Every story is told from a specific point of view. This enables the reader to experience the world they are reading about. When the point of view shifts without warning, it breaks the reader’s concentration. It not only disrupts their experience but can confuse them about what is taking place in your story.
So let’s understand what point of view is, and then, common mistakes writers make with point of view.
BY HANNAH GREEN
What exactly is point of view?
The three points of view are:
- the first person (“I went to the pool today”),
- second person (“You went to the pool today”) and
- third person (“She went to the pool today”).
The third person point of view can either be limited, which means the narrator only knows part of what is happening, or omniscient (all knowing) where the narrator knows everything about all events and characters.
The point of view that you choose for your story is important because it’s the lens through which your reader sees what happens.
Imagine writing about a person who falls down a flight of stairs.
Let’s say we have character (A) who falls down the stairs, character (B) who sees what happens from the bottom of the stairs, character (C) who is standing next to (A) who tries to reach out and stop her fall. From (B)’s point of view the event could be portrayed as a simple accident, but from (C)’s point of view she could have reached out to stop her friend from falling as soon as she saw a puddle of water on the stairs. (A) could have misinterpreted (C)’s grab for a push which would give the event a whole new spin.
When you write from a specific point of view you are encouraging the reader to sympathise with that character or characters. When a reader sympathises with a character, they care about what happens to them and want to find out how the story ends.
If your reader isn’t curious about what happens they will not want to keep on reading.
How do you choose the right point of view?
How do you know which point of view to tell a story from?
This comes down to what type of story you are trying to tell and what message you want to get across.
You can tell your story from any character’s perspective; just ask yourself how much information you want to give the reader and how this will affect their interpretation of events.
For example, if you’re writing a courtroom drama and you want your readers to sympathize with the accused, then you will tell it from their perspective, not from the prosecutor’s point of view.
Changing the point of view
Bear in mind that you can change the point of view to give a broader overview of the story, such as, giving the point of view of the person on trial and the point of view of the judge and lawyers. This would only work in a novel or novella, and very rarely in a short story where your word count is too limited to allow for competing points of view.
If you decide to change the point of view in your story, use caution when doing this and always make it clear to your reader when you’ve changed perspective and whose point of view you’re using. To change point of view, you can either use a decorative motif, or a double paragraph break, to indicate that the scene has changed, and the point of view along with it.
Changing the point of view can have its advantages. It allows you to give different versions of the same story, or to lead your reader towards a well-crafted twist in your tale. You can add suspense by feeding the reader bits of information from different sources and then connecting them together at the end. However, you need to tread carefully when using multiple points of view.
How to avoid confusing your readers
Readers can easily become confused when you change your point of view in the story.
The best way to avoid confusion is to stick to one perspective for each scene. If you want to change perspectives, make it clear to the readers that you are doing so by adding spaces between paragraphs and making sure that it is obvious from the start which character or perspective you are using. Don’t be afraid to state the obvious and use names, and do so from the start of each scene.
Often a conflict can arise between using a point of view and trying to show the reader what’s happening instead of telling them. In an effort to show your readers all that is going on in the scene, you may end up jumping between characters, and this complicates and confuses your readers.
How do you avoid jumping between characters?
Let’s say you have a scene that is told from the first person point of view, but you want to give your readers a description of that character. The way to do this is to add a description into the dialogue or wait for a later scene to have another character describe him or her.
Imagine how you perceive yourself compared to how you perceive others. What do you notice about them that you do not see about yourself? How do you become aware of the mood they are in? Apply this to your characters and use it in your descriptions.
Keep your pronouns consistent.
Another aspect of point of view where writers struggle is when they don’t pay attention to the pronouns.
Take this sentence for example: Suzie told Peggy that she doesn’t like her hair. It is unclear if Suzie doesn’t like Peggy’s hair or her own hair. While this is not strictly a problem with point of view, when it becomes unclear what you are referring to it creates a problem: it forces the reader to stop reading and question what is actually happening.
Another common error: you start out writing in the first person, using pronouns like I, my, me, he, she, it and they. The next paragraph you accidentally switch to “you” (second person perspective).
I now find myself in uncharted terrain. The rain is sluicing down the car windows, the glass already so fogged up that the trees and fence posts outside have been reduced to black shadows that loom ominously close as I drive past.
Suddenly, due to an error of judgment and plain old stubbornness, you realise you are lost.
It might seem bizarre that writers could change perspective like this, without noticing that their lines now barely make sense, but it happens all the time.
If you have difficulty sticking to one point of view, imagine that you’re the character whose point of view you are using.
Think of yourself as playing a role in a production, like an actor. Think of what that character can see and know. They can imagine what another character is thinking, but cannot know for sure.
They can see what is going on around them but this is influenced by their own beliefs and opinions. Pay close attention to what is possible and what is likely to happen in a scene when told from one character’s point of view. It is not possible for them to know everything about everyone, and it is unlikely that they will be describing their own cherry red lips unless they have cause to do so.
In conclusion, always remember that when you choose a point of view, you need to stick to it for the duration of a scene. And secondly, keep asking yourself if it’s possible for your character to know the information that he or she is revealing to the reader.
About the Author:
She recently won the 2011 SA Writers’ College Short Story Competition with her story “The Tokoloshe”. With a BA Degree in English Literature from the University of the Witwatersrand (2007) and an HonsBA Degree from the University of South Africa (2009) she is about to embark on her Masters Degree. She completed the Short Story Writing Course at the Writers College in 2010.
Photo credit: Bowen Murphy