Description Errors That Result from POV Limitations

It’s important for writers to convey the description of setting and characters through the POV character’s eyes and emotions. But just as we don’t take notice of every single detail in a room or about a person we encounter (I think our brains would explode!), our characters are going to notice particular things, and that’s determined by their personality and mood at the moment.

For example, if a beautiful woman wearing provocative clothing walks into a diner, a young man is going to notice different things about her than, say, a five-year-old child would. He’s going to think different things as well, and it’s likely that, if you put ten men in that diner, you could have each think very different thoughts about that woman because of who he is. An old priest will think different thoughts than a twenty-something bad boy. The priest might notice how tarnished and unhappy the woman seems. The young man may only be checking out her curves and the hemline of her dress.

Scenes are going to feel deficient if description is dumped outside of POV.

But there are also other problems that can occur because of POV, and they stem from what happens when a writer forgets where his character is placed in his scene.

Characters and Their Sensory Limitations

Few writers pay much attention to character placement, but this is something of paramount concern to filmmakers, and a subject I cover in depth in Shoot Your Novel. A director has to lay out his camera shots, deciding when a close-up shot would be more effective than a long shot, for example. He may want the camera positioned far away from the action, to make details unclear and evoke curiosity or misinterpretation. Or he may have an extreme close-up to ensure viewers don’t miss a tiny detail that is crucial to the plot.

Adept novelists mimic this technique in their books to good effect. But if writers don’t think through where they are placing their characters, they may end up with description issues. Meaning, their character is reacting to and processing details that she really can’t react to or process—due to where she is in the scene.

Here’s what I mean.

Before:

Tracy stared out the windshield of her old VW bug at the red light. Would it never change?

Then she spotted a boy about seven or eight across the four-lane intersection, pounding on the Walk button over and over. He was humming something as he poked, straddling a too-large bike, with his new Nikes digging into the dirt. He looked at his feet, obviously unaware that all his button pressing was preventing the light from changing.

Tracy gritted her teeth, then swung the door open. The heat blasted in. She glanced around. No other cars on this Sunday morning in this tiny town she’d been driving through mindlessly.

She stepped out onto the sizzling pavement.

The boy looked up and saw her glowering at him. His face paled and he sucked in a breath, no doubt figuring how to make his escape. He hopped on his bike but didn’t see the crack in the pavement. His front tire slipped in and wrenched the bike, which caused it to ricochet off the pavement. The boy slammed into the handlebars, which smacked him right in the nose, breaking it.

He quickly righted himself and looked up to see if she’d witnessed his mishap and flushed almost purple when he realized she had.

Mortified, and desperate to get away, he pulled with all his might and managed to lift the front wheel up above his head so he could pivot the bike around, but as he did so, the bike and its rider fell to the ground. He lay on the smoldering pavement like a fish out of water, wiggling and thrashing, his little legs tangled up in the metal spokes.

Then Tracy spotted something in the corner of her eye. She spun around. Behind her, the car lurched forward, almost knocking her down.

 Oh no, I forgot to put the car in Park.

She ran over to her car door, hoping to jump inside, but smacked into it instead. Her right foot locked as the tire rolled over her shoelace and pinned her in place. She fell to her knees and watched helplessly as the unmanned car continued rolling across the street, heading straight for the little boy who was still flailing about beneath the giant bike, his face stricken with fear.

“Get up! Get out of the way!” She screeched as she struggled to her feet and scrambled to run after the car. Judging the distance between the car and boy, she knew she was never going to make it.

The boy wiggled and whimpered as Tracy ran, panting, trying to reach him.

Just in time, she caught up to the rolling car, threw open the door, lunged over the seat, and pulled up the emergency brake. She stared out the windshield, gasping for breath. The boy’s bike was mangled under her tires. The handlebars were crushed.

Tracy turned around and saw the little boy sitting on the curb across from her, his head buried in his arms, trying not to cry. She ran over to him, relieved he was alive.

“Are you okay?” she asked him.

He nodded but wouldn’t lift his head to look at her.

She let out a breath, her shoulders sagging. “I’m sorry about your bike. I’ll buy you another one.”

Did you spot all the problems with the description in this passage? At first glance it may seem as if it all works. But let’s take a look at the After passage and then tear this apart.

After:

Tracy stared out the windshield of her old VW bug at the red light. Would it never change?

Then she spotted a boy about seven or eight across the four-lane intersection, pounding on what she guessed was the Walk button over and over. He was straddling a too-large bike, kicking one foot into the dirt. He looked down, obviously unaware that all his button pressing was preventing the light from changing.

Tracy gritted her teeth, then swung the door open. The heat blasted in. She glanced around. No other cars on this Sunday morning in this tiny town she’d been driving through mindlessly.

She stepped out onto the sizzling pavement.

The boy looked up and saw her glowering at him. He stiffened, then hopped on his bike. Suddenly the bike toppled sideways and ricocheted off the pavement. The boy slammed into the handlebars and smacked his face.

He quickly righted himself and looked over at her. Then he lifted the front wheel up above his head and pivoted the bike around, but as he did so, the bike and its rider fell to the ground. He lay on the pavement like a fish out of water, wiggling and thrashing, his little legs tangled up in the metal spokes.

Then Tracy heard something behind her. She spun around and saw the car lurching forward, almost knocking her down.

 Oh no, I forgot to put the car in Park.

She ran over to her car door, hoping to jump inside, but smacked into it instead. Her right foot locked as the tire rolled over her shoelace and pinned her in place. She fell to her knees and watched helplessly as the unmanned car continued rolling across the street, no doubt heading straight for the little boy. Was he still tangled in his bike? She hoped he’d gotten out but knew it was unlikely.

“Get up! Get out of the way!” She screeched as she struggled to her feet and scrambled to run after the car. Judging the distance between the car and boy, she knew she was never going to make it. Across the intersection, she spotted the boy—still trapped. Tracy ran, panting, trying to reach him.

Just in time, she caught up to the rolling car, threw open the door, lunged over the seat, and pulled up the emergency brake. She stared out the windshield, gasping for breath. The boy’s bike was nowhere to be seen. Oh no, did I kill him? She pictured the gruesome scene—the bike mangled under her wheels, the handlebars crushed. And the little boy . . .

Tracy turned around in the seat, craning to see out the side windows. Oh, thank God! The little boy was sitting on the curb across from her, his head buried in his arms. She ran over to him, relieved he was alive.

“Are you okay?” she asked him.

He nodded but wouldn’t lift his head to look at her.

She let out a breath, her shoulders sagging. “I’m sorry about your bike. I’ll buy you another one.”

The details might be minor, but we want to be accurate in our descriptions, and the Before passage reveals a lot of problems as the scene is played out in Tracy’s POV. Did you notice these things?

  • She’s too far away to hear the boy humming or know what brand of shoes he’s wearing.
  • She’s too far away to see his face pale or hear him suck in a breath (and no doubt the sun is glaring on this hot morning, making visibility even worse).
  • She can’t see a crack in the pavement to know that’s what caused the bike to fall.
  • She’s too far away to see that the bike hit him directly in the nose or that it may have broken it.
  • She can’t know he’s mortified, or desperate to get away, or that he’s pulling with all his might. From where she is, she might be able to tell he’s struggling.
  • She can’t see something behind her from the corner of her eye. She has to completely spin around to notice the car is moving behind her.
  • When she’s on her knees next to the car and it starts to roll away, she isn’t in position to see clearly that the boy is in the car’s path and that he’s still tangled in the spokes. She’s too far away to see his face stricken with fear.
  • She might be able to see the boy wiggle, but if the car is almost upon him, and she’s coming up alongside the car, it’s not likely. And she wouldn’t hear him whimpering. Maybe shouting, yes.
  • She can’t see the mangled bike under her tires as she looks forward out the windshield.
  • If she turns around, that implies she sees the boy behind her, through the back window. But he’s sitting on the curb to her side.
  • She can’t really know he’s trying not to cry. His head is buried in his arms.

It’s so easy for writers to hurry through such descriptions without taking time to envision the scene’s details and ensuring the POV character can actually see, hear, and do all the things written. By picturing a movie camera capturing the action, writers will catch these kinds of description errors.

Put yourself in your character’s shoes and try to see what she can see and hear what she can hear. If you need your character to notice small details, get her closer. Conversely, if you want her to miss certain details, put her further away. It’s all about distance when it comes to POV perspective. So keep this in mind to avoid this pitfall of this fatal flaw.

In Conclusion . . .

 Description is important. Without it, readers can’t experience what your characters are experiencing, and they can’t be transported to the world you imagine in your head. But too much description or ineffective details will bog down a story and put your readers to sleep.

Take the time to examine your scenes carefully for description of characters and settings. Make sure you include details that will bring your scene to life and that come through the senses and emotions of your POV character. Similar to backstory, a balance is desired. Study great novels in your genre to see how the authors wield description—what kind and how much, and told in what way. That’s one good way to get a feel for proper balance. Think like Goldilocks: not too much, not too little, but just right.


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.

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5 Responses to “Description Errors That Result from POV Limitations”

  1. Robert Billing June 3, 2019 at 12:43 am #

    Another really great post, thanks.

    This is something I’ve very much taken on board, and often give the advice “sit behind the character’s eyes.” By that I mean describe exactly what the character can see, in the order they see it.

    (NTSP is the New Texas Secret Police)

    ‘Lieutenant Ian Sinclair, Arcturian Confederate Space Fleet. May I ask your name?’
    ‘I’m Fred Miles,’ he leant on one of the two shabby armchairs, ‘and I live here. Where the blazes are my wife and daughter?’
    ‘They are safe on the—Get down!’ Sinclair dived for the carpet as gunfire crackled in the street outside.

    (Chapter break)

    Sinclair grabbed his telephone from his belt as he fell. ‘Spence, someone’s taken a pot at the car. Can you tell the driver to get himself out of harm’s way? He has? Good.’
    There was a thunderous banging at the door, and a voice shouted, ‘Open up, NTSP!’
    Fred went completely white, and Sinclair kept talking, ‘Rapid teleport, now, I’m setting up.’ There was a double explosion outside. Two bullets ripped through the door and gouged furrows in the wall. ‘Hell’s bells, what does the stupid beggar think he’s aiming at? Fred, over here!’ Sinclair rolled to his right through a doorway and landed on greasy tiles in what proved to be the kitchen, as two more bullets slammed into the furniture. He grabbed the field coil from his belt, and slapped the sticky pads onto the front of the freezer, defining a rough doorway with the loop of wire, then shoved the plugs into the responder box and the collimator. ‘Come on, give me a lock,’ he said, sweeping the collimator through a series of arcs. It twitched suddenly, and he put it on a chair. ‘Hang on to something, Fred, we’re going to equalise pressure the hard way!’
    There was another burst of gunfire, and the sounds of the front door giving way. Sinclair whipped out his energy weapon, and fired across the width of the apartment. The discharge flooded the dingy living room with a brief lightning glare and blasted a shallow crater in the opposite wall.
    There was a blue flicker inside the field coil. A momentary hurricane pulled Fred, staggering, through the doorway that suddenly appeared where there should have been a freezer. One NTSP charged in from the hallway, and Sinclair put a single shot inches from his face, sending him lurching backwards. Sinclair leaped through the teleportal, turned, and grabbed the responder and collimator. The NTSP was there, bringing his revolver up to aim at Sinclair.

    The point here is that Ian sees the tiles first, because he’s landed face-down, and then works out that he’s in the kitchen. He doesn’t start off by going into the kitchen. Similarly he sees the bullet holes in the wall, not the gunman. When he fires the first thing he sees is the flash from his energy weapon, because that’s the brightest thing in the room.

    Anyway, I completely agree with you, and think this is a very important point.

  2. Berry June 3, 2019 at 10:04 am #

    Uh, “old VW bugs” were all manual transmission cars, they didn’t HAVE a “park” setting.

    • cslakin June 4, 2019 at 3:46 pm #

      Some of the did. I see photos online of 1968s with floor brake handles. I have a 1959 bug and I seem to remember one on the floor, but my memory could be failing!

  3. Evelyn Krieger June 14, 2019 at 3:22 pm #

    When helping my students with POV, I tell them to “zoom” into the scene like a movie camera and then out for a wide angle shot. I also do an observation exercise to help them notice details that really matter. Also, we practice writing short scenes from the POV from two different characters–each looking at the same site. For example, a sunset seen through the eyes of a woman who just lost a child and a sunset seen through the eyes of a woman who just got married. The challenge is the writer cannot mention the defining situation. So the POV leads to tone and mood.

  4. Vivienne Sang June 15, 2019 at 6:35 am #

    A great post. I think many of us need reminding of this. thank you.

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