Or POV, as we more often say.
This is a story, a personal rendition of how I learned how to understand POV. It’s told from my perspective, so it’s in First Person POV.
No, I’m not going to talk about tenses. That’s a different matter altogether, and POV is tough enough to get right without confusing the issue before the issue has straight lines of comprehension.
If you want a book to help, the one I found most useful was Rayne Hall‘s Writing Deep POV. She does quite a few craft books for writers, but that one sealed the deal for my understanding of POV. (No, I’m not an affiliate, not getting anything out of this.)
Why? Let me give you an example. I’ll use the term omniscient, because it’s the one most readers have conflicting opinions on, for, and about.
The general dictionary definition is ‘knowing everything’. Some people refer to it as the God view of the story, knows everything, can go into any head at any time.
As a reader, I hate omniscient. As a writer, I hate it more. It’s taken a long time to understand why. How can there be subtext or suspense when the god-like narrator knows all? It takes away the pleasure of trying to understand the why of the moment in the story, or within the character’s actions.
But what I call omniscient, others call something else. They ascribe omniscient to an ‘overall view’, like a camera. But a camera isn’t omniscient. It can’t think. It can’t see inside the character. A camera is a cinematic view. External.
What does Rayne have to say about omniscient?
This is the god-like perspective, looking into everyone’s heart and soul, seeing everything that goes on in the world, even in the future.
Omniscient PoV follows one character for a few paragraphs, then another, and in between it makes statements about the whole world. It may even deliver historical information or spell out the author’s moral comments.
Here are some sentences that fit only into Omniscient PoV:
Lady Amelia thought all was lost, but unbeknown to her, rescue was already on the way. All over the world, the undead were rising at the same time. Penicillin could have saved Sir Ethelbert, but it was not discovered yet. Of course, sinners always get punished in the end, and this case was no exception, as readers are going to find out soon.
It was popular with readers in the Victorian age who loved moralising messages. Most modern readers prefer the intense of experience of Deep PoV. However, for some stories, Omniscient PoV is perfect.
In the hands of an unskilled writer, Omniscient PoV often becomes head-hopping. To make it work, stay in each character’s perspective for a short time, avoid changing the PoV in mid-paragraph, and insert at least one PoV-neutral sentence before you enter the next character’s head.
For what I write, I don’t even put omniscient on the continuum. I have distant view (camera, usually, to create an image of distance or landscape, in wide-angle view which can be drawn closer in stages (imagine a person having to move the camera, and it’s less likely to cause a sudden shock of being distant and then being close too soon – it shocks the reader, too).
Distant, cinematic, birds-eye view, landscape, far, far away;
graduates to mid-range view, a person’s body clearly seen, a full-body shot, can’t see individual bits of clothing, shoes, or patterns, can’t hear what they say;
closes in on near-view, where a person is seen close enough to see what they’re wearing, if they’re smiling, but maybe not close enough to know the colour of their eyes, or the smell of their perfume;
and to close up (but close-up also has variations, from hearing what they say and smelling the perfume, to really close, so close you can see the pores on their nose, see the flicker in the eyes, smell the fear sweat under the perfume).
That’s the continuum of views. A story is not always in a head, but the views are important, too. How can we see in the distance, how can we zoom into a scene? (Think Po standing on the roof and yelling at the peacock.) That takes a view, and choosing the view is important to show the context of the story setting – but not the character’s thoughts. I use the words that apply to camera views to get that perspective, not the god-like view. A camera creates the cinematic view based on known terms and abilities.
What about POV? Isn’t this about POV?
I’m sure most writers and readers understand the three main categories of POV.
First Person is the I, me, etc.
It can be a singular I in the book, or multiple I’s, usually changing who the I belongs to with a change of scene. First person can be tricky, because the story can only include what that person knows, sees, hears, interacts with in any form. Hopping into another head to get important information ‘out there’ for the reader is a cheat, and readers know it. First person is restricted to only the perceptions of the character who is ‘I’.
Second Person, the we, you, one, etc.
I don’t use it, don’t understand most stories written in this POV (except recipes, but if you’ve eaten food I’ve prepared, you may understand why this POV is so hard for me).
Third Person, the she, he, etc.
Because this isn’t a simple answer to the complexities of first or second, it may need its own continuum.
Third Person objective doesn’t get inside a head, behaves like a camera, feels cinematic. The most distant POV that isn’t a camera.
Third Person narrator makes it clear that there is a One who narrates the story, knows everything it needs to know, and only works if it’s consistent, and maybe quirky (think Terry Pratchett). Dangers lurk below the surface of this choice, and is much harder than it appears. Much. To me, this is a Master level choice, and I’m not there.
Third Person close is almost as close as first person, restricting all thoughts and perceptions to the character who’s tagged as the POV for this section. (If the story has multiple viewpoints, this applies to all of them.) It’s as if the first person got in this skin and then created a bit of psychic distance (there may be a reason for that distance – first person doesn’t allow the reader to step back from moments that may be too confronting).
That’s the generalities.
Where people get stuck is putting a thought or something that could be inferred as a thought or perception of a character other than the POV character. If the POV is mine, how can I know if Pete is angry? I can interpret his body language, his words, his actions, but I can’t say things like, ‘he was so angry because [something]’. That implies his thought process, not mine (I being the POV). I can’t know the why or wherefore of his thought process or assumptions. The best I can do is interact with the message of his physical actions.
Another place is in dialogue tags. If Pete says something, then the dialogue tag indicates a thought (either his or mine!), it’s messing with POV. If I have a thought after he speaks, it needs a new paragraph to indicate to the reader that it’s not his thought, and therefore, it’s not a breach of POV.
Okay, that’s enough. It’s given me a headache. If you feel a need to be sure about how to use POV to best effect, I highly recommend Rayne’s book. The language is designed for a writer to pick up the meaning quick and clear. It’s concise and to the point. And a worthy addition to my list of books I recommend for other writers.
No, I’m not an affiliate and I earn nothing from your perusal or purchase of the above. All I get is satisfaction.
Cheers, and good writing.