It occurred to me the other day, when trying to teach point of view in narrative to an exam class, that the notion of POV can be a bit confusing. Certainly, when I started writing, years ago, I didn’t really consider the importance of maintaining a consistent point of view in a scene, and was as guilty of ‘head hopping’ as the next writer!
But what does ‘Point of View’ actually mean? On a basic level, it is the difference between first person narrative (I did this, I feel that) and third person narrative (Fred went to the shops. He saw a sponge on his way.). If you choose to write in first person, then, in theory, all of the events of the story happen through that person’s eyes; in short, you can only write about what that person experiences at any one time. Feelings, actions, what they witness… it’s a limited perspective, but can be highly effective in building tension and exploiting dramatic irony as many of the domestic noir novels that are currently en vogue will demonstrate. Since I’ve never chosen to write in first person for my novels, though, I’m going to make that distinction and move on.
I write in third person for my novels. This means that my characters are referred to by name (or he/she/they) and, for the most part, it allows me to write about events from different points of view. The convention for commercial fiction in third person is to have a consistent point of view per scene; that basically means that you stick to seeing through the eyes of one character for an entire scene or chapter, and everything you write about for that scene is experienced through that one person. It takes a while to learn to do this consistently, at least it did for me, but it’s a useful tool for distinguishing one of the golden rules in fiction; always writing from the perspective of who has the most to lose/gain in a scene.
So how does this work in practise? Well, look at this passage. This is a short except from a scene I’m writing where events are being experienced and observed by my new heroine, Kate. At this stage, she’s helping the hero Harry to paint the walls of his shop. Everything in this scene should be written as if the reader is seeing it through her eyes.
Harry, moving almost instinctively, leaned into her hand, to the touch that suddenly felt more like a caress as his light brown hair, flecked with strands of grey as well as specks of the blue paint, lightly tickled Kate’s palm.
But there’s a problem with the way I’ve structured this paragraph. It reads, in the early clause of the sentence, as if it’s Harry experiencing the touch – his reaction has become the subject of the paragraph, not Kate’s. He is the subject of the sentence – he’s doing the moving, he’s feeling the caress, and he’s experiencing the moment.
Because this is Kate’s scene, everything should be written from her point of view. She should be the subject of the action, not Harry. So, what I need to do is reframe the paragraph so it reflects her experience of that same moment. Something like this:
Kate could feel Harry’s hair tickling her palm as he leaned, seemingly instinctively, into her touch. It was a touch that suddenly felt much more like a caress as she ran her hand through his light brown hair, flecked with strands of grey as well as the blue paint.
Can you see the difference? It’s essentially the same action, but now written more obviously from Kate’s point of view. We are feeling what she feels, rather than reacting with Harry.
So what’s the point of maintaining a consistent point of view in a scene? Well, for one thing it allows a reader to really get inside the head of the character who is driving it. Since the trend for omniscient narration comes in and out of fashion (currently, I believe, it’s out, at least in the commercial fiction strand of the market), it’s a way of making your characters appeal because it’s intimate, and it lets readers into the moment. I write in third person ‘limited’ which means that, despite the fact I will include the separate points of view of the two protagonists in my novels, when you break my work down into separate scenes or chapters, you will see that each of those focuses only on that character’s feelings and emotions. As a narrator, that does allow you to manipulate events and characters to suit, as well, as you can have one character experiencing part of an event, even if the reader knows, from a previous scene or chapter, that what they are experiencing is not what is actually happening – the point of view of one character may well be different to another, experiencing the same thing!
One final word about point of view, which I learned when I was writing my third novel, Summer in the Orchard. Having spent two novels writing from the perspectives of the two main characters, when I was writing Summer in the Orchard, I did something a little different – I introduced the perspective of a third character, who was active in the subplot of the novel. What I found interesting about that was this character, Meredith Carter, had featured in the two previous Little Somerby novels, but I’d never written events explicitly from her point of view before! Meredith was a fully realised character in the first two books (and one, I’m led to believe, was loved by readers), but her experiences were only ever viewed through the eyes of the protagonists of the novels. In the third book of the trilogy, I actually got the opportunity to write from her point of view – to get inside her head and explore her experiences. And it was a fabulous change for me! This is an extract from Springtime at the Cider Kitchen, where Meredith is talking to Caroline, from whose point of view this scene takes place. Can you see that the experiences and reactions in the scene are Caroline’s, and although Meredith does most of the talking, it’s Caroline’s head we’re in.
In contrast, here’s a passage from Summer in the Orchard, where Meredith is the character who holds the point of view:
For me, getting inside Meredith’s head for the first time was great – she was a character I loved, too, and so being able to write explicitly from her point of view was exciting for me, after two books where she was supporting cast. Having her reacting to events rather than being part of them and other characters reacting to her was enormous fun as a writer, and the lovely thing about Summer in the Orchard was that I got to do both – there are some scenes that Meredith is in which we experience from other points of view, and then others where she is the lead. A great combination to write!
So, here endeth the lesson. Do you prefer reading books from first or third person POV? And what do you like to write? Please feel free to drop me a comment!
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