Myths about Point of View

by Susan Breen

Not long ago my fiction class was discussing a short story that needed some work. Various students piled on with helpful suggestions about plot and character; the writer under scrutiny jotted down notes agreeably. And then someone raised her hand and asked, “Is it me, or is there something off with this story’s point of view?”

Immediately the temperature in the room went up. Faces reddened, pleasant people began to rage, and I thought to myself, Oh dear. The beast of point of view has been unleashed.

The problem is there’s something squishy about point of view (or POV) that makes it hard come up with a set of rules. Yes, you should probably not switch from first person into omniscient and yet William Faulkner did that in his novel The Sound and The Fury and it worked out fine. And yes, it’s a bad idea to jump from one character’s head to another without any warning, but James Joyce did it in Ulysses, and that novel’s considered a classic.

Writers understand that a confident handling of point of view adds richness and emotional depth to their stories, as well as establishing tone. (Try to imagine the opening of Moby Dick written in the third person—He wants to be called Ishmael.) Possibly no decision an author makes affects as powerfully the way readers relate to the story.

But there are so many variations of effective (and ineffective) use of point of view that it’s easy to become confused. Operating on the assumption that it’s easier to figure out what not to do, than what to do, here follow four myths that I’ve heard frequently in my classes, and elsewhere.

First person is easiest to write.

This is a myth that has its origin in something that seems reasonable—when you tell a story to a friend, you tell it in the first person. “I was walking down the street and the bear attacked me.” If you can talk that way, why shouldn’t you be able to write that way?

Doesn’t it seem like a simple place to start, particularly if you’re a new writer?

The problem is you do not generally speak for 300 pages, and it’s much easier to be interesting in a short burst of time than in a long one. Oftentimes authors jump into first person assuming that everything they (or their narrating character) have to say is fascinating—almost always a mistake. It can be hard work creating just the right persona for your story: too funny and the story can get wearing over time, too dry and it can get boring. Read through the great first-person novels looking consciously at how the author keeps the narrative going; compare, for example, Charles Dickens’ novel, David Copperfield, to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

First person can also be trickier to plot. Imagine you have reached page 145 of your draft; the story is slowing down a bit and you want to have your main character attacked by a band of pirates. If you were writing in the third person, you could jump over to the pirates and describe the ship and build up suspense. But if your story is in the first person (and you’re not Faulkner and you’re following the rules), you are confined to writing about what the narrator knows. A first person narrator cannot know he is about to be attacked by pirates unless he is standing near the ocean. (Or a phone, depending on how hi-tech the pirates are.) You can get around the limitations: perhaps the main character hears pirate music in the distance? But it’s tricky.

The point is, as with most aspects of the craft of writing, that you should choose the point of view that works best for your story, and not what seems easiest.

When you jump from head to head, you’re writing in omniscient.

Let’s define two things here. “Head jumping” means switching without warning from one close third person point of view to another. “Omniscient,” by contrast, refers to a point of view in which the narrator knows everything each character is thinking—which is why this POV is also referred to as “God-like.” What’s the difference? you may wonder. In both cases the author can write about what’s inside anyone’s head.

Let’s look at some examples, starting off with “head-jumping.”

Susie thought how sad it was that her story wasn’t published. She cried. Nathan saw her crying and thought how happy he was because he always hoped she’d fail.

Do you notice how one minute you are thinking what Susie’s thinking and the next minute you’re thinking what Nathan’s thinking? It’s jarring, isn’t it? And confusing. Don’t you find yourself reading the sentence over and over, trying to figure out if you read it right?

Trust me; you never want to give a reader a reason to stop and put down your book. Worst of all, it feels like a mistake, and one of the most important assets a writer has is her authority. The reader has to trust you enough to believe in your writing.

By contrast, consider Ernest Hemingway’s classic story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” in which he writes about a man who behaved like a coward and then redeemed himself. There are three main characters and Hemingway dips into each of their heads over the course of the story.

First Mrs. Macomber:

She noticed where the baked red of his face stopped in a white line.…

Then there’s the hunter’s POV:

So what could he do, Wilson thought.

And then poor Francis Macomber’s POV:

He saw his hand was trembling.

Even the lion’s POV is represented:

Then it crashed again and he felt the blow as it hit his lower ribs and ripped on through, blood sudden hot and frothy in his mouth….

So why isn’t what Hemingway’s doing head hopping? For one thing, Hemingway establishes in the opening paragraph that his narrator will be telling the story from a neutral, almost cinematic distance:

It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.

From the beginning, the reader understands that Hemingway’s narrator is standing far enough back that he will be able to take a panoramic view, whereas head-hopping tends to take place abruptly in the middle of a story. And then, of course, there’s the beauty and authority of Hemingway’s writing. He’s in control, and the reader senses that his point of view shifts are intentional.

Have you ever seen a fashion model wearing a dress and thought, that would look great on me, and then you put it on and look like a mushroom? Something similar happens with omniscience.You have to have the authority to pull it off, and one of the best ways to get a handle on this POV is to read it. Try Raymond Carver’s, “A Small Good Thing,” Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.

Dialogue has no point of view.

The myth here is that dialogue is a form of transcription. The writer sculpts out his character through description and action and thought, but when the character begins to speak, those words are not coming from inside the character’s head, but are rather transcribed, as though the author were witnessing the character speak at a trial. For example, say your main character is a man who works the graveyard shift at a factory in Gates Falls. He’s a solitary man with a chip on his shoulder and when his boss comes to talk to him, it goes like this:

“What are you up to, Hall?”

“The rats,” Hall said. “I peg cans at ‘em when I see him.”

That’s fine, and is probably exactly how such a conversation would go, but when Stephen King wrote about these characters in his short story, “Graveyard Shift,” he added a wonderful line to the conversation to make Hall’s character come more alive. This is how King wrote it:

“What are you up to, Hall?”

“The rats,” Hall said, realizing how lame that must sound now that all the rats had snuggled safely back into their houses. “I peg cans at ‘em when I see ‘em.”

Do you see the difference? That one extra line gives us a much better sense of who Hall is; it deepens our understanding of his POV.

Best-selling authors shift POV a lot, so I don’t need to worry.

This is a myth I hear a lot and it has as its base a core of truth, which is that many best-selling writers use a “flexible,” or possibly “lazy” point of view. Recently I was reading a novel that shifted point of view so many times I felt like I was watching a ping pong game. But you know what? The author sold more than a million copies of her book and when someone does that, it’s more instructive to look at what she’s doing well than what she’s doing wrong. And the fact was this woman told a terrific story.

Rather than criticizing a best-selling mystery author’s POV failings, why not study how she develops the character of her detective. And rather than complain about a romance writer’s POV missteps, why not study how she handles description so adroitly. (An ancillary argument is there’s a lot of junk out there and mine is no worse than anyone else. This is not an argument designed to sell books.)

The effective use of point of view can add power and authority to your writing. Take time to think about your choices and bring your writing to the next level.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.