Point of view (POV) is a critical decision you must make at the very beginning of your story, even before you write that proverbial “Once upon a time…”. It is quite simply the perspective you use to tell your story. POV will inform how your readers relate to every character and every event throughout the story. It is vital to make the decision at the beginning because a consistent POV is critical to keeping the reader invested in your characters. A sudden shift in perspective has the risks of confusing the reader and thus losing them forever. So, this is important to understand and to use correctly.
When you were in school, you no doubt discussed points of view in your English classes. Remember back. There are three main points of view, first, second and third-person. The third-person is further broken down into two subgroups: third-person limited and third-person, omniscient. Simple enough. But how do you use them correctly? What are the drawbacks of each? How will that affect your storytelling?
First, let’s look at some examples:
|Point of View||Example||Considerations|
|First Person||I saw the two of them the moment I
walked into the bar. I hated seeing
my ex groping the stringy cowboy by
|You can ONLY tell the story from the
perspective of one single
perspective. If that character can’t
see it; he can’t know it happened.
First-person POV places the reader
very close to the narrator, so the
story feels very personal. It can be
very effective when you need to
surprise the reader with
information the main character
cannot know or that is colored by
the main character’s perspective.
But be careful with this, since
surprise revelations can be viewed
as cheap tricks.
|Second Person||You entered the bar with your new
girlfriend, proudly guiding her
through the crowded room with one
hand on the small of her back. You feel a twinge of jealousy as you see
your ex groping the stringy cowboy
by her side.
|Puts the reader close to the story,
actually inside the head of the
character. Makes the honesty of the
character critical to the story. This POV becomes difficult to maintain the
storytelling without putting the
reader off. It is not recommended
for newer authors because of the
difficulty in managing this
|Jason entered the bar with his new
girlfriend, guiding her through the
crowd with a protective arm around
her waist. He hoped Susan was
|Probably the most commonly used
POV technique due to its versatility
and familiarity to most writers. It
allows a lot of freedom with
description of the setting and
characters, and gives you a lot of
opportunity to “show.” With limited
point of view, you can only see the
world from one person’s perspective
at a time. To change the POV
character, skip a line and
|Jason entered the bar, showing off
his new girlfriend proudly, with one
hand on the small of her back. He
wanted everyone to notice the two
Susan did notice and seethed with
envy. She remembered when she
had been the one on display that
|With an omniscient point of view, you
can “see” the actions and thoughts
of more than one person in the
same scene. This can be difficult to
accomplish successfully without
“head-hopping.” Also, lousy
“telling”—happens more often with
third-person omniscient point of
A large percentage of authors write in the third-person limited point of view. It is easy to maintain and is familiar to the average reader. The problem you must watch for is “head-hopping.” This happens when you are telling the story from one character’s perspective, and briefly jump into another’s to make a comment about the situation. From a limited point of view, you generally want to stay with one character until the end of a scene. Then, when it is necessary to shift to a different character’s view, you employ a scene break. This is done by skipping a line, typing three hashtags, and skipping a second line. Then shift perspectives and carry on.
But wait! What is the difference between third-person omniscient and head-hopping?
Third-person omniscient lets you move among many characters’ points of view routinely, naturally, and throughout the story. Head-hopping is occasionally done because you could not resist tossing in a commentary on the action by a secondary character in the scene. It is a flaw in your writing. In the examples above, if Susan’s feelings of envy appeared as the only sudden POV shift and were followed by more of Jason’s POV, it would be considered head-hopping. It’s a mark of a new writer. Watch for it and get rid of it.
So, how do you get rid of head-hopping?
You do this by rewriting the commentary as viewed action and the POV character’s thoughts. “Show, don’t tell.” What does your point of view character actually see? Instead of telling me Susan seethed with envy, show me this:
Jason paused in the bar’s doorway, displaying his new date proudly with one
hand on the small of her back. Their commanding entrance drew the compacity crowds’ attention as if a curtain had been raised for them. They were jealous,
all of them, he knew. Especially Susan. His ex’s lip rose, exposing sharp teeth that
she quickly hid behind her tequila shot. Her spine stiffened as she turned back to
her own date. That skinny cowboy clinging to her side could never compete.
By showing the action rather than telling me what Susan thought of her ex, we get a lot
more of the dynamic between the two. And by staying in Jason’s point of view, we get to “hear”
what he thinks of her as his views are colored by his perspective. That’s called a deep point of
view, by the way. See how well that works?
Here is a more extended, and certainly better written example of third-person omniscient point
of view, excerpted from Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune. To make it completely
clear, I’ll mark the different points of view:
The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam sat in a tapestried chair watching
mother and son approach. Windows on each side of her overlooked the curving
southern bend of the river and the green farmlands of the Atreides family holding, but
the Reverend Mother ignored the view. She was feeling her age this morning, more
than a little petulant. She blamed it on space travel and association with that
abominable Spacing Guild and its secretive ways. But here was a mission that required
personal attention from a Bene Gesserit-with-the-Sight. Even the Padishah Emperor’s
Truthsayer couldn’t evade that responsibility when the duty call came.
Damn that Jessica! the Reverend Mother thought. If only she’d borne us a
girl as she was ordered to do!
Jessica stopped three paces from the chair, dropped a small curtsy, a gentle
flick of left hand along the line of her skirt. Paul gave the short bow his dancing
master had taught—the one used when in doubt of another’s station.
The nuances of Paul’s greeting were not lost on the Reverend Mother. She
said: He’s a cautious one, Jessica.
Jessica’s hand went to Paul’s shoulder, tightened there. For a heartbeat, fear
pulsed through her palm. Then she had herself under control. Thus he has
been taught, Your Reverence.
What does she fear? Paul wondered.
The old woman studied Paul in one gestalten flicker: face oval like Jessica’s,
but strong bones … hair: the Duke’s black-black but with browline of the
maternal grandfather who cannot be named, and that thin, disdainful nose;
shape of directly staring green eyes: like the old Duke, the paternal grandfather
who is dead.
So, you can see we inhabit the heads of three characters—The Reverend Mother, Jessica,
and Paul—in this one short passage. Notice how Herbert launches each new perspective in a
new paragraph, just as you would if this was dialogue. This helps maintain the reader’s focus on
the new POV, and helps avoid confusion. You’ll be fine if you use this omniscient perspective throughout
your story. Your readers will quickly accept your way of storytelling. But, if you are just
using it to let Paul ask what Jessica fears, then your readers will be confused, and they will not
thank you for it.
Many writers find that they become comfortable writing in one POV. However, some are definitely
more challenging than others. Whichever you decide, your primary concern should be consistency.
Switching points of view can be done, as Diana Gabaldon does in her Outlander series.
She uses first-person with her main character Claire, and switches to third-person limited for
her male, Jaimie, and other secondary characters. It works for her, but she is careful to
only make these switches during chapter breaks.
What is your go-to point of view? Have you tried any others? Consider stretching your skills
by trying one you have never tried before and have a bit of fun expressing your point (of view.)