Writing Craft 101: Person and Point of View (part two)

Third person is when your narrator isn’t actually part of the story. This allows you to develop a much broader world. The reader can see what’s going on in multiple locations and through multiple viewpoints.

Within third person, there are multiple levels of POV, which determine how close you get to the character’s thoughts. Your options are omniscient, objective, limited multiple, and limited close.

Third person omniscient is when the narrator is basically God. The narrator can see everything that is happening and knows all the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Omniscient POV was very popular in classic literature, such as Dickens and Hardy, but has fallen out of popularity, primarily because a closer POV is more engaging to the reader.

Third person objective is when the narrator describes actions and events, but only tells about them objectively, and does not intrude upon the characters’ thoughts. This is even less engaging than omniscient because the reader never really knows what a character is thinking or feeling and therefore doesn’t empathize with the character nearly as deeply.

Third person limited POV is a little closer, limited to the thoughts, feelings, experiences of one character at a time. You can have multiple limited POVs within one story, but be careful to differentiate between them so the reader knows whose POV they’re experiencing at any given time.

Third person close is very similar to limited, as in it is limited to one character at a time, but it is so close it’s almost like first person, except it’s still “he/she” instead of “I”. Like limited, you can get into a close POV for more than one character, but be sure to be clear about whose mind you’re in and whose eyes you’re seeing through.

The preferred style for most modern storytelling is to use limited/close POVs. Like first person, this style draws the reader in and helps them to experience the story along with the character. So, unless otherwise specified, most of my advice will be given with the assumption that you’re going to be writing your story in either a limited/close or first-person POV.

Head Hopping is a term that is used when you switch POV characters mid-scene. If you’ve been in Helen’s POV, describing Troy and her trauma of being kidnapped, and then switch to the servant who is overwhelmed by her beauty without a scene break, you have hopped from Helen’s experience to the servant’s. This is confusing to your reader, because all of a sudden, instead of being Helen, they’re seeing Helen. It is a quick way to pull your reader out of the story and then you risk your reader losing interest. Stick with one POV character per scene, and if you must switch POVs in order to move to another location or reveal critical information that Helen can’t know, then have a scene or chapter break.

Writing Craft 101: Person and Point of View (part one)

Point of View, or POV, is through whose eyes the story is told. Most stories will have one primary POV character, typically the main character, although there can be multiple POV characters in one story.

There are many different types and styles for writing POV. It’s fine to choose which you want to use, but you must be consistent within your story.

POV is directly related to Person, which is who is telling the story.

Person is the narrative voice and how you’re telling the story. This is similar to POV, but not exactly the same. The POV employed is a storytelling style, whereas Person has to do with grammar.

Your options for Person are first person, second person, and third person. In fiction, you’ll most often encounter third person and first person POVs. What Person you’re telling your story in determines, to an extent, what type of POV you’ll use.

If you’re writing in first person, then by default, your POV character will be your main character (though not necessarily your protagonist). First person means the narrator is telling the story through his or her own eyes, using “I am, I did, I said,” rather than “he” or “she.” Common examples of stories written in first person are Twilight, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Fault in our Stars.

Second person is when the narrator is talking directly to someone. For example, when I am telling you what to do to write well and I say, “First, you read my series on writing craft,” I am speaking in second person. In fiction, pretty much the only time you would use second person would be if you were writing one of those “Choose your own adventure” stories and you place the reader into the story. There are a few exceptions in classic literature, such as Lolita, but I don’t recommend it, especially for beginning writers.

Third person is by far the most common for use in fiction writing. Third person is when a narrator is telling the story, talking about the characters as “he” and “she.” Even in third person, the story is often told through the eyes of a particular point of view character, but it is still written using pronouns as though the story is being told by an outside source.

Between first person and third person, there are pros and cons to either choice.

First person is a much more intimate way of experiencing the story. Remember, your number one goal is to engage your reader, and in fiction, that happens when they make a connection. First person allows the reader to experience the story right along with the character, walking with them as they discover whatever it is they’re discovering in the story.

The downside of first person is that you are limited to only that one character telling the story. As you narrate, you can only give away the information that the character learns as they learn it. The reader can’t know anything that the narrator hasn’t personally experienced. (Technically, you could have a first-person omniscient character, as in the dead character that narrates Desperate Housewives, but that would be rare and not recommended.) First person makes it harder to show what’s going on with other characters or in other locations, and depending on the type of story you’re writing, it may drastically limit the scope of your story and possible tension.

First person works particularly well for romance and YA.

Check out this post for more explanation about POV options when writing in the third person.

Writing Craft 101: Common Terms

One thing I see time and again when working with newer authors is that they have a great idea for a story or a character or a world and they have written a first draft of a novel, putting all those ideas down on paper, and then they get to the point where they’re trying to get feedback, and the people they’re trying to learn from toss out words and phrases and acronyms, like “deep POV” and “info-dumping” and “telling” and so on and they’re trying to learn, but it’s like speaking a foreign language. The terms that are used in writing circles among more seasoned writers are deeply confusing to someone who has never studied them.

Here is a simple definition of terms that you’ll hear a lot, so you can reference your own work when someone says you need to work on them.

POV: Point of View

This is through whose eyes the story is told. Most stories will have a primary POV character, the main character, although there can be multiple POV characters in one story.

Person: Who is telling the story

This is similar to POV, but not exactly the same. The POV employed is a storytelling style, whereas Person has to do with grammar. In fiction, you’ll most often encounter third person and first person POVs. Third person is when it is told by a narrator, as in “he said, she did,” while first person is when it’s told by the character himself, as in “I did, I said.” Nonfiction, especially self-help books, may use second-person, as in “You should, you will,” but you’ll rarely find that in fiction except in a Choose Your Own Adventure story.

Tense: When the story is told

Tenses are past, present, and future. You can study tenses further in a grammar book, but primarily what you’ll see in fiction is past tense and occasionally present tense.

Backstory: The information about your character that has shaped who he is and why he does what he does. This includes his past, his personality, his relationships, and so on.

Info-dumping: Telling your reader what you feel she needs to know about your character’s backstory in a way that is boring and inorganic to the storyline.

Active and Passive Sentences: This is another grammar term, having to do with active voice and passive voice. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing whatever is being done in the sentence. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb. “Dr. Jekyll consumed the potion,” vs. “The potion was consumed by Dr. Jekyll.” Active voice is the preferred writing style in fiction.

Show and Tell: This refers to the way you get information to your reader. You can tell your reader, “It was just about sunset when he kissed her goodnight,” or you can show them, “Rosy fingers of fading light painted her cheeks with a soft glow as he leaned in to kiss her goodnight.” There is a time and a place for telling, but for important scenes, showing is much more engaging to your reader.

Genre: This is the category into which your story fits. There are many, many genres, but some of the popular genres include Romance, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Chick-Lit, Action/Adventure, and Young Adult, among others.

Target Audience: Your target audience is the readers who are most likely to buy your book. If you’re writing romance, your target audience is probably women in the 30+ age range. If you’re writing Young Adult, your target audience is probably teens and twenty-somethings. If you’re writing suspense or sci-fi, your target audience is probably men.

Homonyms: These are words that sound like one another but have different meanings and sometimes different spellings.

Very often in writing I see homonyms confused. This is a sure way to lose the respect of your reader. Double check words that have another similar-sounding word to make sure you’re using the right one. And for a quick reference, check out my book “Handy Handbook of Common Homonyms,” available on Amazon, or FREE if you sign up for my newsletter (see the sidebar).

Crutch Words: Words that a particular author uses frequently in their work. Most authors have them. They’re different for everyone. Ideally, you should figure out which ones are yours and come up with new ways to convey the same information so your work doesn’t sound repetitive and therefore boring.

Pantsers and Plotters: This refers to your particular style, whether you prefer to write “by the seat of your pants,” making things up as you go along (pantser), or whether you prefer to create a detailed outline of your characters and plot arc before ever beginning to write the story itself (plotter).

I’ll go into more detail about each of these things in the coming weeks, explaining the pros and cons of different writing styles, why certain things are preferred over others, and how to effectively use them in your own manuscript.

What about you? What words or phrases have you heard that you aren’t sure what is meant by them, or what were you confused by when you were a newer writer?