A Deep Dive into POV

One of the most important decisions a writer has to make is regarding what POV she will use for her story or novel—not what character to write in, necessarily, but whether to write in first or third person, and if the latter, what variant of third person to use.

Sometimes the reason writers fall into the POV pit is the wrong choice of POV in the first place. They may have chosen to write their novel in first person, but their plot and premise require showing a lot of action involving other characters at times when they are not with the protagonist.

Genre may also influence this choice—for example, much YA today, especially dystopian, is in first person, present tense. This POV and tense provide the greatest intimacy with the main character, and that’s what YA readers want.

Some stories are essentially one character’s journey of deep insight and reaction to the world around her. Women’s Fiction, for example, is often told in first-person POV, for a deeper sense of intimacy. Other stories need to show multiple characters’ motivation, needs, and goals for the plot to work, and so usually the best option is multiple or shifting third-person POV. And yes—even despite all the warnings you might hear, you can use omniscient if you want to. It’s your story, after all.

But more than genre should determine the choice of POV. The primary question is “Which POV choice will best tell this story?” Often that choice is third person.

Third-Person POV Pitfalls

 Within third-person POV structure, choices need to be made for each scene. Who is the best character to show, experience, process, and react to the events in a particular scene? If the wrong character is chosen, a writer may slip into POV violation.

Why? Because the key points revealed in a scene may not be ones this character has access to. So the best way to avoid the POV pitfall is to first think through the objective and high point of your scene, then determine which character will be most impacted and impacting as the POV character.

Often that decision is a no-brainer. Your hero may need to find most of the clues in a murder mystery. And the killer in your story may be the only one witnessing the murder he commits. But other scenes may not be so obvious.

Take the time to consider what various characters might bring to the situation if the scene was put in their POV. And note what things they don’t or can’t know, and how that might help or hinder your plot. Sometimes it’s useful to have a character with limited knowledge witness events. That can provide for misunderstanding, misdirection, and plot complications. And those can be great developments for your story.

Variations on Omniscient POV

Objective omniscient POV is a narrator without a “voice.” Essentially the narrator is invisible; no personality comes through. Events are related as they happen, but the narrator doesn’t share insights, reactions, or opinions. This POV is a silent camera, recording the scene.

Since an objective POV can only show actions and dialogue, what the characters feel can only be implied by their actions and speech. That means writers can’t tell emotions: “She was angry (or sad or frustrated).” Take a look at this example:

Before:

Diane Chandler stood on the ledge of her eighth-floor office windowsill, afraid to look down at the heavy traffic below on Fifth Avenue. Her heart pounded as she inched out in her expensive Gucci high heels. Wind whipped at her, making her wobble. She clenched her hands tighter on the railing, her nails digging into the flesh of her palms.

But she ignored the slight pain in her hands, steeling herself for the greater pain she would soon feel when she tumbled to the street below.

She gulped, wishing there was some other way. But there wasn’t. She had ruined everything. Her life was a disaster. Her boss would fire her once he found out the truth. And John . . . that traitorous friend! Telling her he’d keep his mouth shut if she paid him off. She knew where that would lead—to a lifetime of blackmail.

Diane squeezed her eyes shut, trying to muster the courage to take that small, final step. She sucked in a breath, but then heard something behind her.

“Wait!”

Diane’s heart sank to her feet. How had her boss found out so quickly? Traitor John must have run straight to Moore’s office after watching her pull the money from the safe.

“Diane, please. We’ll work this out. You don’t have to do this.”

Diane shook her head, not daring to turn to look at him. He didn’t understand. Couldn’t understand. He could sweet-talk her all he wanted. She’d still go to jail. And she’d never see her baby again. She couldn’t bear the thought of her daughter seeing her behind bars. No, she couldn’t bear it. Better for Angela to grow up never remembering her mother. I’m sorry, sweetie. But Aunt Judy loves you. She’ll take good care of you. Better than I ever could.

Moore spoke again, and she heard the frantic urging in his voice. But it rolled over her like the wind. Tears spilled down her face. She loosened her grip on the railing and sucked in a breath.

Then stepped out into the welcoming sky.

I hope you can see this is truly deep third-person POV. I spent much time going into Diane’s thoughts and feelings. And if that is my intent, I should stick with this POV. However, if I want to convey a detached objective take on this scene, wanting distance from emotion and a more insensitive camera feel, then the objective omniscient POV would be better.

Even if your novel is written in shifting third-person POV, it’s common to see partial or even whole scenes in omniscient POV. Usually you’ll see this at the start of a scene or in a novel’s opening scene. The reason is the writer wants to keep distance, prevent the reader from seeing and knowing too much of what is going on. This can add mystery and grab the reader’s interest right away, making her curious.

If I wanted that effect in my opening scene, for example, I would write it using the objective omniscient POV. Let’s assume I’m the camera, and although positioned in the building across the way, I have a great telephoto lens and can get fairly close to the character. Take a look at the rewrite:

After:

A woman stood on the ledge of an eighth-floor office windowsill, her eyes closed and her hands gripping the wrought-iron railing that framed the window. She inched out on high heels. Wind whipped at her, and she wobbled.

Moments passed as the traffic below moved in fits and starts.

The woman stiffened.

“Wait!” A man’s voice came from behind her, inside the office.

The woman kept her eyes closed, her head tipped back. She did not turn around.

“Diane, please. We’ll work this out. You don’t have to do this.”

The woman shook her head.

The man spoke again. “Listen, just listen. Don’t move. Just take my hand—”

She loosened her grip on the railing and sucked in a breath. Then stepped out into the air.

Of course the After passage is much shorter. Out went all the things Diane knows and thinks and feels. What’s left is just what my camera records. The dialogue, the action. My camera doesn’t know what brand of shoe she is wearing. Nor does it know it’s the wind that’s making her wobble (see the subtle difference in how I rewrote that phrase?). She could be wobbling because of her nerves. My camera doesn’t know the characters’ names or their relationships, so they can only be a man and a woman (until Moore says her name). That much I can tell from across the street. I decided I couldn’t see her tears, but I could tell by her body language that she sucked in a breath.

Each passage has a very different style and creates a wholly different reader experience. So it’s up to you, the writer, to decide what you want the reader to experience and to choose your POV accordingly.

Subjective Omniscient POV

Subjective omniscient POV features a narrator with a strong voice who can show the internal thoughts of the characters within the scene. An omniscient narrator can hop around into heads and go where he wants. And it can be very effective to have that narrator react to the thoughts and feelings of the other characters.

This is a fairly uncommon POV, but it can be done well and powerfully. Such a narrator has his or her own voice, and everything that is seen, felt, and experienced by the characters gets filtered through this narrator’s mind and personality.

Sound confusing? It can be. That’s one reason it’s rarely used anymore. It is also a bit tricky to do well. Sure, it limits the POV violations—because when you’re omniscient, you can know anything and everything. But that doesn’t make it a great default POV for your story. Unless it serves your premise specifically to have an omniscient narrator with a unique storytelling voice, don’t use this POV. It can be imposing and distracting to have this “main character” controlling the story. But again, when it’s used well and to good purpose, it can be terrific.

Here’s one way the above passage could convey a subjective omniscient POV:

Diane Chandler stood on the ledge of an eighth-floor office windowsill, her eyes closed and her hands gripping the wrought-iron railing that framed the window. She inched out on high heels. Wind whipped at her, making her wobble.

Her life was in shambles, and she knew it. But she saw no other option. Even though her death was going to destroy more lives, at this moment Diane Chandler only cared about one thing—ending her pain. She had extorted money from her company and gotten caught. It had been foolish for her to think her coworker John wouldn’t have ratted to the boss. She’d always been kind of naïve that way. Quick to ignore the signs. Thinking everyone was honest and upstanding. Like she had been. Once upon a time. If only someone had pointed that out to her years ago.

Moments passed as the traffic below moved in fits and starts.

Diane stiffened.

“Wait!” A man’s voice came from behind her, from inside the office. Moore, her boss.

Seeing Diane on the ledge came as a shock. But he had to stop her. He couldn’t tell her how he really felt, how he didn’t care about the money she took. He knew the trouble she was in, her dark and troubled past. Her criminal record she’d failed to disclose on her application. He didn’t care about any of that. He loved her. He should have told her. That might have changed everything. Moore knew, though, it was too late. His heart ached.

Diane kept her eyes closed, her head tipped back. She did not turn around.

“Diane, please. We’ll work this out. You don’t have to do this.”

Diane shook her head, not daring to turn to look at him. He didn’t understand. Couldn’t understand. He could sweet-talk her all he wanted. She’d still go to jail.

Sadly, leaving Angela with her sister, Judy, was not going to work, but Diane couldn’t know that in this moment. In this moment, her sister was on the Interstate, talking on her cell phone to her boyfriend, and was about to get smashed by a truck veering across the divider due to the driver having a seizure. Angela was facing a life in the Child Welfare system. Would Diane have stepped off that ledge had she known? Who’s to say?

Moore pleaded. “Listen, just listen. Don’t move. Just take my hand—”

She loosened her grip on the railing and sucked in a breath. Then, to Moore’s shock, she stepped out into the air.

Moore would suffer many years of nightmares of this moment—of reaching out and just missing her fingertips. But in time, he would get over her. Like all the others that had slipped through his hands . . .

There are lots of ways I could have written this, including more or less of Diane’s subjective thoughts and feelings, adding more of Moore’s, going into their past, explaining. Or I could have brought out the narrator’s subjective voice more—more opinions, more personality. Again, it all depends on the premise and plot of your story.

Ask: Does my story need a narrator? If so, why and who? The narrator is palpably present in such a story, and so he needs to serve a purpose in being there. He may show up in the story at some point as a visible character, or he may stay invisible—heard, not seen.

Using omniscient POV can be a lot of fun, but watch out for those traps—especially the tendency to use excessive telling instead of showing.

Writers have the joy of being able to choose from a variety of POVs when telling a story. But with that choice comes the rules. We hope this in-depth look at Fatal Flaw #5 will prevent you from committing those heinous violations.

In Conclusion . . .

Mastering POV takes work. You need to pay close attention to who is experiencing a scene, and then be faithful to that character’s purview. There are many subtle ways POV can be violated, along with some big offenders, such as head hopping.

Before you start to write a scene, think through your objective. Consider what key plot points you plan to reveal and how they would best be revealed and by whom. Then write your scene sticking faithfully to that character’s POV.

If you’re considering writing your novel in first person, be sure that’s the best choice for your premise and plot. You’ll be seriously limited in what you can show and tell when trapped in one character’s head for an entire novel. If that’s too limiting, you may choose to have your protagonist in first person and supplement with other scenes in third-person POV with other characters. Some novels have multiple first-person POV characters.

You may decide you want to try your hand at omniscient POV. It’s your story, so you get to choose. But choose wisely, so you can tell the best story possible, and consider what’s common for the genre you are writing in. Then follow the POV rules so you don’t get ticketed for egregious violations!

What are your thoughts about omniscient POV?


Don’t fall victim to the fatal flaws of fiction writing.

This extensive resource is like no other! With more than sixty before and after passages, we five editors show writers how to seek and destroy these flaws that can infest and ruin your writing.

Here are some of the 12 fatal flaws:

  • Overwriting—the most egregious and common flaw in fiction writing.
  • Nothin’ Happenin’—Too many stories take too long to get going. Learn what it means to start in medias res.
  • Weak Construction—It sneaks in at the level of words and sentences, and rears up in up in the form of passive voice, ing verbs, and misplaced modifiers.
  • Too Much Backstory—the bane of many manuscripts. Backstory has its place, but too often it serves as an info dump and bogs down pacing.
  • POV Violations—Head hopping, characters knowing things they can’t know, and foreshadowing are just some of the many POV violations explored.
  • Telling instead of Showing—Writers have heard this admonition, but there’s a lot to understanding how and when to show instead of tell.
  • Lack of Pacing and Tension—Many factors affect pacing and tension: clunky passages, mundane dialogue, unimportant information, and so much more.
  • Flawed Dialogue Construction—Writers need to learn to balance speech and narrative tags and avoid “on the nose” speech.
  • “Underwriting”—just as fatal as overwriting. Too often scenes are lacking the necessary actions, descriptions, and details needed to bring them to life.
  • Description Deficiencies and Excesses—Learning how to balance description is challenging, and writers need to choose wisely just what to describe and in what way.

Don’t be left in the dark. Learn what causes these flaws and apply the fixes in your own stories.

No one need suffer novel failure. You don’t have to be brilliant or talented to write strong fiction. You just need to be forewarned and forearmed to be able to tackle these culprits. And this book will give you all the weapons and knowledge you need.

“This book should be on every writer’s bookshelf.” —Cheryl Kaye Tardif, international best-selling author

9 Responses to “A Deep Dive into POV”

  1. Barbara Linn Probst May 13, 2019 at 4:10 am #

    One of the most lucid and comprehensive discussions of POV I’ve ever read! What was fascinating for me is that, as a writer, I heard my voice in the first example (Before) but as a reader I preferred the second (After). To your excellent points I would add the degree of interiority (regardless of which character’s POV is being used) that corresponds to personal style. It’s tricky! A writing teacher once suggested that I experiment with taking out all the interiority in a scene to see what it looked liked that way. Or, in another experiment, clumping the interiority instead of including it everywhere. Another element of deep POV … thanks for a great essay!

    • cslakin May 13, 2019 at 4:44 pm #

      Glad this was insightful for you!

  2. Diane Stephenson May 13, 2019 at 4:24 pm #

    Thank you so much for clarifying this problem of POV. When I started my one and only novel (to date), I decided on first person. When I finished the first draft, which was actually not a novel but a novella, I decided I could better tell the story in 3rd person omniscient. I have since added much to the story line and am very happy that I chose to change the POV. My novel is now self-published and I have received some very good reports from people who have read it. I have read a number of articles which tell me that it is not OK to use 3rd person, but it seemed just right for my story, so I am happy to have my choice confirmed in your post.

    • cslakin May 13, 2019 at 4:44 pm #

      Hi Diane, third person is the most commonly used POV in novels. However, omniscient POV is rare and rarely done well. I’m reading a Carl Hiassen novel right now that is very well done in omniscient. It fits the dark comedy genre he is writing in. Some genres, though, don’t do well in omniscient because it does distance the reader from the characters, so usually a bad choice with women’s fiction or YA–genres that readers expect intimacy with the characters.

  3. Robin Mason May 13, 2019 at 4:53 pm #

    Thanks for a great post on POV! My first novel (and series) was third person omniscient by default. (so much I didn’t think about, or know TO think about… ) When I started my fourth novel (first in a new series) the story came naturally in first person; I have been told I found my voice, and I really do prefer writing in first person.
    Forward to new / current series. As much as I’d rather write it / them in first person, the problem is, the MC in each book is twins, so double MC’s. And while I *could* toggle from one POV to the other, some scenes are not theirs to tell, and I feel that would be way too many voices, and back and forth… So, this series will be third POV again and I”ll save my first person voice for future stories.

    • cslakin May 13, 2019 at 5:16 pm #

      You can also have multiple third- (and first-) person POVs in a novel. I often have 10 or more. It depends on the genre and the plot.

      • Robin Mason May 13, 2019 at 6:09 pm #

        and I’ve read a few lately with multiple POV’s, a couple quite well done! thanks, I might attempt it…
        ps – attempting my first go at rom-com (previous novels women’s fiction)

  4. Eileen Dandashi May 14, 2019 at 5:46 am #

    I’m on my writing journey. I spent time reading and studying various writing craftbooks these last months, now deciding to put pen to paper. I’m a pantser with a vague outline in mind with characters who are helping me write their story. Your article and examples helped me make a decision who needs to be the POV character in chapter 2. Always enjoy your posts.

  5. Ankit Kumar sharma May 18, 2019 at 12:10 am #

    Thank you such a lot for instructive this downside of POV. after I started my one and solely novel (to date), I made a decision on the person. after I finished the primary draft, that was truly not a unique however a novelette, I made a decision I may higher tell the story in the third person wise. I actually have since superimposed abundant to the storyline and am terribly happy that I selected to alter the POV. My novel is currently self-published and that I have received some superb reports from folks that have scan it. I actually have scan variety of articles that tell Pine Tree State that it’s not alright to use the third person, however, it appeared good for my story, thus I’m happy to own my alternative confirmed in your post.

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