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Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Understanding Point of View

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not understanding point of view.

Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's OK because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren't focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.

(Grammar rules for writers.)

Rather, we're looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, neglecting research, or researching too much. This week's writing mistake writers make is not understanding point of view.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Understanding Point of View

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Understanding Point of View

I want to say this upfront: I don’t think there’s a writing rule out there that can’t (or shouldn’t) be broken at some point. The fact of the matter is that stories—their structure, characters, plots, themes—are living things. It’s why 10 people can tell the same story and get 10 different reactions to it.

However, before you can break a rule, you have to understand it.

Point of view (POV) is one of these instances. So, let’s take a few minutes to familiarize ourselves with the rules of POV so that you can up-level the quality of your work—and even learn how to break a rule or two in the process.

Mistake Fix: Understand Which POV Best Works for You

First Person

This kind of POV is as it sounds; told directly from someone’s perspective. This means that we will not only be seeing events unfold through someone’s eyes, but we will also be getting their internal perspective of the situation as well. This kind of POV will most often use the pronouns I/me/my. This POV limits writers in the way that your story can only see as far as your character can; if they don’t know something, your reader can’t really know it either.

It’s a great tool to use if you’re employing an unreliable narrator or unraveling a mystery or both (think Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl). It’s harder for your reader to feel duped or tricked by a surprise twist when they’re as close to the action as possible. It can also be a way to really access the emotions of the story, like in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give.

Here’s an example of first-person POV:

A waiter walked by with a plate of some delicious-looking pasta; the smell of garlic hovered over my table. It reminded me of our first date; he’d been unreasonably nervous, sweat dampening the edge of his temples. I’d gotten a little too drunk on wine, but he only smiled when my laugh was too loud. But that was years ago, now.

He ran his fingers over the tablecloth. Straightened the knife beside his plate. My stomach was a ball of fishing line with no hope of being untangled. His face was the surface of a lake unbroken.

After another beat, he cleared his throat. “So?”

I opened my mouth to answer, but our waitress appeared as if the tension between us had summoned her. “Have you decided?”

“I’m going to need a moment,” I told them both.

Second Person

Second-person POV is when the reader becomes a character in the text and most often uses you/your/you’re pronouns. This POV is perhaps the one least used in traditional publishing; while I’ve dabbled in it, it’s my opinion that it’s most effective when used in short form (like flash fiction), in certain kinds of self-help texts, and in choose-your-own-adventure books. Why? It’s extremely hard to do well.

This doesn’t mean that it’s not possible—just look at books like The Sound of My Voice by Ron Butlin (which has one of my favorite opening paragraphs of any book) and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid. These novels use second-person to have the reader face the theme in a more visceral way than if they were an observer; making your reader an active participant in the story can be a very powerful choice.

Here’s the same example paragraph from above in second-person POV:

A waiter walked by with a plate of some delicious-looking pasta; the smell of garlic hovered over your table. It reminded you of your first date; he’d been unreasonably nervous, sweat dampening the edge of his temples. You’d gotten a little too drunk on wine, but he only smiled when your laugh was too loud. But that was years ago, now.

He ran his fingers over the tablecloth. Straightened the knife beside his plate. Your stomach was a ball of fishing line with no hope of being untangled. His face was the surface of a lake unbroken.

After another beat, he cleared his throat. “So?”

You opened your mouth to answer, but your waitress appeared as if the tension between you had summoned her. “Have you decided?”

“I’m going to need a moment,” you told them both.

Third Person Limited

This is my favorite POV to write in. It gives you, the writer, distance from your characters while still being able to dip into their mind. This will give you more space as an author, since you can have your reader see the character from a broader vantage point. But like with first-person, this POV uses your character as the story’s filter, so everything that they think and feel is right at the surface of the story. The pronouns for this kind of POV are generally she/he/they/zie, but it’s important to note that there are other pronouns that people can use.

Here's an example of third-person limited POV:

A waiter walked by with a plate of some delicious-looking pasta; the smell of garlic hovered over their table. It reminded Zin of their first date; Lionel had been unreasonably nervous, sweat dampening the edge of his temples. Zin had gotten a little too drunk on wine, but Lionel only smiled when his laugh was too loud. But that was years ago, now.

Lionel ran his fingers over the tablecloth. Straightened the knife beside his plate. Zin’s stomach was a ball of fishing line with no hope of being untangled. Lionel’s face was the surface of a lake unbroken.

After another beat, he cleared his throat. “So?”

Zin opened his mouth to answer, but their waitress appeared as if the tension between them had summoned her. “Have you decided?”

“I’m going to need a moment,” Zin told them both.

Third Person Omniscient

The last major POV, this can also be called “roaming” POV; it’s when the narrator can see inside all the characters' minds. This is a really popular choice for people who have huge casts of characters and/or complicated plots, because it allows you to move the reader from one part of the story to another in a way that makes sense and keep things streamlined. This will give you the ability to pick and choose what your reader is looking at at any given moment; however, it also means that you will have to be diligent to make sure that every scene, every moment you dip into a new character’s mind is pertinent to the story.

Beware the temptation to head-hop! This just means that you flit from one character’s perspective to the next at a dizzying speed or for no discernable reason.

Here’s an example of third-person omniscient POV:

A waiter walked by with a plate of some delicious-looking pasta; the smell of garlic hovered over their table. It reminded Zin of their first date; Lionel had been unreasonably nervous, sweat dampening the edge of his temples. Zin had gotten a little too drunk on wine, but Lionel only smiled when his laugh was too loud. But that was years ago, now.

Lionel didn’t notice the waiter or the garlic smell; he was too busy waiting for Zin’s reaction. Against his thigh, his phone buzzed three times in rapid succession. Ben must be getting antsy. Lionel wanted to move this along, but he had to do it carefully.

Lionel ran his fingers over the tablecloth. Straightened the knife beside his plate. Zin’s stomach was a ball of fishing line with no hope of being untangled. He couldn’t read anything on Lionel’s face; how had he not realized that Lionel had become like a stranger to him?

After another beat, Lionel cleared his throat. “So?”

Zin opened his mouth to answer, but their waitress appeared as if the tension between them had summoned her. “Have you decided?”

“I’m going to need a moment,” Zin told them both.

This is, of course, just an appetizer course for your POV meal. Now that you know the basics, it’s time for you to get out there and explore all the exciting ways that authors stick with, blend, or even completely disregard these categories. You have books that trade-off first-person perspectives; you have ones that trade-off third-person limited. You have books that go from third person limited to second person and back again. You have books you think are written in third person and end up being a first-person perspective. The choices are limitless!

But while you’re here, check out the following posts about POV here on the WD site:

Fundamentals of Fiction

This course will take you through all of the basics of writing a novel, including how important it is to choose a great setting, how to build characters, what point of view you should choose, how to write great dialogue, and more.

Click to continue.

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