This week we’re exploring different POV styles and how to use them effectively.
Point of view mistakes in writing make up a bigger portion of my editing tasks than you would believe. Many burgeoning new writers may not take the actual method of different points of view into account when they’re working and trust me… it shows. Point of view is an insanely important part of writing; it can make or break a scene, a chapter, or even a book. It’s incredibly important to be aware of the different types and why you should recognize when to use them and how to remain consistent in that style. When I see a book come across my desk with bad POV mistakes, it makes me question the validity of said book being there.
This is NOT the impression you want to make on potential publishers, editors, or readers.
We’re going to take a look at the different types of point of view, or POV for short, and give you a brief break down of why and how to use them, and keep you from making a huge rookie mistake and switching your POV mid-sentence.
(Yes, I have seen this happen… more than you know.)
For the purpose of maintaining consistency in your writing, I am also going to show examples of head-hopping and tell you why you shouldn’t do it!
First, the different points of view:
First person is a cool way to literally have your writer ‘slip’ into the character’s brain and see the word from this perspective. The use of the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me’ or ‘my’ are going to dominate this POV. Why? Because you are the protagonist. You experience the world with the immediacy of someone who’s there and witnessing it firsthand.
Example: I didn’t want to go to the mall, and shook my head curtly. I could already see tears welling up in her eyes, no doubt in an attempt to guilt me into going. I stomped my foot.
“Not again, Clarissa!” I shouted.
First person is used often in genre fiction like Y.A., autobiographical writing, or memoirs. It is never used in academic writing, so please never write your assignments this way!
Adult fiction can be written in first person, but I personally don’t see it done well very often. This POV can often be tricky, but we’ll cover that another week!
Second person is unique in that it’s more informal and conversational with the reader. When you write on your blog (as I’m doing now), you are speaking directly to the reader and addressing them as though they are in the room with you. ‘You,’ ‘your,’ and ‘yours’ are going to be the words du jour with second person, since your ‘narrator’ is going to speak directly to them.
Example: Henry’s always getting fired up over nothing, but that’s the sort of thing you’ll come to understand about him. He’s probably just blowin’ off steam, so I wouldn’t take it too personal, if I were you.
Second person is often used in direction/instruction writing, advertisements, songs, blog writing, or occasionally in speaking. It’s not often used in fiction writing, unless your narrator/protagonist is attempting to directly speak to the reader, otherwise known as “breaking the fourth wall,” which pretty much means that your protagonist is expressing awareness of the fact that s/he is being observed by an outside source.
Think of Deadpool’s dialogue… even in a video game, he expresses plenty of awareness of his surroundings by addressing the player directly, and even grabbing health bars to beat other characters with. He is the epitome of a second person view, because he has no problem telling you right where you can shove those bars, either.
Definitely one way to show sentience…
In fiction writing, you have to have a particular style and skill in order to switch successfully in and out of second person and any other POV, so this should be used sparingly.
Third person is the most popular POV to use in American fiction. Most novels you will read in America (and probably some other English speaking countries!) will be written in third person limited or third person omniscient, which I’ll cover in a moment.
Third person limited is more preferable to omniscient, at least in my experience, and is most typically what you’ll come across in modern fiction. It gives your narrator’s voice the ability to describe the world from an outsider’s perspective (like if you’re watching it through a video camera), while still focusing on the main protagonist and relaying their thoughts and feelings. ‘She,’ ‘he,’ ‘it,’ ‘they,’ ‘them,’ ‘her,’ ‘him,’ ‘his,’ ‘hers,’ and ‘its’ are going to be common in this POV.
Example: Amy held her breath, back pressed against the wall. The cold seeped into her bones, but she couldn’t move. The tip of a broken floor tile jammed its way painfully into the underside of her boot, but she didn’t dare make a sound. He might hear it.
Third person omniscient means that your narrator is still looking at things from an outsider’s point of view, but instead of expressing just one character’s intentions, it can express all of them. Third person omniscient means that your narrator is essentially invisible and watching the characters do their thang. They are not a character in your story. They do not express personal thoughts, feelings, or emotions. Something that is important to remember is that in third person omniscient, your narrator is an outside observer, which means that they cannot understand the internal thoughts your character has, and therefore, cannot describe thoughts or feelings that the characters themselves have not already expressed.
Harry ran down the sidewalk, his tie furiously flapping over his shoulder. He waved frantically to the bus as it pulled away from the curb. “Wait!” he screamed. “Wait!”
At the stop next to him, Francine flipped her arm over and frowned down nervously at the watch on her wrist. “Thirty minutes ‘til the next one,” she said with a sigh.
Harry ran down the sidewalk, feeling his lungs almost burst inside of his chest. Ugh, he thought, if I keep this up, I’ll get a stitch in my side.
At the bus stop, Francine glared down at her watch. Thirty minutes, she told herself, biting her lip. I’m gonna be late on my first day!
Third person omniscient is a trickier style to use, because when some writers attempt this, it becomes third person limited with… HEAD-HOPPING. (You thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you?) The incorrect example is actually a perfect example of something you shouldn’t do.
Let me let you in on a secret: Most editors and publishers are going to hate head-hopping, and most newbie writers are going to do it. Why? Because they don’t know how to consistently write in a proper POV, or because they think they can tackle third person omniscient, and… they can’t. That’s not a dig. If you’re not quite there yet with your ability to write in third person omniscient, keep trying but don’t submit that work until you’ve been able to clean it up once or twice at least and make sure you’re not making us feel like we’re hearing voices.
(Unless your character, is, in fact, schizophrenic, in which case, okay, cool!)
Don’t ever put two characters’ independent thoughts on the same page unless you’re writing in third person limited and putting page breaks in between them to signify a POV switch from one character to the next.
(A page break is easy: three or four pound keys or hashtags, as the kids call them nowadays (###), or three or four asterisks (***) mid-page will do the trick.)
By head-hopping, you will end up creating a muddled, confusing scene in which we are simultaneously reading different characters’ minds. It’s not pleasant, it’s not good writing, and as an editor, it’s literally one of the most frustrating things to fix because I basically have to reconfigure entire portions of story to best fit who I think is the main protagonist based off of your writing. Basically, it becomes character Jenga, which is not as fun as it sounds.
Like this except more tears. My tears.
Whether you are writing in first, second, or third person, make absolutely certain that you don’t deviate into another style. How can you keep track of this? Double check the pronouns from each of the styles, and pay attention to what you’re writing.
Does your third person limited style end up head-hopping? Figure out which person is your main character, and then focus on them. Make sure your first person style focuses solely on one character, like you’re in Being John Malkovich staring through his head. If you go second person, make sure your style is addressing the reader as though the character is aware of their presence and doesn’t question their narration of important parts of their life to an invisible stranger.
I said don’t question it!
At any rate, it’s really easy to accidentally make your writing sloppy by skipping around these various points of view… and more people than you realize end up doing this by accident.
Remember: Pick ONE and stay with it. You’ll save yourself (and future publishers!) a lot of headaches in the end.