Monday, March 22, 2010

Scene Structure Part VII – Point of View

Part of an ongoing series on Scene Structure.

Point Of View

stinky dog Most scenes have a single Point Of View. Think of POV as a “camera” that’s recording the story. Where is this camera? Does a character control it? Or is it focused on one specific character? In either case, that character is considered the scene’s “POV Character.”  I’m going to address a few of the more common POV’s in use today. There are three basic dimensions of POV. Some of these are mutually exclusive; you generally don’t have Deep 1st Person Cinematic for example. Also I’m ignoring Past Vs Present tense, but your scene should maintain the same tense throughout.

1) First Person Vs. Third Person

Almost all literature is written in First or Third person. First Person is written as if the narrator was relating a personal story, using “I”, “me”, or “my” (and sometimes we/us/our) to refer to his character. In third person, the narrator usually never refers to himself. In some cases, the narrator is literally a “Third Person” set outside of the story, like a benevolent storyteller relating the story and pointing out its important moments.

2) Omniscient Vs Limited Vs Cinematic POV

Omniscient is the most “knowledgeable” POV. Every character’s thoughts and motives can be exposed at any time. This can lead to “head hopping” where the reader can follow each characters thoughts and feelings. Limited focuses on the thoughts and experience of a single character. In Cinematic, the writing is similar to a script—only speech and actions without any inner thought.

3) Exposition Vs Deep POV

This is the scale that determines how “close” the narrative is to the POV character. Deep POV is as if the “camera” has been placed inside the characters’ eye, so we experience the story only through their emotional journey. Exposition in this sense is a general description of the scene as viewed from far above.

Now I will attempt to illustration some of the more common examples of POV (all in past tense). The scene is one where a dog comes into the house covered with mud.

Third Person Cinematic POV

The dog entered the room, its black mane dripping with mud. Sally covered her nose and grimaced.

“What have you gotten into?” She glared at the dog.

The dog shook, tossing gobs of mud in every direction. Sally screamed and rose, turned to the nearby stairs.

“Marty! The dog! Help!”

Third Person Limited Exposition POV

Sally watched the dog enter the room, its black man dripping with mud. She covered her nose.

“What have you gotten into?” She glared at the dog.

The dog shook, tossing gobs of mud everywhere. Sally screamed, frustrated by the dog’s antics.

She turned to the stairs. “Marty! The dog! Help!”

Third Person Limited Deep POV

The clicking of the dog’s nails tore Sally from her book. She cringed, eying the dog’s black mane dripping with mud. A scent of rotten swamp assailed her nose.

“What have you gotten into?” Not again!

The dog shook, flinging globs of filth against Sally’s expensive new furniture.

Her blood boiled. This was all his fault. “Marty! The dog! Help!”

Third Person Omniscient POV

Reveling in her recent swamp excursion, the dog entered the room, her black mane dripping with mud. Wouldn’t Mistress Sally be pleased with her new scent?

Sally’s eyes turned black and she covered her nose. “What have you gotten into?” That stupid dog!

The mud itched so the dog shook, tossing gobs of glorious mud in every direction. Mistress Sally screamed.

That was it! The last straw! “Marty! The dog! Help!”

First Person Deep POV

I smelled the mutt before I saw her. She pranced into the room, proud as she could be, her black mane coated with muddy filth worthy of the local sewer.

I covered my nose and glared at the beast. “What have you gotten into?”

I saw it start. First, a twitch in the nose. Then, a shake of the neck. Finally—mud flew everywhere—right on my expensive new loveseat and matching end tables. A scream burst from my throat, an agony borne of a month living with this unkempt monster.

The beast panted at me, its tongue lolling. “Marty! The dog! Help”

Point of View Goals

  • Provide the “right” amount of information for a scene. Sometimes you want to feature the character who’s experiencing the greatest ordeal, sometimes you want an uninvolved character who’s just relaying things objectively. Sometimes you want to hide feelings/thoughts/motivations, so you may want to avoid Deep POV’s. If you find that a scene is flat, trying changing it to a different POV. Even if you don’t keep the change, sometimes you’ll gain insight into the different characters in the scene.
  • Make sure that it’s clear whose POV you are in, especially if it changed from a previous scene. Usually it’s clear from the first sentence, by using a name. Some authors even put the name in a scene header. This is especially important if you change POV between different 1st Person narrators.
  • Each type of POV had pros and cons. First person can’t be Omniscient, although the narrator can sometimes relay things he thinks the other characters are thinking, or knows from past experience. Deep POV requires that you write strictly from one character’s perspective, preventing a broader look at the scene.
  • Switching POV’s is fine, as long as there’s some consistency. Avoid doing it during a scene. If you find you switch a lot, maybe there’s another POV alternative to explore. A good rule of thumb is that you want to explore your Main Character’s POV more than any other character.

What POV do you prefer to write in?


  1. I really enjoy reading narratives that contain unreliable narrators. Could you add a discussion regarding that to this excellent listing of POV?

  2. @Todd: There are whole books written on POV (The Power of POV for example) and I wanted to be brief here. "Unreliable narrator" is a technique I use now and then. Even in Deep POV, you can hide the "innermost" thoughts, but it helps to indicate to the reader that something more is going on that the reader is not privy too...yet.
    Maybe some day I'll do a whole series on POV.

  3. Interesting post Andrew. I'm not really sure what I'm writing in, I thought it was Third Limited Exposition, but now I think it's Third Limited Deep. Hmmmm...another something for me to think about.

  4. Wonderfully written. I tweeted it.


  5. @PW: One way to tell is to ask yourself, "Am I holding the camera, following the characters around, or is the character holding the camera, only showing us what he/she notices?"
    It's really just a matter of degree, it's not either/or.

    @Ann: Thanks!

  6. I guess I'm Third Person Limited Deep POV, though I sometimes through a bit of Omniscient in there too. Just a touch-- too much Omniscient drives me crazy because I have to keep figuring out who's talking!

    Thanks for this good explanation of POV's!

  7. I think I tend to write in Third Person Deep, giving one character's thoughts and feelings and using that character as a lens to try give the gist or feeling of another character. I also change characters a lot (from scene to scene not mid scene). And, I enjoy the use of telepathic characters so I can still give the thoughts of others so long as I'm in the mind of the tele character lol.

  8. I write more in third person limited, switching from cinematic to exposition. Nice post Andrew, and you're right when you say, it's not either /or, it's just a matter of degree.

  9. This is really great! There are so many ways to tell a story, and POV is one of the largest decisions to make. I think I usually write in 3rd person limited Deep. :)

  10. As always, amazingly thorough. Thanks for the in depth look at a deep and confusing topic.

    I don't have a set preference and have written in almost every POV depending on the story at hand. I think they all require something a bit different and as long as we remain consistent we are okay.

  11. Great stuff! I write in first person present tense - it's just easier for me - however I'm not opposed to third person someday ;o) Fabulous post!

  12. I'm a firsty/past. I do want to try third sometime, but it hasn't happened yet.


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