Fundamentals: Point of view

Think of Point of View as “where the camera is” in your story.

  • Is it stuck inside one person’s head and seeing out their eyes? (first person)
  • Is it following close behind one character in each scene, able to see inside their head like the back was cut off? (third person limited)
  • Is it like a movie, going from place to place, following many characters, without ever going in anyone’s head? (cinematic omniscient)
  • Is it moving from place to place, following many characters, and also moving in and out of their heads in the same scene? (head-hopping omniscient)

Types of Point of View (POV)

Personage – Impacts the pronouns

First person: tells the story directly through the character:

Example: I parachuted off the Empire State Building, and I loved it.

Second person: tells the story to the reader (rare in fiction).

Example: You could have parachuted off the building too, but you chickened out.

Third person: tells the story from outside the character:

Example: Bob parachuted off the building, but his chute didn’t open and he splatted.

Scope – impacts how much you know

It’s a spectrum in terms of how close you get into the head of a character (primarily for third person, since in first person, you’re in the character’s head automatically).

On one end of the spectrum, the reader has intimate knowledge of all the character’s thoughts, and can’t know anything the character doesn’t know. On the other end, the reader remains distant, watching events like a fly on the wall.

Intimate (close): the reader has direct access to the thoughts and feelings of the character who is telling the story. Intimate third person is a popular choice for fiction writing today.

Example (intimate third person):
Shane’s clown suit did nothing against the biting cold winds of the Moscow winter. Some secret agent he was, sent to infiltrate the birthday party of a Russian railroad baron dressed as a clown. No one will suspect the clown, they said. This was going to be a trainwreck. He shivered and pulled his purple peacoat tighter across his polka-dot shirt.

Omniscient: the reader has access to all the thoughts and feelings of ALL the characters, even if the author/narrator may not write about all of them. In an omniscient point of view, the author/narrator may include the thoughts of any character, or stay detached and simply narrate a story as an outsider, or zoom in/out as needed.

Example (omniscient third person and distant, except for intimate components in italics):
Jill stepped off the casino elevator and surveyed the slot floor. It was busy for a Monday morning, with about half the machines grinding quarters. She found her target and walked quickly, with the confident stride of someone well-within the bounds of their authority. Time to take out the trash, she thought.

Raymond jerked up from his reverie at the sound of footsteps behind him. Someone was coming, he could feel it. He turned and locked eyes with Jill, then moved his gaze down to her employee badge.

She smiled with the slightest touch of a sneer. “Excuse me sir, but you’ve been here for three hours.”

He crossed his arms, covering his ketchup-stained shirt. “And?”

“Complementary drinks are for players only, sir. And you haven’t been playing, sir. Just drinking.”

Note that by removing the italics, you have what is often called “cinematic point of view” which is omniscient, but can’t have access to thoughts. This is what people are used to from watching TV and movies, but in books it can be difficult to write well (usually becoming boring to read) because of the lack of intimacy. Being deep in a character makes up for the fact that books can’t show you flashy images or play dramatic music like movies can. A book without that depth is like reading a movie script versus watching a movie—which would you rather do?

More on POV in writing.

Head-hopping

Above, we stay in the same omniscient point of view and clearly mark who is thinking which thought. But what happens if you jump from one point of view to another to another, telling the story through the eyes of multiple characters, without clearly setting them apart? This is called head-hopping.

Head-hopping is all about how frequently you do it and how well you do it. Few readers would balk at a book that switches back and forth between two primary character POVs with each chapter.

On the other end of the spectrum, a story that jumps from one character to another after each sentence is tiresome to read. In general, there’s no reason to head-hop frequently unless it’s crucial to telling your story.

Don’t (painful head-hopping):
Sarah glared at Betty. That bitch had taken the last blueberry scone, she just knew it. A scone for a crone. Betty glared back. Sarah was such a skank. Never mind that it was her ninetieth birthday. And then there was Jezebel, who claimed to have a PhD but everyone knew it was fake. Jezebel knew Betty was thinking about her as she watched Betty glance at her fake diploma on the wall. Of course, no one could ever prove that she hadn’t finished her dissertation, except Sparky of course. Sparky wants biscuits, thought Sparky the dachshund. He really wants them. Maybe if he barks enough Sarah will give him some.

In the above paragraph we shift POV from Sarah to Betty to Jezebel and finally to Sparky the dog. It’s a bit nauseating to read, isn’t it? There are authors who have pulled off this type of narrative shifting, but those that do tend to do so smoothly and give the reader time to rest in each character’s POV.

Even with just the addition of line breaks, it’s easier to read, but it’s still a mess. Imagine how this story would change if we spent a paragraph, a page, a scene, or a chapter in each character’s point of view instead of a line or two.

One way to improve it would be to step back and be a fly-on-the-wall narrator, with access to all information.

Do (an omniscient narrator describes the same scene, telling us the character’s thoughts):

Sarah glared at Betty, eyeing the crumbs on her lips, the crumbs of the last blueberry scone Betty had carefully purloined. It was a game of scones and crones, and the parlor was filled with the scents of both. Betty glared back at her. Even now, on Sarah’s ninetieth birthday, the sting of Sarah’s adultery with Betty’s first husband had hadn’t faded in seventy years.

Jezebel caught Betty’s eye with a knowing smile. Of course, Jezebel knew all about the affair, and of their rivalry, but Betty still had the upper hand—she knew Jezebel had never finished her dissertation and the PhD was fake. Jezebel was no more a doctor than Sparky the dachshund, but that didn’t stop Jezebel’s smug smile as she watched Betty glance at the framed diploma on the wall.

Tonight, Betty would spring her trap, finally realizing a revenge seventy years in the making, destroying Sarah at the birthday gala like she had been humiliated by Sarah’s adultery so many years before. Sparky the dog yapped, jarring Betty out of her reverie. He wanted biscuits of course, but a scone would do, or perhaps, even better, she would give him a bone to gnaw by the night’s end. A bone from an old, cheating crone.

As you can see, an omniscient POV gives access to everyone’s thoughts and feelings, and allows for more to be described, as the narrator knows everything and doesn’t have to wait for thoughts, dialogue, or action to reveal important plot details (through “showing”) and can simply “tell” the information to the reader.  This is closely related to some considerations on “show versus tell”.

In general, you’re better off sticking a single point of view in each scene or chapter and developing the character for your reader to enjoy, then switching at a natural break in the story.

Even in omniscient point of view, where knowledge of multiple characters thoughts may be expected (but is not mandatory), authors that use it well follow a single character at least long enough to make a point, if not for a whole scene or chapter.  In some cases, narrators stay out of heads entirely, merely reporting the scene as it happens, with the backstory and musings, but without access to any thoughts at all (other than the narrator’s own).  In this case, the writer is still sticking to a single POV — that of the narrator.

More on head-hopping POV.

Establishing a Character’s Voice

Is your language right for the viewpoint character? Can you tell how he/she feels? Or does the character not match the point of view?

If your character is a college professor, they’ll use big words. If they’re a high-school drop out, they’ll speak differently. Likewise, they’ll have different thoughts, reactions and dialogue if they are introverted or extroverted, optimistic or pessimistic, religious or agnostic, angry or calm, mature or childish, neat or sloppy, creative or analytical etc. etc. etc. It all comes down to knowing your characters and living inside of their heads.

On “The Simpsons”, the character Dr. Hibbert is a physician who went to Johns Hopkins Medical School.  He’s no dummy, and tends to be solemn when making diagnoses.

Don’t: Dr. Hibbert put his feet up on the desk. “Well shucks Homer, you’re in a dilly of a pickle. We’ve gotta pre-form some surgery on your old noggin.”

Do: Dr. Hibbert tented his fingers. “It’s a serious matter Mr. Simpson. If we don’t remove that crayon from your brain, it could damage your cerebral cortex.”

Likewise, the character Reverend Lovejoy is kind and a bit depressive. He’s not the type to start a fight, take the lord’s name in vain, or swear at people.

Don’t: Reverend Lovejoy glared at the atheist protestors, then flipped them the bird. “Hey! Jesus says to kiss my ass, you bastards! Burn in hell!”

Do: Reverend Lovejoy groaned when he saw the atheist protestors, but at least there weren’t any members of his flock among the group. He shook his head and headed home to play with his model trains. They weren’t his problem, not today.

Check out our article on style and voice, or find even more here.

Filtering Words

When you write, you want the reader to experience what the characters experience. Unless you are writing in a distant third person (fly on the wall or narratorial voice with no access to thoughts) you’re going to have to write thoughts and feelings. But how to write about them?

The first instinct is usually to write thoughts like dialogue, like so:

Don’t: I stepped into the mausoleum. That mummy’s got to be here somewhere, I thought. I lit a torch.

While there’s nothing wrong with that approach, it becomes tiresome to read if we see the character’s thoughts frequently. Many authors instead write the thoughts “straight” with no filtering words like “thought”.

Do: I stepped into the mausoleum. That mummy had to be here somewhere. I lit a torch.

Filtering words can take many forms, because they can include emotions.

Don’t: Sarah saw her bees out the window. She loved them so much. She expected a good harvest this year. She heard her husband snoring in the bedroom. She wanted to drown him in the honey vat and make it look like an accident.

The verbs are a mix of senses and emotions: saw, loved, expected, heard, wanted. The sentence style is also repetitive because each sentence begins with a filtering verb. Here is it without the filtering, and with more showing rather than telling.

Do: Sarah glanced out the window at her beehives and smiled. The bees were busy, and there would be a good harvest this year. Her husband snored in the bedroom and her smile twisted into a sneer. After the harvest, she could finally drown him in the honey vat. It would be so easy to make it look like an accident.

In general, just remember to “stay in your character’s head”.

That said, in an omniscient point of view, filtering words may become more appropriate, because the world and the characters are in fact being filtered—usually through a narratorial voice.  The third crones-and-scones piece above gives an example of how to do this.  This approach may seem somewhat old-fashioned today, but when executed well, it is just as enjoyable as anything else.

More on filtering words.

Writing Deep Point of View

Okay, now that you understand concepts like personage (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and scope (deep or shallow or omniscient) and some of the pitfalls (head hopping, voice, filtering words), the logical question is “but how do I do it?”

As mentioned above, we generally focus on deep point of view in modern fiction writing. Whether you’re doing it in a limited sense (sticking to one point of view in a story or scene), or zooming in and out of different character’s heads with an omniscient point of view, you usually want to go deep so you can create that emotional resonance with the reader.

Deep point of view means that you are including the character’s senses (touch, taste, smell, vision, hearing, and more) as well as their thoughts, dialogue, and actions. It means that you’re customizing those sensory experiences and those events so that they match up with the character, so that their voice matches who they are as a person.

Like most things in writing, depth is a spectrum. Here are some examples, written from shallow to deep. Note how the lines change as we go deeper into the point of view until we’re truly viewing the world through the character’s eyes and not from the writer’s.

Let’s use a mountain climber getting out of a crevasse.

  • Arnie grabbed onto the rock and hauled himself over the top of the ledge and out of the crevasse.
  • Inch by inch, Arnie pulled with his one good arm, tugging and straining. Everything ached. Every muscle and tendon was stretched to the limit. With a groan, he hauled himself up onto the ledge. He was finally out.
  • Arnie grunted as he wrapped the tips of his fingers around the last outcropping. One more pull, just one more. Simple as lifting weights in the gym, simple as one more bale of hay back on the farm. It was just one more. But his arm whispered, do I have to? Yes, dammit, yes you have to! Arnie’s biceps, triceps, and pectorals spasmed into one last pull, hauling his chest over the granite ledge and out of the crevasse, out to freedom.

In the first example, we’ve got a solid description of what’s going on. It’s not very exciting, because it’s too detached from the struggle the character is going through.

In the second one, you’ve got more details, you’re closer in to what he’s feeling. You’re feeling his tugs, strains, aches and pains, and then his relief when he makes it out. Note that we didn’t use filtering words like “feeling”.

In the third example, we go even deeper. We feel his fingers grab on. We hear his thoughts, hear him psyching himself up, hear his muscles cry back to him, hear him force it and overcome. He’s not just “finally out,” he’s free. Thoughts, emotions, memories, graphic details (fingers on the edge), and a specific voice (that of a weight lifter who knows the names of his muscles and is attuned to what they’re doing, he knows what kind of rock he’s climbing).

Here’s another example, this time of a woman discovering her son’s drug stash.

  • Stuffing the socks in the drawer, Karen touched a plastic bag. She grabbed it to throw in the trash but stopped. It was full of little green nuggets, some kind of plant, maybe marijuana. She grabbed onto the dresser to steady herself.
  • Karen neatly placed David’s rolled up socks in his sock drawer. One of them crinkled when she pressed it into place. Why was he always such a messy boy? She pulled the sock back out and rummaged. It was a plastic bag, a plastic bag full of green things, some kind of plant—marijuana! She crushed the bag in her hand. Not her son.
  • Karen pressed David’s socks into his drawer in neat little rows, just like she did every Monday morning. They were still warm and sweet-smelling from the laundry, like little newborn pups in a basket. She smiled as she fit the last roll into place, then stopped as something crinkled. She shook her head. Davey had been eating candy again. There would be a punishment for that, probably take away his screen time for a week. She gently pried the socks out and searched for the offending plastic. What would it be this time? Mars bar? M&Ms? Maybe a—she gasped. Marijuana.

In the first example, we’ve got a pretty straightforward description of what happens in the scene with not much depth into her point of view or voice.

In the second, we’ve got some sensory details, a few thoughts (messy boy, not her son) and a bit more of her clean-freak personality and her emotions.

In the third example, we’ve got a clear picture of this person, a doting yet very strict mother. We’ve got her thoughts, her emotions, and some sensory details (touch and smell). We know what she’s thinking, how she views the world, and we can already guess the shitstorm that David is in for when he gets home from school.

Now you give it a shot. Take a key moment in a story (like a triumph or important discovery) and write it plainly, then try to go deeper into the point of view, giving us the sensory details, the thoughts, the emotions, the dialogue and the world as this person sees it.