The Writer's Writing Guide: Point of View

Previous chapter      Next chapter      Table of contents

Point of view is the person through whose eyes the reader is seeing the story. Those eyes might belong to a character, or to a non-character narrator (a narrator who isn't in the story). In most fiction, the point of view belongs to one or more characters. In an essay, we generally have the pov (that's the abbreviation) of a non-character narrator, who is often the author herself. Non-character narrators can also be used in omniscient third person narratives, which I'll discuss in more detail below.

For the apprentice writer, point of view is easiest to understand by thinking about stories in the first person. Let's say in our story, Hazel Maxilla is describing the day she threw her sister a bridal shower. Since Hazel is speaking to us in the first person, we see what Hazel sees, smell what she smells, think what she thinks, from the beginning to the end of the piece. If we learn what anyone else besides Hazel sees, smells, thinks, etc., then those impressions must come one of two ways:

1. From Hazel's speculating. Such as:

I caught sight of Polly. She was sitting in the corner, nursing a spiked cider, glaring as Jolene trotted about the room wearing the bridal veil. I imagined Polly wishing she were under that veil, feeling the puff of lace against her cheeks, getting ready to put that indelible gold band on her finger. Then Polly glanced over and our eyes met. In a flash she looked down at her cider, away from Jolene and the party and her own naked ring finger, and Lord, did her face go red.

2. From someone else telling us what they are seeing, smelling, etc. Such as:

Then out of the blue, Jolene turned and said to me, "Hazel, did you hear that pop? I think Aunt Ruth opened the champagne we were saving for the wedding!"

This is important, since Hazel can't see through Polly's eyes any more than I can see through your eyes. Nor can she hear through Jolene's ears. (The one exception, of course, is if Hazel is psychic, but that is not likely to be the case in most stories.) If we are adhering to the general principals of reality, we need to recognize that only one of us inhabits each body, and so sensations, thoughts, and emotions belong to only one of us at a time on the page.

This is why the most fundamental thing that an apprentice writer needs to learn about point of view is that it is important to avoid, as John Gardner put is, careless shifts in point of view. So if we're in Hazel's point of view, we can't see what Jolene sees — unless we use some device, like those I mentioned above, to help us do so.

The matter becomes somewhat more complicated when you put the story in third person. First, you have to decide which kind of third person you are using. If you are using third person limited (also referred to as third person subjective), then you are committed to staying in one person's head through your whole piece. This is because third person limited is essentially first person, but with "she" or "he" used instead of "I." In this case, the same rules of point of view apply that apply to Hazel's story above.

But let's say you're using a different kind of third person. Not only that, but you have chosen the most challenging type of third person: omniscient point of view. That means that you can go into many characters' heads.

Here's where it gets tricky. How do you move in and out of various characters without seeming sloppy? This takes a lot of practice, but do not be afraid of trying it, especially if you are writing a novel. Novels can be in first person, or in third person limited, but you will be able to do much more as a novelist if you become comfortable with switching points of view.

From what I've been able to discern, there are four simple techniques you can use to change point of view.

1. Use space breaks or chapter breaks between different characters' points of view. With this approach, you would be in third person limited all the time, but would change from one character to another when a new scene begins.

2. Change time or place first. This is similar to using the space breaks in that you are inserting a strong transitional device to separate your points of view.

3. Stay in the same time and place, but insert a description between the two points of view. This is making use of the non-character narrator to create a transition, or a descriptive bridge, between two character-based points of view. Such as:

Leslie dragged her shopping cart across the vacant lot toward her apartment, head bent against the wind, cursing as the hail pelted her bags of prune juice and Melba toast. Her fingers were so cold that even with her gloves, she couldn't feel the cart beneath her hands. Wind whipped broken glass into billowing pirouettes before her; a shard slashed her cheek. The sting burned in the freezing dusk. She stopped and reached into her pocket for a kerchief. "You need help?" she heard, and looked down. It was that kid, that Danny Dawkins who sits in the wheelchair outside the Shop and Bag and does yoyo tricks, then begs folks to toss coins into his knitted cap. She'd seen him on her way out; she'd never flicked him one nickel, and no Rock The Baby performance was going to make her start now. "No. Go away," Leslie said, wiping her cheek so he wouldn't see her bleed. Just then the wind got louder. Both of them looked up as a gust blasted across the lot like a train bearing down on them, scrambling papers and bottles and Burger King boxes up off the ground and sending all the litter spinning. It was an impromptu basketball team, the National Anarchy League. And as they stood watching this melee, the shopping cart seemed to get sucked right out of Leslie's hands and twirl itself into the fracas. "Hey!" Leslie called, and snatched forward. Danny grabbed for it too, but in so doing let go of his wheelchair handles, and then in the next gust his contraption, his very own set of customized circular legs, went ass over kettle, and he heard a clatter in his ears, felt a crunch of his shoulders, and then he was face down in the ice, inhaling yesterday's orange juice spill. "Help me," he muttered, needing her now, hoping to hell that she'd seen, that she could hear.

The non-character narrator oversees all this, taking us in and out of Leslie's head, then merely observing during the transition, and then taking us into Danny's head. If we wanted, we could even have had the non-character narrator comment on the action during the transition, give us some quick exposition, or provide some objective perspective on the whole scene. Either way, it can oversee all the points of view, and be our passport from one to another.

4. Connect a physical detail. Use some physical act between two characters as a vehicle which delivers the baton of point of view.

Mary is wailing so loud outside, Billy can't concentrate on his guitar solo, even though he's in the basement. Damnit, why did Mom have to leave that brat with him? He slams out of the house, almost tripping over Mary's stupid Raggedy Ann on his way to her crumpled tricycles and howling mass of tears. When he reaches her at the end of the drive, he grabs her hurt arm. "What happened?" he demands, running his fingers along the nub of Mary's elbow. "I thought you were going to be quiet for me." He glowers at her and she lowers her eyes, turning her face away. His fingers feel smooth as they rub her boo-boo, so smooth they must be shiny, like raindrops. They feel good, like she's got her arm in a sprinkler and he's cleaning away all the hurt. Mary peers back up. Billy's face is so angry. He looks like a monster. She wishes he'd strum her elbow forever, but not if he keeps looking like that. "I didn't mean to fall," she says, and he frowns harder, and then she starts bawling all over again.

In this example, I did not use a non-character narrator point of view, nor was there a moment when we were outside both characters' heads and in some omniscient space. Instead, I stayed in each character until it was time for the transition, and then used the sensation of touch to shift the point of view from the toucher to the touchee.

However you switch point of view, just make sure it is done smoothly, and that once we are in the new pov, we stay there until we make a smooth transition out again.

There is, of course, one more kind of third person narration, which is third person objective, or third person removed. This is when the author simply describes all the characters' actions, but never enters anyone's head. So, unless it's through dialogue, we never get any sensations, thoughts, or feelings. The advantage to this is that the writer does not need to worry about how to switch point of view, since s/he is dealing with the characters only on the outside. The disadvantage is that the reader might feel excessively distanced from the characters, longing for the kind of intimacy that one rarely gets in life, but frequently finds in fiction.

Previous chapter      Next chapter      Table of contents