Demystifying POV

POV—point of view—is perhaps the easiest writing concept to understand intellectually, and yet the hardest to put into practice when writing. I did massive research when I began teaching fiction and creative nonfiction writing, and discovered that there doesn’t seem to be any agreement as to the various types of POV, or even what they are called. This leads to even more confusion for writers.

With that in mind, I delineated the various types of POV that I found, gave them what I think are appropriate names, and wrote out a description of how they are used. What follows is an abbreviated overview at POV. You can find the full version in my book: Write It Right Vol. 2, POV. Not only does it include a detailed look at each POV type, it also gives you exercises to help you put each one into practice!

So, here goes: Just what is POV? It’s the manner or attitude from which a narrator or character interprets events.

The first form of POV is Straight POVs: the narrator knows only what the POV character knows, sees, touches, tastes, smells, or hears. There are 3 Straight POV types:

First Person Straight: written in first person, the “I” character is the narrator. It’s a very close and personal POV for the reader. Creates a strong reader/character bond. May be too close for stories with very deep or disturbing emotions.

Second Person Straight: An outside narrator uses “you” to tell the story. Puts the reader into the main character’s place. Very distant for the reader, and hard to create the reader/character bond. Not often used for fiction or creative nonfiction.

Third Person Straight: The narrator uses “he” or “she” and tells the story as if it were the character. It’s a comfortable distance for readers and easily created the reader/character bond. Can handle difficult emotions more easily than first person straight.

These POV types are much easier to work with. The narrator can only relate what the POV character can see, touch, taste, smell, feel or hear. Nothing else. The next 3 types, which I call Emotional Omniscient, are much more difficult to work with.

Emotional Omniscient POV Types:

I call these “emotional” because they are based on emotion; the narrator knows what the POV character thinks and feels and can relate that to the reader.

Shifting Omniscient POV: the narrator switches POV at will, with no line breaks, often within the same paragraph. This creates distance for the reader and can confuse readers as to whose head they are in. Not in vogue today, though sci-fi and fantasy still sometimes use it, though it is starting to fall out of favor, as it has for romance genres.

Close Thirds Omniscient POV: the narrator switches POV in sections, (usually splitting a scene or a chapter) giving the reader notice with a line break and identifying the new POV character in the first few lines. Each POV character’s portion is written in Straight format. This is the most common POV type in use, one readers are very familiar with. It establishes a very close bond with the reader and the story’s main characters.

Alternating Omniscient POV: Narrator switches between 2 or 3 characters from chapter to chapter, or section to section (a section is 2 or more chapters). This establishes a strong bond with the reader.

Most Emotional Omniscient POVs are written in third person (he/she). First person (I) only works if ONE character is written in first, and the rest in third person. If more than one is in first person, it is very difficult to keep the characters separate and straight. It confuses the reader, who then puts the book down.

Classic Omniscient POV: This form uses no emotion at all; a disinterested narrator looks at the story as if it were a camera suspended above the action, with a microphone attached. It can only relate what it sees and hears. It cannot delve into emotion or internal thoughts of the characters. It is very distancing to readers. The success of Classic Omniscient POV rests entirely on word choice: the ability to infer emotion through the way the action and description of setting are related.

Straight First, Straight Third, and Emotional Omniscient Close Thirds (and its variation of one in first person and the others all in close thirds) are the most familiar to readers. That familiarity helps writers gain close reader/character bonds, which pulls readers even deeper into the story.

When using Emotional Omniscient POV, be sure to: 1) make each POV voice distinctive, using linguistic differences to separate characters; 2) use a line break when switching narrator/characters, and identify each one by name in the first few lines; 3) look for and utilize each character’s unique perspective so readers can clearly identify them.

There are variations of the POVs here that I don’t have space to go into. You can find them all in my book: Write It Right Vol. 2, POV, along with a section on how to choose the right POV for your stories, and how to discover the unique attitudes your POV characters need. Most of all, when you’re reading a book, be aware of what POV it is written in. Watch for inadvertent POV switches that pull you out of the story, and try to rewrite them yourself to correct them. It’s great practice for both recognizing when you make the same mistakes, and for making it easier for you to rewrite your own work so it’s correct.

Happy writing! And Happy POV!

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About Susan Tuttle

Susan Tuttle is a professional freelance editor, writing instructor and multi-award winning author of 21 books—6 nonfiction on writing (Write It Right), 6 suspense novels and 7 collections of award-winning short stories. She also has stories in both volumes of "Deadlines", the new anthology from the Central Coast Chapter of Sisters in Crime (SinC), Tales from a Rocky Coast, and the SLO NightWriter anthology. Under the pen name Susan Grace O'Neill, she is the author of the Journey With Jesus series: Lord, Let Me Grow (Parables) vol. 1, and Lord, Let Me Walk (Lent). She is currently working on volume #2 of her Skylark P.I. series (a PI with paranormal abilities), as well as 2 YA fantasy series. And she teaches fiction writing in both the morning and afternoon every Wednesday. Email her if you're interested in joining her class. And follow her on Twitter and FaceBook.