Case Studies For Writers

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Aug 6, 2019

Trust Point Of View To Deepen the Reader Experience


By Max Vonne.

Point of view is something to take seriously as a writer.  It’s one of the primary decisions we make when writing a scene or chapter.  Whose point of view are we viewing the action from?

The answer can be a black hole.  The point of view (POV) of no one is actually an option.  That is called omniscient POV.  A detached, all-seeing eye informs us of what we need to know.  We don’t know where it comes from or how it feels about anything.  And because of that, omniscient POV is a thinly disguised data dump.  

Readers hate data dumps.  Information in itself is not interesting; it’s just a bunch of facts.  For example:


In the age of Thuron, under the reign of the last of the great kings, in swamplands of Gonon, where unnatural creatures stirred when the moon fell dark, there arose a host of the discontented horde, ready to make its presence known...

I’m already sleeping.  None of those facts are compelling.  I don’t know who is speaking or why I need to know about the swamplands of Gonon.

Readers want to experience things through the eyes of a character so they can feel what the character is feeling.  The two most common point of view types used in commercial fiction are first-person past tense and third-person limited.

In “Interview With the Vampire,” Anne Rice tells the story through the eyes of Louis in first-person past tense.  I can’t use her snippets for copyright reasons, so I’ll make up my own to demonstrate.

I saw his eyes widen, straining in disbelief.  Were my teeth that frightening?  Or was it the pallor of my ghostly, milk-white skin, such as it was?  It didn’t matter.  The scent of the man’s hot blood running through his veins offered me too much pleasure to resist.  I sank my fangs into the wretch’s neck and took what I needed.

In the above sample, we see things through the eyes of the vampire.  It puts the reader right in the middle of the action, experiencing things as the character does.  Obviously, I’ve kept the scene brief.  It’s close and intimate.  This point of view is perfect if you want to write your story from a single perspective. 

Writing from a third-person limited point of view is the other popular way to go.  Here is a short example from my book, Star Faer - The Queen of Zori.

Baz faded in and out of consciousness.  He much preferred being out.  His wakeful state brought tremors with it, fits of shaking that he couldn’t control.  And those sounds.  The ones he couldn’t quite distinguish.  Footsteps in the distance?  A door slamming somewhere?  Sharp voices.  Laughter?
Being bound and gagged didn’t help.

Even though this is a jarring paragraph with no context or setup, you can still recognize whose point of view we see the action from.   Baz is obviously a prisoner.  We know he is suffering.  We experience the action of the story as Baz does.

The books I’ve read on point of view, like “Point of View” by Marcy Kennedy, always discuss an omniscient point of view as an option because it’s been used historically.  Lord of the Rings is written with an omniscient narrator.  Tolkien was a genius.  Here’s my opinion.  Don’t ever use an omniscient POV if you want people to read your book.  Lord of the Rings was written in the 1940s.  Reader tastes have changed.  Don’t take my word for it.  Google it.  Read some books on technique.

My stance on this is rather strong because I see writers using omniscient viewpoint a lot on CritiqueMatch.com, a platform where writers edit and review each other’s work.  It’s the most common mistake I see.  

Often a writer will reject that criticism out of hand.  It’s a structural problem to the writing, and it’s hard to understand what the problem is when a writer is first starting out.  I know this from the inside out because I made the same mistake.  I wrote the first draft of The Queen of Zori in omniscient point of view.  It was a disaster.

Luckily, Bethany Tucker, an editor on CritiqueMatch.com challenged me.  Others on the platform didn’t object to what I had written, so at first, I thought she was an outlier, someone who just didn’t like what I was writing.  I dismissed it because I figured that you couldn’t please everyone.  But at the same time, my curiosity was peaked, and I started researching.  The research always led me in one direction, away from an omniscient point of view.

Today’s readers want to experience the story through the eyes of a character.  Anything that muddles up that experience is a bad thing.

Often, a writer has written in an omniscient point of view and doesn’t know it.  That makes it difficult to correct.  Luckily, there are simple indicators that you are in an omniscient viewpoint.  Here is a short list:

1.    Head-hopping
2.    Referring to a character in a way they would not refer to themselves
3.    Providing information that the character couldn’t know

So let’s tackle these one at a time.

1) Head-hopping

Head hopping occurs when you switch the point of view between characters within a single scene or chapter without clear delineation.  Here’s an example:

Sheila’s nerves were chewing on her.  She hated how he looked at her.  “Staring at something?”
Bob felt awful about it.  But what could he do about it?  He certainly wasn’t going to tell her the truth, that her hair was sticking straight up.  “Umm, not really.”
Sheila reflexively put her hand on her hair and felt that something was out of place.  Was it sticking straight up?  Oh, no.  Of course, he wouldn't have told her that.  She instantly regretted being angry with him.

This is an absurd example, but we can clearly see that first, we get Sheila’s thoughts, then we get Bob’s.  This is called head hopping.  We are anchored to no one.  We are a distant observer.  It’s an omniscient POV.   Since we have Bob’s thoughts, we already know Sheila has a hair problem before she discovers it.  That makes Sheila’s POV following unengaging.  At least to those of us awake.

Now let’s try this from just Sheila’s POV:

            Sheila’s nerves were chewing on her.  She hated how he looked at her.  “Staring at something?”
            Bob’s flat expression didn’t change.  “Umm, not really.”
            Sheila reflexively put her hand on her hair and felt something out of place.  Was it sticking straight up?  Oh, no.  Of course, he wouldn't have told her that.  She instantly regretted being angry with him.

This time we only see the scene from Sheila’s point of view.  She doesn’t know what Bob is thinking.  In this example, we get to experience her discovery of the hair problem.  The point is that we focus on Shelia and her feelings.  We don’t need to know what Bob feels.  If necessary, he could communicate it through dialogue.  As a writer, you have to trust that a single point of view can deliver a better experience for the reader.  In my opinion, it always leads to better writing. 

2) Self-referencing

Now let’s look at self-referencing.  That is how the character refers to himself/herself.

The fireman carried the victim, a small girl, to safety.  He put her on the ground gently.  Then the fireman turned back to the blaze to try to find someone else to save.

This is a little exaggerated, but it’s to make a point.  This writing could work if we’re not in the POV of the fireman.  But if we are writing from the point of view of the fireman, it doesn’t work at all.  Would the fireman think of himself as the fireman?  Of course not.

When referencing a character for the first time, using their name is the most common approach:

Bob carried the small girl to safety.  He put her on the ground gently.  Then he turned back to the blaze to try to find someone else to save.

Now Bob feels like a person.  But we don’t know yet that he’s a fireman.  It’s ok.  We can add some detail to make that work.

Bob carried the small girl to safety.  He put her on the ground gently.  Then, he made eye contact with his fire captain.  Captain Hendricks waved him on just as more fire trucks were arriving.  Bob hurried back to the blaze to try to find someone else to save.

This was a simple example, not spectacularly written by any means.  It needs to improve.  But even this small change feels more like a fire scene.  We added the fire captain and the fire trucks because we needed to identify Bob as a firefighter.   I added the “hurried” detail because I started to think about how Bob saw things.  He would certainly be in a hurry in his role as a fireman.  After all, we see it through Bob’s eyes.  He feels more real to us than the nameless fireman ever could.  Once we’re fully seated in Bob’s point of view, it’s hard for us to break out.  That’s a good thing.  It means we’re engaged with the character.

3) Information the Character Couldn’t Know

Another telltale sign of omniscient POV is that we get information the character couldn’t know.

After being called on by the teacher, Arlene’s cheeks turned red.

Unless Arelene is looking in a mirror, she can’t see her own cheeks.  So how would you express something like that from the character’s POV?

            After being called on by the teacher, Arlene felt the heat surging in her cheeks.  Am I blushing?  

I sneaked in a bit of internal monologue because it seemed like Arlene would naturally think that.  Because I constrained the POV to what she can see, I gained insight into what she might actually think.  The reader experiences her blushing more directly than if it were stated as a simple fact.

It takes work to develop a feel for point of view.  Cutting out information can seem counterintuitive, but you have to learn to trust it.  If the character can’t know the information, leave it out.  You can always figure out a clever way to work it in at some point.

The deeper the point of view, the richer the experience for the reader.  I keep a copy of Marcie Kennedy’s “Deep Point of View” on my desk, along with a few other key books on writing technique.  I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic with this article, but hopefully, it will inspire you to dig into the topic more.




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Max Vonne is a sci-fi writer who blends science fiction and fantasy, creating stories full of kings and queens, slaves, barbarians, elves, magic, and tech.  The Kaedra galaxy is at the heart of his work.  To develop it, he wrote a custom computer program that created thousands of stars and planets.  His books explore stories involving those worlds.  You can visit these worlds at www.StarFaer.com
Max also founded www.WritersWiki.com to provide free resources to new writers.