Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Grabbing the Bull by the Horns: An Intro to POV

When learning the craft of writing there are many many MANY elements that are important. A novel is 20% creativity, 40% perseverance, and 60% knowledge of the craft... and 1% knowing math. Dialogue? Important. Plot? Important. Theme? Important? Bacon? Important! So probably goes without saying that point-of-view (POV) is also important. Well, except that I just said it, but it was on the screen... in words... so really, I didn't say it. I think my ADHD is acting up tonight.

Where was I?

Oh yes. POV. Briefly, POV is the manner in which you tell your story and, to save the sanity of your readers, should remain consistent throughout the entire story. Rules are made to be broken, though, and I have seen a couple of good examples of POV-shift, but even those were a little disconcerting. POV also answers the following questions (from Gotham Writers' Workshop Fiction Writing: The Practical Guide):
  • Who is speaking: a narrator or a character?

  • Whose eyes are seeing the events of the story unfold?

  • Whose thoughts does the reader have access to?

  • From what distance are the events being viewed?

Many writers don't even consider POV when writing as they have a preferred style that they tend to slip into, but whether you are a new writer or not, thinking about POV before you begin your novel is a very good idea. It helps to consciously decide which POV to use before you begin writing, not only to save yourself a world of heartache when it comes time to edit, but to consider how a story might be be affected (and perhaps improved) if you use a different POV than you are used to using or reading. Before you begin your next story, or venture too far into a current one, it would benefit you to glance over this intro to POV (that I'm about to provide, I promise) and/or find a good workshop guide or two on POV. The importance here is to understand the basic differences between POVs so as to use the one that will present your story most appropriately and powerfully.

* Disclaimer: This is ONLY a super-basic intro to the three main points-of-view. The purpose here is to offer you an example of what you might see as far as pronoun use and (very) general tone of each POV. Once you decide if you'd like to use I, or you, or he/she, then you can delve further into that POV's specifics.

Okay, serious "disclaimer-y" stuff done. Now BRING ON THE BULLS!

So there I was, running with the bulls, when I slipped! I thought for sure that I was going to be turned into a soprano, but luckily the bull ran on by.

Ouch ouch ouch

First-person POV is kind of like this picture: The reader is there in the action with the characters, close to it, but not truly a part of it.  While the narrator uses "I" in first-person POV, the reader is aware that the "I" is referring to the character and not the reader. Another way that first-person POV is like this picture is that the focus is tight; the reader can't see the guy to the left, just out of the frame, who is about to become intimate with a 2,000 pound bull. What the character sees, the reader sees. No more.

First-person POV is intimate, but each time another character addresses the narrator, the readers are reminded that the "I" is not referring to them, and this keeps them just out of the path of the charging bull... just barely.


The bull charged down the dirty street, directly towards the cornered runners. The fear was palpable and time seemed to slow. Alberto screamed as the massive beast neared and his last thought before he was bowled over was If I survive, I'm going to kill Javier for talking me into this.

This is third-person POV: The reader is safely viewing the action from a distance - everything happens to "he" or "her" - and you get to share the thoughts of the characters with the reader as well. Like first-person, this is also a very popular POV to use. If you are using third-person single or multiple, then the story will read much like one told from first-person. You are limited to sharing that which the character or characters personally witness in some way, but are able to tell the story in a different way. For example, if you are writing about a dog, you probably wouldn't use first-person POV (unless in your story dogs can talk). Third-person single or multiple offers you the chance to have a different narrator who is able to better speak for the characters than they themselves could.

One exception to the first-person and third-person similarity is third-person omniscient. This is where you present everything to the reader. Not only can the reader see the bull barreling down on Alberto, the reader also gets to see the other five bulls that are just around the corner, or the kid who is about to throw a rock at the bull to try and make it angrier, or the feral ferrets about to pour out from the sewer and devour everything in their path, including Alberto and the bull. The danger with this POV is there is a risk of letting the reader know that you, the writer, are there in the story. If the reader becomes aware of the author, it becomes more difficult to suspend disbelief. Also, this POV can seem impersonal, distancing your reader from your character even more.


You went to the Running of the Bulls after Javier harassed you for weeks about it. Anything to shut him up. It didn't take long to realize that this was a big mistake. The first clue was when you got rammed into the wall by a passing bull, and the second clue was when you took a wrong turn and got trapped in an alley by an angry bull. As the bull charges you down, do you: (A) cry like a baby or (B) scream for your mommy? If you chose A, turn to page 42. If you chose B, turn the page.

Four steps to writing using second-person POV:
  1. Read the example above of second-person POV.

  2. Commit your reaction to memory.

  3. Call up that memory any time you get an urge to write a novel in second-person.

  4. Write your story in first- or third-person instead.
Of course I'm kidding! Kind of... Every time I see second-person POV in use in fiction, I think of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. I have a hard time taking second-person POV seriously, but if you are one of those daring writers who want to be unique, more power to you.

Have you ever watched one of those reality contest shows like Top Chef or Project Runway? Inevitably, there is a contestant who will say, "I knew that this would be a huge risk. It was either going to pay off BIG or it was going to fail miserably." That, my friends, is second-person POV. It can either be an amazing success or a colossal failure.

Second-person POV is highly intimate and this is perhaps why it can be so uncomfortable to read. This same reason is also why, when it succeeds, it succeeds admirably.

This was just a very brief overview of the three POVs, and there is much more to say on each of them. But it is important to know the differences between each POV and to consider which would be better for your story.

Exercise: Think of a brief scene (you could always use any of the images above as inspiration) and write that scene in first-person. Try to keep it short, perhaps a paragraph or two, but long enough to help you get a feel for first-person and for the reader (you, your pal, me) to understand what's going on and who the narrator is. After you finish that scene, rewrite that same scene in third-person POV. After you finish that, rewrite it one final time in second-person POV. Don't worry right now about such things as single, multiple, omniscient, et cetera. It's two paragraphs. I think you'll be fine! And remember, I would love to see your results in the comments.


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