Understand the Effects of Your Point of View

By James Scott Bell

There's a constant confusion, it seems, over point of view. Even veteran writers sometimes get in a fog about it.

I'd like to approach it in a little different way. Instead of heading into the differences, let's first talk about the effects.

There is a range of intimacy in POV. The most intimate is first person, where the narration is comingt from the head of the character. We get the closest possible connection to the thoughts and feelings of the Lead.

By way of contrast, the omniscient POV is the least intimate. While the omniscient narrator can roam freely, that very freedom prevents the close focus on one character that, once again, renders greater intimacy.

So the first question to ask about your plot is how intimate do you want it? Is the character aspect the most important factor? You might then consider first person. But that's not always the best choice. There are other alternatives along the way, as we'll see.

In between First Person and Omniscient is Third person POV, which comes in two forms. Limited and Unlimited. Limited means you stick with one character throughout the book. You don't stray into the perceptions of any other character. Unlimited means you can switch POV to another character in a another scene.

A variation on the omniscient POV is the cinematic POV, rarely used except in detective fiction. Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon is the prime example of this style. Most literary novels choose the first person these days, for good reason. Since character drive is the motor of literary plots, using first person is a natural choice.

First person does not have to be limited, either. Many writers now use multiple first person narration, alternating voices with each scene or chapter.

Third person is most popular for thrillers and action driven books.

But this does not mean there is any one right answer. The right answer is what best fits your book.

Let's have a closer look at your alternatives:

1. First Person

First person is the character telling us what happened.

I went to the store. I saw Frank. "What are you doing here?" I said.

Obviously, this POV requires everything to be seen through the eyes of one character. The lead can only report what she saw, not what Frank saw or felt (unless Frank sees fit to report these items to the lead). No scene can be described that the narrator has not witnessed. But, as we will see, there are some tricks you can use to get around this.

You can use past or present tense with First Person POV. The traditional is past tense, where the narrator looks back and tells his story.

But the narrator can also do it this way: "I am going to the store. I see Frank. 'What are you doing here?" I say."

There is an immediacy of tone here that, when handled well (as Steve Martini does in his Paul Mandarini legal thrillers) is quite nice.

But there is something you can't do in First Person Present POV that you can do with the past tense form: The "If only I'd known" technique:

If only I'd known what was behind that door, I never would have opened it.

Can't do that in the present. If only I knew what I don't know now, I might not open the door, as I am doing now.

First Person makes for a very intimate, and potentially memorable, tale. But to do it well you have to:

• create a strong, interesting narrator.

• be ready to deal with the limitations--you can't observe anything the narrator can't.

One way around this is to write from first person POV for various characters, in different chapters. Some authors put the name of the POV character at the start of the chapter, then proceed to write in that narrator's voice.

This requires a lot of skill, of course, because each voice must be different, and each perspective unique.

2. Omniscient

The opposite of first person, from an intimacy standpoint, is the omniscient POV. You can, of course, go into any head here, float around from a large scale description down to deep focus on any one character. This gives you great perspective, but at an intimacy cost. While introducing information is one of the benefits of omniscient, confusion and lack of focus is a possible drawback.

In their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King suggest the omniscient choice was a weakness in an otherwise successful novel, Lonesome Dove. Which shows that a great plot can overcome some minor deficiencies.

But why make anything deficient?

These days, the safest bets are First Person and Third Person.

3. Third Person

Not surprisingly, 3rd person is a compromise. The biggest problem here is keeping that POV consistent throughout a scene. It's easy to lapse and suddenly have the POV be from a different character. I'm reading the second novel of a "hot" young thriller writer now, and he makes this mistake. You're cruising along in the head of a character, then suddenly you drop into the head of a secondary character, before going back.

Now, I don't think readers really care about this. Writing teachers and critics do, but they don't buy thousands of books. What happens is, I think, more subtle. As intimacy is lost the impact of the story is lessened. At the end of the book a reader might say, "Hey, that was a pretty good yarn." But they may not have the "Wow" factor that comes from real intimate character bonding.

In the limited variety of 3d person, you stay with one character throughout. You never take on another character's POV. Done well, this can be nearly as intimate as First Person.

If you allow other characters to have a 3d person POV (unlimited) you obviously spend less time in the head of a single character. You spread the intimacy around.

I recommend the discipline of "one scene, one POV." If you need to change POV, you should start a new chapter or leave white space to signal the switch.

4. Cinematic

The difference between 3d person and cinematic is that with 3d person you create the scene through the head and perceptions of the character:

With cinematic, it's a description from the outside, as if a movie camera were set up to film the proceedings. You don't dip into the thoughts of the characters:

An example will help with the distinction. Here an excerpt from Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, a novel in the cinematic style:

Spade sank into his swivel-chair, made a quarter turn to face her, smiled politely. He smiled without separating his lips. All the v's in his face grew longer.

The tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perine's typewriting came through the closed door. Somewhere in a neighboring office a power-driven machine vibrated dully. On Spade's desk a limp cigarette smoldered in a brass tray filled with the remains of limp cigarettes.

This is cinematic because if we were in Spade's perception (3d person) he wouldn't have been able to see the V's in his face grow longer. The description of the cigarette on Spade's desk is like a camera zooming in.

Were this to be done in 3rd person, it could have gone like this:

Spade sank into his swivel-chair, made a quarter turn to face her, smiled politely. He smiled without separating his lips. He felt a tightness in his face.

He listened to the tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perine's typewriting came through the closed door. That was familiar. What bothered him was a power-driven machine vibrating dully somewhere in a neighboring office. He reached over to his desk for a limp cigarette smoldering in a brass tray, annoyed at the remains of all the limp cigarettes he'd smoked that morning.

An excellent treatment of Point of View can be found in Orson Scott Card's Characters & Viewpoint (Writers Digest Books).

Now that you understand the different possibilities for Point of View, which one is right for your novel? As you understand the possibilities, you can make a much more informed decision and carry this intentionality into your writing.

James Scott Bell studied philosophy, creative writing, and film in college, acted in off-Broadway theater in New York, and received his law degree, with honors, from the University of Southern California. A former trial lawyer, Bell is the author of the Christy Award-winning Deadlock, Breech of Promise and coauthor of the best-selling The Trials of Kit Shannon series which includes A Greater Glory, A Higher Justice and A Certain Truth. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Cindy, and their two children. You can learn more at his website: www.jamesscottbell.com.

© 2007 James Scott Bell. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.