Thou Shalt Seriously Consider Point of View
Novels and short stories, by definition, are works of prose fiction that reveal the actions, thoughts, and feelings of one or more characters. Many new author manuscripts, however, expose a disregard for just who is actually doing this revealing.
Is it an unknown, outside observer? One who seems to know the entire story (before it’s even told) and who also seems to know the thoughts and feelings of each and every character?
Or, is it one of the characters who is revealing the story, limited by only what they could possibly know at any particular point in the gradual unfolding of the plot?
Granted, there are a few different possibilities, but be warned… the point of view (POV) that a writer chooses is a serious decision with serious consequences. Certain POVs will keep character intentions mysteriously at a distance; others will allow the reader to become deeply invested in the characters. Choosing the POV that will most powerfully deliver your story to the reader is crucial.
Of course, there are those who already know the power of the different POV modes but wrongly believe that their potential readers will have the mental prowess (or the patience) to shift from one point of view to another any old time the writer’s whim dictates.
The bottom line is that if you have not investigated the pros and cons of various POV choices, practiced various modes of POV and/or made a reasonable and appropriate decision about POV for your particular book, your manuscript submission will almost certainly raise a red flag to any prospective publisher.
Below is a list of POV choices and some of their strengths and limitations.
Sometimes referred to as God-mode, this choice for POV is initially attractive to new writers as it boasts the ability to know the actions, thoughts, and feelings of all of the characters, plus extensive knowledge about the entire story and the world within which it unfolds. However, there are two potentially less-than-attractive challenges:
- Keeping Your Distance The author must draw a clear line between ‘telling’ what a character thinks or feels and ‘intimately revealing’ those thoughts or feelings as if they are being experienced from that character’s point of view. It is very difficult to do the former without slipping into the latter.
- Finding A Voice Although the omniscient narrator is not a character in the story, the narration must be as engaging as, and have as unique a voice as, any character. Now, the typical sure-fire, go-to strategy for any author to achieve engagement in storytelling is to help the reader imagine what a character is going through while reasoning out a problem or being impacted by emotional tension. This is no simple task when an author is prohibited from accessing any singular limited experience. And so the narrator’s ‘nature’ needs to be captivating, expressive, and (at least implicitly) opinionated… but all from an observational point of view. Not easy.
If your writing skills are sparring with the likes of Dostoyevsky, Dickens, or Tolkien, maybe the omniscient POV is your true literary destiny. If you’re a new writer, strongly consider one of the following alternatives.
Any work of fiction you have read wherein “I” or “me” are used by the narrator to refer to themselves is an example of first-person POV. This mode of narration can be extremely intimate as the reader has a direct connection to the inner life of the character in question… all their thoughts, feelings, memories, and future wonderings. The reader almost feels like they are the main character.
And the trade-off, of course, is that all other characters in the story… all their actions, thoughts, and feelings… indeed, the entire world of the story beyond the physical senses of the narrator cannot exist for the reader except from one single, limited point of view. When a first-person narrator sleeps, no story can be revealed until they awaken. When a first-person narrator affects another character in the story, the reader is not allowed to know this affect until the narrator sees evidence of it themselves.
Replace all those “I’s” and “me’s” with “you’s”, and you’ve got a second-person POV. On the one hand, it seems that this mode of narration might be even more personally intimate than first person POV because the reader is the main character without any need of imagining themselves as another: in other words, the narrator is telling you that you are the original experiencer of the story.
On the other hand, a work of fiction supposes that the reader will find out about the characters of a story as they read. This puts the reader of second-person POV in an odd position as they already have a character (and a host of real-world experiences) that must be shed in order to accept the new circumstances of the fictional life they are being challenged to live out. Exciting for some readers? Unsettling for others?
This POV choice is perhaps the one that requires an author to most carefully consider their audience’s preferences and tolerances.
For a successful example of second-person POV, consider reading The Book of Jotham.
You guessed it! When an author uses “he,” “she” and “they,” the third person POV is being employed…but it’s not that simple.
First, we must realize that the omniscient POV described above, is a kind of third-person mode of storytelling. The omniscient POV certainly uses “he,” “she” and “they.” In fact, there is also “third person objective” as well, where an author heavily restricts narration to mere sensory observation, only relating what characters can be seen doing or be heard saying (… no peeks into the minds or hearts of the characters).
But, what most people are referring to when they say “third-person POV” is actually “third-person limited POV.” The limited aspect is where the difference lies. This most flexible mode of third-person narration allows the author to describe the fictional world in the vicinity of a chosen character and that character’s thought process and emotional reactions. In other words, the author invites the reader to enter into the fictional world as seen, understood and felt by a character, but without the reader having to imagine the author being the character (first person) or the reader themselves being the character (second person).
A certain amount of observational distance is maintained (as long as it seems observed by the chosen character), but all the benefits of experiencing the inner life of the character are also available. The one catch is that this mode prohibits “head-hopping.” An author must limit the POV to just one character… at a time. If it would be useful to see the inner life of more than one character, a structural marker should alert the reader that the POV is shifting to a new character: a chapter break or a segment division within a chapter signified by three asterisks (or some other symbol).
Note also: when a shift in a limited POV takes place, a writer would do well to avoid making the reader wait for several paragraphs to find out whose worldview they are now following. A reader can become distracted by thoughts of “whose head am I in now?” and also become disoriented once they know, then having to rethink everything they’ve just read from an alternate point of view.
Bottom Line for FQP Submissions
If you submit a manuscript that reveals uncertain or wandering POVs, you basically have two options: Resubmit at a later date with the POV clarified, or work with one of FQP’s developmental editors to resolve the POV issues (typically $50 – $200.)
Ready for the Second Commandment? Click here.
Fine Print All resubmissions will require a $50 fee for the publisher to read through the manuscript a second time. (All prices quoted are in USD.)