5 Tips on POV

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Droemar's avatar
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.
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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.