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Your Point of View is Stupid!


Today’s writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is for “Point of View.”

And no, yours isn’t actually stupid. Don’t worry. Problematic, perhaps, but never stupid. I was just channeling today’s obnoxiously energized era, where nobody listens to anybody else’s perspectives and everybody calls each other names to supposedly prove their opinions.

But that’s the political or societal understanding of point of view. Here’s the writing definition:

Often abbreviated to POV, this refers to the narrator that’s reciting your story. Who is he, she, it or they? And how knowledgeable is this entity or entities?

When writers talk about point of view, they’ll mention terms like first person, second person and third person, as well as objective, limited and omniscient... definitions they’ll mix and match at will.

Let’s start out with point-of-view prep by addressing the oft-misunderstood narrator, which is the entity telling the story. And for the record, that entity might not be you.

Just because you’re composing an account doesn’t mean you’re telling it, confusing though that might sound. Your narrator gets to tell things from his, her or its perspective or point of view.

It could be a cat detailing how unimpressive its day is, or a young woman figuring out how to swing a sword in preparation for battle, or a boy falling for his first real crush in middle school. Though it might just as easily be some all-knowing, all-powerful being that’s watching over the plot.

Confused yet? No worries. Just keep reading.

Now that you have some foggy notion of what a narrator is, let’s move on to point of view, which involves three different aspects: person, tense and voice.

“Person” refers to the narrator’s identity. Is the narrator an I, a you, or some third-party that creepily observes everything your protagonist does?

If you’re telling a story from a first-person perspective, then your narrator and protagonist are the same exact creature. Here’s an example of a first-person narration:

I watched the car pass by. It was a black SUV with silver trimming and tinted windows, so I couldn’t see in. But there was something about it that unnerved me.

A story could also be told from a second-person perspective, in which case the narrator is a separate entity from the protagonist. In fact, in this case, the reader is the protagonist, as you can see below:

You watched the car pass by. It was a black SUV with silver trimming and tinted windows, so you couldn’t see in. But there was something about it that unnerved you.

If that sounds unnatural, it’s because it’s almost never used in stories. Third-person perspective is by far the most common, where the narrator talks about characters like this:

She watched the car pass by. It was a black SUV with silver trimming and tinted windows, so she couldn’t see in. But there was something about it that unnerved her.

Those are really your only options when it comes to picking narrator persons. However, there’s also tense, which refers to the time being talked about. In all three of the examples above, they’re written out in past tense, which shows that the action has already happened…

“She watched.” “It was.” “She couldn’t see.” "But there was.” “Unnerved.”

Past. Past. Some complicated tense I won’t bother trying to figure out. Past. Past.

However, there’s also present tense, where the action is happening in real-time:

She watches the car pass by. It is a black SUV with silver trimming and tinted windows, so she can’t see in. But there is something about it that unnerves her.

Future tense, meanwhile, tells the story that will take place.

She will watch the car pass by. It will be a black SUV with silver trimming and tinted windows, so she won’t be able to see in. But there will be something about it that unnerves her.

Future tense isn’t usually used a whole story long for pretty obvious reasons. But it is still an option should you like to use it.

After you’ve chosen your point of view’s person and tense, then you have to pick out a suitable voice, a term that refers to how much the narrator knows. And once again, there are multiple options to work with:

  • Objective narrators know no more or less than the protagonists they’re talking about. So they can only speculate about what’s going to happen next.

  • Limited narrators can be inside more than one character’s head at a time, but they’re still relegated to the present moment.

  • Omniscient narrators are all-knowing, all-seeing kinds of critters that can say whatever they want about whoever they want whenever they want. They know everything everyone is thinking and everything that everyone is going to experience.

Normally, omniscient narrators are pain-in-the-neck teases who pick and choose what to tell the reader. They might say stuff like “Little did she know” or “But there was more to the adventure than he realized” or “It was lurking around the corner, just waiting for him to come its way.”

Omniscient narrators exist to add a new layer of drama to a story, though they do run the risk of adding a whole new layer of cheese while they’re at it.

If you’re a writing novice, I’d advise staying away from that kind of writing. In fact, try sticking with third-person, past-tense objective narration, since that’s the most common and perhaps most natural way to write.

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