Tackling the Most Common Point of View Problem

Fiction WorkshopI’ve edited more novels this year than ever before. What I’ve observed (without pointing fingers at anyone in particular) is that a lot of inexperienced story writers make the same mistakes. One area of particular challenge is point of view.

What is it?

The term “point of view” pertains to the filter through which readers experience any particular scene in a story. Point of view occurs through the filter of the five senses and includes thoughts, memories, and really anything that can go on in a character’s head.

One common rule of fiction writing today (which definitely wasn’t true one hundred years ago) is that point of view must remain consistent from the beginning of a scene (a slice of action in a story) to its end.

What’s wrong with it?

Readers want to experience story while “in the skin” not of the author but of one story character per scene through the narrative voice of first person or third person. The following is what you won’t find in fiction that is considered current according to today’s trends:

Gerald passed the garbage truck on the way home and screeched to a stop in front of the garage. No garbage containers were parked by the curb. He dashed out of the SUV, leaving the door swinging open, and lurched up the sidewalk. Heat crawled up his neck.

Did I not tell Willy to take out the garbage before nine? 

The slam of a car door snapped Willy out of his video game trance. He glanced at the clock. 10:15.

He dashed to the living room picture window. His stomach lurched.

Uh-oh, Dad’s home early. 

What’s wrong with this brief scene? Nothing grammatical. But according to fiction trends, it’s a mess mainly because the reader is “in the head” of two different characters in the same scene. That’s a fiction no-no.

How can I fix it?

One quick way to put a Band-aid on this problem is to add white space (otherwise known as a scene break) above “The slam of the car door . . .” Then we have two scenes instead of one, and the problem goes away.

But that’s probably the lazy way out.

The bigger questions that invite us to arrive at a more sound solution are, Whom is this scene about? In whose point of view will readers experience the greatest emotional journey?

What’s the bigger issue?

Let’s forget the nuts and bolts for a moment. What’s important to remember is that doing point of view right isn’t just a matter of taking the right steps to proper novel-writing technique (1-2-3). It emerges from a philosophy about what story is supposed to achieve. Which is a truly gripping emotional experience.

Without this understanding, you can follow the rules, sure. But you still aren’t getting it.

Novels, when done right, can do more than movies. Yes, that’s right.  A movie is confined to the visual and the audible, whereas effective point of view invites us to smell the lilacs, feel the pain of childbirth,  remember the sting of an old hurt, and feel the clog of grief catch in our throats as we stand beside a freshly dug grave.

Effective novel writing should invite readers to a supremely visceral experience. The reader wants to be ushered into another world that engages the emotions and offers an alternate universe for a time. Dare I say it? The reader is seeking escape.

Immersion into this alternate universe is the key. You want to weed out anything that snaps the reader out of it. That’s why doing point of view right is so fundamental to story craft that I decided to start there first.

What shatters that universe is yanking that poor reader out of one person’s head and slamming her into the “head” of another character. In fiction forum nomenclature, that’s called “head hopping,” and fiction editors everywhere (including me) will yell at you if you do it.

Okay, I might be exaggerating a little. In any case, take my advice: Don’t. Do. It.

“So I can never ever switch point of view?” you may ask. Of course you can switch point of view . . . in the next scene.

In Summary

Stay in the point of view of one character per scene. Invite the reader to stand in that character’s shoes and experience life from the vantage point of his senses and unique memories, hangups, prejudices, and hurts. Invite her to become immersed in this alternate universe. Proper use of point of view will keep her immersed for as long as she desires.

For Further Reading:

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell

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2 thoughts on “Tackling the Most Common Point of View Problem

  1. Jessie

    Hi Adam,

    Thanks for the info. It was very direct, clear and easy to apply.

    I get the POV on the scene level; my issue is with it for the novel as a whole. My novel opens with a couple and their life before their kids. However, the book is about their daughter, who is a kid. It is a coming of age story about her. I really like the start of the book, but I wonder if POV will be an issue when I introduce the child in the second chapter….she is born at the end of the first chapter. If I write it in first person, it sounds great, but then how can I talk about the parents from the child’s perspective when she was not even born as yet? If I write it in third person – which it is in now- how do keep the first chapter about the parents and how they met without making it seem abrupt and out of place when the child is born and I want to tell the story through her eyes?

    Do you do developmental edits? You seem like you are pretty knowledgeable.

    Thanks a lot.

  2. Adam Blumer Post author

    Hi, Jessie. There’s a technique in some contemporary novels that puts the POV character’s name at the top of the chapter, almost like a chapter title. Each chapter continues to be told in the first-person voice, but this technique gives readers the clue as to which POV character they are reading. That may be a solution to your problem.

    I’d need to know more about your story to help in the specifics. I’m not sure how a child, who is as yet unborn, could know about his or her parents. But maybe I don’t understand your question.

    Feel free to check out my editing website and read about my services here: http://blumereditorial.com/services/. Can I be of assistance?

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