When we first start writing, the question of point of view (POV) usually seems straightforward. Either we choose to use the default third-person POV or we use first-person POV (as almost no one uses second-person). The choice seems like it’s just a matter of using “she/he” versus “I” for our viewpoint character.
But the more we learn about writing, the more we learn of all the variations available in that choice —such as how third-person POV ranges from omniscient third-person to deep third-person POV. Multiply that with the question of whether more than one viewpoint character will star in our scenes throughout our story, and we eventually realize the question of POV has far more nuance than we might originally assume.
So what’s the right choice for our story?
There Is No “Right” POV Choice
The truth is that there’s no “right” answer for the best POV for our story. Any of the options could work (even second-person POV!). However, each variation would turn out differently.
A story about grief will create very different emotional connections with readers if the third-person POV is deep into the perspective of a grieving widow vs. the widow’s young child vs. that of an impersonal omniscient style. One choice wouldn’t necessarily be “better” than another (even the impersonal omniscient could be right to avoid the sense of too much melodrama or to create a certain theme) – they’d just be different.
Along similar lines, a story using the first-person POV of a snarky teen is likely to have a very different tone from the same story told from an omniscient POV that uses a prim-and-proper narrator. Or even a different tone from that same story still told in first-person POV of that same teen character, but now all grown up and sharing a story from her younger years in a bookended flashback.
The variations would turn out even more differently if we include multiple viewpoint characters, such as how different perspectives would have very different theme insights into the story. Some POV choices make it easier to share multiple characters’ internal experiences. Or we could explore our story’s worldview portrayed through the chosen POV, such as a pessimist vs. an optimist, etc. Or experiment with style, from a POV using an epistolary style of storytelling letters vs. a fourth-wall breaking style.
Or we could come up with dozens more ways our POV choice will affect our story.
In other words, there’s no “right” answer because each of those options could be valid. The question then becomes: What do we want for our story?
What do we want for our story’s style, tone, theme, emotional connections, worldview, depth, ability to share knowledge from other perspectives, sense of a broader world, and so on? And often just as importantly, what do we think would fit best with our voice, genre, branding, and goals for our story?
What Guidelines Can Help Us Choose a POV?
For some stories, we’ll just know what POV seems right. But for other stories—or for some scenes within stories (when we rotate between different viewpoint characters)—we might struggle to decide the best POV to use. Lucky for us, there are a few guidelines to help us decide.
We’d usually show the scene from the character’s POV that falls into one or more of these situations:
- Higher Stakes: Which character has more at stake in the scene? Which one has more to lose or gain? Which one has more energy or passion about the events in the scene because the consequences mean more to them?
- Higher Emotion: Which character has more emotional change in the scene? Which character has stronger emotions? Which one is falling the furthest or has the epiphany?
- Which character has less obvious motivations or goals and readers would benefit from the insight of their POV?
- Which character knows the least (or not too much) about something we want to keep hidden?
- Which character knows the most about something we want to make clear?
- Which character can act as a reader stand-in for learning lots of information (like worldbuilding rules) in a gradual or natural way?
- Which character’s experience will be most compelling or relatable to readers?
- Which character’s experience will best maintain or increase story tension?
- Which character’s experience will best provide enlightenment for the story’s theme? (Think of stories like The Great Gatsby, where the central character is not the POV character.)
Those questions above show how high stakes and high emotion (the first two multi-part questions) are usually the most important considerations. But the other questions demonstrate why deviating from the standard advice might not be the wrong choice.
Sometimes it is most important for readers to understand motivations. Or sometimes it is most important to hide or reveal information. Or sometimes it is most important to keep the reader’s experience in mind.
What Differences Can Help Us Choose a POV?
What Are the Strengths and Limitations of Each POV?
Every option for our story’s POV comes with pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, limitations and expectations. In many cases, the limitations of each option are also connected to its strengths, especially if we know how to take advantage:
- First-person or deep third-person POV doesn’t allow for any out-of-POV insights, but the unknown can increase reader curiosity or suspense, and the immersive character insights lead to strong emotional connections for readers.
- Limited third-person is often the easiest POV to accidentally headhop with, but it’s also less restrictive than first-person or deep third-person POV and more emotional than omniscient.
- Omniscient POV doesn’t give readers an inside “you are there” perspective, but it gives them a broader view of complex stories, as there’s no limit on what readers can be told, from backstory or historical context to social philosophy or worldbuilding.
What Writing Rules Apply to the POV?
Some writing “rules” can be more easily broken in some POVs than others. For example, let’s look at the problem of headhopping…
- In omniscient third-person POV, headhopping isn’t much of an issue because the narrative can freely share information from different characters, as long as the author isn’t going too deep and using character’s voices—without tags—to share information with readers.
- With a limited third-person POV, headhopping is a bigger risk, as the POV is limited to one perspective, but readers might not notice out-of-POV mistakes.
- In first-person or deep third-person POV, headhopping is a major no-no. Those POVs are all from inside a character’s head, so switching to being inside another character’s head without a transition at a scene break would be jarring and interrupt the emotional connection with the reader.
What POV-Specific Issues Do We Need to Watch Out For?
Just like with headhopping, many writing techniques are only an issue in certain POVs. Here are a couple other examples:
- Unreliable narrators require our story’s POV to be biased and subjective. First-person, deep and limited third-person POVs can use unreliable narrators, but it would be difficult to make one work in omniscient—when the storyteller is “all-knowing”.
- Information dumps should be avoided in first-person or limited or deep third-person POV, as the character likely wouldn’t be thinking of those details. But omniscient stories can go off on tangents about characters’ history, a philosophical aspect of the story world’s society, etc. without feeling like an authorial intrusion, especially if the omniscient narrator’s voice makes the information compelling to readers.
No POV is necessarily “easier” for new writers than others, as each choice has limitations and issues to watch out for – and each one is harder than we think to do well. So we shouldn’t pick a POV based on what we think will take the least knowledge or be the best match for how new to writing we are.
Instead, to make our choice, it would be better to think about the style of our story (is it a big complex family saga? or is it a character-focused emotional journey like a romance?). We might think about which options fit better with our voice. Or we might think about what benefits we want to take advantage of that will only work with certain POV choices.
Whatever choice we make, we should learn everything we can about that specific POV. Tips for limited third-person won’t necessarily help us with deep third-person POV or vice versa. We should understand the pros and cons, benefits and limitations, of our chosen option so we can make our story the best it can possibly be. Good luck and happy writing!
About Jami Gold
After tripping Smeagol to make him fall into Mount Doom, Jami Gold unlocked her creativity and became an award-winning novelist. To help other writers reach their potential as well, she offers popular writing worksheets and tools, online writing-craft workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing.
📌 If you hadn’t noticed, this past week we had a short story theme happening for Apex zoom calls.
Scot Noel, Editor-in-Chief for DreamForge, who gave us a tour of what he does as an editor for the magazine, along with giving us insight into the magazine’s Patreon group, Dreamcasters, who have monthly challenges, receive info on writing and meet with monthly speakers. Included in the talk was a little about the Plotting Game they have played, which can help you get the bones of your short story together fairly quickly.
Currently they are closed for submissions but keep an eye out for when the submission window opens.
And probably one of the most sage takeaways from this talk—during the picking and choosing phase for the editor it’s like being at an art fair with all sorts of cool things and it isn’t possible to take everything because you don’t have the space or the money for everything. This means editors have to pick and choose based on not only what they like but what they need. The bottom line is if your story is rejected, it doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t liked and it wasn’t good. Keep going!
Michael A. Ventrella’s “What Editors of Themed Anthologies are Looking for” gave us insight into many do’s and don’t’s when submitting. He gave many real-world examples, along with emphasizing the importance of making networking connections within the writing community. Michael has edited and co-edited many fun anthologies (including RELEASE THE VIRGINS, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, and THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS series with New York Times Bestseller Jonathan Maberry), and recently received a glowing recommendation from Asimov’s Science Fiction for THREE TIME TRAVELERS WALK INTO . . .
Something to definitely check out…. on his web page, he interviews authors, editors and agents with advice for new writers. www.MichaelAVentrella.com. This is a solid resource of great information. Plus, his website is the place to keep checking periodically for when he opens up the next submission window for the next anthology
And then on Saturday, Mike Jack Stoumbos, lead editor of WonderBird Press and 1st-place winner of the Writers of the Future contest, gave us “Don’t Polish Off the Snags.” If you haven’t caught this one, we highly recommend watching the replay. He explains the importance of knowing when to stop editing and when to move on to the next story. Takeaway reasons: For upping your game in being accepted in the submission process AND for keeping your story fresh and original. Those snags in your story might be exactly what captures an editor’s attention!
Plus, he gave resources of some of the places where authors can submit. The first in the WonderBird Press‘s Unhelpful Encyclopedia series, Murderbirds, is coming out soon and Mike put out word of the upcoming call for Murderbugs. This submission call is being posted in select communities and not on public boards. He posted it earlier on the Apex Facebook group AND the information is also provided below.
And we have another short story presentation coming up this Saturday with Lyn Worthen – Sharpening Your Short Story Skills!
📌 ON DECK for NEXT WEEK:
Monday’s (2/27/23) Strategy Meeting – Joe Solari – Starting Your Writing Business Joe is regarded as a thought leader and business expert in the publishing space. He actively consults with bestselling six and seven-figure authors. He’s been a guest speaker at 20 Books Las Vegas and NINC. He has also been a guest on many podcasts, including The Self-Publishing Show, The Author Podcast, and I wish I had known.
Monday’s Mastermind, (2/27/23 at 7 pm MT/ 9pm ) – Michael Hauge – HOW TO SEDUCE YOUR READER IN THE FIRST 10 PAGES! The opening of your screenplay or novel is your single most powerful weapon for acquiring an agent or securing a deal. Using examples from recent successful films and novels, Michael reveals the secrets of transforming your opening scenes into emotionally gripping sequences that will force readers to turn the page.
Saturday’s Mastermind (3/4/23) – Jana S. Brown – Branding
📌 PLUS, we have a great line-up coming up:
Savannah Gilbo, editor, book coach, and podcaster of the popular Fiction Made Easy will be presenting “How to Write Compelling and Well-Structured Scenes” on Monday, March 6.
Lisa Cron, story analyst, speaker and author of WIRED FOR STORY and STORY GENIUS will be presenting “Hardwired for Story” on Monday, March 20.
Donald Maass, literary agent and CEO of the Donald Maass Literary Agency and author of the BREAKOUT NOVEL and THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT IN FICTION will be presenting “The Emotional Craft in Fiction” on Monday, April 10.
WANT TO SEE WHO IS ON WHEN?? Check out the links below.
Looking to improve your story? Check out our NEW course from MyStoryDoctor.com! The Triarchy Method of Story by September C. Fawkes.
Craft your best book by focusing on what matters most: The “bones” of story.
This content-focused course will help you:
- Brainstorm better and more relevant material
- Evaluate what ideas most belong in your story (preventing you from writing hundreds of pages that need to be scrapped), and
- Craft a page-turning plot with compelling characters that sticks with readers long after they’ve closed the book (. . . and hopefully leads them to preorder your next book).
- And more
This live, online class is limited to 10 students. Classes start March 7 and run Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30 pm Mountain Time (8:30pm EST) for a total of 23 classes. Classes ends on May 25.
For more information, visit https://mystorydoctor.com/the-triarchy-method-of-story/
About the Instructor
September C. Fawkes has worked in the fiction-writing industry for over ten years and has been editing stories for longer. She has edited for both award-winning and best-selling authors, as well as new writers. She has worked on manuscripts written for middle grade, young adult, and adult readers, and specializes in fantasy and science fiction.
For seven years, she worked through New York Times best-selling author David Farland, providing feedback on his workshop students’ assignments, editing their manuscripts, and sometimes, even editing David’s own books.
When not working, she is running an award-winning writing tip blog. She has also served as a writing coach on Writers Helping Writers and teaches at writing conferences. Some may say she needs to get a social life. It’d be easier if her fictional one wasn’t so interesting.
📌 Shout-out to some of our Apexers for this week!
To Diann Thornley Read! Her new book, The Seventh Shaman: Book Three, Crucible of the Gods, has been gardening some incredible reviews!
To Loretta Torossian, First Place WINNER in the SCBWI Rising Kite Contest in the category of Young Adult Novels for her manuscript–Light Weaver!! This event celebrates Florida’s best yet-to-be-published writing for children.
To Cheryl Carpinello–for finishing an interview for the Author Show. You’ll be able to hear her interview soon. The Author Show is a professional interview podcast that presents the work of authors to readers around the world.
📌 If you have success news you’d like to share about yourself or another Apexer, please email Tammy and have Apexer Good News in the subject line. We’d love to do a shout-out!!
Every week Apex members have informative meetings with two Mastermind interviews/presentations with industry experts, Strategy meeting to give the tips and tools to better serve your authoring life, Accelerators meeting focused on how to up your game, along with group meetings featuring craft and marketing discussions, writer rings, networking, support, accountability, sprints, and more. Plus, there are hundreds of hours of Teachable videos.
Visit https://www.apex-writers.com for more information.
And, to participate in these events, all you do after joining is to click on “Upcoming Events” for the zoom links.