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30 April 2008 @ 03:17 pm
On Writing: Narrative Point-of-View  
Point-of-View (POV) is the framework from which an author tells a story. It's the narrative approach to the story, and comes in three forms: first-person ("I" or "we"), second-person ("you") and third-person ("John" or "He" or "They").

When using POV, the narrative is limited to the things that POV can experience. I.e., if you have second-person narrative, it cannot contain anything that someone else feels/sees/hears. The POV can observe the appearance of someone else feeling/seeing/hearing those things, but they cannot be told directly.

There are any number of excellent sources for POV (including this wikipedia article). However, while these often describe what POV is, they do not always discuss how to use it—or how to recognize when you've gotten into trouble and need to correct your mistakes.

Most stories are told in third-person POV, as this tends to work best for readers. It can be depersonalized enough to be used in factual writing (news-reporting, technical writing), or infused with opinions or characterization for fiction, op-ed pieces, and fan-fiction.

I've seen first-person recommended as the next-best choice to third-person, but this is more prevalent in original fiction (i.e., novels) than in fan-fiction. In fan-fiction, second-person is the next-most-common choice (though rarely used). With original fiction, the reader is being introduced to a character of the author's creation, and anything the author chooses to show us is assumed to be the character's true voice. With fan-fiction, the reader is generally already very familiar with the character and likely has a lot of opinions as to who that character is and how they think. This may be why first-person tends to be unpopular with fan-fiction readers— even though the writer could show all of that same characterization in third-person, and it could be just as authentic or off-base. It will still "sell" better to the reader in third-person, regardless.

Because third-person is the most common, the most varied, and the most problematic, this discussion will focus on the methods and pitfalls of using it.

Third-person has several different forms. It can be an omniscient narrative, where the story goes inside all of the important characters' heads. It can be a limited omniscient (character-focused) narrative, where the third-person POV gets inside the head of a single character. Finally, there is the objective narrative ("fly-on-the-wall" perspective), where no internal thoughts of any characters are revealed.

Regardless of which narrative form the author intends to use, problems occur if the story develops into a different narrative form during the writing process.

Frequently, when I write fan-fiction myself, I begin with the notion that the story is going to be third-person "omniscient." What happens, however, is that the story usually drifts into a character-focused third-person narrative instead. The story may have begun firmly on middle ground, but after a few pages it has solidified into a single character's POV instead.

Now, what should the author do when this happens?

First and most importantly, be aware that your story has drifted! This 'drift' absolutely must be fixed.

How does the author accomplish this? There are two approaches here.

One is to accept that the POV you drifted into is the way your story wants to be told, and stick with that (it's hard to deny a convincing narrative voice, even if you didn't expect it to be that particular voice). If this is the tack you take, then you'll need to go back through your story and revise all the places where someone else's POV was used. I.e., instead of
Bob felt sick to his stomach at the idea.

use something like
Bob looked sick.

Or instead of a character thinking something, show actions that indicate this:
Carol was nervous as hell wondering how Bill would take the news.

becomes
Bill had hardly processed what Carol had just said, but the way she kept fidgeting and glancing at his face meant that it must have been pretty bad.


The other choice is to go back and expand the POV throughout your story to maintain the feeling that all of the main characters are 'present' rather than just a single one.

I have seen the flip side of this situation, both in a story I've been beta-reading and in a novel I recently finished reading. In these cases, the author intended to write omniscient third-person narrative but established limited-omniscient third-person as the POV instead.

This brings up another point: you must establish the omniscient third-person narrative (ideally as soon as possible) in order to use it.

The novel I read had two-and-a-half chapters of the main character's POV, and then drifted into someone else's head for a paragraph. Then it reverted back to the main character for another chapter, drifted briefly into someone else, went back to the main character, and eventually tossed in a few chapters in other POVs in order to complete the (already thin) plot.

Your finished product cannot "visit" other POVs in this way simply out of laziness (to save the steps of "showing" the other characters rather than "telling" them) or because you couldn't bring off your pivotal plot point without doing it.

Instead, you must establish the other POVs firmly from the beginning.

In a longer work, such as a novel, you could make the entire second chapter in a different person's POV, and go chapter-by-chapter with different POVs. The narrative break of changing chapters is why this technique works. Or you could choose to expand your narrative from the beginning, introducing the POVs of the other major characters (via phone calls or parallel settings, for instance, where the scene shifts to the other person's perspective on what's going on).

The point is, this has to be done sooner rather than later. If you mainly write from a single character's POV in third-person, any time you go into another POV it comes off as drift rather than a legitimate narrative approach.

The story I beta-read was a single character for the first half, and then moved into the other two characters to highlight fear and danger (character #2) and angst (character #3). Given how the story ended, where the emotional core of the final scene required the narrative to focus on that third character, the best approach was to expand the POV from the beginning of the story and solidly set it up as being omniscient. This was the technique used:

Paragraph One (original): Character #1's POV, in which the other two characters arrive.

Paragraph Two (added): the two other characters observe Character #1, and the narrative broadens the emotional context of the scene.

Ensuing paragraphs: add individual emotions around some of the second and third characters' dialogue, add Character #2 observing Character #1 and vice-versa, add Character #2 observing Character #3, etc.

In the revised version, by the time the story shifts into Character #2 facing danger head-on, the reader is now prepared for the narrative to move between characters. There is shift, but not drift.

That distinction is key.

In summary, decide which POV approach you're using and make sure that you adhere to it. Be aware of the additional care needed to set up the third-person "omniscient" POV, and to maintain it throughout your story—whether you sketch out the POV shifts ahead of time during the plotting or simply go back later and make sure you haven't settled too firmly into a single-character POV.

If you find that the single-character POV works better for you, it's all right to convert the rest of the story to it. So long as you're consistent, do whatever it takes to tell the best and most compelling story you have within you.

~*~

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Queen of Musicdove95 on April 30th, 2008 10:59 pm (UTC)
This is hot!

Knowledge and writing turns me on! :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 30th, 2008 11:04 pm (UTC)
:D

The topic of POV-- and problems in using it-- really solidified recently. One of my most recent Gen stories started out 3rd-person omniscient, and then became Sam POV (I wrote half of it, and then it sat for a year). And the beta-reading experience and that coincidental novel brought up the reverse problem of not setting up omniscient POV correctly.

It's true what they say about learning from mistakes. Your mistakes and those of others sometimes make things far clearer than doing things the right way. ;)
jellicle on April 30th, 2008 11:02 pm (UTC)
I'm saving this to read later. My final work for college is a study of two novels written in the first person and the notion that, since it's first person, you're not always 'seeing' the fact as they were but rather as the narrator perceived them or the way wants the reader to perceive them. As you can see, POV is one of my favorite subjects :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 30th, 2008 11:07 pm (UTC)
and the notion that, since it's first person, you're not always 'seeing' the fact as they were but rather as the narrator perceived them or the way wants the reader to perceive them.
Oh yes-- that's a whole different and interesting POV topic, the "Unreliable Narrator."

It's a wonderful technique if pulled off well, because it reveals the character's flaws if the writer is able to show simultaneously how the character chooses to present something while leaving the hints of what's really going on instead. :)
(no subject) - jellicle on April 30th, 2008 11:15 pm (UTC) (Expand)
PamalaX: Alexthinkingpamalax on April 30th, 2008 11:23 pm (UTC)
Interesting read.

All these years writing only 1st person (I don't that right when you get down to it ) makes this one especially interesting to me.

Doing the same way all the time makes it hard for me to remember other ways.

I may have to read this one a few times.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 1st, 2008 02:07 am (UTC)
Yes-- in looking at a post linked off of one of the Supernatural fic communities, which recommended first-person after third-person, I had to think for awhile about how that idea translates to fanfic as opposed to other fiction writing.

Although you and at least one other writer I can think of usually use first person (or use it often), it's comparatively rare in fanfic. I've read a lot of different fandoms, even, and it's still rare. That leads to the question of why it tends to be avoided, and I really believe it's that most people find it too "personal" for characters that they feel they already know (and perhaps in a different way than a given author).

Doing the same way all the time makes it hard for me to remember other ways.
I'm personally hoping to exercise the omniscient third-person more, because I really don't tend to write it even when I want to. :)
(no subject) - pamalax on May 1st, 2008 02:16 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on May 1st, 2008 03:08 am (UTC) (Expand)
girlguidejonesgirlguidejones on May 1st, 2008 02:41 am (UTC)
I am really only capable of telling a story from a single POV. I've *tried* writing in multiple POVs, and in third person omniscient, and I simply can't do it. Only one of the Winchesters seems to speak to me at a time. ;)

This was interesting, and no doubt very informative to ppl who want to attempt the different styles. Good job!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 1st, 2008 03:06 am (UTC)
Only one of the Winchesters seems to speak to me at a time. ;)
That pretty much seems to be my problem as well-- especially with the Winchesters, because I know that at least the CrackFic I've written in my other fandom has 3rd-person omniscient. But it's exactly as you say-- even when I begin a story with multiple POVs, it typically winds up settling into a single character.

That may be in part because I value getting the story out more than I value making it fit a particular "type." But many other writers are able to work with a more, let us say, directed muse than I do.

The process of writing works so very differently for people. Just thinking about these issues is likely to help me down the road, I'm betting, even if not immediately. :)
frostian: dr. badassfrostian on May 1st, 2008 03:27 am (UTC)
This is a great and thorough explanations on the POVs. And hey, I'm friending you now b/c I've been remiss!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 1st, 2008 03:57 am (UTC)
This is a great and thorough explanations on the POVs.
Thank you!

I've read so many things on "POV is this," but they don't offer practical advice for the issue of recognizing drift or what to do about it. Since it's happened to me and to others (including that published author), that seems like a topic worth bringing up. :)

Friending you back... :D
brigid_tannerbrigid_tanner on May 1st, 2008 03:41 am (UTC)
I don't write, but this was a good explanation of why I sometimes feel like something just went wrong in a story and can't put my finger on the why. Sometimes I catch the shifting POV, and sometimes it sneaks up on me until I get confused and quit reading. This will help me leave better feedback.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 1st, 2008 04:01 am (UTC)
but this was a good explanation of why I sometimes feel like something just went wrong in a story and can't put my finger on the why. Sometimes I catch the shifting POV, and sometimes it sneaks up on me until I get confused and quit reading.
Betas so often catch it that if the work is betaed, or if the writer is decent enough, you may not run into it for long stretches at a time.

Finding it in a published novel-- and done so poorly-- was a real jolt. jeyhawk mentioned on one of my other writing posts that she's found it in novels from time to time, and it drives her nuts.

and sometimes it sneaks up on me until I get confused and quit reading. This will help me leave better feedback.
That's always a help to an author, when it's worded kindly. Much of the time I don't think people are aware that they're doing it-- or don't have rigorous enough standards for recognizing that the phrasing they've used here and there constitutes going outside of the appropriate POV. It's especially tough for beginning authors, because at that stage you write whatever comes out and hope the story's interesting and that you caught the grammer/spelling errors. You're usually not thinking in that "meta" sense.
I'm for wine and the embrace of questionable womenmissyjack on May 1st, 2008 06:30 am (UTC)
Incredibly clear and useful explanation, not just on POV but mroe importantly how to fix it! Thanks!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 1st, 2008 08:22 pm (UTC)
not just on POV but mroe importantly how to fix it!
Thank you, Missyjack! The one area that seemed to really be needed was the discussion of what to do to fix the situation when it's happened. The last thing a writer wants to do is give up on story entirely if they don't have too. Why not bring it back into alignment instead?

You know me-- I am all about the practical approach. :)
sahiya on May 1st, 2008 08:45 pm (UTC)
Hmmm, POV is an issue in a lot of fanfiction, it's true. I saw a recent discussion in which it was concluded that "omniscient third" was most fans' favorite POV, which is funny because I rarely see fanfiction in omniscient third. I finally concluded that the people participating in the discussion did not, in fact, have a clue what they were talking about, and that they thought that shifting POV in the middle of a paragraph was omniscient third.

However, I take issue with the idea of saying one POV is "best" and another is "next best." This is something I've seen elsewhere in fanfiction (including in the aforementioned discussion) and I really, really don't understand it. No POV is better than any other, in my opinion, so long as it is used properly. What is right for one story is not right for another, and second person should be used very, very rarely, as far as I'm concerned. Different POV's were invented for a reason and saying that first is inferior to third just shrinks the toolbox available for your use.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 1st, 2008 08:53 pm (UTC)
However, I take issue with the idea of saying one POV is "best" and another is "next best." This is something I've seen elsewhere in fanfiction (including in the aforementioned discussion) and I really, really don't understand it.

This post doesn't attempt to recommend one over the other-- it simply states that others do make these recommendations, and yet from what I've seen there is an additional difference between what people write in fan-fiction vs. what they write in original fiction. Fan-fiction really tends not to use first-person, and only rarely second-person. Original fiction rarely uses second-person, but does use first-person. Third-person, in all its various forms, is the most common.

and second person should be used very, very rarely, as far as I'm concerned.
This, however... is a statement of what should and should not be used, which you said above you didn't really like people declaring for others!

This post discusses what IS used, how those techniques work, and how to iron out any problems that may come up in POV-drift using third-person.

Because if a writer has POV drift in first-person or second-person narrative, then they're really, really missing some basic attributes of writing that are far below the scope of this discussion.
(no subject) - sahiya on May 1st, 2008 09:01 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on May 1st, 2008 09:24 pm (UTC) (Expand)
hédonisme libertaire: Dr. Manhattanmmoneurere on May 2nd, 2008 01:03 am (UTC)
here via metafandom
One word:

Ulysses.

In other words, shifting point of view within not only a work but a page, paragraph or even sentence can work -- it's just much more difficult to make it work well. Mostly, it has to be conscious and deliberate -- which works as advice for any number of elements of writing (tense, OMFG tense: manipulating tense allows for any number of effects in situating a narrator, reader and writer-proxy WRT a story, but shifts in tense due to sloppy writing are just ugly).

So yeah, "avoid drift in POV" may be good advice in most cases where the writer isn't trying to do anything with prose or narrative except tell a straightforward story; but it's no more absolute than the "a story must have a hero, who should have an internal or external journey" or "tension must accumulate over the course of the story until the climax, after which the central tension is resolved" principles.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 2nd, 2008 01:16 am (UTC)
Re: here via metafandom
Unfortunately, I have never read "Ulysses."

Is the POV intended to shift throughout the story? I.e., is it in fact already omniscient third-person narrative (which can easily change characters throughout)?

The real purpose of my writing entries is to help more usual writers write well. Avoiding tense drift (as opposed to referencing the past, the present and the future, which is NOT necessarily tense drift) is fairly absolute, with good reason.

Most of us don't have the background or talent to break the major rules and still render a story coherent and powerful. Usually, when WE do it, it's because we're screwing up.

Does that make sense?

As one of my music professors used to say, you should learn the rules first before you break them. If, after that point, it turns out that you're Brahms, then have at it. But learning the basics will help ensure that such effects are deliberate, rather than the result of sloppiness or ignorance. :)
Re: here via metafandom - mmoneurere on May 2nd, 2008 01:34 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: here via metafandom - halfshellvenus on May 2nd, 2008 02:26 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: here via metafandom - mmoneurere on May 2nd, 2008 03:14 am (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 2nd, 2008 02:33 am (UTC)
Re: Here via metafandom
and have found the shift/drift issue to be a challenging one.
The expansion of your story into a much larger arc (20,000+ words vs. 3000!) is exactly where this can become tricky. Part of that, I think, is because it cannot be written as a draft in one or two sittings (at least, by most people). The more time involved in creating the full arc, the more difficult it can be to maintain the focus (I speak as someone who struggles with almost anything over 1200-1500 words, and who writes a lot of 100-word stories).

I am quite sure my bandombigbang entry will benefit from your time and thought here.
I certainly hope so. :) If you like how some of the other POVs are working for you, perhaps this will help you make a conscious decision about whether to keep them, and if so then how to make the construct of the story work to showcase those shifts rather than confuse the reader.

These posts help me solidify ideas, and having come at this issue from both directions I'd hoped to offer some practical assistance for other writers who run into these issues. :)
sadelyrate: thinkingsadelyrate on May 3rd, 2008 10:08 am (UTC)
I might be indecently attracted to your brain right now. Because, yes. So much yes.
Choose the POV you want to tell the story with, and stick to it. Together with OoCness, fluctuating POV without a warning is a surefire way for me to stop reading. And omniscience of a POV is another can of worms...sometimes it fits, but the writer has to bear in mind just what the POV-character knows, or can know. Imo, this is especially true for fanfics.

I'm going to memorize this.

Thank You.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on May 3rd, 2008 06:26 pm (UTC)
And omniscience of a POV is another can of worms...sometimes it fits, but the writer has to bear in mind just what the POV-character knows, or can know. Imo, this is especially true for fanfics.
This is true-- though the writer can at least switch whose POV is currently being narrated in this case. But you can't apply your "as a viewer I know xyz from canon" to a scene where the current-POV-character wasn't present and doesn't have a reasonable likelihood of having been informed of that event.

I'm so glad you found this worthy of saving in memories. That's SO nice to know. :)
erfan_starled: Erfan Bookerfan_starled on June 3rd, 2008 09:08 pm (UTC)
I have arrived here via kenazfiction/metafandom. Here you named something I was trying to ask about tonight but could not frame the problem clearly - the differences between third person narrative forms of pov. I shall be rereading this... very helpful indeed.
Thanks, Erfan.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on June 12th, 2008 06:36 am (UTC)
the differences between third person narrative forms of pov.
It's interesting that the first and second person are so straightforward, but that third person has a number of different approaches... allowing for unintentional intermixing of the types to occur.

I'm glad this helped you!
kassidy62kassidy62 on June 29th, 2010 12:18 pm (UTC)
it's been driven into me that changing pov is head hopping and a bad, bad thing, and must at least occur with a change of scenes. So what's the difference between omniscient pov and head hopping, or is there any?
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on June 29th, 2010 05:05 pm (UTC)
I have the feeling this entry must have been linked somewhere, because it had a lot of visitors yesterday.

I would say that head-hopping is omniscient POV done poorly, but can be avoided if you're aware of how your story is flowing.

If you've written so extensively in one POV (and only that POV) for a scene, then a sudden jump to a different POV is going to feel like head-hopping to the reader. That's something worth fixing-- either by working more of the other POVs back into the scene, or creating natural divisions (such as chapters) for your story. However, this last choice is something that should be guiding your overall structure and should be part of your goal in telling the story, not a last-minute decision.

To remain omniscient when you've "drifted," you can go back and rework the scene/story. I.e., rather than having the one POV-character "observe" the other character and his/her reactions externally, you need to also regularly include the other character's thoughts.

"Omniscient POV" should feel as if the reader is riding above the story, and getting glimpses inside each character. If instead they are diving down deep into characters and spending a lot of time there, with whiplash moments into other POVs... that's head-hopping.

You might think of it this way (and believe me, I've been there): if your story keeps settling into a particular POV again and again, you probably need to primarily use that POV and have chapter divisions that shift characters (or rewrite so that you never shift at all).

If all of the characters have approximately equal "voice" in the story (and all want to TELL the story), omniscient is a better choice. That may mean reworking to establish their POVs early and often. If they have nothing of major importance to "say," and it's a struggle to find "inputs" for them, then reconsider your POV goals: single third-person narrator? Or just a few narrators among the larger cast, with chapter divisions for their moments in the spotlight?

I hope this helps you, because I know this is one of the trickier areas of writing-- especially when your story begins to write itself away from what you thought you'd set out to do. At that point, you have to decide whether to "listen" to it or to "fix" it.