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Point of View: How Writers Can Master This Crucial Story Element

by | May 5, 2014

Once you decide on the point of view for your book — whether first person or third, omniscient or limited — the hard part follows: staying consistent.

Falling out of the selected point of view (POV) can abruptly interrupt the story. Readers no longer connect with the main character, and they have a hard time following the plot.

Avoid these fatal flaws by maintaining a steady point of view.

It’s best to be mindful of POV as you write, because fixing errors requires combing through each and every scene! It’s doable, just not very fun. And most literary agents won’t want to do it for you.

Here are six tips to ensure you keep a steady POV in your story:

1. Only include setting elements your POV character would notice

When your POV character first walks into a room, they’re not going to notice every detail — the color of the curtains, the shape of the table, the type of tile on the floor. While you want to describe the setting accurately, you have to keep POV in mind. Maybe all your character will notice is the delicious aroma of food cooking in the kitchen.

One of literary agents’ pet peeves is when writers go beyond what is necessary in setting the scene. Be natural in introducing pertinent details, or even have another character who has been in the room awhile point it out.

2. Don’t let characters describe themselves

Your character likely isn’t going to realize what facial expressions they’re making as another character relays the day’s gossip. And they’re probably not going to notice the food in their teeth unless someone else comments on it or looks at them funny. Be mindful of how you describe characters: What would they really have noticed?

3. Don’t include anything your POV character wouldn’t have known at that time

Unless they’re a fortune teller.

But this rule applies to your POV character’s knowledge of facts, not just future events. Would they really know the specific brand of clothing a friend was wearing? If so, how they knew that should be apparent to the reader as well.

4. Make sure the characters’ judgments are based on signs noticeable to the reader

If one character believes another is a two-faced liar, this judgment should also be apparent to the reader. All the signs the character saw to reach that decision, the reader should have seen, too.

5. Don’t jump from head to head

Each chapter or section should be in a single character’s point of view. When the POV switches, make sure it’s obvious in the first sentence.

6. Eliminate every “he thought” and “she saw”

These attributions are jarring when readers already feel that they’re in the POV character’s thoughts. People don’t think using phrases like “I’m seeing this” or “I’m thinking that.” Those are phrases we use to express to someone outside of our mind what we’ve thought or experienced. In using these phrases, you ban readers from your character’s head.

A major red flag pops up when these attributions refer to other characters, since your POV character wouldn’t be able to know what another character was looking at or thinking about.

Readers want to get lost in a story. They want to think and feel right along with the main character. When you tell a story from a character’s point of view you have the privilege of writing from inside that character’s head. The bottom line is for you to get inside your main character — to think like him, to see like her — and to tell the story as if you were living it.

If point of view still seems an overwhelming skill to master, get help from other writers by putting together a writing group or even hiring an editor. The more aware of point of view you are, the easier it will be to catch yourself from falling out of it.

How do you ensure a consistent POV in your writing?