POV still confuses writers, and character viewpoint within the story causes no end of headaches, so we’ll look at both Point of View and character viewpoint as these two are easily confused.
You may have read in various articles and ‘How To’ guides that there are umpteen Point of View options available to you, however, there are only three base points of view within creative fiction:
There are countless sub-categories for POV’s, such as Objective POV, Second Person POV, Limited, Omniscient, Subjective, Objective and so on. These are all expansions of the above three base elements and often present a confusing picture to new writers, but in truth, there are only three.
Point of view one is of fiction’s most useful tools. It can change the perspective of how your story is read because different POV’s give different results. Also, certain POV’s suit some stories better than others, so it’s up to you which one you feel is right for your story.
Short stories work really well with First Person POV. This creates immediacy, particularly if working to a word count of around 2000 – 4000 words and you don’t have the luxury of full characterisation like you would with a novel. It brings the reader closer to your character from the very first sentence because it allows you to explore what your character is feeling and thinking throughout the story.
Many full-length novels are written in First person, and most work, but very often writers slip tenses when writing in First Person. This can be irritating for a reader if they have to read 300 pages of a blockbuster that recklessly slips in and out tenses. It makes for a hard, clunky read.
There are some famous authors who’ve done this and first person tense slippage really annoys me, especially as established authors should know better! I use their work when teaching novice writers how NOT to do it. If you want to use first person POV in a novel, you must be proficient with tenses.
Longer stories, usually action/thriller style, tend to work better in Third Person. This is the most common POV and allows you to employ more description, narrative and emotion within a scene. This works really well for action scenes, particularly when dealing with multiple characters. It is also the easiest POV when dealing with tenses.
Third person POV is very open in terms of the concentration of emotions and action and is not as limited as First Person POV. The majority of full-length novels opt for this, although it can work just as effectively in short stories too.
Omniscient (or all knowing) is the most impersonal and rarely used POV’s, simply because it makes the narrator god like, for instance: ‘Who could have known that Geoffrey would divorce Alanna the following year?’
It’s a strange one to work with because it forces the writer to dip in and out of tenses and can make the story somewhat heavy to read.
Choose a POV that works for you and your story. If you are comfortable writing in the first person, then do so. If you love third person, then write in the medium which puts you at ease.
Once you know which POV you want for your story or novel, you need to concentrate on keeping character viewpoint. This is a separate element to POV and means every scene should have only one POV character. You have to write everything through that character's perceptions.
Writing from your character’s point of view allows you and the reader to see things from their perspective and allows them and you to get into your main character's head. That’s not to say you can’t have multiple character viewpoints, because that’s a common strategy with most novels, but what it does mean is that you should stay with that character’s viewpoint until a change of scene or a new chapter. Never switch character viewpoints partway through a scene.
Understanding viewpoint makes it easier to write your novel/short story. Surprisingly, many writers start writing without having first formulated viewpoint. The result is a mishmash of scenes that fail to tell a story, and more importantly, fail to make it clear whose story we’re reading.
Whichever POV you choose for your story/novel, you must remember to keep the tenses correct. The narrative tense determines the grammatical tense of the entire story. In essence that means the story is told in the past, present, or future tense. This can be a minefield for new writers not familiar with the tenses because it’s very easy to confuse tenses.
This is the most common tense used in fiction. The story is depicted as having occurred prior to the current moment, i.e. In the past. ‘They ran towards home...’ and ‘He drank as quickly as he could...’
Past tenses: Past simple, past present, past continuous, past perfect and past perfect continuous (more on these in the next article).
Past tense is most commonly used within Third Person POV.
The events of the story are occurring at the current moment, i.e. Now. ‘They run towards home...’ and ‘He drinks as quickly as he can...’
Present tenses: Present simple and present continuous.
This tense is commonly used in First Person POV, and the only one which can prove difficult to master with the changes of present and continuous present tenses within scenes.
Rarely used in fiction, and it’s easy to see why, because you’re describing something that hasn’t yet happened, unless referring to something within dialogue. It makes use of auxiliary verbs shall and will.
‘They will run towards home...’ and ‘He will drink as quickly as he can...’
This isn’t very effective for description and narrative, and more often than not, the tense slips into present tense because in reality you can’t really describe something that hasn’t happened.
The aim of viewpoint is to make your story strong, effective and consistent so that there is cohesion from start to finish, particularly with character viewpoint. Remember, once you have started your story/novel, never change viewpoint part way through.
One of the best ways to learn about point of view is to write an emotional or an action scene between two characters, including dialogue:
1. Write the scene in the third person.
2. Write the same scene in the first person.
3. Write in the omniscient.
Which POV is more effective? How difficult or easy was it? Did you keep to the right tense or did you accidentally slip tenses? Which POV felt best for the scene?
Write a descriptive scene (no dialogue) using a main character. As with exercise 1, write it in the third person, then the second person and finally in omniscient and then see how effective each POV is.
Next time: Narrative tenses.