February 4th, 2008

Kate Elliott asked me to repost something on point of view, for those readers who’ve some confusions.

Point-of-View, or POV.

For a quick overview, here are some definitions


First Person

This is the “I” story.

The broken shutter in the window creaked a warning. I flung myself across the table, covering as best I could my neat piles of papers, as a draft of cold wind scoured into the room…

The benefit of first person is its immediacy. You are really inside the head of the person telling the story. This is good for character stories, but not as good for certain kinds of tension stories. You can therefore say that first person’s focus might not be on what happens so much as how it happens. In other words, we know a first person protagonist lives; we just don’t know what that means.

A first person narrator can therefore be what is called an Unreliable Narrator. This means that what the person says about a situation, character, or action, might not be true. Readers can sometimes enjoy discovering that the narrator is unreliable–discovering, for example, that in spite of the fervent dislike of the narrator for a character, the reader comes to the conclusion that he’s really not the bad guy.

More notes on First Person under Omniscient– sometimes these distinctions are not as easy as they look.


Second Person

This one is fairly easy to describe, and you rarely see it, except maybe in very short horror tales, and in more experimental stories:

You walk down the stairs. You turn to the right, glancing in the window, where you see your neighbor eating his dinner. You bend and pick up a rock, hefting it in your hand, before you cock your arm back, and…

Karin Lowachee used it very effectively at the beginning of her science fiction novel Warchild. This one is almost always in present tense, as well. Present tense is currently very, very fashionable—when done well, readers like the immediacy.


Third Person

Now we’re getting to some complications. Simple third person is, of course, something like this:

Tom and Lisa walked down the street.

That’s clear enough, right? But if one of them acts, or sees the act, then we start getting into distinctions. Different critics, teachers, and writers have all kinds of labels for variations on third, and you can find them in writing books. Here are mine:

Tight Third

Tom and Mary walked down the street. Tom watched the swing of Mary’s hair against her back, and smiled when she caught him gazing at her. She took his hand. They gazed into each other’s faces, Tom thinking happily about the movie they were about to enjoy together. He was only vaguely aware of the squeal of brakes coming round the corner . . .

What ‘tight’ means is, we are tightly locked inside Ton’s skull. We cannot hear, see, smell, taste, or touch anything that Tom can’t. Therefore we do not see what Tom looks like, unless he’s thinking about his own appearance.

Now, you will find plenty of books in which a tight third POV is being used, yet the author does this:

Dark-haired Tom watched the swing of Mary’s blond tresses against her back, and his wide, curved lips smiled when she caught him gazing at her. She grinned back at his deep blue eyes with her azure orbs, and took his long strong hand into her delicate one…

I’ve found that most often in romance novels, where the reader expects a high degree of enforced intimacy, and constant awareness of physical attributes that emphasize the characters’ overriding attraction to one another. In a romance novel, the romance is more important than subsidiary action, so word choices and scene setup is going to demonstrate this.

NOTE: Some writers will slide quietly into omniscient just briefly with:

Tom was so wrapped up in Mary he was unaware of the squeal of brakes . . .

More on that later. Meanwhile, if we’re using tight third, how do we get across what Tom looks like?

The easiest solution is for him to look into a mirror. This has been overused a lot, but it’s still useful if you’re not obvious about it. In other words, it’s boring if a character stands in front of a mirror staring at him or herself. But if they react, then it’s more realistic, and thus more interesting. So, instead of:

Tom stopped to look in the mirror before leaving for his date with Mary. He studied his blue eyes, his wide, curved mouth, his dark hair, his excellent cheekbones, the carefully tended two-day stubble on his chin, that looked just like the guys in the Matrix movies . . .

Bor-ring! Do we believe in Tom? Except for the bit about Matrix, which might raise a faint laugh, he’s dull and rather arrogant-seeming. So:

Tom raced down the stairs, knowing he was late. Mary might not wait–she felt it disrespected her, if people kept her waiting, but she couldn’t know about his flat tire, and the extra work his boss had stuck on him, and the fact that Tom’s watch had fallen off when he changed the tire, so he lost track of time. He glanced in the mirror as he ran by, and caught sight of a young guy with tousled dark hair, a wide mouth that reminded him suddenly of his dad, worried blue eyes, and, oh no, oh no, was that a big old honking zit forming right on his stubbly chin? Oh, great, Mary would never notice the expensive haircut he got just for her, the new silk shirt, the flowers–she’d be staring all night at that zit…

Tom becomes a little more real here, yet we still get plenty of details on his appearance.

Another way to get his appearance in is to slide in details as the story progresses.

This takes more time, obviously, but it doesn’t draw attention to itself quite as much as a one-shot description. Such as:

Tom closed his hand around Mary’s, intensely aware of how thin her fingers were, the fragility of the bones. He hoped she wasn’t disgusted by the calluses on his palms from all his weightlifting. He admired the swing of her pale hair against her back. Funny, until now he’d always been attracted to dark-haired girls, he’d always thought because that was what he was used to, coming from a family of dark-haired people, but as soon as he met Mary…

So we’ve got Tom. How do we get into Mary’s mind? We can’t in tight third. That’s called head-hopping–jumping from one person’s thoughts to the next. If we want Mary’s POV we’ve got to end the scene from Tom’s POV, and continue the story with a scene from Mary’s. Now, if you switch too often, the reader gets too distracted, like watching too many MTV jump-cuts. Many authors restrict themselves to one POV per short story, or per chapter; some writers successfully handle more.

Okay, one last observation on third, what I think of as Camera View.

This is where we stay outside of anybody’s head. Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett used this one, many years ago. In this POV we see the characters as if a camera is watching them, but we never hear anyone’s thoughts. Like:

A hand reached for the door, which opened. Out stepped Tom. He looked up the street. He stiffened when he spied Mary waiting at the corner, her blond hair blowing in the breeze. Soon they were striding down the street together, their gazes locked. Then around the corner sped an SUV moving far too fast, just as Tom and Mary stepped off the curb . . .

Camera-eye tight third is sometimes called “dramatic third”—it’s a kind of long-distance shot, and thus can be very close to Omniscient as it views without access to any thoughts, leading the reader to winnow out clues to the characters’ inner lives from the description of their actions.

This variety of approaches within third person indicates there are various degrees of depth available within each point-of-view. A writer’s voice emerges not just through word choice and type of story, but how he or she slides from long-distance reportage to close-in, claustrophobic stream of consciousness. Many readers love the enforced intimacy of romance novels, wherein the reader is told who the hero and heroine are, how they felt, etc; other readers prefer a neutral voice talking mainly about ideas, the characters only sketchily described. Some writers preferred never to share the inner lives of the characters, but provide painstakingly recorded clues, like Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway. A close look at the most enduring classics (ones people read for pleasure) seems to indicate that most readers prefer a dramatic change in distance between the reader and the characters: sometimes intimate, sometimes from a distant vantage that permits readers to come to their own intellectual, moral, and even emotional conclusions.


Or the God’s-Eye view. This one is the way most 19th century novels were written. In this view, which we can call omni for short, the narrator can get into anyone’s head, or follow anyone.

The first thing to realize is that there is a narrator present, telling all stories. That includes third person. In tight third, it’s easy to forget this, or to mix the narrative presence with the actual author. In some cases they are indeed indistinguishable. In the example I put under third person, Tom did not hear the squeal of brakes, that is the voice of the narrator, popping in just for a second to give you an important fact for dramatic urgency.

Some people might mix the narrative presence with First Person. But here are two differences. The narrator can see into everyone’s head, and a first person protagonist can’t. Second, the narrator is not who the story is about. A first person story is usually some semblance of fictional autobiography.

In Jane Austen’s novels, the narrator almost never emerges from the background, but just once is a while she will sum up the action, or make an observation: here, from Mansfield Park, opening chapter 27, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can. . “. Conversely in Vanity Fair, Thackeray’s narrator strides out on stage, and lectures the reader directly about the story. He stops the actors in the middle of action ([an approximation] We shall halt here, before Mrs. Fussbudget sips her tea, and the motes of dust are still in the air, to consider now what we have learned about the wicked Mr. Nogoodnik) so the narrator can emerge once again and talk directly to the reader about the story, in order to really hammer in that point.

Sometimes the narrator was shrouded in what we call ‘frames’ to create a sense of reality, as if the story were true. Modern readers sometimes find the layers of letters at the beginning of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tedious and pointless, but at the time the book came out, with its scary cutting edge scientific experiments and extrapolations, the frame tale–as if the story was told in letters–made it seem as if it really had happened. Thus it functioned both as a science fiction novel, and as a horror novel.

Knowing who is telling your story and why is crucial in using Omni. The writer also needs to pay attention to transitions from one person’s thoughts to another’s, or there can be a confusion of pronouns. The successful omniscient authors do not try to get inside everyone’s heads, but choose the viewpoints that add the most dramatic tension; most often the dramatic viewpoints are those engaged in the action, but sometimes it’s from an observer’s point of view. For example, many fans of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings scarcely notice a two sentence shift into the point of view of a fox passing through the wood when Frodo and Company leave the shire, but that quick outsider viewpoint serves to add dramatic tension to the story, reminding readers without coming right out and telling them that the hobbits are indeed now out in the wide and wild world, far from the comfortable home they know.


10 Responses to “Points-of-View”

  1. green_knighton 04 Feb 2008 at 3:06 pm

    There’s a subset of first person that I like to call ‘first person omni’ because it’s told after the fact, from the point of view of an older, wiser, self, and while that narrator can’t look into other people’s heads, and thus remains a little unreliable, they can do things like ‘I would later change my mind about the usefulness of mud, but for now, I hated it’ or ‘what I didn’t know at the time, was that on the other side of the hill, Colonel Whatsit had not yet finished giving his speech about the necessity of polishing brass buckles, so while we were stuck throwing mud clods at the Indians – all other ammunition having been used – his troops admired their reflections in their horses’ bridles.’ In other words, things that happen outside the narrator’s sphere of influence, facts he learnt later, things other people tell him about their thoughts – they all can flow into the first person narrative, and that, to me, makes it a subset of omni.

    And I’d disagree about the narrator – I think there’s a use for limited as well as unlimited narration (some omni is restricted to a set of characters, some might give you the emotions of inanimate objects, and anything inbetween); and then there’s the distinction between an involved narrator and an uninvolved one as well as the explicit/impicit divide.

    Me, I don’t have enough of a handle on the story to write omni, although my latest idea might just make me change my mind.

  2. Merrie Haskellon 04 Feb 2008 at 6:04 pm

    I would love it if someone could expound on the difference between head-hopping in tight third and straight omni. Is it simply the overlay of the narrator? What if the narrator is so unobtrusive that it looks basically like tight third?

  3. Sherwood Smithon 04 Feb 2008 at 8:21 pm

    Merrie: these things can vary from reader to reader, but if you don’t notice the slide from character to character, it’s usually because the writer has a firm grasp of narrative flow, which is omni. If you’re confused by pronouns, if you can’t figure out who’s thinking a given thought because so many thoughts have been reported on, then it’s head-hopping.

    some will insist that you can’t slip from one POV to another in a page, or a paragraph, or a sentence, yet I’ve seen Kipling, Austen, Flaubert, Trollope, all do that and it doesn’t seem to upset anyone. They’ve got a firm narrative grip (but also, I think modern readers expectations can vary from book to book, too: what one won’t tolerate in a new book is accepted in a classic because “that’s old-fashioned”.

  4. Sherwood Smithon 04 Feb 2008 at 8:23 pm

    Green Knight: yes, I think of that as part of first person. The assumption is that it’s being written later (unless of course it’s Pamela–but that was epistolary, and part of the fun is the idea of them all over the house busy writing letters) with the perspective of hindsight.

    Indeed there are soooo many levels of narrator, but that post was way long enough. What I wanted to hammer was the fact that all stories have a narrator–I keep seeing surprise when this discussion comes up in F2F.

  5. Maryon 04 Feb 2008 at 8:40 pm

    When writing first-person, the first questions to consider (if not to answer) are:

    1. Who is your narrator telling this story to?
    2. When?
    3. Where?
    4. Why?

    Conventions let us dispose of all those questions, but it’s worth looking at.

    Of course, once you answer them, you are not “really inside the head of the person telling the story.” You are listening to him tell the story, with all the perils and pitfalls involved.

    If you really want to underscore that, you use a “frame story” and tell how the narrator comes to tell the story.

  6. Nickon 09 Feb 2008 at 4:57 am

    I would love it if someone could expound on the difference between head-hopping in tight third and straight omni. Is it simply the overlay of the narrator? What if the narrator is so unobtrusive that it looks basically like tight third?

    Basicallly: head-hopping is what it is called if you screw it up. Free indirect style is what it is called if the author shifts into it without the gears grinding and it has all the appearance of tight third. But there are times when it is deliberately not unobtrusive (see related thread regarding Flaubert).

  7. Point of Views « Orbis Writingson 09 Feb 2008 at 1:35 pm

    […] said that I wanted to present this post that I found written by a published author.   The whole blog itself has some amazing post and I […]

  8. SJon 09 Feb 2008 at 4:26 pm

    Wanted to say thanks for posting this article! It’s very clear. Sometimes plotting a story is fun and easy but actually writing it out and sticking to one appropriate POV is really tough.

  9. tqfton 11 Feb 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Haven’t read it yet but 2nd person POV
    Halting State by Charles Stross
    Interview here:http://www.fantasybookspot.com/node/2379
    “Lawrence – The novel is most notable for its unique second person perspective. I admit I approached the novel hesitantly at first, but I quickly found it worked out pretty well. After a few pages, it was feels as ‘natural’ as a first or a third perspective for that matter. It got me thinking, though. Why this perspective?

    Charles Stross: It’s the natural voice of the narrative computer game, all the way back to the 1972 Colossal Cave Adventure on mainframe — “you are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”. The computer *is* the narrator, and it’s addressing you, the player, from outside your own head. I wanted to give the book some of the feel of a computer game.

  10. Klaus Schillingon 09 Feb 2017 at 3:11 am

    The omniscient style of Fielding and Thackeray is for me the one and only acceptable one. I can’t be deterred from writing shamelessly this way, and I will not accept reading anything written in the “show, don’t tell” style.

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