Thursday, May 13, 2010

Point of View Oversimplified

You have no idea how long I've been avoiding this subject.

Correctly using Point of View (hereafter known as POV) is tricky, and often one of the last things a new writer masters. (Followed closely by Showing versus Telling. More on that next week.)

This will be an oversimplified explanation of how to use POV, but after judging a contest where 3/4 of the entries I read had serious POV issues, I thought I'd at least bring it up on here.

POV refers to your point of view character. It's whomever's head we're in for the current scene. We should only be in ONE HEAD per scene. Here's an example:

“Well, that went well.” Gretchen’s husband shot her a rare, angry look when she reentered the kitchen from bidding Holly farewell.

Rob stood at the sink, scrubbing viciously at the dinner prep dishes, even though most his dinner still sat on his plate. Rob’s anger was cutting, much more so than Shae’s storming out had been. Gretchen had been somewhat braced for Shae’s outrage, but Rob, he’d been on her side.

“How was I to know she’d react that poorly?”


“How were you to know?” Rob’s laugh held no humor. “Anyone with half a brain would’ve reacted that way. You embarrassed her. You embarrassed Holly too.”

Gretchen’s face heated with embarrassment of her own. “You know I never intended to embarrass her. All I wanted—”


“What you want is impossible!”

Words that never settled well with Gretchen. Nor did being interrupted.

This is all from Gretchen's POV. Meaning every thought, feeling, sensation, they're all happening IN GRETCHEN'S HEAD. We're not hearing how Rob ran the dishwater too hot and is hands are burning, or what Gretchen looks like when she's angry. If you want to convey those things to the reader, then you need to switch POVs and tell the scene from Rob's perspective.

What we don't want to do is mix the two. Like this:

“Well, that went well.” Gretchen’s husband shot her a rare, angry look when she reentered the kitchen from bidding Holly farewell.

Rob stood at the sink, scrubbing viciously at the dinner prep dishes, even though most his dinner still sat on his plate. Which was a shame. He loved roast beef and had been looking forward to it all day long.

Rob’s anger was cutting to Gretchen, much more so than Shae’s storming out had been. Gretchen had been somewhat braced for Shae’s outrage, but Rob, he’d been on her side.

Do you see how much more confusing that is, blending the POVs? That's referred to as "head-hopping." And, yes, Jane Austen did it, and, yes, you'll come across it in modern novels, but no, you shouldn't do it.

So when you're writing a scene, get in your character's head and stay there. Tell us only what he or she is observing, feeling, and wondering.

Questions? Shoot me an e-mail, and I'll do my best to answer.

6 comments:

  1. When I first learned about POV rules, I railed against them with all my might. Then said, "Fine! I'll use your stupid rules!" and proceeded to realize how much deeper into the character I got when I stayed anchored to them for a whole scene or chapter.

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    1. POV rules made sense to me from the beginning, but were (are) so hard to follow at times! It’s getting a lot better though. =)

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  2. And I chalked them up to being something I didn't need to worry about since I wrote in first person. Wrong...

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  3. And I chalked them up to being something I didn't need to worry about since I wrote in first person. Wrong...

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  4. Ooh. This definitely gives me something to think about, because I haven't heard of POV before....

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  5. I just had an epiphany...
    Now I know why I can't seem to get my head into the world of Pride and Prejudice.
    Her wording is so confusing, and sometimes I'm thinking "Wait... whaatt??? When did they start liking each other?" Its annoying haha

    Great post!

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