point of view – a primer

Next week, Lisa Mannetti is going to talk with us about point of view. I’ve had a request for a brief lesson in point of view (often abbreviated as POV), so I’m going to give you a definition of point of view. We’ll be talking about the subject more in depth when Lisa explains how she uses point of view in her novels.

Point of view is exceptionally important, because this is the “voice” that tells your story. There are three types of point of view used most often in fiction. These are third-person omniscient, third-person limited, and first person.

Third-person omniscient can be used to describe any event in your story through any character’s point of view. You can show your reader the thoughts and actions of each and every character. Some writers believe that third-person omniscient is the easiest point of view to use, but it can be tricky, because if you don’t use good transitions, the changing viewpoints can be jarring.

One of the finest examples of fiction that uses third-person omniscient is The Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

This scene begins in Ralph’s point of view and switches to the Roger’s point of view in the last sentence:

Silence and pause; but in the silence a curious air-noise, close by Ralph’s head. He gave it half his attention—and there it was again; a faint “Zup!” Someone was throwing stones: Roger was dropping them, his one hand still on the lever. Below him, Ralph was a shock of hair and Piggy a bag of fat.

Third-person limited is what I’m using to write An Autumn Tale and is my personal favorite. With third-person limited, the events in a scene or chapter are seen and internalized from only one character’s viewpoint. I use third-person limited so I can switch points of view when my story requires differing viewpoints.

Stephen King often uses third-person limited. Here is a brief excerpt in Louis’ third-person limited view of his daughter’s reactions from Pet Sematary:

Ellie had promised to give Gage some of her candy, but the exaggerated quality of her sorrow made Louis wonder if she wasn’t just a bit glad that Gage wouldn’t be along to slow her down . . . or steal part of the limelight.

“Poor Gage,” she had said in tones usually reserved for those suffering terminal illness. Gage, unaware of what he was missing, sat on the sofa watching “Zoom” with Church snoozing beside him.

“Ellie-witch,” Gage had replied without a great deal of interest and went back to the TV.

“Poor Gage,” Ellie had said again, fetching another sigh. Louis thought of crocodile tears and grinned. Ellie grabbed his hand and started pulling him. “Let’s go, Daddy. Let’s go—let’s go—let’s go.”

With first person you show your entire story through your protagonist’s point of view. However, showing your entire story through only one person’s point of view can limit the things that individual sees and understands. Lisa Mannetti uses first person with her novel, The Gentling Box:

My wife sits mute now in the corner of our caravan, because this morning it is her personality which has come to the fore. Her hands are folded quietly in the lap of her skirt. Just above her left hand is a thick purplish scar that circles her wrist like a hideous bracelet. I don’t want to think about that scar, about how it is the source of the evil afflicting our lives.

If I raise my head from the sweat-soaked pillow I can see her bare feet splayed against the worn floorboards, but it is her face I find myself staring at: small, kitten-shaped, dominated by her huge dark eyes. She has gypsy eyes. They were very bright when we were both younger; now they are ringed by deep gray shadows like bruises and filled with pain. Meeting mine, they beg: Save Lenore.

Next time you’re reading a novel, be conscious of the point of view and how the author relates the plot and story through the characters’ voices. Meanwhile, make plans to join us next week when we talk with Lisa Mannetti, author of the The Gentling Box.


About T. Frohock

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3 Responses to point of view – a primer

  1. katmagendie says:

    Yes! Great post . . . I just wrote about POV on my blog as well – but not as thoroughly or as well as you just did.

    POV, to me, is one of the most important parts of the writing process. Voice is another. Those are similar, but not the same thing necessarily.

    Looking forward to Lisa!

  2. lawrenceez says:

    Very good post. I’ve tried explaining viewpoint and just can’t…you’ve described it well here.

    As for POV, I like experimenting with third person limited and first person. Omniscient is my least favourite.

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