Apr 16 2011

Point-of-view (POV), Part 3 of 3

In Part I and II, we looked at the persons involved in a novel and the voice used in the writing. For a quick recap: 

- Persons

  • Author
  • Narrator
  • Character (or characters)

 - Voices

  • First person
  • Third person limited
  • Third person omniscient

Now we can finally get back to the original questions on POV.

As noted at the very beginning of this series, POV is defined as “through whose eyes and ears the reader witnesses the scene.” The author writes the story, the narrator tells the story, and the character experiences the story. Through which character does the reader experience any given scene? That’s the POV character. Might be in first- or third-person voice, and might be filtered through a separate narrator or witnessed directly through a first-person narrator-character. Might have one single POV for the entire book, or there might be 42 POVs.

In first-person voice, the character and the narrator are the same person (most of the time – more on this in a minute). Usually this is the main character, but not always. Some obvious examples of when a secondary character is the first-person narrator include the Sherlock Holmes stories in which Holmes is the main character but Watson is the narrator, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby which is narrated in first person by the secondary character, Nick Carraway. This creates a first-person voice but with a bit of the third-person distance. The narrator can provide a wider perspective that the main character could not.

In third-person voice, the character and the narrator are two separate persons, and the narrator isn’t a character in the story but a disembodied voice or eye – like a movie camera – showing the actions and events.

So when can a first-person story be told by a narrator who is not a character?

Bit of a trick question, but it’s quite common. When a story starts with something like ‘Back when I was a young boy growing up on the Mississippi River,’ the author has established a split narrator/character in first person. The main character is the young boy in the story; the narrator is the grown man looking back on his childhood.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example. In the second paragraph:

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.

This immediately establishes the character and the narrator as the same person at two different ages. The narrator is Scout, the grown woman, looking back on her childhood and the events that occurred to Scout, the young girl.

A more recent example is Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, with the opening lines:

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

There are two versions of the same girl – the living and eventually murdered child who is the main character, and her ghost who narrates the story.

This technique provides a nice advantage to writers (and readers). It maintains the close, intimate perspective of first-person narrative, while the narrator can also provide a wider perspective that usually requires third person. The difficulties in this technique are to create a character-narrator with a similar enough yet distinct voice to be the same person at different ages, and to always clue the reader in as to whose POV the story is in at any given point, the narrator or the character. This requires some subtlety in the writing.

Standard techniques in POV

The persons, the voices, and the POVs provide almost limitless options for how to tell a story. But for those writers who like rules to provide some guidelines for their writing, as well as for writers who like to know what the rules are in order to break them intelligently, there are some standard techniques which have proved over time to be the best ways to tell most stories. There are so many exceptions that this topic always creates discussion and debate, and has been known to spark heated arguments among writers. Seems all writers and editors have deeply held beliefs on this topic, each will tell you exactly how it should be done, and they will all contradict each other. Most readers, on the other hand, will only be able to tell you that they liked a book or that it bored or confused them.

I don’t believe in hard, fast rules when it comes to something as creative as writing fiction, but here’s my list of the most common, standard POV techniques generally accepted in mainstream, genre and commercial fiction today:

In third person:

- Keep the total number of POV characters in a book to no more than two or three.

- Maintain a focus on a single main character.

- Keep each scene to a single POV.

- If you can keep each chapter to a single POV, great. If you need to switch to a new scene in a new POV but within the same chapter, use a clear scene break by centering on the page three asterisks or cross-hatches (* * * or # # #) to signal readers that the scene has ended and a completely new scene is beginning.

- Don’t “head-hop,” where a scene bounces back and forth between characters’ POVs every few paragraphs, or even within a single paragraph or sentence.

- When you switch POV to a different character, ensure readers are instantly clued in as to whose POV they are in. No one wants to read three or four paragraphs, or a page or two, before realizing it’s in the POV of a different character than initially assumed.

- If you’re going to use more than one character’s POV, make sure you establish this early in the book by bringing in the different POVs within the first few scenes. You don’t want to read five or ten or twenty chapters all in one POV, then suddenly have it switch to a different POV character.

In first person:

- Stick with the first person and the single character for the entire novel.

- If you’re going to ignore that technique and use multiple first-person narrators, make sure readers instantly know who is narrating the scene, and give each first-person narrator a unique and distinctive voice. If you’re using more than one first-person narrator, then two is a good maximum. Or 42 if your last name is Palahniuk.

- If you’re using the split narrator/character – the older narrator looking back on his life – be sure readers know which POV they are in at any given moment: the character or the narrator. The narrator will have advantage of hindsight and knows the full story, while the character has a perspective limited by where he is in the story.

If mixing first and third:

- Have a plan and know what you’re doing.

- Think about it again.

- Have trusted beta readers who will tell you if it’s working or not.

For every standard technique, there will be some bestseller or classic piece of literature that ignores that technique. That’s fine, of course, but for new or debut writers it’s very difficult to break out of those general standards and do it well. That sometimes takes a level of artistic genius that very few writers can pull off, or at least a level of experience in writing to learn how to do it deftly.

But if you understand the persons, the voices, and the points-of-view available to you, how they interact with each other, and the pros and cons of each, you can confidently find the best way to write your story. 

If you’re still not sure, try writing some of the scenes in both first and third person, and see if one strikes you as the better choice for your story.

10 Responses to “Point-of-view (POV), Part 3 of 3”

  • Pete Morin Says:

    I’ve always regarded The Great Gatsby as a fine example of the narrative spectator.

  • alexander Says:

    I’m feeling curmudgeonly.

    “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”

    My name was Salmon like what else? Billecart Salmon the champagne? Salmon the web comment protocol?

    Hmph.

  • Jacqui Says:

    I see so many people jump around in POV–even established writers. What’s your take on that?

    • Robb Says:

      Jacqui, thanks for stopping by. My take on that is always ‘it depends.’ In general, and especially for newer writers, it’s not a good idea. It can be confusing to readers if the story head-hops around from one character to another, especially if the writer doesn’t clearly and smoothly indicate whose POV we’re in at any given moment. It’s more acceptable in some genres than others. And in the hands of a very accomplished writer who has studied 3rd person omniscient, and who has read extensively in the books that use that voice with multiple POVs, it can be done quite well. One downside of it, even when done well, is that it tends to keep readers at bit more distance from the main character.

  • M Cid D'Angelo Says:

    Fundamental rules for any genre; there are exceptions in onw or two classic cases, but Homer and James Joyce I believe were mad.

    Anyhow, someof my major rejections came because of too many cooks spoiling the stew of my plot.

  • fred limberg Says:

    Robb,

    I’m wondering how the use of delineating lines (like centered lines, asterisks, etc)to offset scenes will translate into e-books. I’m just trying to get a handle on formatting and I think that’s a no no…but what do I know

    Fred

    • Robb Says:

      Fred, I’m referring specifically to formatting a manuscript, not formatting for publication, whether for print or e-book. The concept is the same, however. There needs to be a break that alerts the reader that a new scene is starting. That may be an extra line of space, asterisks, hash marks, bullet points, diamonds or some other character. It might be one or three, or whatever. Look at some printed books and some e-books to see different ways they’re handled. I don’t know a lot about formatting a book for publication, but maybe someone else can chime in with advice. I do know different self-publishing companies and e-book devices have different formatting requirements, so you might have to produce more than one version (one for Kindle, one for Sony e-reader, etc, etc).

      Anyone else out there have advice for Fred?

  • Averie Morgan Says:

    So I’m writing a story told from two character’s POVs. Each chapter is told from one character’s POV and then the next chapter is told from the other. But when the two characters are together, you are let in to both of their thoughts. Does this work? Or does it conflict with the rules of third person limited?

    • Robb Says:

      Hi Averie, and thanks for stopping by. Good question. The alternating chapters in two POVs can work well, but what to do when both characters are together? Several options, but the cleanest, clearest, simplest might be to pick one character and remain in that POV for a full scene, then use a scene break (# or * or an extra blank line) before switching to the other character’s POV. The first sentence or two of the new scene should clearly signal to the reader that the POV character has switched so as not to confuse readers. The new scene might be a completely different scene but within the same chapter, or it might be a continuation of the scene. It could even be a complete replay of the previous scene, but in a new POV (this might be rare, but I’ve seen it done well, as long as the two perspectives on the same event are different enough that it’s not a boring repeat for readers).

      Another option when both characters are in the same scene is to move to a slightly more omniscient viewpoint that can dip into both characters’ internal thoughts and perspective within the same scene, but this has to be handled quite deftly or it can easily fall into the confusing, head-hopping sort of scene.

      The best advice I can offer is to try several different ways and see if one speaks to you as the ‘best’ way for your story and your characters. If you’re still not sure, get some feedback from trusted readers who are able to articulate why something works or doesn’t work.

      Lots of folks out there pronounce the ‘rules’ of writing, and there are certain techniques that have proven to work effectively, but sometimes you just have to experiment and try something new, push the boundaries a bit, and see if you can make it work.

      Best of luck! Let me know how it works out.