5 Tips on POV

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Droemar's avatar
By Droemar
I’ve gotten a couple of questions that relate to POV lately, so I thought I’d sling up 5 tips on it (Point of View.)  Narrative mode, or Point of View, is the vantage point by which an author exposes his plot to the audience.  Got that?  It’s how your plot is given over to the reader.  So that’s your golden rule of POV: if the POV isn’t moving the plot along in some way, shape, or form, then don’t use it.  You’re wasting your time and your reader’s.
I won’t really touch on the POV types, since Google is your friend, but I will say that I write in third person limited, so this little entry is going to focus mostly on that.  That means that I go into the thought and feelings of a single character in a given scene, and it’s what I have the most experience in.  A lot of people are attracted to First Person (it uses “I” all the time), which is good to start writing in.  I can’t even begin to fathom the difficulty of doing third person omniscient, in which the thoughts and feelings of every character in a scene are conveyed to the reader.  It happens, but it’s very hard to pull off, and the authors who can do it are, to me, literary gods.  I shall sacrifice a goat in their honor and hunt down the heretics that are attempting third person omniscient by accident and failing miserably.
Anyway, these are five handy rules that I’ve noticed a lot of young writers disregard.  

1.  Description is colored by POV.  Man, is this ever at the top of my list.  I read stuff where a magic-wielding teenager goes into a room and gives us a top-to-bottom rundown of every object in the room, military-report style.  Even when they have ADHD and are running from a vampire.  I’m sorry, realistically, even a calm, bored teenager probably wouldn’t notice that much stuff.  My obligatory Paolini-bashing is about to ensue: Farm boy Eragon uses words that he as an illiterate peasant wouldn’t know, let alone spell, but it doesn’t stop him from using flowery purple-prose every chance he gets.  Doing this comes across as false, and breaks the reader out of the world.  Also, if someone likes a place, you’re going to get an entirely different POV description than you would from someone who’s miserable being there.  Also, optimists describe a prison cell in a different manner from a pessimist.  An ex-Navy SEAL spy is going to notice different things than a toked-up frat boy.  If a teenager doesn’t care, then the POV should reflect that description i.e., “It was some ratty little room” and move on. This can fall into that natural pitfall of a writer attempting to tell too much, but description is too often treated as this boring necessity when it should be a tool to shape story and character.

2. POV should provide characterization. This ties in closely with the first rule, but it’s still a separate one.  What a character notices and thinks about something should reflect their character.  This is a nifty tool for showing, not telling.  If someone walks into a bank and regards a perfectly nice bank teller as antagonistic, it says something about their character and their current state.  If a beautiful spring day is described as sucky and miserable, it does the same thing.  Perception is nine-tenths reality, after all, and you owe it to your reader to allow them to draw their own conclusions about a character.  When this rule is disregarded, it’s why stale and static description comes across as so tedious for reader and writer.  (On that same note, super happy perfectionists describing something is probably not a good POV, because we’ll all just end up wanting to punch them in the face because everything’s so perfect.  I’m looking at you Mary Sue!)  Look at your scene and ask yourself what your character would think of it.  Would they like it?  Hate it?  Be too distracted by something else to even bother?  What would they focus on?  A naturalist is going to notice trees much more than an urban socialite, who might focus on the bugs swarming her high heels.  Showing how characters describe and react to their surroundings is much better than objective statements like “The demon was evil!”

3. Establish a POV in the first place! Granted, this should be rule one, but I thought it was kinda obvious.  However, a lot of people start out with a sorta POV, and then drift and dribble into other skins after a couple of pages or so.  It’s like they get bored with the character they’re in, or got distracted by what some other character thinks, and kind of swim between the two.  It’s not quite dropping us off a cliff, but more like pouring fog over your reader.  If you find yourself asking “Who’s the hero?” you’ve stumbled into this territory.  Here there be dragons.  A lot of times this is a result of a story lacking plot or a decisive character arc, or just plain lack of planning and attention on the part of the writer.  Sometimes it’s easy to fix, sometime it’s not. (Are you starting to see why a protagonist has to be so interesting yet?)  Give us a POV and stick with it.  If you find other characters butting in with their thoughts and feelings, you may want to switch legitimately to their POV, or, heck, make the story theirs.  Stranger things have happened.

4. Signal a switch in POV. Holy crap, I can’t tell you how often this doesn’t happen.  I make a sound when I inexplicably find myself in another character’s skin.  It’s something akin to “Buh!?” shortly followed by another sound: click.  That’s the sound of me closing a webpage.  (Fwap applies when I’m throwing a book, but I’m usually pretty careful with my choice of books, so it doesn’t happen that often.  But the Internet-!)  Again, third person omniscient is really hard to pull off, but a lot of people end up doing it just because they forget their road markers.  We were in Tim’s head five lines ago, but now we’re in Sasuke’s, because this Naruto/Monty Python fanfic was a train wreck we should’ve seen coming by the subject matter alone.  Regardless, if you switch without warning, you’re going to lose your reader.  We don’t like it, and we don’t think you’re clever.  In fact, we’re wondering how the hell we ended up here.  A break in text, usually with a little # or * dealie, will let us know that we are about to go to someone else’s skin.  Chapter breaks are also acceptable. (George R. R. Martin does it all the time, and look at how many POVs he’s got!)  Stick with your POV as you establish it and warn us when we’re about to switch.

5. POV should provide voice. Voice is a big selling point, at least according to the last SCBWI lecture I went to.  Editors and agents want to know about voice, the unique POV your writing provides.  Voice is usually the only thing one has to stand on when it comes to pitching or insisting that your book is unlike any ever seen.  If you’re following the above rules, then you should be approaching the territory of an individual voice.  Back to Paolini, if he’d written honestly about a real farm boy finding a dragon’s egg, and really pushed his voice, I guarantee he would not have half as many anti-fans as he does.  (Or be responsible for those mass librarian suicides I read about a while back.)  Voice is honesty, the truth of your story, and if you attempt to obfuscate it or Mary Sue it, we will reject it.  Readers want an intimate connection, a story that reflects their own truths: heartbreak, joy, triumph, whatever.  POV is the tool that provides us with that connection, and voice resonates the loudest.  Think about why your story is being told from a particular POV, and when approaching a scene, whose voice would be most interesting to see it from.  Examples of good voice: Pride of Baghdad, To Kill A Mockingbird, Push by Sapphire, and Because of Winn-Dixie.
© 2010 - 2021 Droemar
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calmnivore's avatar
you bring up a lot of points and information I wouldn't have come across otherwise. your journals are a godsend.
Rainblossom's avatar
Your sarcasm is such a delight. I wish I could fave these journals; they are so helpful and a wonderful read. I don't suppose you've considered submitting them as deviations under the essay category?

Also, what is this about mass librarian suicides? :O That sounds a little...extreme.
Droemar's avatar
We in the writing gig call that "hyperbole"!
I do recall reading an article where a couple of librarians remarked that Eragon being an example of "good writing" was not a good thing, especially since it was so popular.
Rainblossom's avatar
I thought you might be exaggerating. :XD:

Eragon being used as an example for "good writing" is a sin. D:
Redmagesalyre's avatar
Great journal again. And I wish I could fave this.

It's hard to really get into writing when you've been reading through books or when you feel like you're put down by the fact that the writer seems to be speaking a different language than you or can't really name something that you know the character should know the name of. Otherwise you can truely get into the character's mind of such. In a way it's the diction of the piece that really holds up: like in Watership Down, the rabbits talk in a way that makes you realize they're rabbits, and not a bunch of guys running around. Addams has to construct some artificial language for the rabbits and how they view the world to make you realize that they are talking rabbits. It also pays to realize how someone is going to talk; the trope "realistic diction is unrealistic" falls into there. For example you have to read through books when you find a character say "scrumptious" during a meal, it's okay when you read it in a Mary Poppins book, but it's odd and out of place when it's in a book set in the middle of Ancient Greece. But it's almost a hard thing to do when you feel you need to shove in a SAT word just to show you're "smart", however it's not always so. You have to give a "mood" to the setting, if a character is a peasent in some Medieval world, he wouldn't be using words that only a nobleman would use, or stuff he wouldn't understand. Sometimes you have to take a break and try to see how the character thinks and functions in his/her world and how he/she views the world, otherwise it's going to sound like the author is speaking out of the character's mouth in startlingly modern terms which would seem out of place in the medieval land they live in.
Droemar's avatar
I definitely think diction is a very overlooked element of writing when it comes to new writers. They don't think about what their word choice means in terms of each word being a stitch that makes up the fabric of the story's tapestry. But it should be paid quite a bit of attention, because it's so important to your world-building.
Kudos for paying attention to it!
Redmagesalyre's avatar
I was first introduced to diction in high school Literature. They never gave a good definition of it, so I had to find one by research. The problem is, sometimes you can't deferant diction when you first notice it, or there really isn't any real diction difference when you at writing at first, but there is a rule to showing how a teenager speaks and how a college professor speaks, that's why it gets disconcerting when you watch a movie were all of the characters have either engrossingly fake accents or sound like they came from the US when the movie is situated in the middle of Scotland, or when you hear modern slang in a movie that's supposed to be in the 1940's, like that one scene in "Pearl Harbor", when Ben Affleck or whoever says "You're the man!" It's highly distracting in a movie that's supposed to be a historical account unless it's done for parody.
Droemar's avatar
I have to confess I don't recall much of what I learned in high school English class, mostly because what it had to teach I already knew, because I read so much. I mean, when people can't grasp grammar, they're in a lot more trouble than not knowing diction. I remember being disappointed that we wouldn't read and break apart Watership Down, but in hindsight, that was probably for the best.
Like history class, English class always made things so dull, when in reality, they really weren't. Reading and the art of storytelling and clear communication are wicked cool, and part of everyday life. But man, they made it seem like it was slow torture.
And, yes, I hate hearing pop culture references and contemporary colloquialisms in times that had no idea of either.
Redmagesalyre's avatar
I actually learned more about storytelling from college than I did in high school. And surprisingly most of the classes I took were not actual storytelling classes, but rather classes on how to create character and design worlds and story, as well as analyzing character motive and ideas. It was actually a better class on how to tell stories than see what makes a story a story.
neilak20's avatar
Again I wish I could favorite journal entries XD Thanks for writing these up, they're very helpful.
I got bored reading Eragon partway through the first couple chapters ono It was Star Wars with a dragon instead of robots!
mani-mas's avatar
Thanks so much for sharing this. I really needed one of these little writer reminders -partly because I've had a bit of a crummy day and your journals cheer me up, and partly because I'm starting a rough draft of new story, and I've found myself to be startlingly rusty.
Droemar's avatar
Hey, I'm glad my black-hearted sarcasm can cheer someone up!
Majnouna's avatar
:thumbsup: I love these journals!
LaughingFacade's avatar
Wow...you wouldn't believe how helpful this is! Thanks for the tips! And now that you've pointed some of this stuff out, I've noticed that a few books I know (at least) have this problem!
Droemar's avatar
Yeah, it's one of the pitfalls of subjective stuff; one man's trash is another man's publication. Writers should know the rules, but that doesn't necessarily mean that readers do.
MonochromeCrystal's avatar
Wow. You have no idea how much I love these journals. I'm one of two writers in my circle of friends and it's hard to get solid advice like this sometimes.

Personally, First Person is one of my favorites, simply because it allows me much deeper inside their character's head, and the fact that I see life from my own eyes and so writing from their eyes is a lot easier to step into. But, yes, these journals are a god send.

Thank you so very much.
Droemar's avatar
You're very welcome!
KreepingSpawn's avatar
thank you!! spread the word, mate! ahhh... i can't begin to list all the times i've been reading along and suddenly had story flow interupted by coming across a bit of fluffy description and thinking "what the- completely out of character! gah!" ;p
Droemar's avatar
"Gah!" I make that sound, too.
MadKatter's avatar
I started watching you because of these, so I'm pleased to see a new one. That's not to say that I don't enjoy your art or something, it's just that these helpful writing advice journals caught my attention first.

This is a good reminder for me, too - I'm in the middle of the rough draft of a novel and I have a habit of making the narrator its own character and pointing out things in the description that I would notice, instead of the character that I'm following. I'm getting better at that, though, probably because by now I've got a pretty dang good idea of the kind of character I'm writing in the first place :P

That said, I've always heard that first-person POV was one of the harder POVs for first-time writers. And maybe it's just that I'm not used to it - I, too, write in third-person-limited - but whenever I try first-person I end up screwing it up pretty royally.

Anyway. Thanks for doing these, I hope to see more in the future.
Droemar's avatar
You're welcome! I consider myself a writer first and artist second, so sometimes it's nice to hear that my writing got folks's attention for a change.
I think first person is kinda hard. I have a real difficult time with it myself, and I never liked having to do it in English class. I think first person eliminates a lot of POV pitfalls, and maybe that's the upside, but there's always a downside, too.
MadKatter's avatar
Yeah, same here - I don't even consider myself an artist, ha ha.

I only do first-person for exercises, anymore. Just to stretch the brain, as it were. Third-person is just so much more comfortable.

I think the biggest problem with first-person is that you can't just write third-person but replace all of "he" or "she" or whatever with "I", you have to actually make it sound like your character is talking to the reader. And that's a lot of talking, and a lot of chances for you to slip out of character.
Droemar's avatar
True. You would have a lot of opportunities to slip "out of character". You'd have to get really good at consistent tone and diction, but I guess first person also offers the strongest opportunity for good voice. Walking a two edged blade!
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