When writing a novel, which writing point of view you’re going to use in your book is one of the first things on which you should decide. Why? Because it sets your whole approach to writing the story, and if your writing point of view isn’t consistent and changes between points of view aren’t clear, you cause the reader confusion.
What is writing point of view?
The term ‘point of view’ in writing refers to the viewpoint taken by the narrator of the story. We see and write the story from someone’s perspective. Essentially you must ask; does my central character refer to themselves as ‘I’ or ‘he or she’? Or is my narrator outside of all the characters?
Third person confusions
One of the tricky areas in writing point of view (POV) is that omniscient point of view and third person intimate are both third-person viewpoints –
they use ‘he’ or ‘she’ – and so are easily confused, which can lead to head hoping and/or a sense that there are way too many perspectives in the story. In third person omniscient POV, the narrator is not any of the characters. The narrator does know what happens in each character’s minds, but he or she (or it) does not write as if they are seeing the action through a character’s eyes. In third person intimate, the narrator is the character, they write what they see and experience and in their language, they just refer to themselves as ‘he’ or ‘she’.
What follows is an excerpt on point of view from my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine. If you know what these terms mean you can skip this and pop to the end section.
Writing point of view basics
Written from the perspective of one person, first person POV uses the pronouns ‘me’, ‘myself’ and ‘I’, e.g. I ran down the street. He chased me. This person cannot know other people’s thoughts, emotions and motivations except as they see them reflected in the other people’s expressions and actions. They can assume, but they can’t think someone else’s thoughts. Neither can they know what is hiding around the corner or what is in a place they haven’t been to before. It’s perfectly acceptable to write different chapters in different characters’ voices in first person, but put the character’s name in the chapter title and make sure you make it clear in the first sentence whose POV you’re in. I wouldn’t try for more than two in this fashion though, and it’s more appropriate for young adult and romances than other genres.
Second person addresses the reader. This POV uses the pronouns ‘you’, ‘your’ and ‘yours’. We use these three pronouns when addressing one, or more than one, person. Second person is used for e-mail messages, presentations, and business and technical writing. You may also see it used in blog posts.
Third person—written from the perspective of a third person. This POV uses the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’; eg, He ran down the street. There are two kinds of third person points of view:
Third Person Omniscient
Third Person Omniscient is written from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator. They know what everyone is thinking and feeling and what is hiding around the corner. Omniscient POV is not often used these days because it keeps the reader one step removed from the feelings of the characters. It is most often seen in epic fantasy. The important thing to understand when writing in omniscient POV is there should be only one voice, that of the narrator, and even though they can see the thoughts of every character, it is advisable not to try to explain many different characters’ thought processes in one scene because it quickly becomes confusing for the reader. I suggest that beginning writers avoid this point of view. It’s too remote for many modern readers, less immediate than the alternatives and hard to do well.
Third person close/intimate/limited
Third person close/intimate/limited is written from the perspective of a character and in that character’s voice but using the pronoun ‘he’ or ‘she’ to refer to him or her. The language used is what that character would use if they were telling the story, so the reader sees the action through the character’s eyes. This is used when an author wants to be able to show more than one perspective on the story, but wants the reader to identify more deeply with a character than is possible in omniscient. For this reason, it usually involves changing from one intimate point of view to another, and this is where the writing can fall into head-hopping.
Which approach you take is entirely up to you. The important thing is to make any POV changes clear to the reader.
Can we use more than one point of view in a story?
Traditionally, a book written in first person POV has only one point of view, and certainly this is the cleanest, easiest and safest approach. However, you can have two first person viewpoints if the two characters have separate chapters and the chapters are clearly labelled with the character’s name. This works quite well for romance. I use it in my YA novel You Can’t Shatter Me. However, third person intimate is the usual choice if you want more than one personal point of view.
Because third person intimate usually uses two or more points of view, the POV changes at points in the story. The advice here is to use as few points of view as possible and to make sure that changes are made in such a way that the reader always knows from which character’s view the story is being told.
The next post will be on how to shift from one third person intimate POV to another in a way that will avoid confusion. To make sure you don’t miss the post, click here .
Can you use more than one POV convention in one novel?
Traditionally the answer to this question would be no. You choose either first, second or third person. In third person, however, because they are still both third person POV’s, a book can change between omniscient and intimate. A section from an omniscient POV is one way to transistion from one intimate view to another. (More about that in the next post)
However, you can break the rules if you understand them and know why they’re there.
Why have writing point of view rules and why break them?
Why do we have ‘rules’ around POV? In order to not confuse the reader. Why would we then break those rules? Only if it lessens the reader’s confusion. The liklihood, however, is that if you ignore the generally accepted guidelines you will increase rather than lessen reader confusion.
Can mixing POV conventions ever lessen reader confusion?
The traditionalist’s answer to this would be no, never. However, I think that its possible that when your story includes the stories of several people and covers past and present events, it might be helpful for the reader to engage deeply with and keep track of the central character if their parts of the story are in first person and the other parts of the story are in third person.
I’ve seen first person used for the central character and third person intimate for the others to good effect and with no confusion. But traditionalists may still not like it. And I don’t advise that this become something you adopt just because you think you can; you need a much better reason than that.
I did it in my books Worlds Within Worlds and The Locksmith’s Secret . These books include several narrative threads – dreams, the story from another book, memories, visions, spiritual experiences and present events – and so the reader could easily loose sight of the central thread. Using first person for what Ella, the central character, experiences in her present helps the reader follow her story as the central narrative thread and see that all the rest is informing and echoing that narrative.
I also changed tense in these books, something that is also usually a disaster – I wasn’t too sure how they would go down because of this, but no one has complained yet! I used past tense and third person for everything except what was happening in Ella’s present, even her past. And I used first person present tense for what was happening to her now. In a book with many story threads, this helps the reader to keep track of the central story of what is happening to the central character in their present.
When not to break the rules
But don’t break the POV rules like this unless you have a very good reason to do it, know what you’re doing, have it really clear in your head, and don’t mind if people give you bad reviews because of it. Some people will never permit breaking the established ‘rules’ even if there is a good reason for it. And it’s certainly safer not to. The rules are there for a reason. They guide us to write well.
Some rules should never be broken, however, for instance on the subject of POV, there is no way that blithely ignoring the injunction against head hopping can lessen confusion. It can only ever increase confusion.
As they say, you have to know the rules throughly before you can break them. And you have to understand why they exist and only break them if by doing so you create a better reading experience for the reader. And since most rules are there in order to avoid confusing the reader, break the rules at your own risk!
What do you think? I love to hear your thoughts.
The next post will be on how to shift from one third person intimate POV to another in a way that will avoid head hoping. To make sure you don’t miss the post (or any other of my articles on novel writing), click here to get links to the articles sent to your inbox. Your also get my very handy Novel Revision Checklist
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