POV – what is it, anyway? POV, or Point of View, is the technical shorthand for who is telling the story and how they are telling it. This means it’s time for the fun kind of grammar lesson!
First person narratives are all about intimacy. Stories from this point of view allow readers to hear directly from the primary (or Point of View) character. The character uses I, me, and mine. Everything filters through this character’s eyes and ears before ever reaching the reader. The reader doesn’t get to know any more than the character, which leads to tense scenes and high emotions.
First person POV appears in two different tenses: past and present. The past tense takes some of the drama away from first person POV, because the audience can assume the narrator survived, at least as a ghost or spirit, in order to tell their story. Present tense is hard to master, and many new writers struggle to adjust their vocabularies to immediate action. Although it’s tricky, first person narration in the present tense ramps up the tension quickly because everything is happening now and it’s happening to the person the audience is conversing with.
Second person = you. If you’ve ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure book, then you know what this is. Essentially, the story invites you to imagine yourself in the story. Although it’s a fun way to share an experience, it’s tremendously difficult to dig into necessary things like character development when your character exists more in the real world than the fictional one.
Third person tells the story from his, her, or their point of view. It’s the most flexible POV option as it allows for a narrator. A narrator isn’t necessarily a disembodied, god-like voice speaking to the audience from on high. It may just discretely provide additional details the characters aren’t necessarily thinking of in the moment, like how the scene looks, what the person behind the primary character is doing, etc.
Third person POV gives writers the power of a microscope. They can zoom in as close as possible, only focusing on a single character and what they’re doing, or they can report on everything that’s happening in a scene like they’re a fly on the wall. Third person also allows writers to switch between primary characters in different locations for different scenes.
Like first person POV stories, third person tales can use present or past tense. Past tense is infinitely more popular, but present tense does lend immediacy to your writing. It’s very easy to slip in and out of present tense, however, especially in third person, so if you want to try it, be prepared for a lot of editing.
Before you commit to a point of view, you need to understand that this is the only point of view in your story. Just one. It will not switch between scenes and chapters. You will not forget it halfway through and suddenly feature the character’s first person thoughts appealing to the audience.
Changing up the point of view confuses readers. It’s one of the first things I notice personally as a tutor and editor, and it’s typically a sign that the writer is young, inexperienced, or simply doesn’t care enough about their work to edit. Don’t be that person. Be kind to your readers and stick to a single POV.
They say rules are made to be broken, and that’s true if you’re Terry Pratchett, but if you aren’t writing very well-informed satire, then these are good rules to follow. Think of these guidelines as a barrier at the edge of a cliff. Those armed with squirrel suits or parachutes can hop right over, but the rest of us should keep behind the line.
Picking and Choosing
How do you approach your story? Do you have a particular character whose personality and action can carry the entire story? Does a limited POV in present tense improve your story’s tension, or does it feel awkward? When in doubt, experiment!
The right POV for your story is simply the one that works for your writing style, your characters, and your plot. If you get halfway through and realize that your POV compromises your twist, consider a rewrite. Write short stories or single scenes in different tenses, utilizing different POVs than you generally prefer. You may be surprised how much you like them!