writing technique

POV Explained

another-point-of-view

POV Explained

Let’s differentiate point-of-view (POV) in the simplest, most direct manner possible.

The first distinction to be made is to identify what perspective your story is being told from: first-person, second-person or third-person. Examples:

First-person: “I walked into the bank . . .”
Second-person: “You walked into the bank . . .”
Third-person: “He walked into the bank . . .”

First- and second-person POVs are fairly self-explanatory, but there are sub-categories within third-person POV that need to be elaborated on for purposes of clarity.

The secondary distinction to be made in third-person POV is along the “subjectivity/objectivity axis”: whether or not the writer gets inside the head (or heads) of the characters he or she is describing.

If the writer confines himself to describing the behavior, emotional reactions and thoughts of one single character at a time while other character’s observed emotions and conjectured thoughts are only described as externally-perceived phenomena, you are writing in third-person limited POV.

If the writer confines herself to describing only the actions and sounds of a scene, you are writing in the third-person objective POV. You are chronicling the scene as if you had a good camera and recording device trained on the action. No character thoughts or emotions are directly revealed or described.

If your narrative has a single, god-like viewpoint from which we view all other characters and perspectives—or you talk directly to the reader—or your narrator travels freely backward and forward in time—or the narrator can transfer their all-knowing perspective into animals or inanimate objects—you are writing in the third-person omniscient POV. (Much frowned upon today, though a very popular POV in 19th-century novels.)

—Sharon was angry and confused. (You are making a flat declaration of fact about Sharon’s interior emotional state, hence are writing in third-person omniscient POV.)

—Sharon looked (or seemed) angry and confused. (You are confining your description to only those facts an objective, not omniscient, narrator might observe or know; hence you are writing in third-person limited or third-person objective POV.)

Q: What if I describe the actions, conjectured thoughts and observed emotions of, say, five different characters in a scene. Isn’t that the omniscient POV?

A: Nope. You didn’t declare anyone’s emotional state as a flat declarative fact (hence talk directly to the reader), nor did you reveal anyone’s inner thoughts. You are still writing in a third-person POV, but now it’s a multiple third-person POV. If no one’s thoughts or emotions are directly shared or revealed, it would be an objective multiple third-person POV. If you reveal or share the focal character’s thoughts or emotions with the reader you are writing in the third-person limited POV.

Here’s where things can become muddled: You “head-hop” into another character within the same scene and directly reveal their emotions and/or thoughts to the reader. This does not mean that your narrative has necessarily shifted from third-person limited to a third-person omniscient viewpoint (remember: the omniscient viewpoint is an over-arching, unifying viewpoint that contains all characters and perspectives), but rather that the focal point character has shifted within the scene. A writer can use multiple viewpoints in a work of fiction, true—but it is strongly recommended that the text show a clearly-demarked line or chapter break when you switch amongst multiple points of view.

Q: My focal point character—the one I’m following most closely in this scene—reveals his inner thoughts and emotions to the reader. But the other four people in this scene do not. Since I’m only directly revealing the thoughts and emotions of one of the five people in this scene, I’m writing in third-person limited POV, correct?

A: Correct. If you didn’t directly reveal the thoughts and/or emotions of even one character in this scene, you’d be writing in the objective third-person POV. (Camera and sound recording device only, remember?)

Q: My reviewers are accusing me of head-hopping. So what? I’m writing in multiple third-person limited POV; what’s the big deal?

A: The big deal is that every time you jump into another character’s head to directly reveal the inner life of that character you steal focus from the scene’s focal point character, thus injecting emotional distance into your text by diffusing empathy and muddying the over-all clarity, dramatic pacing and concision of your scene. A clean line or chapter break when switching amongst POVs will help to keep your reader focused, involved and empathizing with the most important person in the narrated scene.

First-Person POV: allows for the closest reader identification with your narrator. Drawbacks include: (a) the narrator is strictly confined to discussing what he or she directly experiences or observes, (b) first-person voice can come across as comically narcissistic and melodramatic, and (c) first-person voice is not the easiest (or most credible) stylistic vehicle to use when describing the thoughts and motivations of others.

Second-Person POV: almost never used, for obvious reasons. (Who’s this joker telling me what I think and feel and do?!)

Third-Person POV: has the most credibility with the reader.

(a) The third person omniscient narrator can move backwards and forwards in time; talk directly to the reader; inhabit the bodies and psyches of animals, insects, toasters and toys—but this can come across as mightily contrived and corny to a contemporary reader.

(b) The third person limited narrator must confine his description of directly-revealed thoughts and/or emotions to only one character at a time in any given scene.

(c) The third person objective narrator mechanistically chronicles the scene like a camera and sound recording device, never entering his character’s emotional or cognitive lives.

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21 thoughts on “POV Explained

  1. mimispeike says:

    Not too schooled in POV, I will reread before I comment.

    You have given me a fine new word: concision. (Related to concise?) A thousand thanks, oh fellow-word-beguiled one.

    Ha! After the obvious, another definition from Google: Archaic. a cutting up or off; mutilation. Used by Saint Paul as a derogatory term for circumcision. I see this leading to some strange conversations. (Sly read a bit of the Bible, after his dumb-ass brother converted to Presbyterianism, in order to argue against it.)

    Now I have to research frog and hedgehog (his two best childhood friends) penises. Do they have anything to concise? I don’t rule out a game of Show me yours, I’ll show you mine. Carl, you are a real pal! To share these great ideas with me!

    I can make hay of this. One of the ways Sly taught himself to speak English (any tongue, he is multi-lingual) was, he had a word of the day, that he used as many times that day as he could figure out to do. Hmmmm.

    His attempts to master Frog must have resulted in some comical scenes. No wonder his mother was concerned for her tiniest, most vulnerable, and, apparently, addle-brained child. When he seemed to mumble to himself, making really strange noises, he was practicing his words. I did the same when I was trying to learn French.

    Finally, having reached the pinnacle of achievement as the close advisor of a king, still smarting years later over how he’d been scoffed at back home, he wants to show the rubes what he’s made of himself. That is the motivation for his trip north. I’d thought it a sentimental journey to see his mother. No! He wants to rub hometown noses in his way-superior success in life.

    A delightful idea, Carl! Thanks to you. I will give you another credit in my footnotes. Praise for your outstanding word-smithery. And mentions of your on-Amazon books, of course.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. atthysgage says:

    A very nice summation. I admit to having a certain affection for third person omniscient. I’ve never used it for anything longer than a short story, but it offers an opportunity to play with the reader’s expectations and preconceptions. I’ve more than once tried to convince Mimi that she ought to have the narrator of Sly step out from behind the authorial lectern halfway through the narrative and reveal himself to be a player in the story with his own agendas and biases, which would call in to question everything that went before. Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially when you’re (hopefully?) nearly done writing the thing.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    I love the idea, Atthys, but I can’t see how to do it without dumping a lot of stuff that I don’t want to dump.

    The Novella and Book One are essentially done. Books two and three have a long way to go.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Perry Palin says:

    I’ve used the first person POV for a number of short stories, and some readers have assumed they were autobiographical, which they were not. I was glad at least to think that the stories sounded real for those readers.

    Liked by 2 people

    • @Perry: Heh! I’ve had similar reactions to my use of the first-person POV by those who should know better. I actually had to remonstrate with one editor who gave me a sly (I think of Mimi and her work whenever I hear that word now) smile and said, “Is your alter ego really Dick Hardcock?” Me: “Oh for the love of Pete! The protagonist’s name is intended as an outrageous send-up of all those phallic tough-guy names in the detective genre; it’s meant to be the final word in single entendre in this regard.”

      Liked by 2 people

  5. GD Deckard says:

    I’m aware of PoV while writing, for the obvious reasons. But I do suspect that strict PoV adherence is the result of Hollywood & television. That single perspective will, of course, vanish in virtual reality movies. Maybe novels of the future, written for holodeck presentation, will somehow present a holistic view of each scene.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. mimispeike says:

    Who writes omniscient these days? I think of what I do as a cubist painting. A dab here, a dab there, until you have the whole picture. I don’t get how that can be a bad thing.

    I understand the criticism, breaking the focus, etc. Muddying clarity? I think it adds clarity. Of a different, deeper kind.

    Liked by 2 people

    • @Mimi: “Head-hopping” does not refer to the use of the omniscient voice. An invisible narrator could very well say something like: “And now we find our intrepid band of heroes about to make the biggest mistake of their adventuring lives.” Further narration might describe divers characters’ thoughts and feelings as the scene plays out. Corny, but an acceptable use of the omniscient voice.

      “Head-hopping”, on the other hand, is frowned upon in the third-person limited point of view because you keep yanking the rug out from under the reader and asking them to reorient their perspective and empathy within the same scene.

      Consider:

      ……………………….

      (Example of deathless prose #1)

      Steve stared at her in disbelief. He couldn’t have heard what he thought he heard. Twelve years! Twelve years together and it’s over just like that! “You want a divorce. Before Christmas.”

      She took a deliberate sip of wine, set the glass down carefully. Considered the tabletop for long, interminable seconds. “Yes,” Melinda said, raising her eyes and fixing her husband with a steady, somewhat pitying stare. “That’s exactly what I want.”

      “I see,” Steve said. He fought to keep his voice steady. This can’t be happening! She’s still upset over the move and the loss of the dog, that’s all. We’ll sleep on it. And in the morning . . . “Hon—can we discuss this tomorrow?”

      Melinda took a deep breath. “No, we can’t.”

      (Example of deathless prose #2)

      Steve stared at her in disbelief. He couldn’t have heard what he thought he heard. Twelve years! Twelve years together and it’s over just like that! “You want a divorce. Before Christmas.”

      Do I stutter? I thought that was pretty clear. Melinda took a deliberate sip of wine, set the glass down carefully. Considered the tabletop for long, interminable seconds. “Yes,” she said, raising her eyes and fixing her husband with a steady, somewhat pitying stare. “That’s exactly what I want.”

      “I see,” Steve said. He fought to keep his voice steady. This can’t be happening! She’s still upset over the move and the loss of the dog, that’s all. We’ll sleep on it. And in the morning . . . “Hon—can we discuss this tomorrow?”

      Melinda took a deep breath. The ‘ole avoid-and-delay routine again. Not this time. “No, we can’t.”
      ………………….

      Which version do you prefer?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Perry Palin says:

        I prefer deathless prose version #1, but I think the passage works too without any of the italics.The emotions of the characters are implied in the spoken words.

        Yes, some of the facts would be missing (twelve years, the move, loss of the dog), but I assume these are made known elsewhere in the story.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. mimispeike says:

    I like both, but the second I would structure as follows:

    Melinda took a deliberate sip of wine and set the glass down carefully. Do I stutter? she wondered. I thought that was pretty clear. She considered the tabletop for long, interminable seconds. “Yes,” she said, raising her eyes and fixing her husband with a steady, somewhat pitying stare. “That’s exactly what I want.”

    Does my change make a difference?

    Liked by 2 people

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