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Managing Point of View: Mythbusting

In the first of this three-part series, novelist and WD columnist Sharon Short breaks down 7 of the most common myths about choosing which POV is right for your story.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that we’re meeting at an ice-cream shop. And let’s say I ask you, “What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?”

Whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, your answer is your point of view, and it’s assimilated from every aspect of your very humanity: your biological wiring, your experiences, your childhood, your beliefs, even how you’re feeling in the moment.

Point of view (POV) in prose is just as deceptively complex. Yet, too often only simplistic definitions are served up, in the manner of the childhood “we all scream for ice cream” chant:

  • First person (I scream for ice cream)
  • Second person (You scream for ice cream)
  • Third person limited (He, she, or they scream for ice cream)
  • Third person multiple, or omniscient (Wow! Sue, Ted, and perhaps a whole lot of other people scream for ice cream)

However, POV is the principle that pulls together every other element of your prose. You might have a compelling premise, interesting characters, beautiful writing, and great pace. But if the POV is not right, the reader will sense something is off as if it’s ice cream curdling in the bowl.

Intimidating? Yes. But this and the next two “Level Up” columns will focus on POV: busting myths, exploring emotional distance, and examining the element of time for first, third-limited, third-multiple, or omniscient POVs. (Though it’s often used in advice columns such as this, second is rarely used in prose, so I’m setting it aside.) My hope is that the three columns will give you a mini POV tool kit to apply to your project.

Sharon Short | Point of View Quote 1

POV Myths—Busted!

First-person POV is the easiest!

In first-person POV, the weight of the entire piece rests in the voice of the narrator—for 300 pages or longer for book-length works! Don’t do yourself, or your work, the disservice of thinking of first POV as easy simply because of the “I” pronoun. Each POV has its own challenges. And sustaining a distinctive, strong voice for the narrator’s POV for the entire work is the challenge in first. Of course, if done well, this is also the charm of first.

But … First-person POV is simply the narrator telling the story!

No, you, as the writer are always the invisible narrator in any work of prose—even first-person POV. You are always in control of the story. In first-person POV, you allow one character (at a time—even working in first, you can still have multiple narrators) to narrate the story in his, her, or their voice.

Well, first is the only way to use a deep POV.

It may seem easiest to have a deep POV (sharing of thoughts, emotions, reactions) in first, but the drawback of that seeming simplicity is the temptation to overshare. Or to share in a way that feels either false or overwrought. And you can certainly have deep POV in third as well. (More on deep POV in the upcoming column on emotional distance.)

That’s all right. Third-person POV is more high concept anyway!

Every novel, story, memoir, or essay must be driven by a guiding concept—the heart of the piece. High concept simply means the premise of the piece can be described succinctly (in a few sentences) in a way that intrigues and incents readers to want to read the full work. Fulfilling that promise depends on getting all the elements just right—including POV. Of course, examples of high concept third-person POV novels abound, but high concept first-person POV novel examples include The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) or The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) or the bestselling thriller The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave. It’s hard to imagine those first-person POV examples working as well in third person.

You can only have multiple POVs in third person, though.

Again, that depends on the story. Hank Phillippi Ryan’s novel Her Perfect Life alternates between third-person limited and first-person POVs. This works because the main character (third-person limited POV) needs to keep her distance from the public, while the first-person POV character, who works for the main character, has many opinions that we might have—until we get to know the main character. In Heather Webber’s South of the Buttonwood Tree, two first-person POV characters trade off narration of the story—and third-person POV anecdotes are interspersed throughout. By the end, the narrative lines all braid together to create a complete story tapestry.

No one writes omniscient anymore, and besides, isn’t it the same as head hopping?

Omniscient differs from multiple POV in that the latter strictly relegates each POV to a section or chapter. And it differs from head hopping—the confusing effect of jumping from one character’s thought to the next character’s thought—by switching perspectives based on which character’s reaction is the most important in a given moment. Usually, that also means that we stay in one character’s POV for a sentence or paragraph, rather than hopping from one character’s head to the next in the same sentence. An excellent example of omniscient POV mastery is Louise Penny, who uses this POV in her Chief Inspector Gamache novels.

Changing POV is as simple as changing pronouns.

This is a common myth—that if somehow first-person POV isn’t working, then switching to third-person POV is as simple as replacing all the “I’s” with “She, he, they,” or a name. But it’s not that simple. Proper POV depends so much on emotional distance and time—more on those elements in the next two columns.

What’s Your POV, Dear Writer?

Now, take a moment and consider your POV about your own work—and your writing life.

What are the myths you might have given into?

  • This is my first novel—so it has to be in first-person POV.
  • I’ve never written in third POV before because it feels too hard. (Or similar fear for first or omniscient POVs.)
  • I’m used to this particular POV, so I’d better stick to it.

Part of the joy (and yes, pain, but hopefully more joy than pain!) of any creative endeavor is experimenting and pushing yourself to grow.

If you’ve always written in first-person POV, try a short story or flash fiction in third. Or if you’ve always written in third, try writing an essay in first.

Does a character fall flat to you? Write a journal entry from his, her, or their first-person POV.

Does your first-person POV have an engaging voice—and yet, your character (even if it’s you in an essay or your memoir) doesn’t seem quite fleshed out? Try writing a scene again from a different character’s POV, observing your main character. Or even get to know all of your characters a bit better by writing the scene again in omniscient POV!

And if you’re feeling stuck in your writing life in general, try writing about yourself as a writer from various POVs—playing with how your readers, your critique group members, your editor might describe you as a writer. 

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