No POV Beyond This Point

That’s what the sign said, anyway, in the parking lot of the Base Exchange.  What they meant, of course, was Personally Owned Vehicle — which is military-speak for the family car.  All the same, it gave aspiring-writer me a memorable moment of mental bogglement, because the same acronym, in writer-speak, is shorthand for Point Of View, and Point Of View is everywhere.

In the universe of fiction, nothing happens without an observer; without observation, the story would not exist.  Even the so-called “third person objective” has an observer — third person objective is nothing but observation.  It’s the “fly on the wall” viewpoint, the “camera’s eye” viewpoint, which gives the reader action and dialogue and description but nothing interior to the characters or to the narrator.  (This is all elaborate sleight of hand, or sleight of mind — the writer is only pretending not to judge or comment on what’s going on.  In fact, every detail is selected out of the near-infinite number of possible details with an eye to how it’s going to contribute to the impression the writer wants to make on the mind of the reader.  Not surprisingly, third person objective is fiendishly hard to do well, or to carry off at length; most of the famous examples, such as Hemingway’s “The Killers”, are short stories.)

At the other end of the spectrum from third person objective is the omniscient point of view favored by Victorian novelists.  For a long time in the mid to late twentieth century, omniscient POV fell out of favor, the victim of changes in literary fashion.  Not surprisingly, given the lack of contemporary models, most of the writers who attempted to write in omni POV struggled with the process; failed attempts at omni were denigrated as “head-hopping.”  It takes a keen eye and a steady hand to manage access to the interior lives of all a story’s characters, and to move freely between them without jarring or disorienting the reader.

Occupying the middle of the spectrum is tight-third POV, and its variant form, multiple tight-third.  In tight-third, the writer allows him- or herself privileged access to the interior life of only a single character — or, in multiple tight-third, to only a single character in a particular scene.  Tight-third, whether single or multiple, is probably the most common point of view in contemporary fiction, and to the extent that anything in this business is easy, it’s probably the easiest to get right.

Outside of the objective/tight-third/omni spectrum we have the varyingly-weird outliers:  first-person, the “reader, I married him” point of view; second-person, the “you are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike” point of view; and oddities such as the epistolary story, told through letters and other documents.  They’re all hard to write in their different ways, and a certain proportion of your audience is going to find them off-putting (there are readers out there who will never read a first-person story, for example, or a first-person story where the gender of the narrator doesn’t match the gender of the author, even though the text is plainly labelled “fiction.”)

What point of view should you use for your story?  As so often in the writing business, the answer is, “It depends.”  If your main character is talking to you in a distinctive voice and won’t shut up, first-person may be the answer.  If you’re concerned with how the society of the story both affects and deals with the events of the narrative, and if you feel up to the challenge, then omniscient POV may be what you’re looking for.  When in doubt, though, it’s always a good idea to go first for tight-third.  No reader is going to question that choice, and it’s one with a lot of good models available for emulation.

But if tight-third isn’t working for you, or if your narrative persists in veering toward one of the other models, then try the various alternatives until you find the one that clicks.

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