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Tuesday, September 14

Through My Eyes. Or Your Eyes. Or Somebody's Eyes. POV Basics

By Janice Hardy. @Janice_Hardy

I love POV (point of view) and find it one of the most important tools in your writer's toolbox. Understanding POV fixes so many common problems, like telling, backstory, passivity.

The basic POVs are: First person, second person, third person limited, third person omniscient.

First Person

First person is the "I" POV. It's told from one person's perspective, and it's the closest of the POVs. You can only show what that one person can see, feel, think, know, etc. It's gives a sense of closeness and immediacy to a story, because you're right there inside the head of your POV character.

First Person Past Tense: You're inside the narrator's head seeing and experiencing what she does. It has a sense of things happening in the now, and the narrator has no prior knowledge of the events. 

Example: I hid behind the tree, holding back a giggle. Chuck and his new dog were almost to the skunk's den. Three more steps and that boy would so get what he deserved for embarrassing me in front of the whole class.

Retrospective First Person: You're inside the narrator's head experiencing what she has experienced, but the narrator is reflecting on something that's already happened. She has prior knowledge of the events.

Example: If I'd known how hard it was to wash skunk off a golden retriever, I'd never have played that prank on Chuck and his new dog.

First Person Present Tense: You can also use present tense to show events that are happening as the story unfolds. Present tense is almost a running commentary of the events as they happen. The narrator has no prior knowledge of the events.

Example: I hide behind the tree, holding back giggles. Chuck and his new dog are almost to the skunk's den. Three more steps and he'll so get what he deserves for embarrassing me in front of the whole class.

Pitfalls of First Person

Probably the most common pitfall in first person is describing everything the narrator is doing. You'll see a lot of "I did this, I did that" type phrases. You end up telling the story instead of showing it. There's also very little internalization, which is odd since first person is all about the internal view.

Example: I ran down to the forest to set up the trap for Chuck. I was so mad at him for embarrassing me in class the other day, and I was determined to make him pay.

Red flags for this type of pitfall: I ran down to the forest to set up the trap for Chuck. I was so mad at him for embarrassing me in class the other day, and I was determined to make him pay.

Words like to and for here are telling the motive of the narrator. She's heading to the forest to set a trap, but you don't actually see her running there or setting the trap. It's an explanation of what she plans to do, not what she does. Same with for. It's explaining why she's mad, not showing her being mad. And another to that tells motive on why she's doing this, not showing her feelings and letting the reader figure it out from her actions. A more solid POV would be something like...

Example: I jumped over the log at the edge of the forest, the bag of payback tight under my arm. Chuck wouldn't know what hit him. He deserved it, though, after what he'd done. Did he really think he could embarrass me like that and get away with it? He was so gonna pay.

Second Person

Second person is the "you" POV. The narrator is telling the story to another and asking them to put themselves in the role of the protagonist. It's seldom used these days because it can be an awkward POV and hard to do well. But you do see it from time to time. (disclaimer: I've never written second person POV in my life, so I'm going to quote from Bright Lights, Big City)

Example: You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already.

Pitfalls of Second Person

I'm afraid I can't go into pitfalls because I don't know this POV well enough to know what problems you'd run into. I do know that it's not a popular POV. If anyone knows good resource sites for this, let me know and I'll link it here.

Third Person

Third person is the "he/she" POV and can either be very close in the narrator's head or very detached, depending on the narrative distance. (the distance between the narrator and the reader) Like first person, you can either use past or present tense, though I honestly can't think of any third person present tense novels off the top of my head. Past tense is the standard and what readers are used to.

The two types of third person are limited and omniscient.

Third Person Limited: You're inside the narrator's head and show only what they can see, feel, know (like first person with different pronouns). You can see what they see, and get to hear what they're thinking. 

Example: Maria jumped over the log at the edge of the forest, the bag of payback tight under her arm. Chuck wouldn't know what hit him. He deserved it, though, after what he'd done. Did he really think he could embarrass her like that and get away with it? He was so gonna pay.

Third Person Omniscient: There is an outside narrator who sees and knows all and can describe things the characters aren't aware of. You can either be in one character's perspective, or you can jump from head to head and cover everyone.

Example: Maria hurdled the log at the edge of the forest, her lean legs carrying her over the terrain with the easy grace of a three-time district champion. But competition wasn't on the To-Do List today. Her mind churned with thoughts of revenge, as would any girl who'd been wronged as she had been. Maria clutched the bag of payback tight under her arm. Chuck wouldn't know what hit him, she thought. He deserved it, though. Embarrassing her in front of the whole class like that. She'd make him pay, and pay big. She picked up speed, her anger pushing her harder through the brush.

Why is this omniscient and not limited? Because there are things here that Maria wouldn't know, or wouldn't think about the same way. You also get a sense that someone else is telling Maria's story, and interjecting their own judgment and opinions into this. "the easy grace of a three-time district champion" is how an outsider would describe Maria, not something she'd call herself. "But competition wasn't on the To-Do List today. Her mind churned with thoughts of revenge, as would any girl who'd been wronged as she had been." is what another is thinking. "She picked up speed, her anger pushing her harder through the brush." is also outside looking in.

Pitfalls of Third Person

The most common third person pitfall is showing what the POV wouldn't know. It's a halfway point between omniscient and limited, and it feels okay because you're describing the scene, but instead of staying in the narrator's head (the POV character in that scene), you're in this weird state where the reader isn't sure who the narrator is or not. If you get feedback that says something like, "It's jot bad, but I'm just not drawn into the story," or "I can't really connect to the characters" then this might be the issue.

Example: Maria jumped over the log at the edge of the forest, her lean legs carrying her easily over the terrain. Chipmunks scurried away as she landed, their tiny squeaks alerting a hunting rat snake that lunch was nearby. Maria clutched the bag of payback tight under her arm. Chuck wouldn't know what hit him, she thought. He deserved it, though, after what he'd done. Embarrassing her like that in front of the whole class. She'd make him pay, her anger pushing her well past her usual common sense. 

Red flags for this type of pitfall: The bold lines are where it's hard to tell who the POV is in this paragraph. Who is describing Maria's legs as lean? Maria or someone else? Same with the chipmunks and the snake. Maria can't know that, because she doesn't know what's going on in the forest as she runs through. Tagging her internalization with "she thought" draws attention to the fact that someone is telling you what she's thinking instead of showing the thought and letting the reader assume it's Maria's, because we're in Maria's head, everything we see if what she sees and knows. (though you will see "she thought" in limited POV as well. This one works for both sides, it's just a matter of how close to the POV you want to be) The last line is something she probably wouldn't be self-aware enough to notice. If she realized her anger was affecting her, she might stop and think about it.

Red flags if this were omniscient: The same lines can also spell trouble if you're doing omniscient, because there is no solid sense of someone else telling this story. It's distant like omniscient, but the judgment is gone. Why mention the chipmunks and the snake? How does that affect the story? There are omniscient details, but because there's nothing motivating the details, they feel kinda flat. It's not bad per se, it just lacks the soul of a good story.

Multiple POV

All of these POVs can be used either singularly, or in multiples. A good rule of thumb is to change scenes or chapters whenever you change the POV so the reader has no confusion over whose scene it is. It's also a good idea to make it clear in the first para (or line) of that new scene whose head you're in and ground the reader so they don't feel lost. 

Whenever you use multiple POVs, make sure that every POV offers something unique to the reader. It's not just different sides of the same story, as each character brings a perspective or information that couldn't be obtained any other way. Give each POV their own voice so ever if you didn't tell them, readers would still be able to figure out whose head they were in by the tone.

Pitfalls of Multiple POV

Too Many, Too Fast: It's hard for readers to keep track of a lot of POVs, so be wary of how often you change perspectives and how many heads you're in.

Unnecessary Heads: Sometimes you'll add a POV scene because the protag can't know that information and you want to convey it to the reader. But throwing in someone out of the blue or who doesn't have a storyline to go with them can be confusing. Or worse, it can do nothing but dump that info on the reader and steal tension and mystery from your plot.

I could go on and on about POV, but this post is already pretty long, so I think I'll stop here.


  1. This clears up SO MUCH for me! You have no idea! Thanks a bunch.
    But now that you mention it, I think my whole novel was written in that limbo narrative world or omniscient and not...crap. How do you fix that and do it well?

  2. Glad I could help. The limbo narrative (love that term) is pretty common. I have a few trunk novels in the same style myself.

    First, decide which POV you're doing. Then try looking at the narrative and ask yourself if that's how your POV would describe it. Is it something they'd see or know about. Would they have an opinion about what they see. It is you making that observation or the character. Then either tighten up (if doing limited) or pull back (if doing omniscient) and rework.

  3. Great post! I'm currently writing in first person, past tense and having trouble with the show-don't-tell aspect. This has helped me a lot, thanks!

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Janice! Once again you give me information that really helps me in better understanding this craft from all angles. I never understood what omniscient POV was even though I'd read the word many times in AW. I was embarrassed to ask, which I know is so stupid because how else am I supposed to learn, right? I need to get over my fear of showing my "newness" to this field. I guess I secretly fear that people won't take my writing seriously if I'm asking such questions, but I guess I'm not the only one who needs some of these writer terms to be defined more clearly. Thank you so much.

  5. Great examples of POV. I especially get confused in third person when you shift from third person limited to omniscient. Your examples help.

  6. Hell of a good post, Janice. Very useful and instructive examples.

    For some reason I have never liked the present tense in fiction. I doesn't look right, and usually it makes me throw the book in the wall

    Cold As Heaven

  7. Great post. I could only think of one pitfall for second person. As a reader it makes my head hurt. Don't know why. I just finished a book in 2nd POV and I could only read a few pages at a time. It also felt like the whole book was stream of consciousness, so it could have just been that. :D

  8. Excellent post! I never thought of to and for as being red flags for telling, now I'll be sure to take note of them.

    I recently read Stolen by Lucy Christopher. It was in second person and very well written. A great example if you're interested.

  9. Thanks! Fantastic post! ::saves::

  10. Thank you, that was a great post, the longer the better I say!

    Grammar question.

    For someone like me, without much formal education, but who wants to write fiction at a professional level. What are some of the tools of grammar the fiction writer needs to have?

  11. How do you put a popular posts widget on your blog?

  12. ...and the light bulb goes on at last! I've never been clear on the difference between the two Third Person POVs until now. It makes perfect sense. Thank you!

  13. I'm glad the questions was asked. I love POV, but I probably never would have gone over the types in detail like this otherwise.

    Anon, I didn't use a widget I just posted the stuff that stat counter said got high hits. And I know what topics get asked about or searched for a lot, so I made it easy to get to frequently asked questions.

    Thanks for the second person suggestions. I've looked at Stolen but didn't realize it was second person.

  14. Excellent post Janice. I'm going to post on along with your link. Have a super day!

  15. This is great...especially the bits about spotting the red flags. I get it I get it! Yay!

  16. I happen to prefer present tense, much of the time, because I perceive narration as riding along with the narrator for the story, unless they're explicitly writing it later.

    One pitfall I've encountered with second person: it's hard to write without coming off as patronizing, and some readers hate being told what they're doing, especially when it doesn't match up with what they'd actually do. (I have a second person, present tense short story seeking publication, right now.)

    But then, I've also dabbled in future and present perfect tenses…

  17. I find that as my writing improves, I have started using POV as a deliberate tool. For example, I'm writing a scifi adventure in limited 3rd, and I generally keep to one POV character per scene. There is one battle however, where I deliberately switch from head to head using sweeping transitions:

    "Across the hillside, this guy got hit. A shell dislodged a boulder and caused these two people to react. Back in his blind, the MC only saw the tick-marks dropping from his monitor. It was time to move out, while he still had people to move."

    I wouldn't ordinarily hop like this, and even here, it's only for a short passage. Broader moved around the battlefield get their own scenes.

  18. Buffy, thanks! You too :)

    Leanna, whoot! Getting it is often the hardest part.

    Carradee, you summed up the problems with second tense perfectly. Sounds like you like top play with the tenses :) You must get some interesting tales that way.

    Claire, most welcome!

    Cstuarthardwick, be ware that you will risk jarring the reader with that kind of sudden switch (it's your call of course), especially if the reader has been in limited third the entire time. But if you're doing something different for those scenes from the start and that's made clear, you might be fine :)

  19. Janice. I thought my post went through, so if I did this twice please forgive me.
    I'm confused at the following paragraph regarding POV. We start with him hearing the pain in her voice,but when it begins, "He didn't need to say..."he's assuming what she thinks. Is this not a switch in POV? I thought I understood the concept. Guess not. Can you help?

    “You didn’t have to carry me."
    He heard the pain in her voice. “Yes,” he said. “I did.”
    “Thank you,” she whispered, her words melting into his shirt.
    But he couldn’t respond. He was beyond words now, at least beyond meaningless platitudes. He didn’t need to say anything for her to know that he’d heard her. She would understand. She would know that his head was somewhere else, somewhere far beyond please and you’re welcome. - Julia Quinn

    1. It's hard to say for certain with a small snippet (this could be third limited or third omniscient, and omni has different rules) but it looks like yes, that is either him assuming that, or an outside narrator who knows this is how they both feel.

      It comes down to, are those his thoughts about the situation, or the author explaining the situation? If they're his thoughts, it's his POV. If it's the author explaining, it's an outside narrator (or just plain old telling)

      Does that clear it up?

  20. I am confused in red flag 3rd pov omniscient - how can the bold lines be wrong when omniscient narrates almost everything? Could u also explain what u mean "There is no solid sense of someone else telling this story. It's distant like omniscient, but no judgement"?

    1. Omniscient does narrate everything, so showing what the protagonist doesn't know is fine. Those bold lines are only a problem when you're doing a limited third person where you'd only show what the POV character knows and can see. People don't typically describe themselves in the way I did there, or know what was going on in bushes they leaped over.

      The sense of someone telling the story means that every line and thought comes from a person in the story who is living it. When you go outside and see someone or something, you have an opinion about it. you like dogs, for example. So you'd think favorably if you saw a dog. Someone who is scared of dogs would not describe one in a positive way.

      A tight POV shows those opinions and judgements. When you don't see those elements, the story can feel distant because it's all basic details with no opinions about them. It's just a dog vs a fluffy puppy or a snarling beast.

      Does that help clear it up?

  21. Hi Janice,
    I've written a series of articles on POV, including several on second-person point of view. They can be found here: Included in this tag is a piece I wrote using the imperative. Second-person POV actually has a longer history than most realize. Both Tolstoy and Hawthorne used it. Let me know if you have questions.

  22. I downloaded the kindle version of your book: "Show Don't Tell". So far it's been very helpful.

    I was struggling with third person POV. I couldn't handle the multiple POV's without a clear narrator. The few parts that do require telling, just don't read well without a character's voice.
    I struggled with 3rd person putting too much distance between the reader and the narrator. The pacing was falling flat. I was a bit afraid to split viewpoint between first and third but so far I am glad I took the leap. I like now I can show things and in those telling areas, I can use the first person narrator's personality to tell those parts and then slip back into showing.

    1. Thanks so much! I'm glad you found a POV style that works for you :)