Writers, Know Your POV

Mamma Mia has her own viewpoint.

Last week, I read a former agent’s list of common mistakes writers make while writing their novels, and number one was stories that jump around in POV. I agree—also recognizing that some writers seem to have little trouble with viewpoint, while others struggle.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s talk about the role of
protagonists and multiple Points of View in a novel:

Where’s the Camera?

As Nathan Bransford wrote, misunderstanding of viewpoints or bouncing between multiple POVs is one of the most common problems in novel writing. Many writers confuse third person omniscient and third person limited.

Third person refers to the use of he/she pronouns in the text. Omniscient means “all over” and readers are supposed to know that they will be reading more than one character’s thoughts and feelings. Limited means the inner life of only one character (at a time) and that readers will view the story through that person’s perspective.

The problem is, some writers bounce between third omniscient and third limited in the same scene. Readers become confused as to “who” is telling the story and from whom the camera (eyes) originate. All story narrators reveal their unique perspectives, attitudes and biases as they unfold the events of the story.

Think of a teenager trying to sneak in after curfew. The story is told much differently from a fifteen-year-old’s viewpoint than from the stern parent’s view. Same is true for third person viewpoints. Choose third limited if you are starting out and still learning viewpoint—omniscient requires more skill, in my opinion, because it is less intimate.

Zoom in or Pan Out?

When choosing a POV for your story, think of the topic and the genre. For a fast-paced thriller, third limited might be better than an intimate first-person story about the inner man.

My advice is to choose partly based on the type of story: the more plot-driven (events) story might work best with the camera back a little ways as in third person limited. A character-driven story about relationships might need the camera up close—if so, first-person might be best.

All viewpoints have advantages as well as drawbacks. What we gain in intimacy in first-person has the disadvantage of being unable to know what happens when the narrator is off stage. Third person is most common but can also feel less intimate to readers. Omniscient and second person both suffer from lack of intimacy with readers—and possibly connections. In multiple viewpoint stories, readers need to know exactly who is telling the story at all times.

Whose Story?

Which brings us to the most important aspect of viewpoint.
Some writers use multiple POVs for all the wrong reasons—to create variety, add
color and so on. I think if you want to use more than one viewpoint, you must
ask yourself “Whose story is it?”

The answer should guide you in choosing your main POV for the story. If you can’t identify the true protagonist, ask yourself which character has the most to lose. Concentrate on that character and add other voices only when readers need to know information the character can’t know. It’s not enough to simply repeat a scene in someone else’s POV.

The story must move forward with new information that complicates the protagonist’s goals. This is one reason I believe that new writers should stick to one or two viewpoints and be sure to emphasize the character goals and struggles of each.

I’m back for a couple of weeks! My first surgery was relatively easy—not so for the upcoming operation on my shoulder. I’ll be “slinging” it for six weeks starting at the end of June. But in the meantime, KEEP WRITING!

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

4 comments on “Writers, Know Your POV

  1. I have always felt that the writer needs to follow their strength. We all find ourselves leaning in a certain direction and maybe there’s a reason for that. We are really good at it.

  2. Bryan,
    You are correct, yet all writers can still improve on skills. I tend toward first person–that’s a strength, yet I must master other POVs in order to cultivate the best readership.
    Thanks for your comment.
    Keep Writing,

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