Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Point of "Point of View"

I Avoid Defining My Terms

I would like to talk about the idea of "point of view," which is usually discussed in terms of storytelling mechanics, as in "who is telling the story to the reader." There are traditionally about four possible points of view: First-person, second-person, third-person (limited) and third-person (omniscient). It's also possible to have both singular and plural POVs, as in first-person plural ("we"). The verb tense of the telling is also considered to be part of the point of view, as in second-person singular past tense ("you were doing") or third-person present tense ("she is doing"). All of these are ways of showing the story to the reader through characters (and yes, I consider the narrator in third-person to be a character in the novel). All of these points of view have advantages and limitations, and there is no general "best" point of view, nor (I think) a "best" point of view for any particular story; there are only different choices and the results of those choices.

Anyway, this post isn't about comparing POVs. What I want to talk about today is the idea that point of view is a decision writers will make once for the duration of the story, and that the established framework of this point of view will remain constant for the length of the tale. That is, a story "written in" first-person singular past tense, for example, will (and should) remain in that point of view from beginning to end. This is a widely-held idea. But in actual fact, this is rarely the case in good writing and point of view will shift, however subtly, throughout the story.

We are told that point of view is a system for establishing a stable narrative framework for the story, of determining through which character's experience the story will be told, and controlling how much of that character's internal reality will be part of the storytelling mechanism. This way of talking about point of view sometimes treats the experience of the so-called "point of view character" as the most important experience of the story. This is incorrect.

Whose point of view matters?

The most important experience of the story is that of the reader. The reader is always present, as is the writer. The reader and the writer are the only real people involved in the telling of this story; everything else is artifice. Point of view is therefore a matter of distance between the reader and the writer (or between the reader and the story, if you like) and the writer uses character and voice to manage that distance. What the writer is doing with point of view is, in a way, determining from moment to moment how involved in the action--how deep into the story itself--the reader is allowed to be. Think of point of view as something like a zoom lens through which you show the story to your reader. You're able to zoom in or out on not only what is visible, but on what is invisible as well (memory, emotions, thoughts and attitudes).

You have to keep in mind that your reader is, in a very important sense, a character in your story. With point of view--more than any other tool in your writerly toolkit--you are able to effectively place the reader however you like in relationship to the story and its characters, actions and emotions.

What Can You Do With Point of View?

Shifting point of view within the story has been done for a long time. Homer's "Iliad" is about 3,000 years old, and is written in third-person omniscient, so you can see the thoughts/emotions of any character Homer wants you to. But there are also shifts into first-person where you know the narrator is talking directly to the reader. The first line of the poem is Homer speaking to his muse: "Sing, O goddess, the wrath of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans." Homer is not just addressing his muse, but also the audience, telling us what story he's about to tell. The narrator reappears later, at the beginning of Book XII, when he steps outside of the "story present" and discusses, in a brilliant digression, what happens long in the future, when the fortifications built by the Greeks on the Trojan beach erode and rot away.

What Homer is doing here, by skipping in and out of the action of the narrative, is to show the reader the place of the story within history, and to show the reader his own place within history; to demonstrate in a subtle manner that although history is made by real people who experience the drama of the real historical moment, time will pass them by and some day they will be part of the past, for there is not only a historical past and a historical present, there is also a historical future. So Homer is playing around with time and tense in his epic poem, focusing the attention of the reader alternately on past, present and future.

Just as you can direct the reader's attention to different levels of time in a novel, you can direct their attention to different levels of emotion. I think of this as the story's "emotional distance." This emotional distance is usually a fixed distance in work of beginning writers, but by manipulating the point of view, you can change this distance at will.

Herman Melville in "Moby Dick" is allegedly using a first-person narrator named Ishmael to tell the tale. "Ishmael" is of course not the narrator's real name (we never learn what it is), and is given as a symbol; the first line of the book is beginning a process of reference to things hidden, buried, submerged as it were. But that's the least of it, when we consider the levels of viewpoint Melville uses. There's Ishmael, telling about his voyage on the Pequod under the command of Ahab, and once the voyage gets underway Melville--not Ishmael--elbows his way over and over into the narrative and brushes his narrator aside to put us directly into the minds of Ahab and Starbuck (not to mention a host of minor characters). There's also a fun moment in a later chapter when Melville is clearly addressing the reader directly to discuss his difficulty as a writer in describing certain behaviors of whales. The reader is thus pulled to and fro in the narrative, suddenly inside Ahab's head, suddenly sitting next to Ishmael (a bright but inconsequential character), suddenly standing outside the story with Melville. All of it works, too. There is disorientation in the reader (but that's quite deliberate, I'm sure) as the landscape shifts beneath his feet and Melville takes the reader's hand and points at the story, saying "Look here! Now here! And here!"

You can also remain within the "story present" and do more subtle things, like increase the reader's emotional involvement here and there, or pull the reader back emotionally, sort of like playing with the lens of a camera or, maybe, like turning the heat up and down in the shower or under a boiling pot. For example, consider this passage:

"The woman looked the three travelers over. They seemed respectably dressed though the Irishman had some dark stains on his coat and breeches. That one and the handsome one had spoken to each other mostly in half sentences and single words. Irish had all but ignored the lady, who’d doted on Handsome all through the meal."

We begin at some distance, as observers outside the scene, and then we get the woman's opinion ("respectably dressed"), and then we are seeing slightly from her point of view ("that one and the handsome one"), and finally we are inside her head ("Irish had all but ignored the lady..."). The emotional distance has moved, in four sentences, from neutral to intimate and personal. You can draw into your characters this way for private thoughts and observations which can tell us about the people in our story. The woman in the passage above is making observations about three travelers that the travelers themselves wouldn't make. When you "drill down" from third-person to first-person like this, you are in effect allowing characters to speak directly to the reader, person-to-person. Which is cool; don't tell me it's not.

Just for Davin, I'll also mention that Tolstoy was a master of point of view. "War and Peace" is written from maybe fifty characters' points of view, including, at one critical point, the viewpoint of a dog. None of this shifting of POV is done mechanically or as a matter of course as scenes and characters change. Tolstoy (like all good writers) has considered what the effect on the reader will be, and how close to the emotion of the story the reader should be in each scene (or part of the scene) and has chosen his POVs accordingly. Good writing isn't done by rote or on autopilot.

So, by shifting POVs around, either in a subtle or direct manner, we can:

Change the (emotional) distance between the reader and various characters. We can see characters as they see themselves, so that we see what they themselves hold important (about themselves and other characters).

We can also use this technique to introduce irony. Story knowledge is given to the reader by one character but that knowledge is not given to other characters in the story.

Point of view is a tool that you can use for more than one thing. It's a complex subject (or it can be, and I don't think I've really done it justice in this post) and, as usual, the best way to learn more about it is to read well-written books and pay attention to what the writer is doing. I know that some writers can't (or don't bother to) control the point of view in their stories. When done sloppily, it ends up being something called "head-hopping" (where the POV changes so rapidly that you can't really be sure whose POV it is; note that sometimes this is done deliberately for effect and can be powerful and dramatic) or "point of view slippage" (a phrase which never ceases to amuse me and refers to writers not realizing that the POV of the story has changed--usually just for short passages--because the writer wasn't paying attention).

But just because it can be done badly (and often is by writers who are just starting out), that doesn't mean it can't be done well. I suggest that you think about point of view as less a set of imaginary cameras through which the story is viewed, and more as a system for communicating the fictional experience with the reader. Follow the emotional line of the story through your characters, in and out of the hearts/minds/souls of those characters, and take your readers with you.


  1. Great post, and timely for me since I'm having a minor POV struggle with my WIP.

    I appreciate the perspective.

    No pun intended.


  2. Great post. Over the years, I have forced myself to experiment with alternative points of view in telling a story, whether in novel or short story form. That was a good learning experience, but in the end what feels most comfortable for me after many novels and stories is to alternate third person POV by changing the chapter. That is, the s/he telling the story is singularly consistent within the chapter. In the next chapter, another of the characters will tell the story from his/her POV, even if within the same scene. What has felt least comfortable has been the omniscient, which feels distancing to me. What I don’t do is decide ahead of time what the POV will be. Once I set up the characters and the situation needing resolution, the correct POV seems to emerge naturally. At least for a while in the first draft, I let that happen and only later determine if it is optimal for the project.

  3. Scott, this was truly a brilliant post. The biggest problem with my current WIP concerns POV and where to use which one. Thank you!!!

  4. Charlie: It's not really brilliant, it's just written as if it is. This sort of assertive writing style is the only thing I learned at university.

    Mostly this post boils down to: "Dude, mixing POVs is cool if you do it right."

    Somebody remind me that at some point I want to write about how experimental and brave SF writers of the 60s and 70s were when it came to structure and style. But first, I must have coffee.

  5. Great post, you nailed it. But you forgot the eels.

    With my first draft of FATE'S GUARDIAN (which is the first novel I attempetd) I was very guilty of head-hopping. The disparity in points of view is part of the core problem that led to a full re-write, rather than just revisions. The difference in readability is like night and day. Same story, but a very different novel...

  6. "At this festive season of the year, Mr. Eel," said Mr. Unagi, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

    "Are there no prisons?" asked Eel.

    "Plenty of prisons," said Unagi, laying down the pen again.

    "And the Union workhouses?" demanded Eel. "Are they still in operation?"

    "They are. Still," returned Unagi, "I wish I could say they were not."

    "The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Eel.

    "Both very busy, sir."

    "Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Eel. "I'm very glad to hear it."

  7. Thanks for this. Some of my critique group and a few agents/editors I've spoken with encourage one to stay with a single POV as the more common and therefore commercial way, particularly with YA, but as a reader, I get bored of the close first person of many of the books published today. Very few stories are really all about a single person.

    My own story varies its pov and two young readers have had no problem understanding who is thinking or speaking. Its the adults who keep saying- don't switch your POV in teen books, unless you start a new chapter. But I like beginning a scene with one person and ending it in another's perspective- same situation: different thoughts.

  8. Very interesting post, Scott. I never thought of the reader as a character in the book. It's a new concept that I'll have to meditate on for a bit.

    The distance of point of view has always interested me because I tend to admire writers who use a variety of distances. In my earlier drafts of Rooster, I was trying to use a closer point of view for one timeline and a more distant, objective point of view for another timeline. But, the more I revised, the more they converged. Now, I think there is still a trace of that difference, but it may come off as looking more like a mistake than a conscious technique because of how close they are. I wrestle with that.

    And, did you know that in a section of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy writes from the point of view of an eel?

  9. "When you "drill down" from third-person to first-person like this, you are in effect allowing characters to speak directly to the reader, person-to-person. Which is cool; don't tell me it's not."

    Okay, I won't. 'Cause it is cool. I do so love elegant POV shifts in 3rd person narration. You know that movie technique used in The Matrix and pretty much every Jerry Bruckheimer film? The one where the camera does these wild, arcing swings out and around the action or a group of characters, taking in a multituded of perspectives in one short scene? I think of well-done head-hopping like that.

    I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but my classic example of this is in Hemingway's Francis Macomber, where the camera pans through the minds of the white hunter, Macomber, the lion (!), the white hunter, Macomber, and Macomber's wife, all in the space of a couple of pages. It's exhausting, exhilarating, and inspirational. I felt like I had whiplash at the end of that story. I was almost out of breath.

    As you say, the best of writers wield POV like a scalpel. I'm working with a machete right now, but I hope to work my way up to bowie knife, then eventually santoku paring knife. I'll always keep the scalpel in mind as the ultimate goal, though...

  10. Davin: I think that the reader is too often forgotten, and that we should try to imagine ourselves telling our story to an actual person. A lot of writers, I think, are aware only of their story, their characters and themselves. They forget about the reader. In my current project, I am trying to keep the reader firmly in mind. Not to cater to some idealized reader's taste, but to work with the emotional distance.

  11. C.N.: Thanks for dropping by and giving your views!

    Judith: I love omniscient, because you can do whatever you like in it; you can draw way back and look from a bird's eye view or you can go as intimately into a character as you can in first-person. Although one of my favorite novels is Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" which has a different first-person narrator in each chapter. Orhan Pamuk's mystery "My Name Is Red" does this as well (as do lots of other books). With the omniscient POV, you can do this all you like and aren't limited to chapter breaks if you don't want to be. I think that the mistake a lot of writers make when attempting this is to constantly be very close to their characters and shift abruptly from these close-in POVs.

    Charlie: Really, I hope there's something useful in this post. Sometimes, you know, I think I'm just beazling and prolixing on about nothing and don't even know it.

    Rick: You're going with a limited omniscient POV in FATE's GUARDIAN, aren't you?

    Susiej: I know a lot of agents/editors argue against changes in POV, but I think they're thinking of poorly-done changes (headhopping and POV slips), and warning beginners against trying something possibly difficult. My last novel was in first-person, and I've sworn never to do that again. My current novel is in 3rd-person omniscient, and I'm letting the action of the story and the emotional arc of each scene determine the POV and emotional distances. It seems a much more natural way of telling a story.

    Davin: Further thoughts: I'm beginning to imagine storytelling as a relationship between author and reader, where the story is an activity rather than an object that the reader sits back and views. Which entails shifting emphasis from plot/action to character/emotion.

    Simon: Everything Hemingway wrote not explicitly in first-person had shifts in POV, though often those shifts were subtle. It's easy to miss the shadings of emphasis in stories like "Hills Like White Elephants."

    I don't like the scalpel image; I'll go with smaller and finer paintbrushes, if you don't mind.

  12. Scott, your excerpt in the comments was eely good.

    I do use third person limited in Fate's Guardian. I choose a focal character for each scene and the narrative follows that individual.

    In some places I have slight overlaps in action, e.g. showing the start of a fight from one character's POV and then a scene break and I show the end of the fight from the other character's POV.

    In EARTH'S END I use focal characters in a similar manner for the scenes, but the narrative is more omniscient.

  13. Thanks for the post. I especially like your thoughts on storytelling being primarily a relationsip between teller and audience. Reading or inventing stories for my two-year-old brings me back to that relationship every day. I love it when the storytelling becomes a collaboration between the two of us, and I often think about how to bring that same spirit to my MG novel.

    Another thought: The thing I love about writing in a limited POV (usually 3rd person for me) is that it forces me to write more clearly. If I can't just skip into someone's head, I have to really work to find a way to express how they're feeling or what they're thinking. I have to search for the perfect way to describe a look or a gesture or the rhythm of speech so that my reader will know that Tom is feeling dejected--not disappointed or upset, but dejected (without ever actually using the word). This lets the reader feel a sense of discovery, a sense of understanding a character who doesn't realize they're being watched. I suppose all this is saying, "show, don't tell." Writing in a limited POV forces a writer to show more, which is always good. All too often, when beginning writers switch point of view, they end up usuing it for exposition, which puts the reader at a distance.

  14. I'm still digesting the overall notion of shifting POV's, but I'm not sure I'm liking the notion of the reader as a character in the story.

    I understand that the reader's experience of the story is ultimately what makes the story matter or not matter, but that experiences happens through the reader's internalization of the characters, plots, and ideas that writer presents. If the reader were already in the story, that wouldn't be necessary.

    I hope that doesn't sound like I'm playing semantic games. I think it's an important distinction. The reader is not present during the crafting and preparation of the story, because there is no "the reader." There are readers -- individuals who have their own particular experience with the story. Because their experience is an interraction with something the author has created, the author influences that interraction, but not in the same direct way that the author influences characters.

    While I think that it is important for any storyteller to have a feel for what it's like listening to the story he's telling, I don't think crafting that story alone around the fire means that the listener is present. The listener, like the reader, comes in after the fact and deals with the finished the product.

    I can't see my way around that.

  15. Scott and C.N., I think I'm getting caught up on this same idea, and I do wonder if it's just semantics. Perhaps the definition of "character" is different in our minds. I tend to lean more towards what C.N. is saying. We move the reader around, but I see that as moving a chair in the audience rather than a character on the stage. But, I'm willing to entertain this reader as character idea because I've never thought of it that way before.

  16. C.N.: Hmm. Well, in a way, there is no story, either. There's really just you and the reader. The story is a sort of abstraction, if you will. But I don't think we're talking about the same thing, and I have a feeling you're being far more literal than I am. I think that the image of story as a solid object like a sculpture is possibly less useful for good storytelling than is the image of story as an interactive space. Every time someone picks up your book, there is a "the reader." No, I haven't quite got it worked out, what I mean by this. The theory is a work in progress. But I maintain that at the end of the day, there really is just you and some reader, possibly a reader you'll never meet, born after you die. Focusing on the story as an object, a thing, seems wrong to me. I admit to some surprise at this metaphysical turn of mind; usually I'm ever so pragmatic and literal. Doesn't matter, though. This post was about point of view, not the separateness of art from the artist and a theory of audiences. So I'll shut up now, shall I?

  17. Davin: Perhaps what I'm getting at is really closer to your "moving the reader around." An awareness of the reader while writing the story does, I think, make the reader a character in the story, just as the writer is always present in the story even if he hides behind some guy named Ishmael or Horatio or whatever. There is an implied "I'm telling you this now, so pay attention," in all storytelling, I think. Anyway, really this is all beside the point and I'm not quite sure what I mean because it's a new idea to me.

  18. Scott, I won't belabor it since, as you said, it's ultimately tangential to the main point of the post. One final clarification. I'm not tryng to reify the story, just trying to emphasise the indirectness of the relationship between author and reader.

    If I may wax metaphysical, the story is essentially the articulation point between the author and an array of readers, each of which experiences the mediated connection in a slightly different way.

    Okay, no more, I promise. :)

    As for the POV thing, I'm working through it some right now in my WIP, trying (as someone who writes best in first person) to impliment a shifting, intimate third.

  19. Nevets: Perhaps what I mean (this just came to me) is that from the writer's point of view (sorry), the reader is an impersonal abstract thing, a hypothetical; whereas from the reader's point of view, the writer and the story is very personal and immediate. Possibly, viewing the story as a reader, if we can do that, changes our perspective on it and it's no longer a thing in a book, but an event in our imagination. Maybe that's what I mean. Maybe not. I get these moments all the time when I'm sure I'm on the verge of a creative breakthrough and then it never happens. I call those "nearpiphanies." Maybe I'm just having a nearpiphany about readers being characters in the stories. Anyway, it was fun to push the idea around for a day.

    First person? Anathema! Never again, I tell you!

  20. I used to hate first person, but when I finally hit my stride in style and genre, part of my strength was using first person. In my current WIP, as constructed, I have more than one main character, so I've reverted to an intimate third, but I'll be honest, so far I'm not sure I'm satisfied with how it's working out.

    Oh well. As the line goes, "Sounds like a personal problem to me."

  21. Wow, that was very informative. I never thought of POV that way.

    Thanks Scott.


  22. Scott, sorry I didn't comment on this yesterday. Yesterday was not good. Today is better I'm hoping.

    Anyway, this post is absolutely BRILLIANT. I knew it would be when you started it awhile ago. I kept hoping you'd finish and post it soon. I'm glad you did! I've been thinking about POV a lot lately. F.P. read some of Monarch and helped me understand that I was writing in POV omniscient, not POV limited. I realized, then, that POV is much more complicated than I'd thought before.

    I like your lens analogies here. Since I'm a photographer I can relate to that pretty well. I think, in this way, I like to think of POV as a set-up of cameras, each with a zoom lens, maybe some with just a prime (fixed) lens. I think beginning writers, which I consider myself to be on most days, don't realize that they have control over all of those cameras, and that they can use them effectively if they're aware of what they're doing. Which, for a long time, I haven't been.

    Anyway, thanks for this post. It's a perfect springboard for some posts I'd like to do on POV in the future. It is, indeed, a complex subject I think the three of us can have fun exploring.

  23. Point of View is difficult as there are so many subtleties associated to the particular perspective the writer decides to write from. I'm having my novel re-erited to clean up a number of small literary faux pas and to address the many times I've left the POV (third person omniscient).

    Stephen Tremp


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.