What’s in a Novel: POV (Point of View)

As a warning, this post has the potential to get very, very long, so I might have to break it up. However, before I go any further, I need to announce the winner of the contest I just ran….Lisascrapbooker was my winner! Congrats, Lisa, email me and we’ll work out the details!

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these “what’s in a  novel” posts so I might need to update the links on my page dedicated to such topics. Anyway, here we go!

There are a few different types of POV (or point of view) that books are written in:

First--the entire story (including dialogue and narration) is being written/told as if they (both the author and even later the reader) are the main character. The main character is always referred to as I. Ex. “Go away, you devious, insensitive man!” I yelled at the intruder. OR I was walking down Second Street on my way home last night. All of this is first person. This POV is very popular in YA (young adult) and ChickLit books. Very rare in romance, but I have seen it. I’ve been told by an author friend that it was harder to write this way, which is why it’s so rare. Some readers also find it harder to read.

Second–I’ve never read a book like this, but I know they exist. It’s where the narrator/narration keeps referring to the protagonist as :you”. That’s the best I can explain it.

Third–most popular. There are two forms. The first form is omniscient. This is where the narrator is this all-knowing voice. He/she knows and conveys the thoughts of both main characters (and even some secondaries) to the reader as it’s occurring. This is usually done where there are segments of paragraphs that we’re told the conversation that’s going on between them, and only given one of their thoughts, then suddenly it will switch and give the other one’s thoughts. If done carefully and not every other paragraph, this can work wonderfully and the reader doesn’t even notice, allowing for a smooth read. If switching is done all the time, it can be really confusing. Confession time: with my first book, I wrote this way. Then, I got to about 50% and I remembered that something had been acknowledged earlier, but I couldn’t remember who’d had the thought. So I decided to go back and re-read all of what I had in the scene where that took place and before I knew it, I’d completely confused myself. It seemed almost with every paragraph I was switching. First, I was saying something in hers, then in the next, I was having him think of how that affected him, then respond. Then, she’d think of how that affected her, then respond. Back and forth. Before I knew it, I was totally lost–and I’m the one who wrote the darn thing!

This promoted me to dig a little deeper into POV. Now, don’t get me wrong, third person omniscient is just fine. Many wonderful authors out there use it and when done right (something that I hadn’t mastered yet), can be very enjoyable.

Tips if you decide to do this:

  • See how long you can go in one character’s POV.
  • Transition smoothly and at a good stoping point, like a paragraph break. Mid-paragraph transitions can leave us lost.
  • Be consistent with what each character knows or has discovered about the other or the plot or whatever as the story unfolds and try to remind us readers from time to time.
  • Get the names figured out early on. They both need to be on a first-name basis (at least in their minds) pretty early on. Otherwise in one paragraph you’re going to have the hero referring to himself mentally as Patrick, then on the next page Juliet is thinking of him as Lord Presumptuous. In dialogue, it’s okay to use a different name because it’s showing formality and where they really stand, but in their minds, they need to have the same names for each other and I highly doubt Patrick would think of himself as Lord Presumptuous…even if he is.

I ended up deciding to completely restructure that book and write all of my future books into third person limited.

Unsurprisingly, third person limited is considered  by some the hardest POV to write in. Why? Because you’re in either this head or that one and you have to stay there until the scene ends, the chapter ends, OR there is a revolutionary reason to break POVs. This can happen when one character asks the other a very important question that leaves them vulnerable or one says something to the other that is interpreted wrong or is that “missing piece”, just something very important. Otherwise, once you decide to use one person’s POV, there’s no switching until the scene is done.

What does this mean? Well, it means you’re only allowed to tell that person’s inner thoughts and musings. The other person’s thoughts have to be explained in their dialogue or visible actions. Sometimes you’ll see, “she presumed” or “presumably”, that means the character whose head your currently in assumes that’s what the other mean to say or do, but doesn’t know for sure. It’s also a sneaky way of giving an inside peek into what the other might be thinking or their motivation for some action.

Sometimes, using this POV is where those pesky misunderstandings can really take root and build credit. We’re only in the hero’s POV so it’s how he’s perceiving the heroine’s response to his remark, it’s not 100% her genuine response. This is why books where the hero or heroine is a bit…er…daft in social matters, there are often problems. Take Alex and Caroline from Sudden. He has a hard time reading facial expressions so when she seems to be avoiding his kiss on their wedding night and he gets all out of sorts, it’s not that he’s super insecure, it’s that to his mind, she’s pulling away from him because she doesn’t like what they’re doing. She, on the other hand, is nervous as can be because she likes his attention, but isn’t sure if she should be expressing such or not. There are many, many examples of this.

I have to admit that sometimes it’s hard to keep writing this way. You just want to explain how the other character feels about the situation, or sometimes, you feel like “okay, I’m out of material in his head, I wonder what she’s thinking…”. But, I firmly believe that learning to write this way (even if you don’t prefer it and go back to the one of the others) can actually help you when you write in types of POV because it not only challenges your mind of how you use words to convey both people’s thoughts (or the perceived thoughts), but it can strengthen the character and their relationship because they have to get “in tune” with the other a little more.

Tips on writing in third-limited:

  • Establish whose POV you’re in as soon as possible. A good way to do this is to immediately show what their’d doing or thinking: John hated it when Mrs. Ellis scowled in his direction. To his mind it looked as if she’d just bitten down on an overripe lemon wedge. Another way is if one character has a nickname for the other, use it: Oh dear, the heavy footfalls outside the door could only mean one thing: Lord Presumptuous had found her again.
  • Don’t be afraid to switch. Sometimes, you really think this scene should be in his POV, but five verbal exchanges later it seems she’s the one who is reacting the most and having the most mental thoughts. Then go back and change the scene to start in her POV. There are no rules that say there has to be an equal about of time spent in each of their heads (and if there is, I’ve probably shattered it, so who cares). You don’t want all but one chapter written in only one person’s but having two chapters in a row isn’t going to hurt anything.
  • Dig deep. Writing this way, makes one of your characters scrutinize the other a little more deeply, but what about themselves? I have a few books where I’ve had one of them call it a nightrail and the other a nightgown. Though, neither actually said the word to the other, in their minds, they referred to it as different things. Same with coverlet and counterpane. This can be said as well for some of the other terms that come up. In one book, I have a guy mentally refer to his…er…”love musket” as his rod. A woman would not call it that. In fact, some of them in historical romance wouldn’t even know what the technical term would be. (Some would, however, but I’m just saying some wouldn’t.) So dig deeper. He’d refer to it as something more coarse and she’d be a little more simple or discreet. It sounds rather picky or unnecessary, and to some it is, but I personally like to dig deep like this when I’m writing because it helps to give the character a little more “flavor” and distinguish their personality not only from the others in that book, but from past and future heroes

There is far more advice on this. I am not an expert by any means and I’m always looking for more, too. No matter which POV you go with, remember to stick with it. Start in first, stay in first. Start in third-limited, stay in third-limited. The only way to change is if you change the entire story. Changing POVs within a story, even if it’s six chapters in third-omnicient to the rest in third-limited can lead to a lot of confusion and headache.

[Disclaimer, I by no means am perfect and I do have those moments from time to time where I’m re-reading something and I have this ‘ah-ha” moment where I realize I’ve just had a POV slip. It’s okay, I promise. Nobody is perfect and it will happen. Just do your best!]

14 thoughts on “What’s in a Novel: POV (Point of View)”

  1. I thought third person limited was when you wrote the WHOLE book in one person’s POV. I guess I was wrong, but that’s what I remember from school. 🙂 I’ve written books like that, where it was third person all the way through. But there are times when you really need to see things from another POV, so I wrote later books in third person omniscient. Only the Libby Fox series is in first person. I think third person omniscient is tricky and a little harder, but I think it gives you so much more freedom in the story.

    Good, informative post, Rose!

    1. Wow. If the whole book was written in third-person with only one person’s thoughts exposed, that’d actually be very similar (I think) to 1st person, just replace the “he”s/”she”s with “I”s. That would also be really hard!

      I think when done right, third omniscient can be really enjoyable. It just takes time. It’s also a preference thing. I think with omniscient you’re better able to add layers more quickly into the plot, whereas with limited it takes a little longer to build toward that. Likewise, I think you’re forced to slow down and dig a little deeper (and get more creative at times) when you’re only able to tell one person’s thoughts/motivations.

      Oh, and I sooo agree that sometimes, you MUST tell what the other is thinking, that’s why 1st (and 2nd) just seems so difficult to me.

  2. Great post. I prefer third person, although I will read an occasional first person story. I don’t really have a preference of limited or omniscience as long as they are well done and not head hopping. I really don’t like romance that only stay in one characters head. I want to know what both the H/h are thinking and feeling.

  3. Interesting post.

    I remember reading “Choose your own Adventure” books as a child. They were written in second person. Also, tabletop role playing games are narrated in this format. It works well when the reader is encouraged to participate.

    Oh, by the way Rose, I think you have a fantastic sense of humor.

    1. Thank you!

      I just bought one of those for my kids! I forgot all about those books being in 2nd person.

      I’m so glad you enjoy my humor. My writing (stories or blog posts) isn’t always for everyone, but it’s great when I find someone who enjoys my humor!

  4. Thanks, Rose, for all of the great thoughts about POV and for saying “Don’t be afraid to switch.” When “Tasteless” was a novella and got rejected, one of the complaints was POV switches. To tell you the truth, I think the POV changes were fine, and I even kept them seperate with asteriks. After ( got that rejection, though, I was leery about POV switches for a while. I finally got over my fear, and even added some secondaries’ POV once in a while when I needed comic relief or when the heroine’s father was the only one who could tell what happened since the hero and heroine thought he was missing and were out looking for him.

    Does that make any sense?

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