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The Writer's Guide to Point of View (POV)

FEATURED IMAGE New York Book Editors 8 16 2021 The Writers Guide to POV

What I'm about to tell you may surprise you, but it's true: The most common writing mistake our editors encounter is an inconsistent point of view, or POV for short. Your POV will provide the appropriate filter so that your reader can appreciate the story in all of its glory, whether they see the story from up close or from a bird's eye perspective.

However, if your point of view is inconsistent, you'll disrupt the reader's experience. A shift in POV can shift your reader out of the fantasy and make them focus on the mechanics of your storytelling.


Point of view can be complicated, especially if you're unaware of the options. In this post, we'll break down what you need to know about point of view to ensure that you're not making a rookie mistake that could destroy your storytelling.

Let's get started.

What is POV?

POV is short for point of view.

Point of view is the position from which your reader will see the story. The point of view can be provided through a character's telling or retelling. Or it can come from a narrator who is not involved in the story at all.

Point of view identifies the “who.” Who is telling the story? What do they know? What can they know? What do they want the reader to know?

Here's another way to think of point of view:

Imagine gathering around your great grandfather as he shared his first-person account of landing on the shores of Normandy during D-Day. Imagine watching a documentary that covered the same event. Both stories may be riveting, but they impart different experiences because they're told from different points of view. You may enjoy hearing the first-person account from your beloved grandpapa. It's gritty, emotional, and authentic in its straightforward simplicity.

But the documentary has its own merits. It can share with you things your great-grandfather may not have known then or now. It can give you background. It can also share the accounts of other soldiers. Ultimately, the documentary can provide a more comprehensive overview of the same event. It's more distant and impartial.

As you can see from the above example, the point of view you choose can be direct or it can be distant. Ultimately, your POV will determine how your reader experiences the story.

The point of view you choose can be direct or it can be distant. Ultimately, your POV will determine how your reader experiences the story.

The Different Types of POV

Here are the different points of view you can use to tell your story:

First Person (Me, Myself, and I)

With the first-person POV, your reader sees what your character (typically the protagonist) sees. The reader becomes one with the character. The reader knows what the character knows, but nothing more than that.

This is important.

If you choose to write in the first-person POV, you cannot reveal to the reader anything beyond what the character knows. And, unless your characters are telepathic, they can't know what other characters are thinking.

There is also a POV known as first-person multiple. In this POV, you can switch from one character's mind to another. This allows you to get the first-hand perspective of different characters without the distance that comes with the third-person POV.

Some amazing first-person narrative novels include Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Why write in the first-person POV?

Use it to forge an immediate connection with the reader. It's an intimate approach to storytelling that can complement your subject matter.

Second Person (You)

This point of view makes the reader (you) the protagonist of the story. It guides the reader through the adventure.

It's rare to come across second-person POV in fiction. Second-person POV is used more frequently in consumer marketing and nonfiction books. However, it has been tackled by a few brave and innovative fiction writers. The most popular examples are The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Bright Lights, Big City by James McInerney.

This POV tends to work best with shorter stories. An example of this is found in How to Leave Hialeah by Jennine Capó Crucet. Or, perhaps you're familiar with the Choose Your Own Adventure books from years past. Those interactive game books serve as a perfect example of second-person POV done correctly.

If you're among the brave souls who want to write in the second-person POV, here's why it's worth the hassle. Second-person POV immediately grabs the reader by the collar and drags them into the story. They have no option but to be engaged with the story because it's happening to them.

The second-person POV also proves to be more reliable than first-person narrators. The reader may not fully trust the first-person narrator because that type of narrator is obviously partial and tells a story through their own, self-motivated perspective. But with a second-person POV, the reader has no choice but to accept what's written as unbiased truth.

It's fun to explore the second-person POV, and I recommend that all authors try doing it at least once.

But, just like with other points of view, the reader should eventually forget that they're reading from the second-person POV. The point of using the second-person POV isn't to show readers how edgy and creative you are as a writer. Instead, you should choose to write from this POV because of its unique benefits. It's immersive, interactive, and introspective. The reader has no choice but to connect to the events if they want to continue reading the story.

Third Person (He, She, It, They)

Guide to Writing in Different POV

The third-person POV is the most popular choice. With this POV, you have more distance and therefore, more freedom. Even if you stick to one character (third-person limited), you're able to explore that character more than you would if you were writing as that character.

Why?

The third-person narrator is not a character in your story. The third-person narrator may or may not be you, the author. It could be a different character who's not involved in any discernible way in your story.

There are three types of third-person points of view:

Third-Person Limited

This point of view follows one character. It's told from that character's viewpoint only.

So, how is third-person limited different from the first-person POV?

Think of third-person limited as a psychiatrist who knows everything about that character. They know the reasons why the character does what he or she does. In a first-person POV, the narrator may not be introspective. They may not know the real reason behind their actions. But a third-person limited narrator will be able to disclose that information about the character.

Third-Person Multiple

This POV isn't limited to one character. Instead, it sees the story from the viewpoints of multiple characters. It's still limited to what those characters know.

Third-Person Omniscient

This POV is not limited in any way. It knows everything about the world. It can hop from one character's mind to another. The narrator becomes the god of that world.

The third-person omniscient POV is difficult to pull off. Why your narrator may know everything, it's rarely best to tell everything. Good storytelling is selective. You choose what details to share and what to hold back or else your reader will be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data. The reader doesn't need to know everything, even if you do. So if you choose the third-person omniscient, it's important to control the flow of information.

Examples of novels written in the third-person POV include Lord of the Flies by William Golding and 1984 by George Orwell.

Why You Shouldn't Switch POV

Once you've settled on a POV, you're stuck with that choice. You can't easily flow between points of view.

Why?

Switching between points of view will confuse the reader. It takes them out of “story enjoyment” mode and causes them to retrace their steps. They'll wonder, Who's talking? How long have they been talking? How would this character know this?

It’s very difficult to gain your reader’s trust if you’re switching from a limited “I” to hopping into the heads of different characters within your story. It can be done, though. Examples of switching between multiple points of view include one of my favorite novels of all time, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. The author switches from the third-person POV to the first-person POV constantly throughout the novel but, in the final chapter, it’s revealed why the author chose to do this. I won’t spoil it, but there’s a compelling reason for the switching POV.

And that’s the takeaway. Unless you have a reason to switch POV and are doing so intentionally, it’s best to stay in one lane.

How Do You Choose the Best POV for Your Story?

To be honest, there’s no right or wrong point of view. It's the author's choice on how they’d like for the reader to experience their story. As an author, you must decide the best point of view for your story. Should it be up close and personal, i.e. inside the thoughts of your protagonist? Or should it be somewhat removed from individual characters?

Guide to Writing in Different POV

It can be worthwhile to experiment with multiple points of view if you’re not settled on the right one. Take one scene and write it from different points of view: first, third, and maybe even second, if you dare. Then, step away for a few days to let it breathe. When you return to your work, see which version feels right for your story. It may be useful to ask someone else to read the different versions, too.

Final Thoughts

Your point of view will determine how your reader experiences the story, whether that’s up close (first and second person) or somewhat removed (third person). There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to point of view. Choose the one that enables you to tell the story in the way that you want.

Before you go, check out these related posts:

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