P.O.V.:The Magic of One, Two or Three

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Three people. One event. Three points of view. All three vary because, face it, each person keys in on certain sensory details that stand out or appeal to them. Each person brings past experiences to the situation and formulates an opinion or perspective based on those elements.

The same principle surrounds point of view in storytelling. If you put insert-magical-number
characters in one scene, each views the action and reacts, based on individual instincts and quirks created by an author.

While some stories thrive from different points of view (and sometimes, alternating P.O.V. is a wonderfully successful plot device), many tales flounder because the writer hasn't investigated which perspective best fits or advances the storytelling.

Is there a magical formula that helps writers determine which point of view is best?


But distinct advantages and disadvantages of first, second and third person storytelling do exist. Let's take a look at each viewpoint and weigh the pros and cons.

First Person: The I, me, my, we narrator. It's the participant viewpoint, although the narrative doesn't have to be from a major character.

Why It Works

  • It's natural. It's how we converse.
  • It focuses on the narrator's perspective.
  • It establishes a distinct internal voice, especially with main characters.

How It Causes Problems

  • It only tells one point of view.
  • It doesn't show what other characters think or feel.
  • It forces the narrator to always be present.

Second Person: The you narrator. Honestly, it seldom works. In my editing experience, I've never read a story told from this P.O.V. that didn't fall flat. That's not to say it won't work, but it's complicated.

Why It Works

  • It's different. When the storytelling is spot on, it builds rapport with the reader.

How It Causes Problems

  • It fails to establish a rhythm. And sometimes, it ends up sounding like a cluster of imperative sentences. Who wants to feel like they're being told what to do or believe?

Third Person: The she, he, they narrator. The most commonly used point of view, third person works so well because it feels like the reader and narrator share secrets. Readers become privy to information that the clueless characters don't understand. Now, you'll need to determine if an unlimited or limited presence works best.

Unlimited Omniscience uses any character to convey the story.

Why It Works

  • It lets multiple characters tell the story.
  • It keeps readers interested.
  • It (usually) hastens the pace of the story.

How It Causes Problems

  • It can be confusing to the reader, especially if too many characters are involved in telling the story.
  • It can reduce the rhythm of prose.

Limited Omniscience shows the thoughts of only a few characters, and most often, one character's thoughts equal a single scene or chapter.

Why It Works

  • It allows several characters to tell the story.
  • It keeps readers interested.
  • It picks up the pace.
  • It lets the writer focus on one or two characters and delve into their motivation.

How It Causes Problems

  • It eliminates problems of using unlimited omniscience for writers.

No matter what story a writer is telling, it's important that the point of view is consistent. Too many voices, too many shifts in thought, too many disadvantages = a piece of writing that's dead on paper.

P.O.V. is about the eye, not the I. And that's the magic of one, two or three.

by LuAnn Schindler. LuAnn is a freelance writer and columnist. Read more of her work at http://luannschindler.com/.


Unknown said...

What an effective way to discuss the pros and cons of points of view in storytelling.
Great refresher, LuAnn!

Cathy Williams said...

Nice post! Thanks for sharing quality information.

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

Really good points, nicely discussed. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages - in the end you have to opt for the one that gives the most involving story. I'm tweeting this.

Anonymous said...

its best to let the material decide it for you

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