POV, of course, stands for Point Of View or “Whose head are we in?” Here’s what regular guest poster Floyd Hyatt has to say about this element of fiction:
POINT OF VIEW
What you must know
by F. A. Hyatt
I have been reading several misleading (not to say ridiculous) “Guides” to Point Of View. While the subject can get complex, the important basics about Point Of View are simple.
Point Of View indicates who the storyteller or narrator is in a particular work, or fraction of a work. That is, whose NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE the story is told from. It is uncommon for this perspective to change during a course of a novel. Usually, the entire work will be effected within at least the same CLASS of perspective, and common editorial advice is not to change perspective unless needed, nor more than once per chapter.
This is to keep the continuity of the reader consistent, and keep from popping him out of the story. It is not a rule of English grammar; it is a style convention of novel and story writing. The general classes of POV are below:
First Person POV
The narrator is some agent detailing what he sees. The pronoun ‘I’ features here: I said, I looked, It was apparent to me- these are all hallmarks of First Person Point Of View. Narrative voice may be that of an observer, or of a character, (lead character or not; in the Great Gatsby, by Fitzgerald, the first-person narrator is Nick Carraway and not the title character Jay Gatsby himself). The fundamental feature is that this puts the reader behind only one set of eyes. Narration may only disclose what is put before the narrator’s view, or reported to the narrator, and tagged as such. For example, a first person narrator would not be able to recount what is around some blind corner he is not in a position to see, or to report on what is behind a door that is closed to him. It cannot skip from head to head , to disclose the thoughts of others. (Unless of course the narrator is say, introduced as a telepathic being, but in order to be still considered First Person Viewpoint, this would have to be rigidly limited, and the character voiced very strongly — this variation is sometimes called First-person Omniscient view.)
Second Person POV
This is the point of view used in text adventure games and children’s Halloween tapes. “You walk into a room. You see a jar on the table. You begin to sweat.” It is the voice of a narrator who walks behind only one person, and reports to that person his actions, or visualizations. Because it is a clinical and abstract viewpoint, its place in the novel is very confined, and for good reason, not normally employed.
Third Person POV or Omniscient POV
This type of narrator can flit from character to character, describing scenes viewed by multiple characters, detailing their private thoughts and emotional states, even if not apparent to other onlookers. It can report on the contents of locked chests, the positions of assassins waiting hidden behind closed doors, and so forth. This is usually formal narrative. Rarely can this type of narrator be characterized. The voice is therefore largely neutral. It does not normally belong to a character, save when the narrator is cast as a storyteller, ‘Once upon a time’ fashion. It is a neutral commentator in the root form. It allows an author to detail actions that happen simultaneously in different story locations and to different characters from one consistent viewpoint.
Novels are commonly written in third person, some in first, almost none in second.
There are several variations on these classes, often called VOICES. There is the Unreliable Narrator voice, for instance. – A narrator whose reporting is skewed by prejudice or belief, and who the reader understands to be making narration colored, biased, misinterpreted or wrong in perspective.
Choice of Perspective, or POV
One approach is to decide if your story requires knowing of simultaneous events occurring in different places. If it does, First Person POV would mean having to use multiple narrators, possibly changing the narrating character too often. This causes reader disruption, what is called “Head hopping”. Alternately, it could mean writing much of the story in past tense, with the POV character reminiscing about things he learned of only later. Often this could require frequent scene changes or short chapter sections. Third or Omniscient would commonly be the best choice of POV for such a work.
If you are writing a text adventure (quite out of fashion in gaming, these days) then you will undoubtedly be writing in second.
If your story can be easily written from behind one set of eyes, such as is common in romances and detective stories, where identification with one hero or heroine is paramount, or where most events come before, or can be arranged to come before, one person, then First Person POV can be a plus, making for an easier identification with a particular character. Keep in mind that novels might be planned ahead to take advantage of multiple first person POV’s by making each Narrator’s section long enough to prevent head hopping.
The author should be aware that POV does not affect the necessity to be tense aware. Nor should the author confuse tense with POV. Besides POV, most novels tend to be consistent in narrative TENSE, as well. Books that begin in a very immediate, present tense, will attract comment if the voice passes into another, more reflective tense. Tense, unlike POV, is also a matter of grammar however, and must be adhered to as the prose dictates.
POV does not affect dialog. Dialog is what is quoted, or spoken aloud, regardless of who reports it, or what POV a story uses. In terms of dialog, think of the narrator’s commentary as an unquoted, disembodied voice announcing the commercials on the Price is Right. Always consistent in tone throughout the show, but not necessarily involved in the game, or with the character’s interjected quotes. Even when writing in pure First Person POV, spoken character dialogs including the POV character’s dialogs, must be quoted,(“”) set off in their own paragraphs, and tagged as needed to identify the speakers.
Below is just one of any number of easily available descriptions of Point of View, and included here because it links to very good lists of classic works performed in each of the common styles, and validates to some extent, this summary.
It is common, in a critique, to point out unusual shifts in the narrative mode, or POV. While important, be aware that not every reviewer will be a informed adviser in regard to POV. One common mistake is to routinely confuse TENSE with VOICE, or either with POV. Some may even confuse a change in writing style (another kind of problem) with a POV shift. In order to take advantage of review, it is important to know what these root terms are, and how they are used, in order to evaluate what corrections to your work are needed.
Look up these terms and their full descriptions, and be sure you understand them, before abiding by the “will” of your critiques. Then you will be more enabled to use the opinions garnered to correctly guide your work, and offer better help to others.
The point of establishing a consistent narrative, or storyteller, is to provide clarity for the reader, to minimize logical inconsistencies, and provide an uninterrupted, believable reading experience. Some authors can achieve this without severe POV interpretation. There are many sub-categories of POV, and many “gray” area uses overlap. I am not overly mechanical when considering POV. My standard is, “Does it work in the story?” Does it bother, or confuse me? If not, I may point out the mechanical problem, but admit it didn’t affect my experience of the story. Give a corrective example when citing a POV error.
These tips are offered to help establish some common basis for traffic between critique participants, not to limit the breadth of a critique. Look at them as a sort of basic vocabulary that can help you to better communicate what you see in a work to others.
Thanks, Floyd! I’m sure you’ll have comments and questions, as always. Readers, if you leave a question or comment, please allow Mr. Hyatt a few days to respond. I promise you, he will. 🙂
WRITING PROMPT: Write a paragraph from First Person, Second Person and Third Person.