Today we begin a new three-part series on Point of View from Jodie Renner. Welcome back, Jodie.
I’ve been editing fiction for years, and the most difficult concept for many of my aspiring author clients who write in third-person point of view (the most common POV in novels) is to portray their story world through the viewpoint/eyes/head of one character at a time, rather than hovering above them or ping-ponging back and forth between different characters’ viewpoints (head-hopping).
Point of view (or POV) simply refers to the character through whose perspective the story events are told. Ideally, we should only see, hear, smell, feel, and experience events as that character would—with no additional information provided “from above” by the author. This closeness helps your readers get to know your viewpoint character intimately, which makes them start worrying about him – and that keeps them turning the pages!
A hundred years ago, novels were often told from a distant authorial point of view, hovering over everything. That omniscient POV is no longer popular today (except for historical sagas), and for good reason: Readers want to experience the events of the story vicariously through the viewpoint character, to immerse themselves in her world, and they can only do that if they’re “inside her skin,” so to speak. They know/feel her inner thoughts, insecurities, hopes, and fears, so they bond with her quickly and want to know what’s going to happen to her next, and how she’s going to handle it.
As Jack M. Bickham says, “You’ll never have problems with the technique of viewpoint again if you simply follow this advice: Figure out whose story it is. Get inside that character—and stay there.” It’s especially important to open your book in your protagonist’s point of view, and stay there for at least the first chapter. This gives the reader a chance to figure out quickly whose story this is, and get to know him fast and start identifying with him and rooting for him.
Years ago I edited a novel in which a 15-year-old girl is riding in a car with her mother, who’s driving, and her 11-year-old brother in the backseat. (I’ve changed the details a bit.) The book starts out in the point of view of the mom, who is worried about uprooting her two kids and moving across the country, away from their friends. So we start empathizing with the mother, thinking it’s her story. Then suddenly we’re in the head of the teenage girl beside her, who is deeply resentful at her mom for tearing her away from her friends and agonizing over what lies ahead. Then, all within the first page, we switch to the head of the 11-year-old boy, who’s excited about the new adventure and wishes his sister would lighten up and quit hassling the mom. We’re also in his visual POV – he looks at his sister’s ponytail and considers yanking it. Now we’re confused. Whose story is this, anyway? Who are we supposed to be most identifying with and bonding with? Readers want to know this right away, so they can sit back and relax and enjoy the ride.
It’s essential to start out the story in your protagonist’s POV, but it’s also smart to tell most of your story from your main character’s viewpoint – at least 70 percent of it. That gets the reader deeper and deeper into that person’s psyche, so they get more and more invested in what’s happening to her. As Bickham explains, “I’m sure you realize why fiction is told from a viewpoint, a character inside the story. It’s because each of us lives our real life from a single viewpoint – our own – and none other, ever.” Successful fiction writers want their story to be as convincing and lifelike as possible, so they write it like we experience real life: from one viewpoint (at a time) inside the action.
So if you want your lead character to come alive and matter to the reader, and your story to be compelling, it’s best to show most of the action from inside the head and heart of your protagonist. Of course, thrillers often jump to the POV of the villain, to add suspense, worry, intrigue and dimension. But give the bad guy his own scene, and make sure he’s not onstage more than the protagonist is! And many romances have two main protagonists, the hero and heroine, but one usually predominates – most often the heroine, so the largely female readership can identify with her. Just don’t be inside the head of both characters in one scene – too jarring and confusing! Also, if there’s a scene with your protagonist and a minor character, don’t show the scene from the POV of the minor character, unless there’s a very good reason for it – it’s just too unnatural and jarring.
In POV 102, we’ll discuss techniques for avoiding “head-hopping,” a sure sign of amateurish writing, and in POV 103, we’ll get into more detail on deep point of view, or close third.
Main resource for today’s post: The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham.
© Jodie Renner, www.JodieRennerEditing, April 2012
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who specializes in suspense/thrillers, mysteries and other crime fiction, as well as YA, historical and mainstream. Jodie’s craft-of-fiction articles appear regularly here and on 5 other blogs. For more info on Jodie’s editing services and for links to more of her posts, please visit www.JodieRennerEditing.com.
May 20, 2012 at 8:20 am
Thanks for inviting me back again, Doug! It’s always a pleasure to post here on your great blog!
May 20, 2012 at 9:52 am
Good post, Jodie. It’s so disconcerting to try to follow a book where the writers jumps from one head to the other.
May 20, 2012 at 10:14 am
Great points on POV for the writer. I hope you will talk about doing a book in first person, too. I write in both and they both have their challenges.
May 20, 2012 at 2:48 pm
Very helpful tips, Jodie. Getting POV right, and the relationship between narrator and POV character as well, are critical elements of storytelling craft that we all need to work on.
May 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm
Thanks for your comments, Helen, Gayle and Ian.
Gayle, I have also published a post called Pros and Cons of First-Person Viewpoint. I hope Doug doesn’t mind if I give you the link to it on The Thrill Begins Blogspot: The Pros and Cons of First-Person Point of View: http://thethrillbegins.blogspot.com/2011_06_01_archive.html
May 20, 2012 at 6:59 pm
I’ve written only poetry and non-fiction books to date; I’ve just begun my first fiction and with only the first three chapters written I am already wobbling with POV. I’m writing in third person, but sharing thoughts and internal reactions of various characters. Fortunately, i have a great writer’s group behind me and they are giving honest and valuable feedback chapter by chapter. We write at FanStory.com
As I’m discovering the story as I write it, I don’t know yet which POV will be the ultimate protagonist for the story. When I figure that out, I’ll go back to these early chapters and fine tune them.
Your post is a great validation of what my reviewers are sharing with me. Thanks!
May 20, 2012 at 8:09 pm
It is easy to slip out of POV – this post reminds us to stay on point with the charaters! Can’t wait for POV 102 and POV 103
May 21, 2012 at 5:20 am
Thanks for the insight but let me ask, Is POV applicable to the short story? With only 5000 words it doesn’t seem feasible to develop POV for 2 or 3 main characters.
My main character has lost his wife in a accident and has withdrawn from the community, isolating himself. Now he must accept a challenge to preserve the community. To develop that with his POV could take 2000 words or half my story. What’s your recommendation?
May 21, 2012 at 6:31 am
Good stuff. POV is one of the first major choices a writer needs to make. Once chosen, commit.
May 21, 2012 at 7:40 am
Thanks for your comments, Terry, Beverly, Frank and Jessica.
Frank, for short stories, it’s best to stay in one point of view only – that of your main character, of course! Don’t go into anyone else’s thoughts. Show the reactions of others by their words, actions, body language and facial expressions. Try writing your story in first-person point of view – your main character is your narrator, and the reader only knows what he knows, sees what he sees, etc. First-person is great for short stories. If you have any other questions, you can contact me through my website – click on the link above. If you go to Writing Tips, there’s an article there on short stories.
May 21, 2012 at 9:38 am
Great post, Jodi! I love your points about getting inside the characters’ heads. My first novel starts out from a secondary character’s VP, but it works. I suppose all “rules” have exceptions. 🙂
Dr. Lyle, I’ve added your blog to my site: http://augustmclaughlin.wordpress.com/thriller-links/
May 21, 2012 at 10:54 am
Yes, I hope that approach works for you, August. The danger of that structure is that readers will often/usually start bonding with the first character they’re introduced to, thinking it’s the main character, then if it turns out to be, they can be disappointed – especially if that character dies off or just starts playing a minor role.
May 21, 2012 at 10:56 am
This is enlightening and helpful. Very interesting!
May 21, 2012 at 12:20 pm
Thanks for the thoughts on “head hopping.” I can’t read stories that jump around with various POVs. But for short stories, what about one that starts with the victim’s POV and changes after the character’s bumped off? Since the story’s in third person, I think it works. I write my novels in first person, so it’s easy to stay in one POV the entire time.
May 21, 2012 at 2:19 pm
Some thriller writers start their novels in the victim’s head or in the villain’s head, then switch later in chapter one or at the start of chapter two to the protagonist’s POV. As long as the reader knows it’s the victim or the villain, I think it would work fine. But I wouldn’t write the victim’s POV in first person (“I”), since if he’s dead, how can he be telling his story? You say yours is in third person, so it should work!
I actually think first person works much better for short stories, and third person, with multiple viewpoints (but mainly the protagonist’s) works better for novels, especially thrillers, as the extra viewpoints add tension, suspense, intrigue, variety and depth.
Good luck with both your short stories and your novels!
May 21, 2012 at 2:22 pm
And thanks for stopping by, Diana!
May 21, 2012 at 6:08 pm
Great tips on PO’v, Jodie. Thanks.
I’ll be sure to check out your website…and also to return to THIS site… for more enlightenment.
May 21, 2012 at 7:00 pm
Thanks, D.F.! Glad you found your way here. Yes, this is an excellent blog! And my website has lots of info and links, too.
Nancy M. Griffis
May 23, 2012 at 12:19 pm
Reblogged this on Nancy M. Griffis and commented:
May 23, 2012 at 1:50 pm
Thanks, Nancy! POV 102 & 103 to come….
September 8, 2016 at 10:39 pm
The distant authorial point of view is my one true way to go. There is no way you can dissuade me from writing in this way, and I will not read anything written in a close POV.