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Workshop:

Experimenting with POV

By Lazette Gifford
Copyright 2009 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved


Deciding what Point of View (POV) to write a story or novel in is a difficult decision.  Some writers stick with one type of POV -- either First Person , Third Person or Omniscient-- because they feel comfortable with it.  That's not always a good idea, though.  Branching out into new POVs gives the author an entire new tool to work with.  Writers should never settle for something just because they are comfortable. 

There are three primary POVs and one experimental one.  I will not be dealing with the experimental 'you' POV, which is referred to as second person.  In that one, the character of the story is referred to as 'you.' 

You walk into the house and smell the scent of baking cookies.  You wonder why your mother is in a good mood today.

The 'you' POV doesn't often make a good story and it is a hard POV to sell.  Play with it and you might find something unique to write... but don't rely on it for the majority of your stories.  We're going to ignore it for the rest of this workshop.  Let's look at the ones that are commonly used instead. 

First Person POV

First person is the 'I' POV.  This is an excellent POV for mystery stories because it allows you to see inside the head of the detective (and a detective is anyone solving a mystery) and follow how he or she solves the puzzle.  It is an excellent POV for any plot where the mind of the main character is interesting enough to keep the reader entertained living in his or her head.

I stepped inside the door, trying to decide if I should have a quick drink at the bar before I went into the dining hall to have dinner with David.

The downside of the first person POV is two-fold.  The first is that the author can spend either too much time in the character's head or not enough.  Either way, it makes a boring character.  First Person is the POV of personality.  If your character isn't absolutely fascinating, then being inside his head for a long time might not be the best place for the reader. 

The second problem with First Person POV is that if the character doesn't see or isn't told about something, then it doesn't exist for the story.  Everything the story covers has to be within the knowledge of the main character.  If something important happens 'off screen' the author then has to find a logical way for the main character to find out.  It can be as easy as someone telling him, but if you have that happen too often, it's pretty boring.

First Person is an intense POV -- but too much inner angst can also make a character sound like a wimp.  The balance is not easy to maintain. 

First Person is not for a character who has secrets because the character cannot, logically, keep those secrets from the reader.  (Don't think about pink elephants!)  Because the secret will be part of the story (otherwise there is no reason for it  to exist at all ), then it will be in the character's thoughts.  There are some stories that employ what is known as an unreliable narrator -- a character who straight out lies to the reader.  While you might be able to do that in a story or two (but it takes a lot of skill and practice to pull it off), it is not something that can be done with every First Person Story.

When writing First Person POV remember these two rules: The character can't know anything that is not directly presented to him or her, and the character cannot (usually) keep secrets from the reader.

Exercise 1

Write a First Person Point of View scene in which a character walks into a room and finds that he or she is in danger.  There must be at least one other person present.  Remember to stay focused and see, hear, feel, etc. only what the character can experience firsthand. 

Keep this scene short.  You will be rewriting it three more times by the end of the workshop, so you don't want to

 

Third Person POV

We are going to look at two versions of the Third Person POV, close and observer view.  Close is the easiest for people who normally use First Person POV.  In this case, you can almost always replace 'I' with the character name or pronoun.  There are a few spots where you will want to modify this simple change, but for the most part, it will work.

So why would you bother and not just write First Person instead?

Because with Third Person you have the ability to add in more than one POV character without resorting to tricks to point out who is speaking as you would have to do in a First Person story.  Having more than one POV character opens up the storyline and allows for far more depth in what is happening.  You can tell the story from the protagonist's side and the antagonist's as well.  You can move the scene of action to anywhere else in your story's universe to cover actions that enhance the tale, rather than having those actions told to the main character.  Show, don't tell.

The other good part of the Third Person POV is that there are variations of how close to First Person you want to get.  You can choose a close third person or an observer third person.  Notice the differences in these two lines:

Mary stepped inside the door, trying to decide if she should have a quick drink at the bar before she went into the dining hall to have dinner with David.

The woman stepped inside and hesitated by the door, looking uncertain about her choices.

In the first version, we are close to Mary and seeing things through her eyes.  In the second, an observer is watching her.  We've put some distance, and can't know what she's thinking -- we can only see her actions.  Sometimes it is important that we don't know exactly why a character takes certain actions.  Consider, for instance, a character who might or might not be a traitor acting in ways that can look, to an observer, as suspicious but would be perfectly understandable if the reader could see the character's thoughts.

Third Person POV also allows the author to move close or distant within the same story.  Sometimes a story or a scene will start out at a distance, giving the reader a wider view of the situation, and then close in on the main character.  Sometimes one character will always be shown in close while others are kept at a distance.  The story develops different levels and complexity that is not possible with only a single focus.

One of the big problems that can develop with Third Person stories is that the author jumps around between characters too often, leaving the story disjointed.  This is also a problem with omniscient (see below).  With Third Person POV, the scene stays firmly planted in one character's POV, no matter if it is close or distant.  Too many characters with POVs can leave the reader dissatisfied when he finds a character he likes and has to wait for the character to show up again.

Exercises 2 & 3

Take the same scene that you wrote for Exercise # 1 and rewrite it, first in a close Third POV style and then, again, in a distant Third POV style.  Remember that in close, the actions of the main character can be understood as though the reader is seeing into the character's head, but at a distant view, the character can only be observed.  In distant, more than one character can be observed at the same time without changing POV and scene.

 

Omniscient POV

Omniscient POV isn't used as often as it was a hundred or more years ago, though it does seem to be making a comeback.  It is a narrator's POV; the voice telling the story is not part of the story itself, but an outside observer.  At first glance, Omniscient looks a great deal like Third, however there are crucial differences.  The biggest one is that in Third, the author stays within the focus of one character in a scene.  In Omniscient, the author may show the POV of several characters in the same scene.  This is a difficult to do well because it is easy for the reader to get confused when the author doesn't give enough clues about who is on show at the moment.

Mary stepped inside the door, trying to decide if she should have a quick drink at the bar before she went into the dining hall to have dinner with David.  Across the room, David Conner watched her and grinned, relieved to see that she had shown up.

Why isn't that considered Third Person?  Because we can see the thoughts of both characters within the same scene -- in this case, within the same paragraph.  The scene is written from an 'observer' who can read minds and understand all motivations and actions.  It is the 'God' view of the storytelling, because it is easy to know what any character -- whether a main character or a mere walk-on -- the author wants to bring to the front of the screen for a view of the story world at that moment.

It would sound as though this would be the best, and easiest, POV to write in, but it has some inherent problems. The first is known as 'head-hopping' in which the  story moves through a bewildering array of character POVs.  What is clear to the mind of the author is not always apparent to the reader and can cause confusion about who is really thinking what is being read.

Authors can use a limited version of Omniscient where they only view the story through some characters, but others are left in the dark.  Sometimes, however, that starts to make certain plot surprises obvious.  If one character is the secret bad guy, then avoiding going into his head (because, like First person, there can be no secrets from an Omniscient viewer), makes if obvious the character has a secret.

The limited character views of Third Person often makes a more cohesive, and more easily followed story.

Exercise 4

Once again, take your original scene and rewrite it in an Omniscient POV.  Dip into the heads and thoughts of all the characters you have present in the scene.

 

And a final thought on 'thoughts.'

Over at Forward Motion, there has been a discussion about how to handle inner thoughts of characters in the form of dialogue.  Let's look at one scene:

Grandmother picked up the suitcase and tugged and Jimmy's arm, half dragging him out of the house, even though he out-bulked her by at least fifty pounds.

"I don't want to go, you silly old bat!" he thought as they went down the stairs.

I think you can see the problem.  Once you get the quotes in place, it is automatically assumed that the words are said aloud.  When the reader hits the he thought part it means he has to rethink what he had read and put it into a different context.  It takes him out of the flow of the story, which is always a bad thing to do to a reader.

Grandmother picked up the suitcase and tugged and Jimmy's arm, half dragging him out of the house, even though he out-bulked her by at least fifty pounds.

I don't want to go, you silly old bat! he thought as they went down the stairs.

If you had started out by doing quotes on thoughts, and then hit a scene like this, you'll have to go back and change all the quotes because you must be consistent in whatever way you decide to handle thoughts.

The truth is, though, that the publisher may have a house style to deal with inner thoughts.  Write them the way you think best and be prepared to change to whatever the publisher wants.