Do You See What I See

Stories are told from a point of view. In fiction this is either first-person, third-person, or narrative. The popular Choose Your Own Adventure series used the second-person point of view in their books, but this is a very rare exception. Some novels will use a single POV exclusively; other writers prefer to mix up the POV choice and employ multiple POVs in telling the whole story. All of these choices are valid from a technical and artistic standpoint; the writer who understands how each one affects the reader and limits his other choices will be able to them to best advantage.


When dealing with a novel, Point of View (POV) defines the perceptive angle from which events are viewed and narratives are related. It shapes the way events are presented to the reader and limits the availability of information to both the reader and characters. Properly employed, a single POV will last at least for an entire scene; dramatic shifts in POV are more suited to chapter breaks than to scene breaks. Once the choice of POV has been made, the writer must commit to using it faithfully in spite of the limitations inherent in each choice. Consistent presentation allows the reader to approach the story with familiarity, already comfortable with the style of storytelling.


First-person POV selects a single character and follows him for the duration of the scene. The reader is privy only to the same information as that character. This device often uses the character as the narrator, resulting in a first-hand account of the story; in this case, the reader is not only restricted to the character’s information but also subject to the character’s perceptive failings and prejudices. This allows the reader to form an intimate connection with the character, emotionally investing in his triumphs and failures. It also prevents the reader from forming his own opinion of the story, and potentially missing out on the more complete picture. The writer also runs the risk that the reader will fail to connect with the character, or even grow to dislike him; either scenario damages the reader’s investment in the story.


Third-person POV selects a character and follows events in a story “over the shoulder” of this character. The selected character does not narrate the story, and the chosen character may shift from scene to scene as events unfold. This common device allows characters to be developed individually while also progressing events within the story. Although the reader is subject to the perceptions and prejudices of the character, he is not constrained by them; more complete information be passed to the reader by observing not only what the character sees and does, but by observing what the character fails to see and do. The reader is rewarded for emotionally investing in the character, but is also allowed to form his own opinion of story events.


Narrative POV may be said to look on the events of the story from the outside. This device follows no single character during the action of a scene, and usually relies on observation rather than the internal exposition that accompanies the other two POVs. The reader not only receives all of the information available to all of the characters, but does so without being subjected to individual perceptions and prejudices. The reader must form his own opinion of character motivations and emotions from the narrative; this device works well for setting a scene or imparting historical or technical exposition to the reader.


Narrative and third-person POVs often mix within a story, and often within a chapter. Shifting the focus of the POV device within a scene, either changing device or changing character focus, forces the reader to change his expectations abruptly, and does not create a smooth reading experience. Consistency in application is the best use of this device, even if that leads to separating beats within a scene and using line breaks to identify them.

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