POV: How Your Readers Experience Your Story World – So Yeah, It Matters

This will surprise some writers in my critique group, but I’ve been on the fence about writing on this topic.

I’m such a POV (point of view, in case anyone’s lost) stickler that this should be a piece of cake. I’ve had writers in the group see my crits and ask me to crit their work because 1. POV is confusing for them, and 2. POV slips jump off the screen and bite me on my face.

It seems I know a thing or two about it.

I’ve decided to write only about the most-used POVs, specifically first person, third person limited, and omniscient. If you want to know about the others, I recommend this post (which has lots of naughty language but is hilarious) and this post (less naughty language, still useful for learning).

POVFirst Person

First person is when the main character is telling the story from his own perspective and is signaled by the use of the words “I”, “me”, “we”, etc. It is the most subjective POV, because we’re basically living inside this person’s head for the duration of the book. In my experience, I’ve found first person works best in the following conditions:

1. The MC is especially angsty. This is why so much YA is written in first person.

2. The MC has a unique voice.

3. The story is such that being stuck in one angsty head for the duration builds tension.

Some authors write in first person perspective from multiple characters, switching perspectives at chapter breaks. The Help is a famous example. If you go this route, make sure each of your first person POVs has their own distinct voice.

Third Person Limited (or episodic)

This is my happy place. Third person is when the story is told around a main character, but we’re not stuffed in that character’s head so closely. Look for words like “he”, “she”, “him”, “her”, etc. Limited indicates the author is sticking with the perspective of select characters, as opposed to bouncing around to all of them (that’s omniscient, stand by for that one). It’s usually still subjective in nature, in that we know what the characters are thinking and feeling, much like first person, but we get the beautiful luxury of moving from perspective to perspective. However – this is not done randomly, which is why I added the “episodic” label up there. Usually we’re in one character’s head for a scene or chapter, and we only experience the scene through that one character for the scene’s duration. Jumping to another character’s head without a break is head hopping, and that’s bad.

Omniscient

This is when the reader gets to experience all heads within the story pretty much whenever the author damn well feels like we need to be in another character’s head. There are no required scene breaks. We can be with a new character for each paragraph, if the author deems such a thing necessary. Let me just say that this is hard to pull off. Readers like to be close to one or a few characters, and jumping around to countless ones can be confusing. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m saying proceed with caution.

A word on slips

POV slips are really easy to write. They occur when your POV character senses something they couldn’t possibly sense. They can be subtle. I’ll italicize the slip and see if you can figure out why it’s a slip.

“I’m not going on the trip,” I finally said.

Mom’s mouth dropped open in surprise.

I can infer that mom’s surprised, but I’m not in mom’s head so I can’t know that for sure. Easy fix: just say Mom’s mouth dropped open. Some writers will likely argue with me. That’s fine. I’m a stickler, remember?

Slips can be more obvious, too.

I waited for Julie to arrive, but she was holed up in her room listening to that awful jazz CD.

Unless Julie told me this, I can’t know it because I’m not there. Adding likely before holed is a possible fix. Or I could just say she was at her house.

And just so you know I’m in no way claiming POV perfection, allow me to offer a slip I wrote into my own work.

The kids grew impatient, and they pulled on Michelle’s arm.

Know why that’s a slip? I’ll leave you to figure it out.

Question time: In what POV do you prefer to write? Why is that your favorite?  

16 thoughts on “POV: How Your Readers Experience Your Story World – So Yeah, It Matters

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  5. I’m just glad to see I wasn’t named directly in this.

    My actual, best, most fun POV is 1st person + augmented 2nd + diminished 3rd. It’s rare in literature. I also love breaking the wall in my 1st person narration, making a point about how my desk is a spaghetti bowl of wires – don’t judge me, so is yours. That sort of thing. As a result of my colloquialisms, I occasionally refer to you don’t just shoot first and ask questions later, preferring that to the stuffier ONE doesn’t just shoot first. Who the hell is “ONE’ anyway? I’m pretty sure I don’t like ONE. ONE can go have high tea, unwelcome on the playground that is my writing age.

    If it didn’t potentially confuse a reader and potentially pull them from their immersion in my story, I probably wouldn’t care about POV at all. (Read carefully, you’ll see a devotion mentioned there that is completely out of character for me.)

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  6. Hah, you are a stickler! Not that it’s bad to be a stickler, ever. Certainly not here.

    I’m a third person limited or episodic girl myself, for the most part. I have to say, some of the minor slips you mentioned don’t bother me too much–mostly because a lot of them can be inferred. Usually, if someone’s mouth is dropping open in surprise around me, I know it’s in surprise, and I know damned well why. That’s the sort of thing, though, that I feel truly adds up in a story–the more it happens, the more you notice it, and the more of a problem it becomes. The first few you can chalk up, especially if the POV character is expecting this reaction, but too many and you’ve got a wall-breaking scenario on your hands.

    I know I had a scene recently where part of the story, which was otherwise told in 3rd episodic, simply HAD to be told from someone else’s point of view (the POV character was, quite simply, unable to narrate, as he was dead) and it was in a place where a scene break was nigh-on impossible. I tried to work around it, but my solution was worse than the head-switch. Argh. Killer. Literally and figuratively.

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    • Dang! So you went with the head switch? Yeah, dead characters aren’t very useful for offering perspective. 😉
      Great point about the little slips building up. I think it’s these kinds of things that would make an average reader think a book was only okay but not be able to figure out why.

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  7. I appreciate the shout out, Allison! My early work (unpublished) was filled with POV slips, so it’s a subject close to my heart. It took a lot of time and work to grasp just how subtle a POV shift can be.

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  8. Slips are one of the things I have to be careful of….I’ve got one that’s been bothering me for a while, but I like ether moment in that characters perspective souch that I gabber thought about writing the scene in her head…. But it would probably be the only one for her…

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