Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Point-of-view seems to be the hardest concept or a new writer to grasp. It's also what causes the most trouble for writers.

When I was a Writer's Digest School instructor and leader of two local writing groups, I saw the problem with POV constantly. Sometimes when reading a published book, I'm jarred out of the fictional world by a startling change of viewpoint and this has happened to me a lot lately, making me decide to address this subject again.

Many mysteries are written in first person. With first person it's almost impossible to get into trouble with POV, however, I have seen it happen. You can’t withhold information the first person knows–you can make it seem unimportant. In first person, the hero or heroine must be present in every scene.

When writing in third person, you most likely will begin your story from the POV of the protagonist–the hero or heroine of your story. You want the reader to know right away who to identify with, who they are going to root for throughout the story.

Often, even though you are writing in third person, you may choose to remain in your hero or heroine's POV throughout the story. As the writer, it's as if you are that person and are telling the story through them. You want the reader to see the story unfold through the POV character's eyes; to experience everything that happens through this person.

In essence, the narrative is the thoughts and experiences of the POV character. Even though the story most likely will be told in past tense, it is an "on-scene, happening now" past tense.   

Remember, that because the narrative is the thoughts and experiences of the POV character, it really isn’t necessary to say he or she thought or put the thoughts into italics. When doing this though, the whole scene needs to remain in that main character’s point of view.

Be careful about how you give the first or close third person hero or heroine’s description. Do not use looking in the mirror as a way to do it.

While in the heroine or hero's POV, remember he/she can't know what another person is thinking. In other words, don't jump inside another character's head. He/she can guess what someone is thinking by how they look, but you, the writer, must tell us, the reader, that's what the hero/heroine is doing.

What if you want to tell part of the story from another character's POV? Mary Higgins Clark tells her stories from various viewpoints. However, she never switches the POV in mid-scene. In fact, she usually begins a new chapter when she changes viewpoint.

It is possible to change POV in a scene, but you must let the reader know what's happening. This can be done with a smooth transition sentence that clearly lets the reader know the scene is now being seen through someone else's eyes. This is done far more often in romance novels than mysteries. I must warn you, this is difficult to do well.

An easier and more effective way to let the reader know something different is going to happen is to use a space break when you plan to make the POV switch. Identify the new POV character immediately.

Another problem writers have with Point-of-View is having the POV characters make comments about themselves in the narrative. Remember, the narrative is essentially the POV character's thoughts. Unless the POV character is narcissistic, writing that her legs are curvaceous, or mentioning the glint of golden highlights in her lustrous mane is not the most effective way to include her description. If you said something about how she liked the way her new shampoo brought out the golden highlights in her hair, or she was pleased with the way her legs looked in her new boots that might work. The same goes for a male POV character, find some way to describe him that doesn’t make the reader think he’s obsessed with his looks. Study the way your favorite writer includes bits of the hero or heroine's description.
This is where your writing skills come into play, how to describe your main character in a subtle and natural manner–and still remain in the character's POV.

Remember to use all your character's senses when describing what she or he sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels, both touch and emotions. Imagine what is happening as if it were you, describe what is going on through your character.

Stay in your POV character's head. Don't interrupt what is going on by putting in what I call "author asides." This is giving information in a manner that no longer sounds like your character.

Let your POV character learn things in a normal manner–or if she already knows something you want the reader to know, let her think about or remember about this piece of information.

There are whole books written on Point-of-View and various ways of using it. What I hope I've done here is given you a simple guide to the efficient use of POV in your writing.

Marilyn Meredith serves on the board of PSWA, is also  member of MWA and Epic, and is a founder member of the San Joaquin chapter of Sisters in Crime. She is the author of the Deputy Tempe Crabtree series and the Rocky Bluff P.D.series, and other mysteries. To learn more about her work visit her website:



William Doonan said...

Thanks for the reminder, Marilyn. This is an easy concept to get wrong. When I was writing American Caliphate, I had to be careful to identify POV as I switched from one protagonist's thoughts to another. You make a good point in advising writers to be clear as to who is doing the talking or thinking. Page crakes, even chapter breaks help set this off.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

That's what I do, page breaks when switching POF in a chapter. Some people start a new chapter when there is a POV change. For a scene though, I think it's best to stay in the POV of the person who has the most at stake.

Beryl Reichenberg said...

Good blog post, Marilyn. It was very informative and a good reminder of the traps of POV in stories. Beryl

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Thanks, Beryl.

Lorna Collins - said...

Good points. I've read a few lately with head-hopping and they drove me nuts!

Sally Carpenter said...

Excellent post. I've given up reading books where each chapter or new scene introduced a new POV and my head hurt trying to keep up with who was who. And you're right about first person POV--unless your hero can read minds, don't tell us what the other characters are feeling or thinking.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I do use different POV in my Rocky Bluff P.D. series, but you always know who is the POV character because there's a space break and I identify the new POV character right away.

bettye griffin said...

My critique group in Florida covered this difficult subject, and while I do switch POV within a scene--love scenes, for example, to show readers what both parties are feeling and experiencing--I think I do it smoothly. There've been no complaints yet, at least!