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 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 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 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.
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.