Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lesson Four - Point of View

I chose this topic since I’m now writing concurrently in two points of view--first person for my cozy mysteries, and third person for my Silhouette Nocturnes.

Let me step back and explain point of view, just in case you don’t know or need a refresher. (And that sentence somewhat involves second person, BTW!)

What is Point of View

Point of view (POV) refers to the perspective from which a particular story is being told.

There are generally three main types of POV:

- First person, where the story is told in the narrator’s POV - “I” and “me.”

- Second person, which is told with reference to “you” - “You went to the door and opened it, and then you looked outside.”

- Third person, in which the story is told by the characters being referred to as “he” or “she.” The best third person stories (in my opinion) are generally those where the reader still gets inside the POV character’s thoughts, although there are also “omniscient” or “authorial” subcategories of POV where the reader simply watches a scene as it’s told by the author.

And of course there are combinations of the above, especially in today’s stories where so many of the old rules have often been tossed out. It used to be a no-no to change types of POV in the same book, but not any more. You can do a chapter in first person, then switch to third in the next, then back again.

How Do You Choose Point of View?

Sometimes, depending on the genre in which you’re writing, you don’t have a choice. It’s a standard, and if you’re not comfortable with it, try writing something else.

For example, I write dark and sexy paranormal romances for Silhouette Nocturne. Because they are romances, I need to get into the heads of both the hero and heroine and let the readers know what each is thinking--the attraction, their conflict, how they both deal with the issues in the book. That only works well in third person.

I also write cozy mysteries. My Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mysteries are in Kendra’s POV, and they’re written in first person. She pretty much told me, when I started the series, that she preferred it that way. Mysteries, though--whether cozy or not--can be either first or third person, whichever seems to work best for your story.

And that’s the key in most genres: whichever seems to work best for your story.

I’ve started writing a thriller, and they work best in third person, as do most suspense stories. Getting into the bad guys’ heads along with the protagonists’, and other characters’, is a great way of ramping up the suspense.

Right now, I’m working on my first story in the spin-off from my Kendra books, another cozy mystery series about Lauren Vancouver, pet rescuer. She’s introduced in HOWL DEADLY, the Kendra book that’s about to be published, in December of this year. She has a legal issue that Kendra helps to resolve. We meet her through Kendra’s POV, since Kendra books are always in first person. And when I started getting to know Lauren better while I began writing her first book, she, too, insisted that her stories be told in first person! She’s a very different character from Kendra, though. It’s been interesting writing about what “I” did, but in an entirely different voice.

How Do You Use Point of View?

Again, it’s whatever works best for you and your story.

It’s pretty simple when you’re in first person. You’re always in your protagonist’s head, and therefore constantly describe what “I’m” doing.

Third person can be a little more complicated, especially when you have more than one POV character. The main thing, if there are two or more POV characters, is to be clear about whose head you’re in. That’s not to say you can’t switch POVs within one scene, but you don’t want the reader to think you’re in the heroine’s thoughts and then all of a sudden realize they’re the hero’s --likewise, the protagonist’s versus the villain’s. You can handle that the easy way by saying something like “she thought” but that gets old after a while. Instead, you can you’re your writing more interesting by starting a paragraph by, for example, describing something the character is doing to establish whose view you’re in.

But if you do this--watch out for the dreaded head-hopping! Switching each paragraph in a scene to another character’s POV, or even doing it within the same paragraph, can get confusing to readers and could even lead them to tossing your book across the room... assuming your editor even lets it stand.

What works best for me is to change scenes, or even chapters, when I’m moving from one person’s third person POV to another. It’s clear that way, and I don’t have to worry about including a lot of signals about whose thoughts I’m in--just at the beginning of the scene.

Your POV

So... what are your thoughts on POV? I’ve given you mine. And the readers of this blog posting will also be interested...


Camille Minichino said...

I used to think it was an absolute: no changing POV within a scene!
But I see it now, even within a paragraph, and with "big name" authors.

I don't like it, and I think you've given me a clue why I don't, Linda -- it's startling and sometimes confusing.

I think also it's an easy way out sometimes and I don't like that, either!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. POV is always a difficult decision to make when starting a story though I've decided that it is really hard to remain consistently in first person throughout a story.

Terry Odell said...

I've written a couple of mystery short stories in 1st person, but normally, I prefer 3rd. And for my romances, at least 2 POVs are "required", so I tend to switch at scene breaks.

As long as transitions are clear, it shouldn't matter how or when you do it, but it can get annoying for the reader if they're having to switch back and forth too often. Regardless of how smooth the transitions are, it requires that the reader stop long enough to shift gears.

Linda O. Johnston said...

Not changing POV within a scene may have been one of those old rules that have disappeared, Camille. But, yes, I do see even big-name authors head-hopping, which sometimes is confusing.

Interesting comment, Cassandrajade. I'm curious why you think it's hard to stay in first person. For me, it's often the easiest way to go, but your reader can't know any more than your protagonist that way.

Fortunately, either first or third person works well in mysteries, Terry. My characters seem to take over and want to tell their mystery stories themselves!

Jason Black said...

Great article. I think more writers should put thought into actively CHOOSING their POV, rather than just writing in whatever POV they happen to start in or whatever they're already comfortable with.

There's another article on a similar subject, that goes a little deeper into what "whichever seems to work best for your story" actually means, here:

It's all about how POV choices present different views on the characters themselves, and how those choices affect not only what you can get away with writing but also how the whole mood of the story can change with different POVs. I highly recommend it!

Betty Hechtman said...

It is amazing how anything goes in POV these days. I remember taking a writing class and having the teacher be adamant about staying in one POV.

The Molly Pink crochet mysteries are in the first person. The tricky part is how to write things Molly can't have seen. It's also tricky to write scenes where she's threatened. How to tell the reader that somebody is creeping up behind her when she doesn't have eyes in the back of her head.

Great post with lots to think about.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Randy Wayne White changed POV from third to first after he began his series with Doc Ford. I asked him why and he said the character demanded his story be told. Jeff Deaver says he has to use third because he relies heavily on the unreliable narrator.

Laura Lippman was talking last weekend about "central intelligence," a variation of third person. In that variation, there's a third person who is in every scene and the information sort of revolves around that person. Here's more info:,pageNum-158.html

Linda O. Johnston said...

Thanks for the link, Jason. That's a really helpful article!

I remember lessons like that, too, Betty. I'm glad things have changed, but having more freedom of choice in POV also can make writing more complicated. And I agree it's sometimes hard, when writing in first person, to get information across that our protagonists won't necessarily know.

Really interesting info, Joanna. POV issues are everywhere! Thanks for posting about those other writers and that other iteration of third person.

Janie Emaus said...

I tend to write in 1st person, but have written some of my middle grade boy stories in third person. I agree with all depends on the story.

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Linda O. Johnston said...

What works best really depends on the story and character, Janie. I'm sure you could do middle grade boys in first person if it was better for the story!

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Beth Proudfoot said...

I love the quote from Jeffrey Deaver about needed an unreliable narrator for his mysteries! I actually chose to do my second novel in first person because everybody else in the book believes the main character is lying and I wanted the reader to know she was telling the truth...well, her truth anyway!

Linda O. Johnston said...

So, Beth, are your first person protagonist's musings such that the reader will get that one person's truths are not necessarily another's? Intriguing!

Anonymous said...


Nice breakdown of everything. I'm playing right now with first person present in my WIP--something that's getting more common in YA. VERY different!

Linda O. Johnston said...

I haven't read much YA, Becky, and haven't written any, but first person sounds as if it could work well. Have fun with it!