything the reader learns about other characters or situations is filtered through the viewpoint character, so you only get one side of the story. This is used effectively in some mysteries and the old gothic romances where the author only wants you to know one perspective, but is not recommended for stories where you want the reader to know other characters' true feelings or motivations.
Third person is most often used by fiction writers today. Example: Mary's uncertainty cut like a knife in John's gut. Here we are in John's POV. We know that because you've told us what he's feeling and thinking. In this type of POV, you can remain in just one character's viewpoint or switch from one to another. It's a nice compromise between omniscient and first person because you have the balanced perspective of more than one viewpoint as well as the intimacy of being in individual characters' heads.
Though omniscient POV is seldom used to write entire novels today, it is used occasionally to start a story in order to give the reader a good sense of time and place. Once that's been established, the writer switches to third person to get firmly into one character's viewpoint. As an example, picture a camera shot of the New York city skyline. The camera zooms in slowly overhead to show the hustle and bustle of the city at Christmas time with the streets decorated, carols filling the air, and pedestrians hurrying to do their last minute shopping (omniscient POV). Then the camera focuses on a shabbily dressed man who lies sleeping on a park bench covered by newspapers. As he is prodded awake by a policeman, we get a full face shot of him and his startled expression--and we are now firmly in his POV.
If you're going to write in third person, there are several things you need to keep in mind. First, let the reader know immediately whose head they're in. This is easy to do by telling us that person's feelings. For example: Lancer woke and immediately regretted it. His brain felt as though it had been pickled in rotgut and beaten to death with a sledgehammer. Is there any doubt here whose head we're in? If we were in anyone else's POV, we wouldn't know how Lancer felt unless he told us in dialogue. We could make some suppositions by describing the way he looked and acted, but we wouldn't feel it along with him.
Beginning writers frequently forget that if they're in Sarah's POV, they can't write about how another character feels. Why not? Because Sarah doesn't know how the other characters feel--she can only make interpretations based on their actions. In other words, if you're in Sarah's POV, you shouldn't say, "Frank was nervous." Instead, you could say, "Frank fidgeted and ran his finger under his collar." That will give Sarah--and the reader--the idea that Frank is nervous without resorting to mindreading.
As another example, picture yourself in Mike's POV. Mike just drank a drugged brandy and passed out, and you describe the way the delicately etched crystal goblet slipped from his hand and shattered on the tile floor. Wrong. Why? Because if he's passed out, he doesn't know this has happened. He can't see it, so you accidentally slipped into omniscient POV.
When should you switch POVs? Switching POVs often (called head hopping) is done far too frequently in some romance novels because the author wants to give the reader an idea of how both the hero and heroine feel. They write one paragraph in the hero's POV, then the next in the heroine's, then back again. It feels like watching a tennis match--with the reader's head as the ball. It doesn't allow you to identify with any one character, because as soon as you do, you're yanked out of that POV and slammed into another. In my opinion, it's lazy writing. A good writer can show the other character's feelings by their actions, facial expressions, tone of voice, and dialogue.
When is it okay to switch POVs? As a rule of thumb, use no more than one person's POV per scene. Most readers readily accept a POV switch at the end of a chapter or scene, or at a dramatic moment. Of course, there are times when you will want to switch POV within a scene. I've done that--but only when there was a good reason for it, and only when I had a full understanding of POV. You can break the rules--but only if you understand them first. And I highly recommend you avoid minor characters' viewpoints. Use the viewpoints of your protagonists and your villains, because that's who the reader cares about.
Okay, so now you know which POV to use, you know how to stay in it, and when to switch. The next question is, whose POV should you be in? Assuming you're using third person and more than one character's POV, then ask yourself which character has the most to gain or lose in your scene. Which one has the primary goal, the major conflict? That's the person whose head you should be in because that's who the reader will want to identify with. You should ask yourself this in every scene, to ensure you pick the most compelling viewpoint, because compelling viewpoints make fascinating characters that will make your readers care and keep them turning the pages. Isn't that what good storytelling is all about?
Copyright © 1996 by Pam McCutcheon
Pam McCutcheon is an award-winning author published in romance book-length
fiction, fantasy short stories (as Pamela Luzier) and how-to books for
writers, including Writing the Fiction Synopsis and The Writer's
Brainstorming Kit (with Michael Waite).