Shelley Widhalm

Understanding Point-of-View

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on March 25, 2012 at 10:00 am

As a reader, I am ultrasensitive to point-of-view shifts that are confusing, break the flow of the story or are an easy out for the writer.

As a writer, I have to be hyper alert to making the mistake that can slip in if I get lazy as I pen and edit my stories.

Point of view is the narrator’s position in relation to the story he or she is telling.

The narrator can be a character in the story or an outside observer.

The point of view can be subjective, describing one or more character’s thoughts and emotions. Or it can be objective by being entirely omniscient and all knowing or omniscient limited, narrowed to the perspective of a single character.

In first person, the narrator is the main or a secondary character telling the story. The “I” (or “we”) observes and reflects on the main events of the story from the beginning through the end.

Using first person is a way to reveal the narrator’s unspoken thoughts or internal musings, adding depth to the external events that occur. These thoughts can be directly expressed or coupled with action, letting the reader interpret that deeper level of the story.

Writing in second person involves the narrator referring to one of the characters as “you,” giving readers the impression they are the “you.”

Second person is the least common voice, while third person is the most common.

Third person has an unspecified or uninvolved narrator who is not a character in the story. The narrator refers to the primary and secondary characters as “he,” “she,” “it” and “they.”

Point of view can become annoying when a writer switches among characters in the same chapter or, in some cases, the same paragraph. I have encountered this with genre writers who are on their third or fourth book and obviously are under contract to crank out another book. You know what I mean?

The writer making this mistake is moving too quickly through the scene, bouncing from character to character without developing a particular character and how he or she is acting and reacting in a moment of the story.

To give an example, the writer should not say something like:

Samantha sniffed, offended at what Sarah had said in the break room, trying to think of what to say in response. Sarah turned her back to microwave her lunch, rolling her eyes at the cupboards. The dishwasher, though the sign said “dirty dishes,” rattled as it cleaned.

Here, the viewpoint shifted from Samantha to Sarah to the dishwasher, which was acting independently. It wasn’t being observed by Samantha or Sarah.

Point of view is something that should go unnoticed by the reader but becomes part of how they feel the story as they read through the plot.

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  1. This is often so hard for people to grasp. I never shift within a paragraph (at least not an edited one!). And I try to limit each scene to one person’s viewpoint. Sometimes a little insight from another character’s viewpoint can keep the flow going smoothly. But if it pulls the reader out of the story, then it’s got to go.

    • That is true about another character adding insight to a character’s viewpoint! I find that if I write in third-person, sometimes I’ll slip into first person because I’ve gotten so involved with my character, I start thinking in terms of “I” or “me.” That definitely gets edited out!

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