April 13th, 2020

P-O-What?

by Lori Freeland

Pitch out Visuals? Pass on Variety? Personalization of Villains? People of Value? Just what is POV, and why do you care?

Understanding POV

Point of View (POV) refers to the character telling the story in a particular scene or chapter of your book. And only one character should tell the story at a time.

Why? Having a clear picture of what’s happening keeps us from being confused—not only in a novel but in real life too.

Imagine that you and a few friends witness a car accident. The responding police officer asks what happened, and everyone describes the incident at once. There are a few reasons he’ll likely listen less than thirty seconds before he stops the chatter.

  1. It’s hard to differentiate one voice from another when they’re mixed together.
  2. People highlight separate points and share them in a different order.
  3. Not everybody witnesses the event the same way. Bias kicks in. Each of us sees the world based on our own life experiences.
  4. What sticks out to one person fades into the background for another.
  5. We remember things differently, and not everyone’s data will match.

It’s much easier to interview each person who saw the accident and put the “big picture” together at the end using all the information. Your reader, like that police officer, can only process the world through one set of eyes at a time.

When we open a book as a reader, we “step into” the POV character’s head. In a way, we become that character. That means we can only:

  • see what he sees
  • hear what he hears
  • feel what he feels
  • know what he knows
  • think the way he thinks
  • react the way he reacts

If Paul is the POV (person telling the story), when he walks out of the kitchen and into the bedroom, he takes us with him. We can’t see his dog eating the hamburger he left out to thaw because Paul can’t see it. He’s no longer there. And neither are we.

However, if he’s in hearing range, he can describe the audio and let the reader “hear” it too.

Head-Hopping

Illustration 169631783 © Sylverarts - Dreamstime.com

Have you ever gotten a comment from a critique partner or an editor about your character head-hopping? Head Hopping means you’ve slipped out of the POV character’s head and into another character’s head. Sometimes writers will jump back and forth, and that can be confusing.

Think of head-hopping as God-like powers to peer into people’s minds to read their thoughts, intentions, and emotions. I can’t do it. You can’t do it. So, your POV character probably shouldn’t do it either—unless she’s psychic.

Types of POV

Photo 109731068 © Michał Rojek - Dreamstime.com

First and third person are the most common. First uses “I” and third uses the character’s name and “he” or “she.”

Example: I walked to the store and met Frank. / Karen walked to the store where she met Frank.

Let’s go a little deeper in point of view and talk about inviting readers inside your character’s head and keeping them there.

Deep POV

Point of View Versus Perspective

Point of view focuses on who’s telling the story. Perspective focuses on how that character sees the story.

Like with the car accident, characters can view the same event in different ways. How they view the event determines their reactions, actions, thoughts, and emotions. Think about this—a villain isn’t a villain in his own story.

Fact Versus Opinion

We can think of deep POV as fact versus opinion.

FACT: What the POV character actually sees, hears, or learns from first-hand experience and past knowledge about someone else. If it’s fact, the POV can make statements about what another character knows, feels, or thinks.

Example: At the kitchen island, David’s sorting documents. His symmetrical stacks are white cutouts on the black high-top table, and he’s brought us each two water bottles. As much as he drives me insane, if there ever is a zombie apocalypse, I’d pick him as my Walking-Dead wingman every single time. He thinks of everything.

(Statement made by our POV based on past, firsthand knowledge that’s supported by David’s current actions.)

OPINION: What the POV character perceives through non-verbal cues (body language, expressions, voice cues) or what she’s heard from another person. This refers back to perspective. If it’s opinion, the POV character can make an educated guess about what another character knows, feels, or thinks. 

Example: In one barbed look (expression), David manages to nail me with equal amounts of accusation and disappointment, reminding me once again that I’m not his favorite person (opinion formed by our POV based on that expression).

Side Note about perception: One character’s perception of another character can be wrong, but that’s okay. Misperception causes conflict, and we want conflict.

Going Undercover

We can think of deep POV as going undercover. An undercover agent has to stay in character 24/7. Sometimes his life depends on it.

Most people read for a chance to be someone else for a while. They like getting lost in someone else’s world. But how do we keep that world as real as possible so they don’t get yanked out in the middle of the journey?

Don’t Shatter Deep POV

Examples:

  • I widened my blue eyes.
  • Her brown hair fell over her shoulders.
  • My face turned red.

If you’re not looking in a mirror, you don’t see those things about yourself. And neither does your character. We don’t think about ourselves that way either—unless it’s something we’re constantly aware of that either bugs us, like an obvious scar, or makes us proud. Conceited people will think about the way they look all the time.   

For ways POV characters can describe themselves, check out this WITS post Characters Are People Too.

Examples:

  • “Hey, Joe, how are you?”
  • “Joe, do you want to go for a drive?”
  • “Joe, that’s a great jacket.”

How often do you actually say someone’s name during a conversation? Make it a point to notice next time you’re talking with other people.

For more on dialogue, check out this WITS post: Dive Deep into Dialogue.

Examples:

  • I thought she looked beautiful. / She looked beautiful.
  • She wondered if he liked her. / Did he like her?

In deep POV, everything is that character’s thought. You can cut “thought” and “wondered” 99.9% of the time. Especially avoid “he thought to himself.” We all “think” to ourselves. We can’t “think” to anyone else. And sometimes, we wouldn’t want to.

Examples:

  • Filtered: I watched Ben swagger across the room and noticed Jane’s face fall.
  • Unfiltered: Ben swaggered across the room, and Jane’s face fell.

Multiple Points of View

How NOT to Write Multiple POVs

1. Don’t confuse secondary characters with POV characters. Each POV character has to have his or her own complete story arc related to the overall story arc. This includes your villain.

This doesn’t mean you can’t tell a secondary character’s story. But it should be told through a POV character’s observations. In Harry Potter, Harry is telling the story, but we feel like we know the secondary characters just as well.

2. Don’t retell the same scene from a different character’s point of view—unless you’re telling that kind of story. The movie Vantage Point is told that way. One event. Multiple perspectives. Different versions of the truth. 

3. Don’t add new POV characters just to create subplots. If your story spans a large time period or has dual timelines, each of the POV characters you add needs to have their own complete story.

4. Don’t bring in POV characters because you feel you need to offer the reader information or explanations. There are more creative ways to do that. But that’s another post.

Changing POV

There are specific times in your story that allow you to change to a different point of view. When you...

  • Start a new scene
  • Start a new chapter
  • Make an obvious scene break (use white space and #)

How do you pick a POV?

You’ve decided to go with two POV characters. Maybe you’re writing a romance with the hero and heroine’s points of view. They each have their own complete stories related to the overall story arc, and you’re good to go. How do you choose which character tells what part of the story? You might:

  • swap out every other chapter or every other scene
  • split a scene in half and show both points of view
  • consider which character has the most to lose or gain during the scene

Whatever you go with, be consistent. Don’t give twenty chapters to the heroine and four to the hero. Don’t show us inside “his” head and never give us a glimpse of “hers.” In a dual POV situation like this, think of your novel like a movie with two co-stars. They both want equal time. 

When you’re working with multiple POV characters, it’s crucial to orient your reader. Make sure they know whose head they’re in. Readers don’t like to be confused. Open each scene with your POV character.

Try Using:

  • Dialogue (the POV speaking)
  • Action (the POV doing)
  • Internal Thought (the POV thinking)

If you open with a “floating” question, no dialogue tag attached, your reader will assume it’s the POV character and jump into her head. And once you choose your POV, commit. No head-hopping for that portion of the story.  

As writers, why do we care about POV?

Because we care about our readers. Our job is to give them the smoothest read possible. They want to step into the world you’ve imagined through the characters you’ve created and stay there—without any glitches, blips, distractions.

Your turn. What are your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to POV as a writer? What are your biggest issues as a reader? Leave a comment! And I love examples. Please share yours.

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About Lori

An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Accidental-Boyfriend.jpg

You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently free on the Radish app. 

Top photo credit:
Photo 113666910 © Monkey Business Images - Dreamstime.com

18 responses to “P-O-What?”

  1. barbaralinnprobst says:

    What a great post! I don't know if I've ever seen such a clear summary of point-of-view! As someone who writes in a close third person, deep POV of a single protagonist, I've had to be super alert to "POV lapses" that ascribe emotions or motivations to other characters. For instance, if my deep-POV protagonist is named Mary and she's talking with a friend named Claire, I have to watch out for sentences like: "Claire put her hands on he table and leaned forward eagerly." Even though eagerly feels like the perfect adverb we can't know if Claire is eager because we don't have access to her internal state! All I'm really permitted to say is that she leaned forward (because Mary can see her do that). Or I can write: "Claire leaned forward, her fingers gripping the edge of the table, her eyes shining." Mary can see that! So it can get very challenging!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Barbara, that is absolutely the challenge point in Deep POV for me. I screw it up all over my first draft and have to go back and fix it in my edits. I so admire people who can dive into Deep POV and STAY THERE.

    • Barbara, I love your example. That's a perfect description of that fine line of deep POV in third person. I find third person especially challenging myself! And you example goes back to the importance of showing not telling 🙂

  2. Terry Odell says:

    I LOVE Deep POV, and that's all I write. I think you've hit everything in this post.

    When working on one of my romantic suspense books, one of the challenges is knowing when to switch from hero to heroine. I get bogged down with a "his scene was 4 pages, so hers has to be 4 pages, too". I need to shake loose from that compulsion and switch when the scene demands it, regardless of length.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Terry, I am curious about why you love it. I know how important it is for reader immersion - I'm not asking about that. I'm asking what about the process of being in Deep POV hits your love switch as I writer. I'm looking for that feeling, because I think that will help me stay there. I still struggle with it a bit.

      • Terry Odell says:

        Jenny - I guess it's because deep POV creates a strong connection between writer-me and the characters. I'm immersed in their heads and I think/hope I can create that connection for the readers as well. Lori's post is full of ways to go deep and stay there--or at least know when you've strayed. Plus, I have critique partners who will catch any slips I miss.
        Did that help at all?

    • Terry, that is a challenge. Because while you want to give them equal time in overall, you can't do it on a page to page basis. I find readers notice big chunks of chapters in one point of view and not the other more than how many pages you give them. But I also get stuck on wanting everything to be "symmetrical" too. 🙂

  3. ecellenb says:

    Fantastic, thorough article on a very tricky subject!

    I find POV to be a struggle but am improving with practice. Many, many people read over my manuscript and I felt like all the POV errors were caught. No such luck. Thank goodness for my editor’s eagle eyes. The POV should be Jack's.
    Here is the original. Thoughts are in parentheses as the italics didn't translate for the blog post.

    Dressed in his night clothes, Jack tiptoed to Sam’s side of the room. He stepped carefully over some creaky floorboards. (There’s no sense in waking everyone else in the room.)
    Jack touched Sam’s shoulder. In a hushed voice he asked, “Do you still want to help me get to George?”
    “Do you still have those Necco wafers?”
    Jack nodded and Sam swung his legs across his bed and touched his feet to the floor. “Come on. Let’s go.”
    The floor was cold on his bare feet.

    This is changed to the following such that no head-hopping is involved.

    Dressed in his night clothes, Jack tiptoed to Sam’s side of the room. (This floor is so cold.) He stepped carefully over some creaky floorboards. (No sense in waking everyone else in the room.)
    Jack touched Sam’s shoulder. In a hushed voice he asked, “Do you still want to help me get to George?”
    “Do you still have those Necco wafers?”
    Jack nodded. Sam swung his legs across his bed and touched his feet to the floor. “Come on. Let’s go.”

  4. dholcomb1 says:

    Fantastic post. I'm correcting some unintentional head-hopping, so this is fortuitous.

    denise

  5. Hi guys! First let me apologize for not "being" with you over here yesterday. My plan was to answer comments in the afternoon. I ended up getting sick from some countertop refinishing chemicals and went to bed. So sorry. Second, I want to thank you for your comments and shares 🙂

  6. barbdelong says:

    Super post on POV, Lori! I'm sharing this with my crit groups. I'm very careful with deep POV in my current WIP, but my final edits will tell me how careful. Problem is choosing which POV for a scene is best. I struggle with that. Will be using your check list to help with the decision.

  7. Julie Glover says:

    You covered so much ground here! Fabulous teaching post, Lori. Thanks. ♥

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