Monday 25 January 2010


Get yourself a cup of coffee: this is a long one.

Several of you have asked me to blog about Point of View (POV). There's a lot to say about it, but I want to keep this post fairly basic, so I'm not going into every subtlety. As with almost all rules, once you know them you can break them, but POV is an area where you must know the rules perfectly and have very good reasons for breaking them before you can do so.

POV is an anchoring mechanism for your reader's mind. You control your reader with it. When POV is done properly, your reader can engage. If you mess up the POV, it is jarring and discombobulating. Risky stuff. I'm all for avant-garde risky stuff, but only in the hands of an experienced professional. Would you go up in a plane with a beginner pilot and wish him to do acrobatics?

The basic idea of POV may seem simple: through whose eyes / mind is this story being told? But there are extra things to think about, which can produce complications or nuances, and this is where beginner / unpublished writers trip up:
  1. Every single sentence must fit the POV, not just the sentences obviously expressed or felt by the chosen character / narrator.
  2. Sometimes, we can have different POV within the book, but switching POV must be done properly, clearly, consistently and coherently, not just because the author fancies it.
  3. POV is not the same as "voice" but it is inextricably linked. Sometimes, a beginner writer may obey the technical rules of POV but have an inconsistency of voice. I'm not going to talk about voice [much] here, so please read this post if you want to know what I mean.
So, this "every single sentence" thing. Yes, I mean this literally.
"It was a dark and stormy night..." Says who? Who is telling us that it was a dark and stormy night?  At the moment, it could be anyone. Let's read on.
"It was a dark and stormy night when Carmelle Jones pulled up in front of the grim little cottage, flung open the car door and tottered across the cruel gravel as fast as her Manolo Blahniks would allow. The wind grabbed at her hair and rain spattered the notebook that she clutched to her chest. Cursing the impulse which had inspired her to sign up to a writers' retreat at this time of year - in the country, of all places - Carmelle rang the doorbell, shivering, dripping, and wondering just how long it would be before someone would pour her a glass of Merlot."
So, this looks like a third person narrative, told from the POV of Carmelle Jones. We know her thoughts, at the same time as being able to see her from the outside. The narrator is not Carmelle, but is narrating Carmelle's thoughts while also being able to make observations about her appearance.

But here's the second paragraph:
"Inside the cottage, the sound of the doorbell woke Rob Flanders from a particularly pleasant dream as he dozed by the fire. An ex-SAS soldier, Rob always woke instantly, his ever-hard muscles ready for any action required. One smooth movement, and he was on his feet. He knew it was Carmelle Jones, of course. All the other writers had arrived. Soft and lardy, as usual, with arses made for sitting on. Too much laughing and weak eyes. Why he'd got into this business, he sometimes wondered, but someone had said there was money to be made from writers: all that poetic inspiration and not much sense, dreams of eternal fame and personal fulfilment. And he fancied a bit of smooth himself. Not that he'd fancied what he'd seen so far."
So, a different POV. We're seeing the thoughts of two characters. This means it's looking like an omniscient narrator. OK, but the author [me] has to continue this. What I can't then do is have 95% of it being Carmelle's POV and every now and then slip into Rob's. [Not that I would want to slip into Rob's anything, obviously, but you know what I mean. I hope.]

One of the most common mistakes of unpublished writers is POV slippage - the random and convenient decisions by the writer to tell us what someone else sees. POV slippage is not OK. It's like bra slippage. Well, some people [men] mmight think that's OK. But it's not, is it, ladies? It's sloppy and cheap.

BUT, you can switch POV if you follow some rules. POV switches must be clear, deliberate and part of the overall structure of your book. Here are the rules [and please note: I am aiming at beginners / other unpublished writers here. There are some different options for more experienced writers.]
  • Don't switch POV within a chapter. [But see point 4]. Keep different POV for separate chapters.
  • If you do that, you should make a clear structure for this and not do it randomly. For example, at a few intervals through the book, cleverly spaced, you could have POV B, with most of the book in POV A. But see the next point.
  • Make it clear that you have switched POV. You might do this by choosing a different font, but you should use another device as well. It could be obvious from the change in tone / voice; or you could make sure you use the name or whatever would alert the reader to the change of POV and preferably show whose POV it now is. Don't play silly buggers with your reader. Deathwatch is an example of deliberate, structural and obvious multiple POV.
  • An exception to the 3rd point is if you have a device whereby every now and then we are taken directly into the head of the central character. This kind of internal monologue is usually depicted by italics. It's tricky to carry off and should be used sparingly, but it can be effective. Let me give you an example of a book which does this and also incorporates some POV switches to illustrate my points above.
My novel, Sleepwalking, is a third person narrative with a slightly complex POV. When the main character, Livia, is present, it's her POV, though still third person. When she's not present, other characters share POV. When Livia is present, occasionally, she goes into first person internal thought, denoted by italics. Here's an example:
Livia lay awake in her sleeping-bag. The wooden floor was hard under her back. She heard the soft breathing of the others and wondered what they dreamt of. Were all their thoughts and dreams as complicated as hers?
"Liv?" It was Marcus, still awake, too. "Are you sure you're all right?" His voice sounded so reasonable, so strong, so ignorant.
Don't ask. Don't ask. Don't bloody well ask or you might not like the answer. I feel like a speck of dust floating on the skin of the water. What will happen when the wind blows hard and the water shakes its skin away?
As I say, don't do it too much or it gets irritating. The endless, angsty, internal thoughts of a character can be boring. So, keep the device for when you need it.

Let's look at some different basic POV structures.

First person narrative
If your story is in the first person, obviously you cannot say anything other than what that character knows. [Unless you have some separate chapters with a different POV. But this must feel right for the book and not simply be for your own convenience.] Be cautious about first person narrative, because it is restricting and you may end up regretting using it. You can do much more with third person.

NB: if your story is in the first person, you do not also need the italicised internal ranting bits. Sounds obvious, but I keep seeing it in beginner writers' work. First person IS internal narration, so you don't need to differentiate.

First person is also tricky because you may be restricted from using descriptive language. This is because you can only use the language that the character would use. You must get into that character's voice and stay in it. If your character would not think of describing the pretty flowers, you can't describe the pretty flowers either.

Third person narrative from main character POV
I find this the most straightforward and natural method. It allows you to talk about your MC as well as talking through her. Of course, it does mean that you can't say what's happening when your MC is not there, but this makes it a very direct and natural experience for the reader because, if you think about it, that's what real life is like: we don't know what's happening when we're not there.

Omniscient narrator
This should feel natural for story-telling, because why shouldn't the author be omniscient? Thing is, it's not the author who's telling the story: it's the narrator. And the narrator is actually a character, even if invisible. So, it's not easy to pull off. One reason for the difficulty is that if you are an omniscient narrator, you know so much of what is in every character's mind that there is no mystery left. Unless you are not going to tell your reader half of it. That's obviously the trick. So, an omniscient narrator has to mess with the reader a bit, and you have to be careful about messing with readers.Careful handling without trickery, let's call it.

I use the omniscient narrator in my next novel, Wasted. It's a highly individual, often sardonic, detached POV, really like some kind of fascinated God looking down and playing with the events below. It's right for this story but wouldn't have worked in other things I've written. It's right because in a way this book is about how the world works and how, if there were a God, he might play dice.  

Unreliable narrator
This is a fascinating device, and one which I am going to blog about separately. [So, please don't sully the comments section with diversions down this route - your time will come!]

A point about narrative voice
Remember that your narrator is a character, too. This is the case even when the POV is not that of an actual character in the story. The narration must have a voice and a personality, and must be consistent within that voice and personality. It could be sardonic or ironic, chatty or distant. Your narrator's personality is delineated by the language you use and the way you use it. Narrative voice is a powerful tool for the writer and a way in which you can make your book distinct.

Narrator, POV and voice are intrinsic to your book. They will define it. And they are not things to think about later - you'll be able to tweak them later, to get them perfect and iron out any slippages, but you must nail them fully at the start. They will colour everything else you do.

Remember, for every sentence ask yourself: says who?


Cat Clarke said...

An excellent post! Every new writer should read this. Twice. And maybe have it tattooed on their brain.

Harry Markov said...

Narrator, POV and voice are like a trinity, a three faced deity with blurry lines and I usually have my unfair share of problems when it comes to those. thankfully, I use first person POV or the 3rd person limited, so I more or less infuse narrator with POV to a point.

I am curious to what you will say about the unreliable POV, because I want to write a novel with it and I am not entirely sure how to go about it.

Lacer said...

A timely post, as always! I was just sitting browsing my Twitter whilst waiting for my manuscript to print out again, so I could go through and check for POV slippage, so your post has enforced what I need to check for even more firmly now!


Anonymous said...

Lovely. And I even won't sully the thread with questions about breaking the rules--I'll just eagerly await 'POV 2.0.' (I'm mucking around with a non-standard POV right now, and almost certainly falling prey to my seventeenth-worst impulse: getting too clever.)

And I'm not convinced that italics is necessary, if you check in with the character first:

* * *

"Liv?" It was Marcus, still awake, too. "Are you sure you're all right?" His voice sounded so reasonable, so strong, so ignorant.

Liv closed her eyes. Don't ask. Don't ask. Don't bloody well ask or you might not like the answer.

(And you've been on fire lately, N! Great stuff. Even I can't complain!)


Keren David said...

Very interesting. I like the limitations of first lets me off several hooks (descriptive writing being the most obvious one)

Jo Treggiari said...

Thanks Nicola,
timely as ever as I roll up sleeves and begin revisions on latest WIP which I had decided to switch from third person to 1st person to make things more immediate and impactful to my narrator. The subject is a hard one for me and 1st made me face up to it a bit more.
Found after reading your blog that I had written the prologue in third without even realizing it.
And exceedingly good to know that if writing in 1st no reason for those pesky italicized inner thoughts. I had not known that!
Perhaps in the future, with your clear explanations, I'll be ready to tackle omniscient or multi POV outside my usual comfort level.

Ellen Brickley said...

Brilliant post, Nicola, thanks!

I was doing some editing recently and I was amazed tat how much POV slippage there was. Ooops. Gone now!

Sarah said...

Oh, I wrestled with this last night!

I'm pretty good at keeping POV straight, but I've learned (for myself) that it's often sheer laziness that prompts a POV slip.

I was revising dialog with my MC last night, where she's working very hard to figure out just what another person really thinks. Instead of taking the time to envision the physical cues that my MC would pick up on, my fingers itched to jump in the other character's head for just a moment- or, worse still, resort to adverbs. ("she smiled mockingly...")


And, to deepen the tragedy, I had neither chocolate nor wine in my apartment last night.

Clair Humphries said...

POV is something I've really struggled with in the past, so thanks for this. Nicola, do you think certain genres tend to dictate which POV is most suitable? For example, women's commercial fiction often tends to be first person, informal and chatty in style, inviting the reader to empathise with the central character's thoughts etc. I wonder if there are any genres where first person would be a real no-no, or third person for that matter?

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Very useful post! I agree that POV and voice are linked; I'm in a blog chain, and our current topic is voice.

Why do you feel POV switches should be made at chapter breaks only? What about when you switch scenes mid-chapter? Isn't the scene break enough of a signal for a POV change?

Dolly said...

Great post, and love the excerpt with Livia.

I have been struggling with POV decision in my latest draft. I wrote it in multiple third, decided to switch to first, and finally decided that multiple third is actually the right one. But it was worth the hassle, just to be sure.

Jo Franklin said...

Thanks Nicola so pertinent and clear as always.

In my first book I went for 1st person. I think I'm okay with that.

My current WIP is third person limited to one character and I think I am firmly with her. But I have had feedback of pov slip and I can't see it. We often look at our closest friends and can see that they are stressed/angry/ecstatic or interpret their words/tone to mean that they are stressed etc.

How do you handle that in third person?

I can post a short extract of a scene from my WIP to illustrate and you can point out my transgressions so that we can all learn if you would find it helpful.

Sarah said...

Jo, I'm sure Nicola will have more and far better to say than I do, but I've just been working through the same thing myself.

You're absolutely right that we interpret our friends (everyone, actually!) to determine their mood, but we're interpreting something. If we go straight to describing their mood, we've skipped the cues (body language, changes in tone, even avoiding the subject) we used to figure out how they felt in the first place.

When I take the time to imagine and then put those cues into the text, I accomplish several things in addition to maintaining POV:

1. I've shown, not told, a character's emotional state.

2. I pull the reader in because they are now interpreting those cues in the text, not just taking my word for it.

3. The writing is lovely, subtle and nuanced.

4. I give myself an ulcer and/or a headache because this is often so hard for me. (I was working on this ALL YESTERDAY AFTERNOON! And it still stinks.) However, when it works, it's glorious, so I'll keep on keeping on.

I have no idea if that helps. As you can tell, it's been on my mind a bit.

Catherine Hughes said...

Oh God, I knew I wasn't normal and now I know why!

I struggle to write in the third person because my POV keeps slipping. So I write in first person, every time. I think this is because my favourite characters from other authors are 1st persons, so to speak. Harper Connelly, Harper Blaine, Zoe Martinque, all of Kelley Armstrong's witches, werewolves and teens... And so on.

But I don't find it limiting at all!!

I'm doomed! I'm unnatural! I'm worried!


PS - I blogged about Clare Dunkle's apparent disregard for POV on my RLW blog. No idea why it worked for her; perhaps your post on unreliable narrators (say what?) will help.

Jo Franklin said...

Sarah, I agree that it's important to add all that richness and to SDT. But sometimes description can take interrupt the main thread, break tension and even bore the pants off the reader.

On another very specific point I have just encountered in my ms.
Main character is eavesdropping a heated exchange. She cannot see anything. Can she say that one of the people 'spat the words' even though she can't see them?

I would argue 'yes' from the ferocious tone. Although whether saliva came flying out is anyone's guess as we can't see the speaker.

I did admit to anguishing over everything in an earlier post - and here I go again. But the good thing with a blog like this, it gives you the opportunity to ask nitty gritty questions that you can't ask the author of some 'how to write' book.

Nicola Morgan said...

Cat, Lacer, Jo, Ellen, Lost Wanderer - good!

Harry - I am also curious what I will say about unreliable narrators. I just hope I will be reliable.

Proe - crikey. Did you say "lovely"? "On fire"? Crikey again. But re whether I needed italics: I wanted the 3rd person to be more detached than this, and for the 1st person stuff to be starker, more different, so I think I did need it.

Keren - ! I like the idea of it letting you off the descriptive hook. Personally, I need restraining from it.

Sarah - you had no chocolate or wine to hand? For crying out loud, have I taught you nothing? You fool.

Clair - no, I don't think there are genre rules to dictate this. I really think it depends on the individual story. There are pros and cons to each type of POV and you just need to use the one which allows you to tell your story.

sandra - remember that this was supposed to be a post about basics, so starting with simpler structures. IF switching scene mid-chapter is what you want to do, and IF it's clear that you've done it, and IF it's the right thing for the story and not just to get you around a tricky aspect, and IF you're sure about what you're doing, you can change POV when you want! But those are big IFs. I do want to stress that POV switching is not something to muck around with and must only ever serve the story - once you've got your head around that, then honestly you can do it whichever way feels right.

Coming to Jo F's question in a separate comment...

Nicola Morgan said...

Jo - re your specific point re spitting the words: it's good that you're thinking about that so closely. I think some people would say it would be fine and others not. I tend to be lenient on those things, considerinhg myself not rule-bound but creative; US editors would be stricter and more rule-following (shoot me down but I've been edited by USians and UKians and it's very different...). But can you perhaps indicate the vitriol in a different way? "She could hear the anger, as though *** was spitting." (Or something.)

To answer your earlier question, which I think Sarah also answered nicely, let me give some examples. We would say things like, "She could see the fury in Jo's eyes," / "her jaw clenched in anger" / "every muscle in her body tightened in anger" / "her body slumped with exhaustion".

I think that if you genuinely think yourself into the character, you won't find yourself making POV slippages too much, because you will almost literally be seeing through the character's eyes.

Cat - my favourite characters are not 1st person POV, so we differ there. I want to be able to see the person and I find I can't until too late when the author tells us something ransom which doesn't coincide with the pic I've already conjured. I am now off to read your blog post re Clare Dunkle - but remember that post was the basics, not the intricate details. I kind of don't feel the need to go further into it because if you are at that stage you can work it out for yourselves! (Sorry, Proe...)

David John Griffin said...

A very good post, Nicola (well, they all are!)

"As I say, don't do it too much or it gets irritating. The endless, angsty, internal thoughts of a character can be boring."

"it" being first person internal thought: whoops, approx. 50% of my second novel is exactly that! Ah well.

My first and third (WIP) are good ol' third person narrative. One of my future planned novels might be right for omniscient narrator. That sounds interesting, partly to see what new problemettes that might throw up for me. I think I'm right in saying that omniscient narrator is favoured more by Sci-Fi authors than others? Not sure...

I'm interested to read your post on "unreliable narrator", especially as I don't know what that is!

"Remember, for every sentence ask yourself: says who?" Excellent, I've added that to my writing "mantra".


Emma Darwin said...

Excellent post, Nicola - of all the basics, I think this is the one which most students and aspiring writers in general get tied up in knots about.

And that's no shame, because it's not altogether straightforward. But it is absolutely, absolutely essential.

My quick test for whether you've got your 3rd person limited point of view right is whether you could re-write it in first person and have it make perfectly good sense. Now, I take Nicola's point that with 3rd person you can stand outside the character too, so it won't be perfect, but as a check for head-hopping and being too omniscient in telling the reader things that character couldn't know, it's invaluable.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post, Nicola :) I try so hard to get my students to be aware of pov - they tend to slip from 1st to 3rd quite often. Some of them can't see the problem even when I point it out. They know what they mean, so why don't we?? Makes me much more aware of it in my own writing.

CC MacKenzie said...


Wonderful post and so timely.

I think we tend to slip when we're in full creative flow. In the begging I was a head-hopper and needed to reign myself in. I gave my brain whiplash!!
If we can get into the habit of constantly watching for it, that might be the key.

I'm a romance writer and use the POV of the heroine, with about 30 - 40% of the hero's POV. I never change POV more than twice in a chapter if I can help it.

I feel descriptions should be short, imaginative and as 'clean' as possible. Not easy I know.

I'll be most interested to read about the unreliable POV because I'm not too sure how to go about it either.


CC MacKenzie said...

Oops, beginning not begging.

Sorry, should have proofed it better. That's what a glass of wine does!!

Sarah said...

Nicola, very interesting about how US and UK editors approach POV. And please don't rebuke me about the lack of chocolate and wine. The lack of them was punishment enough.

Jo Franklin said...

Thanks for your feedback Nicola.

I'll also add your 'Says who?' to my checklist for crawl editing sentence by sentence.

Suzette Saxton said...

Great post. Vital information, it's nice to see someone getting it out there. I look forward to your post about unreliable narrators!

Ann said...

Great Post! I do struggle with this. Thanks for the tips. Now all I need to do is apply.

SF said...

Hello Nicola, thank you again for a thought-provoking post.

I have just one quick question: you say, and I agree, that with first person POV you should limit yourself to describing things only as your main character would see them.

But I was just wondering about limited 3rd person POV, when your narrator is basically sat on your main character's shoulder throughout. Does the same rule apply? Or is there a little more leeway - can you describe things a bit differently to how your MC would, but not too much?
It's something I'm always aware of when I'm writing in the limited 3rd person.

Rebecca Knight said...

"POV slippage is not OK. It's like bra slippage. Well, some people [men] mmight think that's OK. But it's not, is it, ladies? It's sloppy and cheap."

AHAHAHA! I'm going to remember this forever, whether I'd like to or not :). Every time I catch myself doing this, I'm going to feel tarty.

Thank you for this post--great break down!

Anonymous said...

I hope this is just for novels and stuff? When I blog I slip effortlessly between talking about myself in the third person to the (slightly more normal) first person. Preferably in sentences huddling close together in the same paragraph.

Nicola Morgan said...

Bookwitch - it's your blog: you can POV slip if you want to! Seriously, this is just about the rules of fiction, rules which allow your reader to maintain engagement, narrative transportation and suspension of disbelief. On the other, consistency is something readers of most things would want. But I've never noticed you writing in any other way than very readably and personally. If that's any comfort?!

SF - you say "... I agree, that with first person POV you should limit yourself to describing things only as your main character would see them. But I was just wondering about limited 3rd person POV, when your narrator is basically sat on your main character's shoulder throughout. Does the same rule apply? Or is there a little more leeway - can you describe things a bit differently to how your MC would, but not too much?"
Good question. I think you have to work out what feels true, right and honest to the precise voice of your book. If that limited 3rd person narrator deliberately feels different to the actual main char, you would be able to describe things differently (eg more expressively perhaps than the actual char) but I don't think you can describe things that the MC can't see, if most of the time you are firmly in the head/through the eyes/on the shoulder. I'm making a general rule there, based on what i think you're asking, but it could be different in some situations. I think you just have to ask yourself very honestly what feels right. If you want to send me a longer example, by email, feel free. I might put it in a blog post (only with your permission) and we could all discuss it.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a serial head-jumper, this is just the correctional rehabilitation I need. Thanks for a great article.

Right, I'm off to not in any way think about bra slippage. Oh no, not at all.

SF said...

Thanks, Nicola.
Yes, I was thinking in terms of what the Mc sees, and therefore the narrator, and also HOW they see it/describe it. Hmm, I'll see if I can find an example that explains that more clearly...