Wednesday, January 21, 2015

POV: A Refresher

Word-crafting is far from an exact science. It’s more of an art.  To craft a work of art like narrative prose, you need to have a good understanding of POV.  So, this is the first in a series of Word-craft Wednesdays that will explore how good use of POV will make your writing better.

But first, a quick refresher.

You’re probably familiar with the term POV. And if you’re not familiar with the acronym, you probably know what it stands for: point of view. You also probably know that in writing, this refers to the point of view from which the story is being told – the narrator’s point of view.  You’re probably even familiar with the types of POVs, but since reviews are always nice, here’s a quick reminder:

First Person

This POV uses the first person pronouns, i.e., ‘I,’ ‘we,’ and ‘us.’ The narrator and the character are one and the same,  so the POV only allows us to see what the character sees. There is very little flexibility in this; the character can’t know what other people are thinking, so any attempts to get inside of other character’s minds must be speculative. The character is the audience’s filter: if the character can’t see it or hear it, neither can we.

Second Person

This POV uses second person pronouns (you) and is almost never used in storytelling. Exceptions include “choose your own mystery” genre. You’ve probably read these as a kid: “You walk into a spooky castle and see a massive staircase in front of you. A dark hallway is to your left, and a sealed door is to your right. What do you do? Go up the stairs. (Page x) Go down the hallway. (Page y) Try to break down the door. (Page Z)” While entertaining for youngsters and the young at heart, these stories are seldom viewed as ‘good’ entertainment.

Maybe it is possible to make a second-person narrative POV  work, but a major problem arises: it is incredibly presumptuous to tell a story from your reader’s perspective.  That’s what using the second person POV does. If the character (“you”) does something that the reader (the supposed narrator of the story) would not do, the reader immediately feels alienated. If you really want your reader to feel like they are ‘living’ the story, then use first person.  People identify with the pronoun ‘I’ much, much faster than they do ‘you.’

Third Person

Can you guess which kind of pronouns this POV uses? Third person pronouns! (Shocker.) However, third person narration has the most variety, and can be broken down into three major categories.

Third Person Subjective

Most often, you’ll hear this referred to as ‘third person limited.’ It is essentially the same thing as first person, but using third person pronouns, the character’s name instead of ‘I,’ and so on.  So why use one over the other?

If you really want your reader to ‘live’ the story, then first person works best.  But if you want them to immediately identify with your character, see them as a companion that they follow through the story, then third person limited works best. This isn’t to say that first person can’t offer that sense of companionship and third person limited can’t offer the sense of living the story, but they do tend to lend themselves better to one way or the other. Sometimes, it can take longer for readers to warm up to first person than it does for third person limited.  Both are very useful, popular types of storytelling, often chosen based on which one the writer prefers.

Third Person Objective

Frequently, this one is called ‘fly-on-the-wall.’ This POV is severely limited, but it still can be used with great effect. Almost every single movie and play out there uses third person objective. The narrator is nothing more than an observer, and any attempts to foray into the character’s minds must be speculative. In most cases, it’s best to let the readers speculate for themselves.  This POV relies heavily upon “show, don’t tell.” It can be extremely difficult to write, but it is also a highly rewarding challenge.  The reader will tend to have less of an emotional investment in the book, but if your story is intriguing enough, they’ll stick around.

Third Person Omniscient

This narrative POV can basically be anywhere or everywhere at once. This is the most versatile. It has a downside, however. Have you ever taken an open book test and found out that it was more difficult than a closed book test? That’s kind of what using this POV is like. You have to choose what you will and won’t reveal, whose thoughts you explore, and so on.

So, those are the basic types of narrative POVs.  Next Wednesday, we’ll launch into ways to use them effectively.

If you have a narrative writing project right now, what POV are you using? Do you have any questions you’d like to have answered over the next few Word-craft Wednesdays? Share any thoughts in the comments.

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  1. Somehow the notification for this post didn't get to my inbox... Huh. I tend to use third person limited in most of my stories, but my joint fanfiction with A. is written in first person. Here's a sort of question/idea for a future WW: when two people own something, how would one phrase the possessive before it? That came out weird. I mean, is something "mine and my sister's," "my sister's and mine," "my sister and I's," or something entirely different?

    1. What a flummoxing question!

      Standard format is to put the first person pronoun last in a list, so 'my' would come last. "That is my sister's and my book." On the other hand, in a compound ownership phrase, you would say "Bob and Jim's book," with only one apostrophe. Imagine it this way: "(Bob and Jim)'s book." The linguistic argument exists that you could also say "(My sister and I)'s book," since the 's applies to the whole phrase, not to the individual nouns therein (think like a mathematical phrase in parentheses).


      While the linguistic argument exists, it is not considered appropriate usage. As funky as it sounds, "My sister's and my book" (in this case it's more like the possessive has been expanded across the phrase) is the correct use. You will use either 'my' or 'mine' in this possessive phrase using the same rule you would use them independently. 'Mine' is a direct object/object of a preposition: "That book is mine." 'My' is an adjective: "That is my book."

      All that being said, I think we can all agree that "My sister's and my" sounds weird. Even if we replace 'my sister' with the sister's name, say, Jill, "Jill's and my" still sounds really weird. It's still grammatically correct, but it's funky. So, if you ask me, you should just circumvent the issue by saying "That book belongs to my sister and me" or "This is a story that I am writing with A."

      Also, a fun tidbit is that 'collaborative' is more frequently used than 'joint' when describing writing projects. That way, you can just say "collaborative fan fiction" and people automatically understand you are writing it with somebody else, even if you don't say the other author's name. If you just say "joint fan fiction," they might not understand that unless you use another person's name.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Thanks, that does help a lot! With a related topic or two, you probably could have turned that whole response into a post. Heh.