How to Write Point of View

This is a guest post by author Kathleen Rowland

With an MS in computer science, Kathleen Rowland used to write tech manuals. Now Kathleen writes gritty romantic suspense set on crime-infested waterfronts that are sure to keep you up reading late, turning pages well past dark. On a larger-than-life scale, her heroes and heroines get caught up in downward spirals and external disasters. Currently, Kathleen is writing the third book in the Donahue Cousins series for Tirgearr Publishing, Ireland. Bittersweet Alliance will follow Deadly Alliance and Unholy Alliance.

 

Point of view, the position of the narrator in relation to the story, is at the heart of fiction. Every story has a perspective from a character, though there can be more than one type of point of view in a work. The most common points of view used in novels are first person singular (“I”) and the other style, third person (“he” and “she”). This point of view definition uses “he” and “she” as the pronouns to refer to different characters, and provides the greatest amount of flexibility for the author. In commercial fiction the focus stays tightly on one character, and the ironclad rule is one point of view per scene or chapter.  What’s the big deal about point of view?

 

       You will succeed with my “camera on the head” technique.  Put an imaginary video camera on top of your POV character’s head and write from his or her perspective.  You, the author, will unfold the story by filtering events through “the eyes” of a character. A reader wants to connect with the character with the most to lose in a scene. The character’s reactions are revealed. A character can observe an event and react to it.  As the character’s feelings are disclosed to the reader, the author provides an emotional identification.  As a writer, you do not want to switch viewpoints midstream within a scene. Some authors keep a consistent viewpoint within an entire chapter.  In any case, within a scene or even a chapter, the viewpoint character exposes his or her soul so that the reader is immersed in the emotional drama of the moment.  The character reacts internally.  This can include reacting to another character’s joy, grief, anger, giving the reader a jolt.  Keep the POV consistent by listening to your characters. Turn off all the other voices and listen only to them. If they tell you they want to do something insane, put that on the page. If they tell you they want to say something outrageous, put that on the page. Are you writing a romance? If they tell you they would rather kiss chastely than make love athletically on the floor, give them that chaste kiss. If they tell you a chaste kiss isn’t nearly enough, then you’d better get them down on that floor, and you can keep the video camera in place.  What do they see?

 

I’d like to share a few editing tips related to point of view.

Keep description within the viewpoint of your character. Similes and metaphors should be within the protagonist’s frame of reference. If your heroine is a hairdresser, she might use “as limp as a strand of shampooed hair. Or: as tight as a newly permed curl.

When you’re in deep viewpoint, use pronouns rather than the character’s name. Keep viewpoints distinctive. Use a space break when you switch characters.

Avoid flashbacks and backstory. Leave the past in the past unless it’s important for your current story. Keep the action moving forward. Drop backstory into dialogue or relate it in brief thoughts during action scenes. Less is better.

Show, don’t tell. Show your character’s emotions. Don’t tell the reader about them. NO: She felt afraid. YES: Ice gripped her heart. NO: He was angry. YES: He slammed his fist on the table. Physical reactions and nonverbal clues indicate emotions. Without these, you’ve written a cardboard character.

Dialogue should have a purpose. All conversations should have direction. What’s the point you’re trying to make? Who needs to be in this scene? How will it propel the action forward?

Eliminate adverbs that describes speech. NO: “I love it,” he chortled merrily. YES: “I love it,” he said with a chuckle.

Replace he/she said with character tags, but don’t overuse them. Make sure it’s clear who is speaking if there are several lines of dialogue without tags. Eliminate unnecessary tags altogether, like in this example:

His mouth curved in a suggestive smile that made heat rise to her face. “This potato-crusted grouper sounds good,” he said with a wink. “It comes with a salad and herb bread. Why don’t you order for me?”

In my revision, I removed “he said with a wink.” We already know who is speaking and he’d given a suggestive smile. No more is needed.

Avoid long paragraphs of exposition or description. Do these passages really need to be there? Or will readers skip over them? Make the reader feel what your hero feels. Don’t just tell us what’s going on. Also, if paragraphs get too long, split them up. White space is a good thing.

Replace passive verbs with active tense. NO: The slaves were slain by lions. YES: Lions mauled the slaves. NO: His forehead was heated by the sun baking overhead. YES: The baking sun heated his brow.

Replace walked and went with a more visual word. She shuffled toward the door. He raced down the street. He sprinted across the yard.

Beware of ing phrases that are illogical. NO: Flinging the door wide, she stepped inside the darkened interior. YES: She flung the door wide and stepped inside the darkened interior (i.e. you can’t do both actions at once in the first sentence).

Avoid weak phrases like seemed to, tried to, began to. NO: He seemed to want her input. YES: His smile encouraged her to speak. NO: She tried to tie the knot, but it slipped through her fingers. YES: As she fumbled with the knot, the rope slipped from her fingers. Avoid unnecessary phrases such as she realized, she figured, he decided, he watched.

Avoid weak verbs: is, was, are, were, there was. NO: There was water on the window. YES: Water droplets beaded the window. NO: His pulse was racing. YES: His pulse raced.

Just for fun, whose POV is featured below? Thoughts are in italics.

       Did you find your keys?” Julie asked, irritated at Jeb’s carelessness. He was always losing everything. Why can’t he be more organized? He’s always wasting my time. Her jaw clenched in anger.

       Jeb ran a hand through his hair. “No. I could have sworn I left them on the kitchen table.” He turned away from her, his lips pressed in a flat line.

If you guessed Julie’s POV, you nailed it.  The video camera is on her head. She can see Jeb running a hand through his hair and his actions including his lips pressed in a flat line.