December 21, 2008



By Dorinda Ohnstad

Every element of writing is important, but in fiction writing some techniques are more critical than others. Point-of-view (pov) is one element that can make or break the reader’s experience. Since writing should ultimately be about creating an enjoyable experience for the reader, mastering pov is essential for fiction writers regardless of their genre.

Generally, a scene should be written from only one character’s point-of-view. This means that the scene unfolds while we are in the head of that character. We get to see, feel, and hear everything from that character’s perspective. It enables readers to get to know the character intimately and provides an increased immediacy with the action that is going on in the scene.

Conversely it means that the scene should not show anything that the pov character knows nothing about, nor convey information from the wrong perspective. A scene that incorrectly moves outside the character’s pov jilts the reader from their reading experience. It creates a “hey, wait a minute” moment. Which, just to be clear, is not a good thing. Once we draw readers into a story, we want to keep them riveted. A writer accomplishes this by staying true to the pov established for the scene.

When I first started studying the craft of writing I thought all was well so long as I followed this simple rule. Did the pov character see what I just showed? Check. Did the pov character just hear what I just had the reader hear? Check. Did the pov character feel the emotion I just wrote was felt? Check. You get the point; but, the truth is that pov isn’t that simple.

What do I mean? Scenes are written from the point-of-view of one of the story’s characters. How that scene is written should be vastly different depending on which character is the pov character. What is important to point out about a particular scene will be different depending on the pov character, who is essentially telling the reader what is happening. In addition, how that character feels about the scene will be equally different. Word choice, sentence structure, pacing, and other writing elements will be different depending on whose voice we are hearing the story through. In other words, a scene told by one character will not feel the same as a scene told by a different character. After all, they are two totally different individuals, with different world views, personalities, vocabularies, life expereinces, education, etc.

Let me give an example from a scene (which was made much stronger through the wonderful editorial advice of fellow writer Sunny Frazier) in my current work-in-progress No Will, a legal thriller. My novel is told in third person pov through the use of multiple character points-of-view. This is the first seven paragraphs of a scene told from the pov of a private detective with a rather sullied personality.

* * *

Eddie Canton lived for the dirty pictures.

He adjusted the surveillance equipment while he waited. The heat inside the old flower delivery van was ten degrees hotter than the air outside. August in South Dakota. Fuck. He wiped his face with the front of his wife-beater undershirt hanging damply on his body. It smelled of BO. When he pulled the cloth away, Lover Boy’s corvette was sliding into a parking spot.

On monitor one, the subject entered the living room. Before long, he was pacing over the parquet floor of the condo. “She’s making you wait, buddy,” Canton said between bites of a stale ham and swiss hoagie. The subject was screwed tight today, tension showed in his face and jerky movements.

Canton killed time by checking to make sure that the monitors were in position. Kitchen: check. Bathroom: check. Bedroom: check and double check. All systems go at the Arlington Arms. Where was the main attraction?

He was happy his client wanted proof. Spying on middle-aged, out-of-shape, homely women paid the bills but they didn’t feed the libido. Jillian Hill was different. She was as hot as the centerfold in the well-used Playboy open on the seat next to him. A woman who made his business a pleasure.

The powder-blue Mercedes finally appeared in the parking lot and Canton felt the rush of adrenaline surge through his body. Time to get down to business. He shoved the last of the hoagie sandwich into his mouth and tossed its crumpled wrapper. It joined a dozen others on the floor. He wiped mayonnaise from the corner of his mouth with the back of one hand, smeared it on his pant leg, then leaned back in his chair to wait.

This was gonna be better than any triple X-rated movie at the Tomcat Club.

* * *

Notice that not only does the scene ensure that everything is true to the selected point-of-view (everything here is something either Canton, sees, does, hears, feels, smells, thinks, etc), but its word choice, rhythm, interior dialog, character actions, etc. tell you a lot about this character. Eddie Canton comes to life in this scene as a result. That is the magic of using point-of-view to its fullest potential.

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At December 24, 2008 at 9:57 AM , Blogger Marilyn said...

Excellent blog--too many new writers do not understand POV--this is a great explanation.


At January 8, 2009 at 8:14 AM , Blogger June Rodriguez said...

Thanks for the simple but direct rundown on POV. I still have trouble sometimes keeping it on the correct character during the duration of a scene. I'm printing this one up and adding it to my crib notes folder. Thanks


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