Q: What are the ground rules, mechanics wise, for POV?
A: The basic mechanics of good POV are:
1: One point of view character per scene. Scene break every time you make a significant jump, be it in time, place, or into a different person’s body. The break warns the reader and helps them mentally prepare, thus you don’t jar them out of the story when you break first.
For really large jumps, in time particularly, use a chapter break.
2: Establish who your POV character is within the first paragraph, preferably the first sentence, but in the second paragraph at latest. You can do this with action, dialogue, or interior monologue, but the latter works best. Otherwise, the reader will assume the first name they see to be the POV character.
3: To go with #2, lead off with the POV character if at all possible. If the scene must open with someone else talking, it’s usually best to give them no speaker attribution or beat. Instead, keep the line short and, in paragraph two, let your POV character identify who the speaker is in her reaction to that killer one-liner. Same goes for action: keep it short, and have the POV character respond right away with a counter action, followed by interior monologue.
Jesse picked his nose. Allie winced. Ew, boys were so gross!
“So I said, ‘if you’re going to pick your nose, get a room!'”
I sunk back into the cafe booth and took a breath to keep from laughing at Allie’s mixed metaphor. “Really, but don’t you mean, ‘go to the bathroom’?”
Allie stuck her tongue out. “Whatever.”
4: Filter every word you write through the perspective of the viewpoint character, including dialog tags, description, and word choices in the narrative and action sequences. A sad person sees the same fluffy white clouds differently than a happy person. A doctor will describe a wound far differently than a child would. While you’re learning POV especially, make it your practice to get as close to the character’s actual thoughts and perceptions as possible.Once you’ve mastered this skill, however, you should develop a sixth sense for when a more distant narrator is appropriate for a particular scene or character.
However, there are several breeds of POV to choose from, and each comes with their pluses, minuses, and specific needs. The breeds you need to have in your cavalry include:
Traditional First person, past tense.
This has the bonus of being the closest, most intimate viewpoint. You lose the potentially clumsy process of having to translate interior monologue into third person–though it does still need to be in the same tense as the narrative (past tense.)
Traditional first person is also a great choice for learning POV, because writers tend to realize more readily that I can’t know what she is thinking, and I can’t see what I’m not looking at. Whereas we often forget that she can’t know what he is thinking and that he can’t see what he isn’t looking at. Thus, writing in first person is great practice for staying in POV.
A mechanical downside, however, is there is a greater temptation to tell in first person. While, if your voice is really strong, you have a greater chance of selling a first person story loaded with telling versus a third person manuscript, it still cheats your readers out of experiencing it for themselves.
What would you prefer–sitting in a cafe, listening to a friend tell you a story of her awesome adventures, or going on the adventures yourself? So rewrite those cozy cafe passages–they will end up in your first draft–into actual scenes.
Another consideration is, traditionally, I (meaning your viewpoint character) must tell the entire story myself and hence I need a logical reason to be present for every scene shown.
This subcategory of first shares it’s strengths, but lessens the temptation to tell somewhat, and removes the limit on what you can show entirely.
However, while this is starting to gain ground, and mechanically acceptable, it still is widely perceived as confusing even though it shouldn’t be, technically, so long as you follow our ground rules above. However, readers are far more accustomed to a third person narrator changing than a first person. Thus, most who do this limit themselves to one POV per chapter and/or add a tag naming the view point character the same way one might note the time or place of a scene. Since it’s not widely accepted yet, avoid first multiple if you at all can. Otherwise, if you do use it, the same caveats to Third Multiple, below, apply here.
Third Person Limited, Subjective
This is the text book name for the POV styling most often seen in books today. Other terms include third limited, third deep, etc. You’re in the body of one of the characters in the scene, and you’re writing in third person, past tense, thus, in our example with the ill-mannered kid, we write “She winced. Ew, gross” rather than, “I winced. Ew, gross.” The main thing to watch out for is, while you need to translate the character’s first person thoughts into third person, past tense in your interior monologues, you will need to balance clarity–is it clear that the she is referencing the POV character, and if I use her name, will that confuse the reader? If a line loses something in translation, record it like this:
Ew, I think I’m going to be sick.
But don’t do this too often. There’s a reason we normally write interior monologue in this style in third person, past tense, same as the narrative. Ideally, your narrative should blend smoothly with interior monologue–just as in first person, every word you write gets filtered through the perspective of your POV character, remember?
Like it’s first person cousin, Third Multiple is commonly viewed as a separate sub-category from stories that stick to the same POV character throughout, but let’s recall, rule number one is one POV per scene. So technically it’s still Third Person Limited, Subjective. You can choose to limit yourself further, to one per chapter for instance, so long as you’re consistent with whatever additional limits you set for your manuscript in the opening chapter.
Some editors don’t want you to add a second view point right away, on the opinion you need to let the reader get used to being one person first. You may even hear specific numbers thrown out, such as, “Wait at least thirty pages before changing heads.”
However, while trying to introduce every POV in the first chapter is indeed the recipe for the head spin this school of thought wants to avoid, you do need to establish right away that you are going to be switching heads. If they’re not expecting it, your reader will be jarred out of the story if you suddenly switch from June’s POV to April’s for the first time in, oh, chapter six. One short scene two or three scenes into chapter one will make that transition in chapter six easier on your readers without making their heads spin by dropping them into multiple personality disorder all at once. That’s my advice, anyway.
Likewise, limit the number of point of views to as few as needed to make your plot work. If you can cut a view point character (i.e. by rewriting the scene from another established view point) without losing a significant plot point, do it.
Why? Changing heads too much not only makes it harder for readers to intimately connect with any of them, view point characters require more characterization, so the more views, the more unique voices you need to have talking in your head, and the harder the story becomes to write well. Until you’re more advanced, and you have a story that absolutely requires it, aim for no more than 2-3 viewpoints.
How many viewpoints, and how often you switch, will in part depend on your genre. If you’re writing romance, you will almost always have two–your hero and your heroine–and maybe an antagonist also.
Genres that call for high levels of adrenaline and suspense will often have more viewpoints, as changing heads frequently, in very short scenes, is one tool available if you actually want to put your readers in a head spin. However, the key to suspense, whatever your tool, is pacing. Slow down, and lull your readers into a false sense of security before you wham them again. A breathless reader, if that is desirable in your genre, will feel all the more breathless if you give them opportunities to catch their breath.
A few don’ts.
You may have noticed I’ve left out the options for omniscient (your narrator is a transcendent God who is above everything and knows everything), objective (a news reporter/cinematic style where your narrator is a mere ghost who can’t read minds) and present tense narration. These are advanced techniques that have their uses in specific situations, but rarely should be used throughout an entire manuscript, and are very difficult to write well. So until you’ve learned POV well enough to be teaching it yourself, I would advise you to stay away from them.
Likewise, Third Limited and Third Multiple, come with varying degrees of narrative distance and intimacy, and there are a variety of terms for each level. But one, that would probably confuse you. Two, if you’re here, you’re probably still learning how to write an intimate POV, and you need to master that skill before you’ll be ready to consider when a more distant narrator might be appropriate.
Last thing. Mixing first person narration and third person narration is becoming more common, but it is not a good idea for you to try at this stage of your career. Do the big boys and girls do it? Yes, but consider two things. One, they have a proven track record with the publishers, and an established reader base that will buy their stuff on name alone. You don’t.
Two, while your readers don’t know all the technical forms of writing, the forms have a reason, and the readers do notice when they’re jarred out of the story, even if they can’t tell you why they were. The famous established authors know how to use omniscient, mix first and third, etc. without violating the rule behind the rule.
Third, professional writers who use these techniques-to-avoid also have a specific POV effect they’re “bending the rules” to create. New writers who use these techniques, however, often have no better reason than it was the path of least resistance out of a corner they wrote themselves into. Laziness is a lousy reason to risk a publisher tossing your manuscript in the trash because you lack sufficient industry credentials to avoid getting skewered by reviewers.
If you’re self-publishing, you may be tempted to mix third and first together on the excuse of, “All I need to worry about is the reader, and they won’t care.” This makes as much sense as a man trying to impress his girlfriend with, “Tu hablo français?” and reasoning, “she doesn’t speak Spanish, she’ll never notice that means You I speak or that I used the french word for french.”
She may not notice you used the french word for french, she may even miss that you conjugated the verb wrong. But she will definitely wonder what kind of guy asks a girl if she speaks french in Spanish. So trust us and be consistent in which breed of POV you use. At least until you can’t tell the difference between a bar and a book store (because everyone knows your name there.)