Thursday, August 6, 2009

Training Our Inner Editor, Part 3a: Point of View

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Point of view—POV—sounds simple enough. We just have to look at the story from a character’s perspective. However, doing it can be deceptively complex.

“Is it really a big deal?” we ask ourselves.

“Yes!” screams our inner editor.


Our bouncing from one viewpoint to another prevents our readers from building strong relationships with our characters. Consider this example:

Lexi turned and stared at the blonde girl striding toward her. What did she want? Whatever it was didn’t really matter. Not after what Mischa had done.

Mischa thought Lexi would run when she saw her, but the mousy girl stood her ground. At least she had guts. But then she didn’t know the truth about Jason, did she?

We learn what both girls are thinking, but the omniscient point of view doesn’t inspire us to sympathize with one girl, to cheer for the other, or to develop a strong like or dislike for either one. We have no connection. We are distant observers of rather than participants. Now let’s revisit the scene from Lexi’s POV.

Lexi stared at the blonde girl striding toward her. What did she want? Whatever it was didn’t really matter. Not after what Mischa had done.

Mischa probably thought she would turn around and run, but no way would she give that…that thief the satisfaction of believing she’d driven her away. Neither would she give up Jason without a fight.

Now let’s visit the scene once more, this time from Mischa’s POV.

Mischa strode toward the mousy girl standing on the corner. Lexi would likely run before she got there; she always ran from confrontation. But the girl didn’t move. What was that all about? Didn’t really matter anyway. It would be over as soon as Lexi learned the truth about Jason.

Isn’t it interesting that we learn a lot about girl #2 when we’re in girl #1’s point of view and vice versa? We also discern quite a bit about the POV character’s attitude. Note, too, that in both the second and third scenes, the reader develops a much more intimate relationship with the viewpoint character than in the first one.

In order to become involved in the story or the non-fiction piece, the reader needs a link, a connection that personalizes the work for him or her. Once that is established, the reader becomes an invisible presence in the story. This can manifest itself as a silent helper when things go wrong or the cheering section when they go right.

To make this connection, the reader must get inside the head of one character—or, in the case of nonfiction, the writer. In real life we look at things through our own eyes. When reading a story, however, we need to broaden our perspective to see things through the eyes of the POV character of a given scene. A good writer helps us do that by taking us inside the head of that character, sharing thoughts and plans and fears unspoken. You and I, in effect, can become that character, regardless of gender. We feel the emotions—or lack of them. We scheme, worry, press on, or whatever that character chooses (or is forced) to do in that context.

But suppose we can get inside the heads of more than one character in a scene. Wouldn’t this be even better? Do we cheer for both teams at a ballgame?

The omniscient POV limits reader involvement. Knowing the thoughts and rationalizations of more than one character reduces the sense of suspense, and we are distanced from the scene. Our loyalties may become divided. The gripping emotions of one character in a scene, for instance, may be diluted by the daydreams or mental aberrations of another.

Does this mean that an entire book must be in one point of view? Not at all—unless the story is told in first person. Each scene, however, needs to be presented from just one perspective for greatest effectiveness.

“A picture paints a thousand words,” a common cliché, challenges us to tighten the reverse application. Rather than using a thousand words, can we make fewer than 500 words paint a powerful picture? How about less than 300? Next time, we’ll explore one full scene written from three perspectives to emphasize the importance of POV and learn how less can be more.
Linda Lane, editor of two national award winners, will release her second novel, Treacherous Tango, this summer. She owns Pen & Sword Publishers Ltd., an independent editing and publishing house, and has gone back to work after taking time off to write her book.


  1. POV is often my biggest problem. To be honest I didn't quite get it until just now. Honestly, you showed it so well. Thanks.

  2. Great post-I've been trying to write from only two points of view in my last book--changing by the chapter but want to do more in the next and space them out.

  3. These illustrations are perfect. Thank you.

  4. Wandering point of view (or "head-hopping") sneaks into our manuscripts even when we know better. But it's a hard thing to explain to beginning writers. Your post does an excellent job, Linda.

  5. Thanks for the reminders! I used to think I didn't have a huge problem with this--and I usually don't--but one of my recent crits indicated I deviated slightly in a particular scene that was in first person. Yeesh!


  6. Thanks for the post. One thing I like to consider is how POV affects the target market for a book. For example, if I'm writing about fairies, and my main character is a boy, I'm probably not going to reach the best target market, which historically is young girls.

  7. Very helpful post. Really nice to have the examples. Thanks so much.

  8. Great post. I think POV is the hardest concept for writers to understand. It took me a long, long time to get it when I first started writing.

    I like to suggest to new writers to climb inside the character and look out through his or her eyes and only show what can be seen and experienced that way.


  9. Great post. I think I write in 3rd person so I may have to rethink my POV strategies.


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