Today’s guest post was written by Salome Jones and Tim Dedopulos from FLOURISH EDITING where every Monday they critique 750 words for free. Yep, free. I submitted my entry and received the edited version back the same day. Between these two editors they’ve edited over 25 million words. They’ve worked in publishing houses in the US and the UK and served as literary agents, editors, publishers, and writers, with more than 100 books published and authored between them.
One of the most common problems these editors see with writers are violations of point-of-view. So when they asked if they could write an article identifying the different POVs to help writers, I totally agreed. I hope you find it helpful.
Photo courtesy of MORGUEFILE.com. Click HERE to follow this artist.
Point of View
by Salomé Jones and Tim Dedopulos
What Are The POVs?
Point of view in fiction is simply the way the narrator sees the story that’s being told. There are several kinds of point of view. Most modern fiction is written in either first person (“I”) or third person close (“he”/“she”), sometimes called third person limited. There are other points of view, of course. Third person omniscient used to be very popular, but has largely faded now. The same is true of confessional first person, the viewpoint of diary entries. Second person (“you”) and third person plural (“we”) do exist, but they’re rare and mostly used experimentally, so I won’t dwell on them.
There are still a few omniscient stories out there in our literary history, maybe even a few modern omniscient stories. If you’ve stumbled on one or two, they might have given you the impression that in fiction the narrator always knows everything, can see inside every character’s head without restriction.
In an omniscient point of view the narrator is generally a neutral, unnamed entity who can see everything. This can work for fairy tales and some fantasy stories, but there’s a method to it. It’s not as random as it seems. There always needs to be a focal point. In omniscient, you can think of your point of view as being like the camera in a film. The problem with it is that it’s not very personal, which distances the reader from the text. Do note that you can’t just claim omniscient viewpoint and write willy-nilly through every character’s head in your story. If you want to know about how to use omniscient properly, I suggest this article by Charlie Jane Anders. The short of it is that for the most part, omniscient voice is very difficult for a less-experienced writer to pull off successfully.
Third Person and First Person
Both third person close and first person allow for the viewpoint character’s thoughts to be included in the story. No other character’s thoughts will be available, except in the same way that you or I can find out what someone’s thinking: they tell you, you guess or give them truth serum or, since we’re discussing fiction, possibly you use psychic abilities or other such devices. A lot of third person fiction has moments where it shades toward the loose, however, providing some wiggle room for other interjections. This just isn’t acceptable in first person.
Coming back to first versus third, viewpoint problems are much more likely to show up in third person. First person is simpler to stay accurate in; we all instinctively know how to correctly tell a story about ourselves. The flip-side is that it’s sometimes (foolishly) considered less worthy of respect than third person, particularly amongst publishers and other authors. “Oh, yes, you write in first person” is not a compliment.
The most common third person issue is ‘head hopping.’ The author steps out of the point of view character’s head and into another character’s head, maybe just for one line or one paragraph. This has a jarring effect on the reader, because it’s not how our minds work. We can guess or wonder what someone else is thinking, but we can’t know, and we certainly can’t instantly jump to another person’s thoughts. It feels unnatural when this happens on the page.
There are other things that violate point of view, of course: If your narrator character sees something that’s happening behind his or her back; if she describes her own face or expression (something we just don’t do in normal life) to herself; if she talks about what’s happening somewhere else (that she can’t see); and so on. These are all major pov violations.
The same principles apply in first person. If I’m sitting in a café and I’m telling you about what’s happening and I say, “I looked like I’d seen a ghost,” I’m violating point of view. My eyes don’t have small hovercrafts attached to them so that they can zoom across the room to look back at me. That’s someone else’s pov, someone who’s looking at my face.
One way to think about the difference between first person and third person close is that third person is one step removed. It’s as if someone told you their first person story and you’re telling it again, using their words, their reactions and so forth, but all you have to go on are their personal experiences and observations. It’s a little more distant, with a little more room for uncertainty than first person. You’re still inside the viewpoint’s head in third person, but you’re a passenger rather than a confidante. As such you get to see the things that maybe their conscious mind doesn’t notice. By contrast, in first person, you are restricted entirely to things that the viewpoint character is consciously aware of. If it’s not something that someone like your first person viewpoint might plausibly think to themselves in that situation, then it can’t be on the page. No excuses!
Advantages of POV
There are advantages to both first and third person. First person is cozy and intimate. It lets you build up a strong sense of the viewpoint character, and encourages the reader to identify with the character. It’s quite claustrophobic, however. If your viewpoint wouldn’t hear those words in her head, they can’t be on the page. Most of us stumble through life preoccupied with stuff, so rich description, background exposition and impersonal asides are all unsuitable. Third person, by contrast, is lush and detailed. It allows for deep thought, careful observations, misdirection, and a degree of freedom in pacing. You’ll get to know the viewpoint character very well, very truly. It’s a little standoffish though, not as warm and friendly as first person. It’s not quite as accessible, either. The appropriate viewpoint for your work will depend on the story you want to tell.
You can, of course, write a story using more than one narrator. This is probably more common in novels than single-viewpoint stories, particularly in third person. However, certain rules apply if you choose to do this. The most important is not to confuse the reader. If you’re going to use two points of view, then doing it in long stretches, like chapters or at least several pages, is preferable to switching back and forth every couple of paragraphs. If you do change points of view in the middle of a chapter, you should use white space – a skipped line – to indicate it. (By the way, the other time to use white space is when you make a significant leap through time.)
There are other things I’ve seen recently that bear mentioning. When two people are having a conversation on a page, point of view doesn’t switch back and forth with the speaker. When you’re talking to someone, you don’t become her just because she opens her mouth, right? You still see things that way you see them, including what another person says.
A subtler thing to consider is that if you have two characters sharing the narration, ideally they’ll have slightly (or even very) different voices. They won’t have the same thoughts or feelings, and you won’t use the same words to describe their actions. They won’t use the same types of similes and metaphors in description, and may see the same object in very different ways. You want your reader to hear your character in their heads. This is true whether or not it’s written in first person. Yes, third person narration will be a little more distant than dialogue, which is exact speech, but even narration needs to be colored by the point of view character’s way of thinking. Don’t jump between first person and third person in the same book, by the way; it unsettles readers, and throws them out of the fictive trance.
What is the MIRROR MOMENT?
The example my editing partner and I often give of clunky viewpoint in critiques is what’s become known as ‘the mirror moment.’ This is the point where a character sees herself in the mirror and launches into a lengthy description, saying things like ‘Kelly wasn’t very attractive despite being 5’8” tall. Despite her shoulder-length blonde hair, blue eyes and cupid-bow lips, she was thick in the middle, had crooked teeth and didn’t know how to dress herself.’ When is the last time you looked in the mirror and made a laundry list of your flaws? Isn’t it more likely to go like this? ‘Kelly bared her teeth and leaned close to the mirror. God, that gap between her front teeth looked horrible. If only her mother would let her get it fixed. She sighed. She’d probably have to earn the money herself before that would happen.’
Salome and Tim say, We hope this information has been useful to you. You can find more writing advice on our website: FlourishEditing.com.