Tuesday, May 30, 2023

How Point of View Can Solve Your Writing Troubles

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Point of view is one of the strongest tools writers have for crafting stories readers just can’t put down.

Whenever I’m asked to give “one tip that will help writers succeed,” I say, “Master point of view.” I’m a firm believer that understanding point of view (POV) can help you avoid most common writing problems—especially the newbie mistakes we all stumble over at the start.

Point of view a versatile tool that does more than just help you pick which pronoun to use, or if you should write in first person or third. It allows you to put yourself in someone else’s head, empathize with them, and see the world through their eyes, even if that world is different from your own. It’s what lets you be a storyteller and not just someone who plops details on a page in a logical order.

Here are five common problems point of view can help you solve.

1. Telling, Not Showing Your Scenes

Every writer has likely faced “you’re telling, not showing” feedback at some point. It a big reason agents and editors reject a manuscript.

When you tell, you’re explaining what’s going on from the author's perspective. You describe what you see as if you’re watching it, because often you see your story unfold in your head like a movie.

If you embrace your POV and look through the eyes of your character, it changes how you see that story. You'll notice what they see and most importantly, you'll know how they feel about it. Because when someone is running for their lives, they don’t bother to notice what the drapes look like unless those drapes can save their life.

When you show, the scene stops being about what the author knows, and instead becomes what the character knows. Details and descriptions aren’t random, they’re noticed for a reason that shows the scene and drives the story forward.

A solid point of view helps keep you from telling what’s there and shows readers what matters to the character, which helps you know how to describe the scene.

(Here’s more with What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell)

2. Dumping in Backstory and Boring Readers

Backstory can stop a story cold, because it dumps a lot of information onto readers that they don’t care about at that moment. It’s what the author thinks readers need to know to understand the character and story, but in most cases, they don’t.

Think about that character as if you were them. Would you really think about your past out of the blue? Or bring up painful topics you’re trying hard to avoid? Unless something happened to trigger that memory, you’re more likely to go about your day doing what you always do.

When you stay inside the point of view character’s head, you’ll see life as they do and know what details in their past are relevant to that scene at that time.

(Here’s more with 5 Ways to Find the Backstory Readers Want to Know)

3. Using Weak Goals and Motivations that Slow the Story

If a character is just following orders and doing what the author tells then to do, they can come across flat and reactive. They’re not personally involved in the problem, they’re just there doing a job—and if they don’t care, why should readers?

POV is what drives a character’s goals and motivations, because it’s how they interact with the world around them. A lot of what we ask our characters to do, no sane person would agree to. They’d run for the nearest exit. So why is this person willing to act? Why are they choosing this path?

When you understand how they feel or what they want in a scene, you’ll know how they’ll act and why it matters to them. They’re trying to solve the novel’s problem for personal reasons, which gives them agency and makes them more proactive in the story.

A strong point of view lets you know what a character would do and why, which strengthen the plot, picks up the pace, and keeps readers invested ion the story.

(Here’s more with Two Questions to Ask for Stronger Character Goals and Motivations)

4. Having Weak Conflict and Low Stakes so No One Cares

End of the world problems where everyone might die seems like a great conflict and high stakes, but if readers don’t care about that outcome they won’t care about the story. And when the protagonist has no personal reason to face that conflict and those stakes, readers won’t shed a tear when everyone does die.

Because “weak conflict and low stakes” doesn’t mean “there’s not enough people in danger.” It means the protagonist isn’t facing a difficult choice and having to risk a consequence they don’t want to face.

A strong conflict forces the protagonist to make tough choices, and high stakes means that choice matters to them. There are personal consequences to acting, and a personal loss if they make the wrong decision. To easiest way to find what they do care about, is to get inside their head.

Point of view helps you determine what the protagonist cares about and why, and where in their life you can pile on the pressure to make them risk it all.

(Here’s more with Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

5. Using Generic Character Voices that all Sound the Same

If all you’re doing is relating facts about a scene or story, it can sound flat, even empty. The characters all sound the same because they’re all you. They’re not seeing the world through different perspectives, just the author’s perspective.

Who a character is determines their voice. When the scene is described through the character’s eyes and worldview it comes to life. Readers can feel the soul behind the words. They connect to a person, not an empty shell spitting out information. That character’s point of view colors every word they say.
Voice comes from the judgment of the character, and to get that judgment, you need a strong point of view.

Here’s more with How to Find Your Character's Voice)

Point of view has its fingers in pretty much every aspect of writing.

We can do all the characterization and study sheets and interviews we want, but until we put ourselves in a character’s head and show the world through their eyes, very little of that work can really shine.

Stories are about people. And point of view lets us be those people.

What's your favorite type of point of view to write?

*Originally published January 2011. Last updated May 2023.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Wow, so much solid and eye-opening advice in this post. 'There's a soul behind the words' really speaks to me. Thank you.

  2. I love how you explain the importance of pov and how to improve it. Great job.

  3. I loved this post when I read it during your tour, and I enjoyed it just asuch the second time! Great tips and insights.

  4. Oh yes, very good stuff. Seeing everything from the MC's POV solves a lot of probs! To BE your MC.

  5. Tricia: Most welcome! POV is such a great tool.

    Mary, Candace & Carol: Thanks! This was one of my favorite posts on the tour. I just love POV.

  6. POV is so important for what you want to convey to the reader. I'm struggling with POV as I'm editing my first draft. I can't help but wonder if I should tell the story from multiple points of view, if at certain points, the story is somewhere other than with my main character.

    Thanks for the post!

  7. Sharonholly: There's going to be a post on that topic this week. Hopefully it'll help you out some with that choice.

  8. Great, great post! Something I'm working to explain to one of my clients right now. It's always nice to know that I'm not the only one who feels this way about POV. So crucial to bringing the story and the characters home to the reader!

  9. Great things to remember, Janice. Goals and stakes are areas I'm always working on.

  10. Well put and easily understood. Thanks for a great article.
    I just wished to put in here a word for storytellers rather than writers. where you must tell and explain. A little appreciated art form these days but still worthy, remember where the original writing came from. Stories passed down orally through generations.

    1. Thanks! So true. Verbal storytellers are an entirely different thing, and even essays and narrative nonfiction have different rules.