“Point of View” Made Simple

Today’s post is a mix of my thoughts on “point of view”, as well as a re-post of an entry from July 2008, revised slightly by its author, a writer and editor whose greatest peeve is laziness in the writing process. He lays out the basics of POV in a way that almost anyone can understand.

When I was younger, I used to write in the vein of the books I grew up reading, many of them being older works with third-person omniscient points of view. I didn’t know the technical term, nor did I even consider such a concept as POV, but once a junior high English teacher pointed it out to me, I realized that the right point of view can make a story come alive.

At first, however, I resisted. After all, third-person limited was so, well, limited. In the years since, however, it has become my default POV when composing a story. However, I have wandered into first-person on occasion, and have even played with tenses. Most books are written using past tense, but I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy the immediacy of present tense.

Now, without further ado, I present a soap box and a lecture.

Remember that cliche about opinions: Everyone has one?

Here’s another old saying: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

After reading the opening pages of a novel that I freelance edited—twice—I’m wondering where my advice went. Down some literary drain, I guess.

POV (point of view) is one of the simplest things to get right, yet one of the most difficult concepts to communicate.

Definition: The story or scene is told from the point of view of one character in the scene—and ONLY from that person’s perspective—or it is told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator (an objective imaginary individual who sees all and knows all, and communicates that to the reader).

Third-person limited POV: All that fancy term third-person limited means is this: The reader is not jerked from character to character in a mind-hopping exercise, jumping first into one character’s perspective and then into another character’s thoughts, but is led through the scene (or the entire story) by one character, knowing, sensing, and experiencing only what that character does, and only as that character encounters it.

Through whose eyes?
c. 2012, EE

There is no telegraphing—”If only Johnny knew that his greatest enemy lurked in the shadows”—and there is no “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.” The reader knows only what his guide (the character) knows.

I do not have eyes in the back of my head. Therefore, I cannot describe to you any actions occurring behind me, unless I can see them reflected in a mirror, a window, etcetera, or hear the noises or smell the odors associated with those actions.

Makes sense, right?

Then why do writers insist on sloppy craft, and have a character describe the expression on his own face? He can tell you that he’s frowning, but unless he can see himself in a reflective surface, he cannot describe his own facial contortions.

He can’t tell you what he looks like from the back or the side–or, to tell the truth, from the front. He lives in his own skin; he needs an outside source, a mirror or another person, to help him visualize that skin from more angles than he can see with a tilt of his head.

Anyway, I’m reading this published novel, and there are POV switches all over the place in a single scene. After several pages of being in the hero’s perspective, we leap from his POV to his friends’, back to his, and then into the sight of his enemy, way up in an apartment window, an enemy the hero doesn’t even know is around, let alone watching.

Wha—?

Yes, I have a soapbox about POV. I’m a writer and an anal-retentive editor. POV switching is the mark of a lazy writer or an immature writer. Even the so-called greats wander into POV hell on occasion.
It didn’t use to be a problem for me as a reader; nowdays, though, if the writer hasn’t done the hard work and fixed the POV problem, I won’t finish the book. Yep, it’s that big a deal.

c. 2008, KB

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