One of the things I underestimated most when I started out writing was the importance of point of view (PoV) in writing fiction. In fact, I didn’t really give it much thought. After learning about it and re-reading my old work, I quickly realised that sloppy PoV writing undermines the rest of your story, its clarity and impact. With PoV our job as writers is to make clear which character the reader should be identifying with and when. Once you know to look you’ll probably spot it a lot and although the principle is basic, following it all the time is not as easy as you’d think!
Point of View
Here’s a short passage written in third person from my book Orca Rising, here we can see there is a clear and tight point of view character, called Ocean. We are ‘with’ him the whole time and nobody else.
There were no revision classes that afternoon, so Ocean went home. Though it was Wednesday lunchtime, the time zone at home was set for Saturday night. The curtains were drawn and Match of the Day was on playback. Lager can. Smouldering ash-tray. Cigarette gasping out its last grey breaths. And there he was, tarnishing the sofa like a spilt drink. Andy. He had a hand down his trousers, cupping rather than scratching.
‘What are you doing home?’
Without taking his eyes from the screen Andy lifted up an arm in a cast.
‘Ouch.’ Ocean resisted the urge to smile. ‘How did you do that?’
Andy liberated his good hand, reached for his lager, saw it away and belched. ‘Rather not talk about it. Fetch us another would you?’
Fetch it yourself you waste of space. But no. He’d promised to make more of an effort, so off he went.
How is this tight to Ocean’s PoV? Well, we begin the paragraph establishing that it’s his PoV with the words ‘so Ocean went home.’ We then get some of his thoughts and impressions on his mother’s boyfriend, Andy, who tarnishes the couch ‘like a spilt drink.’ Andy certainly doesn’t think that, it’s Ocean. We get his internal thought ‘Fetch it yourself you waste of space.’ again this is Ocean. You might point to this sentence, ‘Without taking his eyes from the screen Andy lifted up an arm in a cast.’ or indeed the next sentence about Andy drinking his lager as PoV slips… but these are things noticed by Ocean, still from his PoV even though Andy is doing them. I didn’t bother saying ‘Ocean watched Andy liberate his good hand….’ because I don’t need to, it’s implicit that it’s him and more direct to just say what he is seeing.
PoV slips are what happens when we depart from the point of view character, briefly enter the mind or PoV of a different character and then return to the main PoV character. I’ll stick with Ocean to invent an example of what not to do.
Ocean scaled the wall, paused at the top and looked down for Claude.
‘You can do it Claude, jump up! Quick!’
Claude was shorter than he was. He took a good run up but he flailed at the wall, catching his fingers painfully against the brickwork at the top.
‘I can’t do it!’
This is quite a subtle one, on the face of it you might think, that’s okay, we’re with Ocean, aren’t we? He’s the one observing Claude, watching him take a run at the wall and fail. And you’d be right but for one word. Painfully. Think about it…how does Ocean feel that it’s painful if we’re with him and it’s his PoV? We could maybe hear Claude cry out, observe him shaking out his hand, wincing, cradling it in his arm, see the scratch redden with blood, whatever – that would all be observable from Ocean’s PoV…but Claude’s pain is not Ocean’s PoV, it’s Claude’s.
Writing Hacks for maintaining PoV
- Mentally, be inside your character’s head as you write
- Use words that your PoV character would use
- If you’re writing a story with multiple PoV characters, try keeping their chapters distinct. If you can’t do this, you need to make an extra effort to be clear about which PoV we are with, when and flag when there is a change.
- Get a good proof-reader on your work, you won’t always spot everything.