From the Archives: Understanding Point of View

I’ve been traveling this week and haven’t been able to write a new post, so instead I’d like to share an older post from the archives that new readers haven’t seen (and other readers might want to revisit). This was originally posted on June 25, 2015.

1280px-Stipula_fountain_penPoint of view is one of the most important tools a writer can use to tell a story. Using the right POV for your story is crucial in drawing the reader in. But misusing POV is one of the most common issues I see in manuscripts. Understanding your POV and using it well can fix so many common problems, from telling instead of showing to filter words (all of which I will cover in later posts). For now, I’d like to cover the basics of points of view: What are they, and how are they used?

  1. First person

First person is the POV that uses “I.” It shows everything through a single character’s perspective. It’s also the closest POV, by which I mean it’s the most insular, the most in-depth in a single character’s head. It lends a sense of closeness to the story, because you’re deep inside the POV character’s thoughts.

First person is common, but I think it’s also one of the most difficult POVs to use well, as it’s the most limited POV. You can only narrate what that one person can think, feel, know, see, hear, etc. Using first person successfully requires a lot of internalization, because it’s all about the internal perspective. One of the most common issues I see with first person is overnarrating, or describing absolutely everything that a character is doing. Remember to show the reader what a character is doing/feeling/thinking instead of telling.

  1. Second person

Second person is the POV that uses “you.” The reader is actually positioned as the protagonist of the story. Second person is rarely used because it’s incredibly difficult to do well. That’s not to say you can never use it, but as someone reading through submissions I would be rather skeptical of a manuscript that uses it; it would have to be really, really well done.

Also, I tend to see some confusion about what second person actually is. I sometimes see submissions that claim to be told in second person, only to have them open with sentences like this: I lead you through the door or You said you were telling me the truth, but I knew you were lying. That’s not second person; it’s first. See all the “I”s there? The “I” is the person narrating the story. It’s still a first-person POV even when another character is being addressed as “you.” (The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a published example of this. It’s in first person, even though someone else is addressed as “you.”)

So what does second person look like? Let’s use one of the most famous examples, from Bright Lights, Big City: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.” See how “you” is the person actually narrating the story? That’s second person.

  1. Third person

Third person is the POV that uses “he/she.” This is probably the POV that I see misused the most, because its narrative distance can vary greatly. There are two different types of third person: third person limited and third person omniscient.

Third person limited is actually a close POV, similar to first person. You’re still inside the narrator’s head, and only show what that character knows, thinks, feels, etc. The narrative distance is still quite similar to first person, but slightly removed. This is the most common third person POV you’ll see. The Harry Potter series is a great example of this, as the story is told mostly from Harry’s perspective (with a few exceptions).

Third person omniscient, on the other hand, is an all-knowing narrator who can describe what any character is thinking, and even describe things the characters aren’t aware of. This narrator can see and know everything. An omniscient narrator can still stick with one character, or jump around and cover multiple characters.

I often see manuscripts where the third person POV is used inconsistently, with the narration switching between third person limited and third person omniscient. The writer often inserts thoughts that the character wouldn’t know instead of staying in the character’s head, but it isn’t consistent enough to be omniscient. This can lead to confusion for the reader, as they won’t be able to tell who’s narrating the story. The key with third person is to know which distance you’re using and to use it consistently.

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I will go into greater detail about points of view and the pros and cons of using each in future posts, but this should cover the basics. The most important thing to remember with POV is to use it consistently. Decide which POV is best for your story and stick with it!

Which points of view do you use? Do you struggle with using them consistently? What else would you like to know about POV? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in professional editorial services for your work? Check out my Services page for more information about working with me.

This post is part of my Writing Craft series. For more info about planning, writing, and revising your work, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

7 Tips for Writing Multiple Points of View

Setting Basics: Writing Through the Eyes of Your Narrator

Understanding Point of View: First Person

Understanding Point of View: Third Person

Understanding Point of View: Eliminating Filter Words

 

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