Point of View: Taking Advantage of Viewpoint to Deepen Fiction

Earlier this fall, we identified eight common viewpoints and three questions to help you choose one for your story. Do you know how to use your chosen POV effectively in your writing? Whether you’re starting a new draft or revising an old one, let’s take a look at some ways you can make four of those viewpoints work for you:

Objective:

omniscient cinematic viewThe child reached up onto the counter and slid the lid off the cookie box. He ate one cookie, then another. As he shoved the last bite into his mouth, his mother walked into the room. She paused in the doorway, but only for a moment.

“Joey,” she scolded gently, “you know those cookies are for the Greenfields! I’m going to make more for us later.”

The child stared at her, still and wide-eyed, before narrowing his eyes and frowning.

“I was hungry,” he said.

His mother’s shoulders fell.

“Then you should have asked me for lunch. I’m disappointed in you—you know better.”

The child shrugged, repeating, “I was hungry.”

Walking quickly to the counter, the mother shoved the lid back onto the cookie box and silently started lunch. Not another word was said about the cookies.

Use physical cues.

Do you want the reader to care about your characters and pay attention to what’s going on? While using an objective viewpoint, show physical cues as if the reader is watching from nearby. Picture a movie camera, and don’t show details that they wouldn’t see from their angle.

Keep thoughts and emotions hidden.

Do you want the reader to have to conclude for themselves what’s going on? Don’t show the emotions and thoughts of your characters too readily through what you reveal in the narrative and dialogue. Keep the facts there, but hide the judgment calls.

Picture your reader as an eavesdropper.

Don’t tell your reader the story in the objective viewpoint; show it to them. They’re a fly on the wall—an outside observer—and will have to draw their own conclusions. Keep your story engaging, and they’ll be pulled deeper into it by having to think about what they’re not being told.

Omniscient:

omniscient mindsLittle Joey was hungry. He reached up onto the counter and slid the lid off the cookie box. He ate one delicious cookie and decided to risk another. As he shoved the last bite into his mouth, his mother walked into the room.

“Joey,” she scolded gently, dreading the conflict that was sure to come next. “You know those cookies are for the Greenfields! I’m going to make more for us later.”

The child stared at his mother, weighing her disappointment against the hunger in his stomach. From the doorway, his mother stared back, wondering what he was thinking. She didn’t have to wonder long.

“I was hungry,” he said stubbornly.

“Then you should have asked me for lunch. I’m disappointed in you—you know better.”

Both of them knew this was true; both of them also knew perfectly well that it didn’t matter to Joey. He always did whatever he pleased.

Joey shrugged, repeating, “I was hungry.”

Neither one of them wanted to fight now, so nothing more was said about the cookies as his mother closed the cookie box and started lunch.

Grant your reader mindreading skills.

If you have a story where the scenes are formed by a variety of characters’ thoughts and choices, show the ones that make things happen. Think about the times that you’re watching a movie. Which characters’ heads do you wish you could see inside? When writing with an unlimited viewpoint, give your reader the ability to see inside the heads of the characters that they should know or care about.

Acknowledge the narrator.

If you’re choosing to use an omnipotent point of view, make it obvious that it’s on purpose. A story where the author slips in and out of different people’s thoughts because they’re too lazy to pay attention to their viewpoint just looks sloppy. Whether your narrator is you or an unnamed entity, give them a voice. Let them tell the story of what’s going on in each character’s head, and don’t be afraid to throw in a little dramatic irony by purposefully letting the reader know things that some of the characters don’t know.

3rd Limited:

third person viewpointKate walked into the kitchen to find Joey at the counter, shoving a cookie into his mouth. The lid was lying off the cookie box that she had prepared for the new neighbors. When would Joey get over this childish slyness? What was she doing wrong?

“Joey,” she scolded gently, dreading the conflict that was sure to follow. “You know those cookies are for the Greenfields! I’m going to make more for us later.”

Joey only stared at her in an eerily calculating way. She stared back, wondering what was going on in his head. She didn’t have to wonder long.

“I was hungry,” he said.

So it was going to be resistance again.

“Then you should have asked me for lunch. I’m disappointed in you—you know better.”

At least he should have known better—some days, she wasn’t sure. She knew it didn’t matter to Joey, though—he always did whatever he pleased.

Joey shrugged, a gesture she hated on a boy so young. He repeated, “I was hungry.”

This was the same situation Kate found herself in several times a day. She didn’t know what to say next, so she silently closed the cookie box and started lunch.

Show thoughts as narrative.

When diving into a character’s mind with a limited viewpoint, don’t waste time with a lot of “she thought” or “he felt.” What does your POV character think and believe is true? Write it into the narrative as fact. Don’t explain as a narrator why your characters do what they do; show their reasoning at the time as narrative.

Don’t let your reader know things the POV character doesn’t know.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. If something is unknown to your viewpoint character, it also must be unknown to your reader. Your character can certainly speculate, but your scenes simply can’t tell what another character thinks or feels, what’s going on in another scene, what’s going to happen in the future, etc. Don’t wander out of your character’s mind.

Don’t switch too often.

If you’re using more than one point of view character, don’t jump too quickly between one viewpoint and another. Not only will you give your reader POV whiplash, you might be throwing away the chance to develop any one character deeply. It will be easier for your reader to get to know your characters and track what’s happening in a chapter or scene if they aren’t constantly having to reorient themselves to a new perspective.

1st Person:

first person view bridgeI walked into the kitchen to find Joey at the counter, shoving a cookie into his mouth. Sure enough, the lid was off the cookie box that I had just prepared for the new neighbors.

Drat. I wondered what I was doing wrong. When would Joey get over this childish slyness?

I went for the gentle scolding approach: “Joey,” I began, dreading the impending conflict. “You know those cookies are for the Greenfields! I’m going to make more for us later.”

The stare Joey gave me then was eerily calculating. I gazed back, wondering what was going on in his head. I didn’t have to wonder long.

“I was hungry,” he said.

So it was going to be resistance again.

“Then you should have asked me for lunch,” I said. “I’m disappointed in you—you know better.”

Joey did know better. I knew he did. The problem was, it just didn’t matter to him—he always did whatever he pleased.

Joey shrugged. I hated when he did that—it looked foul on his young form. He repeated, “I was hungry.”

This happened every day, multiple times a day. I was sick of it and had no idea what to say next, so I said nothing for all as I firmly closed the cookie box and started lunch.

Show things the way your narrator believes them.

What is it that your POV character believes is happening? Show it. If they truly believe something is fact, they’ll always tell the story that way. Even if their understanding of events, people, and the world around them is wrong in some way, let them express it. They will become more real and believable if they, like all humans, see only an incomplete picture.

Avoid anything your narrator won’t admit.

Your first-person narrator is the one telling their own story, and like most people, there are going to be details they don’t mention. In some cases, it will be because they don’t feel it was important to the story they were telling (would they really pay attention to what they were wearing, for example?). In other cases, there could be facts they just don’t want to admit. Know your POV character’s honesty level, and let that affect the shape of the narrative.

Write everything—including narrative—the way that narrator talks.

What does your POV character’s voice sound like? Speak it. Every line of the book should be in that voice, whether it’s that character’s speaking, thinking, or writing voice. Don’t keep the personal tone to the dialogues. The whole book is their story, not a generic report; let them be the one to tell it.

Be intentional.

There are other viewpoints (like second person) to explore, as well as other elements such as tense and formatting. All of these can be used deliberately, and even the viewpoints above have more ways of working for their reader. The key is this: be intentional.

Whichever point of view you use for your book, think about the type of interaction it allows between the characters and reader. Stick with it, and use it to the full extent of its implications. The more you do, the stronger your writing will be.

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4 Responses to Point of View: Taking Advantage of Viewpoint to Deepen Fiction

  1. Bill jordan says:

    Elizabeth, occurs to me that as you pose yourself for support to writers who need it and all do, that you too need encouragement if only to say thanks for the blog, You are appreciated.
    Bill

  2. Kylie Jude says:

    yay! all this time i’ve struggled to find the exact term for the POV i’ve been using in my books, and thanks to this post, i’ve finally found out what it is. 3rd person limited. thank you. 🙂

    • Elizabeth says:

      Oh, good! I’m glad it helped! There were three total POV posts, so the other two might also help with some of the definitions, too. I know that a lot of writers just write without thinking about what POV they’re using, why, or how to use it well, so it’s a conversation I was excited to start.

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