from a certain point of view

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As a reader, one of the things that can kick me out of a story or make me put a book down is what I call “point of view slips”. You know, you’re reading along in one point of view and there’s that random sentence/paragraph that is written in a completely different point of view.

Of course, as a writer, one of the easiest ways to avoid this kind of slip is to write in first person. If my narrative voice is I/me, I’m not going to accidentally tell you what another character is thinking/feeling without that character expressing it in some way.

As an editor and writing coach, this is one of the areas that I dig into. I tell my clients to ask a few questions to help them sort it out.

  1. Who is telling the story?
    • Even in third person narratives, the story is told/experienced through a character. Who is it? What do they know/see/hear/observe?
  2. How does that character know the information in that different point of view?
    • Is your character a mind reader?
  3. Is it necessary for your reader to know what that second character is thinking/feeling? Is it more important than what your primary character is thinking/feeling?

As an example, let’s take a look at how this might present in a fictional setting.

"Harold set his mug down on the table and surveyed the room as the chime on the door announced a new arrival. His impatience was building. He never did like waiting.  Nancy was always late, but he could see her now, shaking the rain off her umbrella in the doorway.  
A thousand apologies ran through her mind as she saw him waiting there, but she settled for lifting a hand in greeting while she finger combed her damp hair.
Harold nodded to the coffee he'd ordered for her, standing to receive her air kiss and shivering when her cold hand touched his arm."

That middle paragraph there takes the reader out of Harold’s point of view, and drops them into Nancy’s with no real pay off. There is nothing in that paragraph that is essential to the reader, or if that is the part that is important, then perhaps the author has chosen the wrong point of view character.

The question then is: Who is telling this story? Whose character has most to contribute to the reader’s understanding of the action? If it is truly Harold, the middle paragraph needs to change to reflect what Harold sees/hears/understands of Nancy’s arrival. If instead, the point of view with the most to offer is Nancy’s, then the rest of the piece needs to be reworked to show her understanding of her arrival and Harold’s impatience.

That isn’t to say that point of view changes are bad. We’ve all read books where the author chooses to change the POV character for various reasons. The trick is knowing when, where and how to do it.

What say you, Readers? Is this a sticking point for you too?

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

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