Step 3: Decide Point-of-View and Perspective

Why decide POV and perspective now?

  • I’ve had many writer friends and editing clients decide, after the novel is finished, to change POV. Again—time waster. This means an author does not understand POV or did not consider it as a vital decision to make prior to getting in the car and driving to the end of the road. Now, he or she must go back to the starting line and drive the course again—only to find, at some point, it doesn’t work. Why not? Because it changes the entire story, as explained in the next point.
  • Imagine you’re at a bereavement reception. A little girl, sick for a long time, has died. The others present include a successful father, doting mother, shy sister and friends, including a little boy and a psychologist who is helping him. If you recognize the plot, it’s The Sixth Sense. Depending on the POV, you have an entirely different story:

Mother’s POV (horror story): She acts like the perfect mother. She dotes on her children, even as she poisons them. Once her husband finds out, she’s out to poison him too. Will he escape?

Father’s POV (murder mystery): He is bereaved. The detective on the case learns that the child had rat poison in her system. The detective is determined to find the culprit. And if this is a murder mystery, it may not be the wife, as there are multiple suspects introduced—it may be the sister (jealous of her older sister, the “perfect child”); it may be the next door neighbor, who remembered the girl picking his or her prized flowers; it may be the mother (jealous of her husband’s attention to the child he dotes on); it may be the father (financially unstable and about to crack with the upcoming expense of college).

The Dead Child’s POV: (Paranormal Young Adult). She cannot escape from this world until she finds her killer. She must warn her sister, and if this is YA, she must say a final goodbye to her boyfriend who helps her solve the mystery.

The child in the room’s POV (psychological paranormal thriller): the dead girl visits him; he sees ghosts; he goes to her house for the bereavement; she leads him to the proof that she was poisoned by her mother—and a twist—he’s helped by a dead psychologist who doesn’t even know he’s dead.The Sixth Sense was a dual limited POV. There were scenes only about the boy’s experiences and scenes only about the psychologist’s experiences, and scenes with them together. We saw the world from both pairs of eyes.In short, the POV can render an entirely different story—that’s how vital it is to make the right POV decision first—whose story is it?  

The Dead Psychologist’s POV (psychological paranormal thriller): The psychologist works with a child who “sees people.” He doesn’t believe him, but he helps him. In the end, the boy helps the man realize that he, too, is dead. They solve a crime, but they also heal each other along the way.

The Sixth Sense was a dual limited POV. There were scenes only about the boy’s experiences and scenes only about the psychologist’s experiences, and scenes with them together. We saw the world from both pairs of eyes.

 

In short, the POV can render an entirely different story—that’s how vital it is to make the right POV decision first. Whose story is it? Before you decide, here are a few stories and why the POV chosen worked so well.

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—Omniscient (means all-knowing): the narrator is not a character, but  he/she knows everything that is happening at all times. The narrator is anonymous and mostly speaks in 3rd person, but occasionally in 1st person and 2nd person (this takes talent!). There is also “authorial intrusion,” meaning that the unknown narrator comments on what is going on as it’s happening. The advantage of this POV is that the narrator can add comments while relating the tale.
  • The Old Man and the Sea—Limited: To tell an entire story mostly focusing on a single fisherman in a boat after a sail fish takes talent. It’s first person, which is the most intimate of POVs. We know Santiago’s thoughts and moment by moment emotional state. We are in the boat with him, and the line is cutting into our palm. We get flashbacks of his early days, as he drifts in the current. The only person sharing his thoughts is the old man. The advantage is that I’m placed in the boat, living life through this character.
  • The Great Gatsby–Limited. The POV character, Nick Carraway. is a cousin of Daisy Buchanan, Jay Gatsby’s love interest. She loved Gatsby once, but married Tom Buchanan, a wealthy successful socialite, rather than waiting for Gatsby (whose real name is James Gatz, born in North Dakota). The advantage of this POV: Nick is innocent, honest and tolerant. He is from Minnesota, a Yale graduate, and his “want” (as I described under characterization) is to move to New York and seek wealth. No other character is better able to reveal this story, as only Nick can be critical of the wealthy and their frivolous, deceitful, empty lives. In the end, Nick returns home. His “need” (what he learned along the way) is to find true purpose and lead an honest life, even if he makes less money. No other character could tell this story.

The Basics:

  • 1st person: uses “I”—this is the most intimate POV, but there are pros and cons. It literally puts the reader in the shoes and head of the POV character—that’s why it’s so intimate. However, this means you cannot jump to another POV and suddenly jump into another head. This means you are restricted from setting scenes that take place without the POV character—he or she must be in every scene. You cannot tell what someone else thinks, only what the POV character surmises about the other characters. Many YA (Young Adult) books are written in 1st person.
  • 2nd person uses “you”—it is almost never used. Some writers have used it in parts of a novel, but I do not know of an entire novel that sustains this POV.
  • 3rd person uses “he/she and names”—This allows the author to use dual or multiple POVs. However, too many novices take this to mean that they can head-hop from person to person, telling what everyone thinks and feels. A POV can switch when you start a new chapter, but keep the POVs to a minimum. A reader locks into a character. It is then jolting to get off of that ride and jump on another, then another, back and forth, ride to ride. It’s bad writing. Take The Sixth Sense, for example. We have dual POVs—but we do not know what the mother thinks (only what the boy sees and hears of his other—it’s all from his POV). We do not see what the psychologist’s wife things—we see what the psychologist experiences—it’s from his POV).
  • Beware of multiple POVs. The writer must know every character—but he or she must NOT tell what everyone is thinking and feeling at the same time. Show what a character does or says in a scene and only show the reactions and thoughts and emotions of your POV character. When you switch chapters (normally) is the time to switch to a new POV. It’s very jarring to a reader, unless you signal changes. You cannot head-hop scene to scene. Examples of omniscient or multiple narrators are given below. Jane Austin and Charles Dickens also uses multiple POVs.
  • Omniscient or limited? An Omniscient narrator knows all, even the future. A limited narrator can only go by his or her experiences as they happen.

Points of ViewPoints of View is an anthology of short stories for your library. The stories are broken down by POV. Some stories are heady and dated, but all authors are masters of the craft (Henry James, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, etc). Besides this book of practical stories, there are many websites that define POV if you still don’t get it. Reading stories takes time, but this is a handy book to check out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Get to Work—Choose a POV

  • Whose story is it?
  • What character or characters are the best one/ones to tell this story? Why?
  • Does this story require 1st person or 3rd person?
  • Does the story require omniscient or limited perspective?
  • Now—stick to your plan and do not deviate. Do not head-hop except where you plan to do so. Do not change perspective.
  • Read verb tenses below before choosing 1st or 3rd personVerb Tenses: Verbs are discussed later in detail, but choosing a verb tense for the story is as important as choosing POV. Some authors simply choose the one they know best—this is not always the best decision. It’s not that hard to learn the choices. Using then well just takes practice. I’m sticking to limited perspective below.

 

Verb Tense Considerations:

Verbs are discussed  later in detail, but choosing a verb tense for the story is as important as choosing POV. Some authors simply choose the one they know best—this is not always the best decision. It’s not that hard to learn the choices. Using then well just takes practice. I’m sticking to limited perspective below.

PAST TENSE: Think “yesterday”—it happened yesterday or a week ago (also called simple past or near past)

  • Past tense (3rd person limited): Susan rang the doorbell and waited. The silence swallowed her. It stabbed her gut with proof of his third betrayal. She heard his shrill voice shushing his visitor. She turned away, heading in a new direction and to a brand new life. She cracked a smile. The door swung open behind her, but she ignored his pleas.
  • Past tense (1st person limited): I rang the doorbell and waited. The silence swallowed me. It stabbed my gut with proof of his third betrayal. I heard his shrill voice shushing his visitor. I turned away, heading in a new direction and to a brand new life. I cracked a smile. The door swung open behind me, but I ignored his pleas. PRESENT TENSE: Think “right this very minute”—it is happening at this moment

 

PRESENT TENSE: Think “right this very minute”—it is happening at this moment

  • Present tense (3rd person limited): Susan rings the doorbell and waits. The silence swallows her. It stabs her gut with proof of his third betrayal. She hears his shrill voice shushing his visitor. She turns away, heading in a new direction and to a brand new life. She cracks a smile. The door swings open behind her, but she ignores his pleas.
  • Present tense (1st person limited):I ring the doorbell and wait. The silence swallows me. It stabs my gut with proof of his third betrayal. I hear his shrill voice shushing his visitor. I turn away, heading in a new direction and to a brand new life. I crack a smile. The door swings open behind me, but I ignore his pleas.

 

Examples of Omniscient POV:

 

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden: 1st person omniscient POV (Memoir or Observer POV). The narrator is the Geisha, and she is now an older lady, looking back on her life. She knows all, but we still get her sensory impressions of what she thought then and what she knows now.

 

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy 3rd person omniscient (multiple POVs): We are in Anna’s head at times, Levin’s head at times, and others.

Let’s Get to Work—Choose a Perspective and Verb Tense

  • Is your story best told in 1st person or 3rd person perspective? Can you sustain a 1st person POV (that person must be present in every scene—the entire story comes from a single perspective)?
  • Is the story best told in an omniscient or limited perspective? Will it be restricted to a “dual POV”? Who are your POV characters—choose them wisely. Once this is done, remember—you cannot tell the reader what others think or feel, only what they say and do. Your POV characters must interpret the actions and dialogue of other characters—but restrict overdoing this. Let dialogue and actions carry the scene. Only when there may be misinterpretation, should your POV character explain. For example, if a remark may be misconstrued as sarcasm.
  • Is this story best told in Past Tense or Present Tense? Look up POVs used in your genre of writing to see if one is favored over another. Look at some of your favorite books in the genre. This will help guide your decision. Then—follow the rules. You cannot flip-flop tenses. Sustain the verb choice throughout the story.

 

Step 4: Learn Basic Writing Techniques (and Novice Mistakes)

 

 

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