Choosing the Right POV

Choosing the Right POV

Narrative point of view (or POV, as it is popularly known in writer parlance) is one of those things that writers often tend to take for granted. We come up with a story idea, sit down to write, and spend maybe all of thirty seconds debating between a first- and third-person POV. But this snap, arbitrary decision is one that will influence every one of the 100,000-plus words to follow. It will be a major deciding factor in the story’s tone and narrative arc. It will control which scenes will be written and which will remain “off camera.” It will close certain doors and open others. In short, POV is often the single most important factor in determining whether or not a story works.

Whether you’re at the beginning of a new novel adventure or floundering somewhere in the middle of an ongoing project, following are five considerations about POV that may help you make the right choice for your story:

1. Choose the POV of the Character Who Has the Most at Stake

Toward the end of my portal fantasy novel Dreamlander, I needed to write a tense scene in which the hero reveals some tragic news to his allies. I struggled with the scene for several days, writing and rewriting from my hero’s POV. Then, suddenly, it struck me: I was writing from the wrong POV. My hero was not the character with the most to lose in this scene. Because I had already dramatized his discovery of the tragedy in a previous scene and because he had already come to grips with it, his POV in this scene provided nothing new. In fact, all my attempts to inject drama felt repetitious in light of the foregoing scenes. With that in mind, I looked around for the character who would be most affected by the news, and suddenly my scene took flight. All the tension, drama, and angst I had been searching for immediately came to the forefront when I switched to a character whose emotions were at a keener pitch.

2. Choose the POV of the Character With the Most Interesting Voice

The character you choose as your main POV will influence the entire tone of the novel. It’s often wise to take a look past the obvious choice of POV and see what your other characters have to offer. Several years ago, I very nearly burnt myself out writing and rewriting the first fifty pages of a World War II drama that refused to cooperate. I had my plot perfectly mapped out, I was completely in love with my characters, and I knew exactly the tone I was striving for. But I couldn’t quite achieve it. My innocent, naïve, and sweet-tempered heroine just didn’t have the chops to carry the narrative. After setting the manuscript aside for several months, I realized that perhaps I had been telling the wrong story all along. I switched POVs to the decidedly snarky, cynical viewpoint of an American reporter, who had been a minor character up to that point, and suddenly the narrative took off.

3. Select multiple POVs With Care

It’s often tempting to share everything that every character is thinking. But few stories (not to mention readers) can handle a plot that includes twenty POVs. Less is very often more. In fact, some of the most powerful novels are those that focus on a single POV. Additional POVs may alert your reader of additional details, but they can also water down the force of the main POV. It’s important to realize that readers don’t need (or even appreciate) knowing every little detail. Sometimes what you don’t say is more powerful than what you do. Plus, the fewer POVs you have, the less risk you run of either boring or confusing the reader.

4. Play Around With Voice and Tense

Once you’ve mastered the basics of POV (particularly learning how to recognize and avoid the universal beginner’s habit of “head hopping”), POV becomes an exciting playground, full of all kinds of possibilities. Many writers find a niche in one voice or another and stay there. But don’t be afraid to play around. My first eight novels were all written in third-person past tense. Now, as I’m preparing to dive into my ninth novel, I can’t begin to elaborate how excited I am to be playing around with new narrative possibilities. First-person present tense is already promising to force me to stretch my writing skills in ways I’ve never imagined.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Push the Envelope

It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in “the rules”—particularly when it comes to POV. But the truth is, once you’ve learned what the rules are, there’s no longer any reason for them to exist. Playing around with POV, bouncing off the ropes, and pushing yourself to new heights is challenging, exhilarating, and sometimes even earth-shattering. POV is a prime area for author experimentation. So have at it, and have fun! And please leave me a comment. I’d love to hear about your own experiences in choosing the right POV for your stories.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How did you go about choosing the right POV for your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

Choosing the Right POV

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. thomas h cullen says:

    Cronenberg’s The Fly comes to mind: once Brundle’s had his experiment’s horrendous reality verified, the POV from then on swaps to Geena Davis, conforming to your own rule about stakes and interest.

    The Representative is too very POV-concerned; yesterday’s “squatter” remark being just one of many examples, others including Croyan’s counterpart persisting as an off-page character, in addition to Krenok getting barely any references.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ultimately, POV is just about directing the reader’s perspective wherever we want it to go. It’s a complicated tool, but also very simple.

  2. thomas h cullen says:

    A good reference, The Fly: one of the all-time best.

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