Wednesday, July 02, 2014

How POV Can Solve Your Writing Troubles

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I’m a firm believer that understanding point of view (POV) can cure most common writing problems, and help writers avoid the newbie mistakes we all stumble over at the start. It's a versatile tool that does more than just help us pick which pronoun to use. It allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s head, empathize with them, and see the world through their eyes even if that world is very different from our own. It’s what lets us be storytellers and not just someone who plops details on a page in a logical order.
Here are five common trouble spots and how POV can help fix them.

Telling, Not Showing

This is the biggie, and a problem every writer has likely faced at some point. When we tell, we’re explaining what is going on from our author's perspective. We describe what we see as if we’re watching a play, because often we see our stories unfold in our heads like one. But try applying a solid POV to this problem. Look out through the eyes of your character and think about what they see and most importantly, how they feel about it. Forget what you as the author knows. What does the character see? How does that fit into their life and their problem at that moment? Because when someone is running for their lives, they don’t bother to notice what the drapes look like. A solid POV can help keep you from telling what’s there and focused on what matters to the character.

(Here's more on show, don't tell)


If we’re telling someone else’s story, we tend to slip in extra information because the listener doesn’t know the person we’re talking about. But when we’re telling our own story, we usually only tell the details that are relevant to what we’re saying, because we already know the other stuff and know the person we’re talking to knows as well. POV and backstory work in the same way. If you’re looking at a newly created room or character, you’re going to want to explain everything to catch the reader up. But think about that character as if you were her. 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 do. If you stay inside the POV’s head, you’ll be able to see life as they do and know what’s relevant to that scene.

(Here's more on handling backstory in a novel)

Weak Goals or Motivations

POV is all about motivations, because it’s how a character sees and feels about the world. Understanding how they feel or where they’re at emotionally in a scene will determine how they respond to the situation. Someone who’s terrified will react very differently from someone who is angry. They’re motivated by different things. They’re after different goals. So if a character is just acting out plot, get inside their head and think about what you’d do if you were them and why.

(Here's more on goals and motivations)

Low Stakes

Just like POV can help with goals, it can also help you understand what that character has at stake. It forces you to become that person, if only for a little while, and lets you ask why they’re risking their lives or family, or whatever it is that fits the plot. A lot of what we ask our characters to do, no sane person would comply with. They’d run for the nearest exit. So why is this person willing to act? What about them is making them choose this path? If you can’t find a reason for them to care, then you know where to start looking to raise those stakes. Find something about them that they do care about. To do that, get in their heads.

(Here's more on stakes)


Voice is one of those things that’s hard to explain, but we know it when we hear it. For me, voice comes from the judgment of the character, and to get that judgment, you need a strong POV. Who that character is determines what they sound like. If all you’re doing is relating facts about a scene or story, it can sound flat, even empty. But if the scene is described how the character sees it and feels about it, it comes to life. There’s a soul behind the words. A personality. A point of view coloring every word.

(Here's more on finding your character's voice)

I’ve found that 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 that 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.

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.