Writer, David Lodge, in his book The Art of Fiction, said this about problems with inconsistent points of view used by writers in their work:
- “One of the commonest signs of a lazy or inexperienced writer of fiction is inconsistency in handling point of view (POV).”
I don’t agree with the lazy part because I don’t think writers are lazy people.
An interesting idea offered by Rebecca Flood, Senior Reporter at Newsquest Media Group in London, suggests certain behaviors are misunderstood as signs of laziness.
While Flood’s article is about laziness in general, the title fits perfectly with what writers do:
- They think about what they’re going to write before they write it.
To some, thinking may look lazy, but for a writer, mental energy spent during idle time is hardly that. It’s preparation and planning, and it sometimes leads to a complete outline or rough draft before a story is written.
I also don’t agree that POV inconsistencies only happen with inexperienced writers who write fiction.
- My clients are experienced and inexperienced writers who write in fiction and nonfiction genres.
- In every project I’ve edited, I’ve encountered problems with the way they’ve used POV.
Here are some reasons why writers confuse their use of POV:
- They cannot see the problems in their writing because when they self-edit, they read in a way that makes sense to them and not to the reader.
- The push for conversational writing encourages jumping in and out of POVs without the transitions necessary for clarification.
For writers, it’s not a sign of lazy minded folderol when POV inconsistencies interrupt a narrative; it’s more of a writer’s inability to see the inconsistencies in their writing because they are too close to their work.
I see the cause of problems with inconsistent POV use in the same way Steve Almond describes in his article, “Fiction: Point of View. ”
- “POV problems are usually symptomatic of more fundamental concerns, such as not knowing who your protagonist is or why you’re telling his story. “
Not from laziness.
It’s not that it’s wrong to change POVs within a story — it’s that it’s a tricky thing to do without losing the focus of the content.
How to Keep Your Point of View Consistent
Choose A Point of View (POV) Before You Write
Think about these three things, and write down what you want to do.
- Define your audience: With whom are you trying to connect? What is the age, gender, and background of your audience? What are their interests?
- Define your purpose: Are you trying to inform, persuade, inspire, explore, or entertain? What do you want to accomplish?
- Define your presentation: Are you sharing a personal story, offering advice, writing a speech, reporting information?
Start writing in your choice of POV. If you find yourself changing it, ask yourself if it helps or hinders what you want to communicate.
How to Catch Point of View Inconsistencies
***Best advice: Hire an editor. If you can’t, follow these three revision strategies.
- Put what you’ve written away for a few days (preferably a week if you can) and come back to it.
- Read it out loud, preferably to someone other than yourself. If there’s no one to read to, yourself will do. Read slowly and deliberately.
- Put yourself in the shoes of the reader. Does your writing make sense?
Write in Different POVs to Improve Your Understanding of How They Work
Try this exercise:
- Write a few sentences to describe an apple.
- Now describe the same apple from the point of view of the person who has to pick it from the tree.
- Now describe it from the point of view of the merchant who buys it to put in the produce section of her store.
- When you’ve completed the first three, choose one of your stories, and rewrite it in each of the POVs listed below.
- If you’ve written a novel, choose a section or a chapter to rewrite instead.
There are five main points of view to choose from. Below is a brief explanation of each. For more detailed information about each POV, I recommend these two references:
- Write Short Stories and Get Them Published, by Zoe Fairbairn.
Fairbairn’s book is filled with short story writing exercises, and Fairbairns gives explicit examples for pros and cons of each POV choice. There are two available, one from 2011, and the updated version for 2016 that also covers new trends in online writing and publishing.
- Points of View: Revised Edition, J. Moffett and K. R. McElheny.
This book is filled with short stories by famous authors with each story categorized by point of view (POV) for demonstration. In Points of View, you will notice the POV types are not categorized by pronoun choice, but by how the communication and the relationships happen between characters.
The Five Main Points of View (POVs)
When the POV in your story is consistent, your readers aren’t confused. Most POVs in stories fall under one of the five categories and are often categorized by pronoun use. Pronoun choice matters, but it’s not as important to keep them in mind while you’re writing as it is to think about how you want your characters to interact.
To start, take a look at the main five POVs.
- The story is told by the narrator with the pronouns “I, me, my, mine, myself” used to show who is telling the story.
- This POV treats the reader as the story’s character, and the pronouns “you, your, you’re, yourself” are used. The “you” can be a specific person or a group of people.
Third-Person Objective Narrator:
- Third-person POV is told from an observer’s perspective about one main character who is referred to by name and uses the pronouns she/her/herself, he/him/himself, they/them/themselves, or it/itself” instead of “I” or “you.” No emotional connection between author and characters. Author reports.
Third-Person Limited Narrative (two types):
- One Point of View:
- told from an observer’s perspective about one main character who is referred to by name and uses the pronouns “she/her/herself, he/him/himself, they/them/themselves, or it/itself” instead of “I” or “you.”
- More than one point of view:
- told from an observer’s perspective, about one main character who is referred to by name and uses the same pronouns as 3rd person.
- allows the writer to move in and out of the lives of a select few characters and how their observations on the main character who may or may not know them or what they’re thinking.
Third-Person Omniscient Narrator (all-knowing):
- Think of this POV as like that of God or some other entity that watches over all. You have the inside scoop on everyone’s behavior, and all pronoun use, except for I, applies. In this POV, the writer or the omniscient one, knows what goes on in the lives and the minds of people in different places.
Whatever point of view you choose for your story, remember to let yourself enjoy the process. It’s art. Let yourself create.