Thursday, September 13, 2012

Writing Tips: Point of View Part 1

Point of View Part 1
by Missy Tippens

I'm thinking of putting together a workshop on point of view (POV) for beginners to possibly present at a writer's conference. So I've been thinking about the topic. Thought I might throw out a few ideas here on this post (I call it thinking out loud). :)

First, let me say that I usually stay in one character's point of view for a whole scene. Every now and then, in a particularly emotional scene or important scene, I might switch. But for the most part, what I'm talking about here is being only in the point-of-view character's head.

I like to think of POV as strapping a camera on the character's forehead so we only see what that character can well as planting a bug in that character's brain so we can "hear" what that character thinks.

So as you're writing, you can only write what this character would see or think. To let the reader know what other characters are seeing or thinking, you can only do it by having the POV character watch and draw conclusions. For example, if you're in Jane's POV, and she breaks up with John, then you can't suddenly have John thinking about his broken heart. You can only show what Jane sees: tears in his eyes or a scowl on his face. Or you can show him pacing or racing out of the room. Then she draws her conclusions. Of course, you can also show how he's feeling (or how he's acting like he's feeling) in dialogue.

Let's look at some examples of problems we can run into with POV:

--If you're in a female character's POV in an opening scene where you want to describe your main character, would you write something like this?

Jane Doe's glorious golden hair flowed down her back, waving in adorable ringlets that made other women jealous.

Well, probably not. What's the problem here?

Most women won't think of their own hair in that manner. Plus, they don't normally see how their hair looks in the back unless they're holding a hand mirror while looking into another mirror.

What might a woman feel or see in her hair? Would this description work better?

Jane Doe's golden blonde hair hung heavy down her back, the curls wild from the humidity.

So yes, she can feel the weight of it. And she can think about it being wild, which doesn't seem like bragging. Or if the point of the original sentence was to show that other women admire her hair, you could do that but would have to be careful that you don't make her seem conceited. I've seen something like this before and thought it was fine:

Jane Doe brushed her wildly curling blonde hair and swept it into a ponytail. Her mom and friends always told her it was her best feature, but they didn't have to deal with the unruliness.

So something like that example gets the point across while making the character seem likable.

NOTE: I'll add here that unless you're writing in only one POV,  it's my opinion it's best to save the physical description for when you're in the POV of another character. So, John can describe Jane's hair as glorious and adorable. And if he's wanting to run his fingers through her hair, then it's a great way to show his emotion as well, doing double duty. :)

--John wanted to throw down his cell phone to get rid of the words Jane had written in the text message. He wondered why she didn't love him anymore. He thought maybe he could change her mind. But then he felt a sense of despair when he realized she hadn't initiated contact in over a week.

Okay, so there's probably nothing technically wrong with that example. But it doesn't use what we call deep POV. Words like "wondered" and "thought" and "felt" and "realized" are all distancing words that aren't needed. They're like a layer between the character and the reader, and are "telling" words. Plus, despair is naming an emotion, which you want to avoid as well.

Remember: camera on forehead, bug in brain. Using that bug in the brain, let's re-write this passage as if it's coming straight in John's thoughts.

John jammed his cell phone with the offending text message into his pocket. Jane didn't love him anymore. Why? Could he possibly do something to change her mind? A quick glance at his cell phone proved she hadn't called in over a week and set up a jagged ache in his chest. No, he wouldn't be changing her mind.

See how that cuts out all the "stuff" you don't need? You're right in John's head, not telling how John is thinking and feeling.

Okay, that's all for today. I'll keep working and maybe post some more next week (or the week after since next week is the ACFW conference).

So what do you think? Do you agree with how I handled the examples? Did you find you've got POV problems? (I know I still have trouble with forgetting not to name emotions!)



  1. Excellent post, Missy. You know, sometimes I get lazy and go for the thought, wondered, felt, realized. Bad, bad, Mindy. Time to do a search and find to correct those bouts of laziness.

  2. Missy--great post. The way you've presented the examples is really clear and makes a lot of sense. I like the explanations you give as to why you don't want to use certain paragraphs/words/and such.

    Can't wait to read more.

    I just finished a book where I'd say 2/3rds was written in 1 POV. The other 1/3 was 3-4 peoples occasional POV thrown in where the author thought it was necessary. VERY jarring and made a really fun book somewhat trying to read.

  3. Great post, Missy! Keep working on your workshop, it's sure to help people!

  4. Thanks, ladies. I'm glad it was helpful.

    Mindy, I do the same thing. I especially like "wondered" I think because it's kind of southern. :)

    Lindi, that does sound jarring!

    I thought I'd just think on the blog to work out the workshop. I hope y'all don't mind my ramblings. :) Then I'll cut and paste into a document to put together a proposal for the conference. :)

  5. Yes, please! I enjoyed your post and I'm one that would certainly be there for a workshop if at all possible - probably front seat.

  6. Great, Maxine! I'll keep working on it. I took an online class about POV when I first started writing, and it really helped me.

  7. Kudos Missy! I agree that the examples are clear as to your explanation of why one example is preferred over the other. You're showing a distinct difference here and will be easy to understand.

    I will sometimes go ahead and use all the telling words in the first/rough draft just to get the scenes on the page. It can be painful to edit and figure out how to "show" the scene better, but it is always worth it!!!

  8. Christy, that's a good point. This can be something to do on edits. It's most important to get those words on the page! :)

  9. Wow Missy, here it is 2013 and I was blessed to find this post. I loved what I read and wanted you to know that I shared this post on my blog, and I also have F.A.I.T.H Girls on my favorite links. I am looking forward to adventuring around you ladies books & taking some writing classes.

    Jennifer Wright

  10. Thank you so mich, Jennifer, for spending time woth us :)

  11. Jennifer, thank you! I'm glad you found it helpful. Thanks for sharing.