Warrior Writer: Blood Lessons—Deadly Sins of Writing (Sin #4—P.O.V. Prostitution)

Last week’s blog addressed three Deadly Sins of Writing. Today, I will only cover one. Why? Frankly, I can only write so much about progressive verbs and gerunds before you pass out at your keyboard, and wake up to a new Word document with “sdhyafkjlllllllllllllllllllllnh:?vadsbhgfmc,hvj./” as your first line. But, more importantly, I believe this particular Deadly Sin—P.O.V. Prostitutionis a KILLER.

Let’s step back in time to the days before we all made the decision to become writers. I would guess all of us were readers. We loved books, and books were a large part of what prompted our career choice. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you ever tried to read a book, but eventually had to put it down because it was too confusing? You couldn’t figure out who was doing what, and you needed Dramamine to keep up with the perspectives?
  • Have you ever read a story that was so good you actually felt as if you had taken on the character’s skin? His success was yours, as was his failure. By the final page, you were sad to say good-bye?

P.O.V. used properly can create entire worlds, and breathe life into characters. Used improperly, it can make your reader feel as if she is being held hostage on a Tilt-a-Whirl—not good.  

First, you have to know what P.O.V. is if you hope to use it to your advantage.  “P.O.V. does not stand for ‘Prisoners of Vietnam,’” as author Candy Havens would say. P.O.V. stands for Point of View.

Although this literary device is one of the most vital tools an author possesses, it is probably the number one style problem I encounter as an editor. I cannot count how many new writers (and, sadly, some not-so-new writers) give me a blank stare when I write P.O.V. in big red letters all over their manuscripts (and H.H., but we’ll get to that later).

***Today, I will highlight the basics, but for a really good explication on point of view, I recommend Bob Mayer’s “Novel Writers Toolkit.”

The best way to describe point of view is to think of your story as viewed through the lens of the video camera. How many people (characters) are going to be permitted to hold that camera? Is your camera going to travel with one main character through the entire story? Or, do others get a turn? Is “God” holding the camera? These are simple questions you can answer to help you select the point of view perfect for your story. There is no wrong point of view, but you do have to pick one.

What are the types of P.O.V.?

A quick overview:

First-Person P.O.V—uses “I” a lot. Only one character (the narrator) has the camera.

  • There are three major disadvantages to this P.O.V.
    • This P.O.V uses a lot of “I” which can become repetitive to the point of distraction.
    • The reader can only see and hear what the narrator knows. This limits the flow of information. Probably good for a mystery, but if you aren’t writing a mystery this may not be the right P.O.V for you.
    • First-Person P.O.V is a bugger when it comes to tense. Why? Because First-Person breaks into two camps.
      • There is the I remember when camp and the Come along with me camp.
        • One is in past tense, a recollection. “I remember the day my father came home from the war….”
        • The other is in present tense, and the reader is along for the ride. “I walk these streets every morning, but today I am just waiting for something to go wrong….”
          •  Note of Caution: It is extremely easy to muddy the two camps together. Tense can be problematic…okay, a nightmare.

Third-Person P.O.V—is when you, the writer, permit one or more of the characters to lug the camera through your story.

  • Third Person Locked allows only one character access to the camera. The entire story is told through what that particular character can experience through the 5 Senses. So, if your character’s eyes are “shining with love,” then she’d best be holding a mirror, or you are guilty of head-hopping (a topic for another day).
  • Third Person Shifting allows more than one character access to the camera. Here’s the rub. Your characters must to play nice and take turns. Only one character with the camera at a time. When the next character wants a turn, there has to be a clear cut. Think of the director’s clapboard ending one scene before shifting to the next.
    • There are advantages to Third-Person Shifting
      • It can add additional depth and insight to your story.
      • It can allow you (the writer) to hold back information and add to suspense.
      • Third-Person Shifting can allow other characters to take over during emotionally volatile points in the story. For instance, if your protagonist walks in on her brother lying dead in a pool of blood, the emotions experienced are realistically too overwhelming to be properly articulated by your protagonist. In this scenario, First-Person P.O.V is probably not a good fit. The scene would be more powerful if told from someone watching your protagonist react to discovering a deceased loved one.
    • There are inherent problems with Third-Person Shifting.
      • Your characters must play nice and take turns. Otherwise, your reader will likely become confused and eventually frustrated.
      • It is best to permit camera access to key characters only. The reader has to stay in one head long enough to feel connected. Too many perspectives can easily become overwhelming and dilute the strength of your characters.

Omniscient P.O.V is when “God” gets to hold the camera. This P.O.V is like placing your camera up high over all of the action. The narrator is omnipresent and omniscient. “If Joe had only known who was waiting for him outside, he would have never left for that pack of cigarettes.” Joe cannot experience anything beyond the 5 Senses (third-person). So, unless Joe is actually Superman and possesses X-Ray vision, it takes an omniscient presence to tell us someone bad is lurking outside waiting to do Joe harm.

  • There are advantages to Omniscient P.O.V.
    • Omniscient can relay information that would be far too overwhelming to describe if limited to the 5 Senses. Battle scenes are a good example.
    • Omniscient can give information critical to the story that the character doesn’t have to personally know. For instance, in Bob’s Area 51 Series (written as Robert Doherty), he relays a lot of factual and historical information that is critical to understanding the plot. But, it would really seem bizarre to the reader if his characters just started spouting off the history of the pyramids like an Egyptologist. To avoid this jarring scenario, Bob uses an omniscient presence to relay the information so the prose remains nice and smooth.
  • There are disadvantages to Omniscient P.O.V.
    • Third-Person P.O.V. and Omniscient P.O.V. are VERY easy to muddy together.
    • Omniscient P.O.V. and Head-Hopping are not the same, but are easy to confuse. I have edited many writers who believed they were employing Omniscient P.O.V. In reality, they were just letting every character in the book fight over the camera simultaneously, leaving me (the editor) feeling like I was trapped in the Blair Witch Project.

Proper use of P.O.V. takes a lot of practice to master. It is very easy to shift from one type of P.O.V. to another, or what I like to call “P.O.V. Prostitution.”

Key Points to Remember:

  • In First-Person–Come along with me stories can easily turn into I remember when stories (or vice versa). Tense is a big red flag. Do you shift from present to past or past to present? Pay close attention to verbs.
  • In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting)–Characters will only play nice and take turns if you, the writer, force them to. Make sure whatever is happening in a scene is something that could be filtered through ONE character’s 5 Senses.
  • In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting) –“God” is really bad about grabbing your character’s camera, so keep an eye on Him. If there is suddenly information your character has no way of knowing through the 5 Senses, that is a big clue the Big Guy snagged your camera. Just ask Him nicely to give it back.
  • In Omniscient–“God” is in charge. Be careful your wide-lens isn’t zooming in and out and making your reader dizzy in the process.

Again, I highly recommend “The Novel Writers Toolkit” for more in-depth explanation. Or, if you are like me and learn by seeing and hearing, I recommend Bob Mayer’s Novel Writers Workshop DVD presentation. P.O.V. is a critical part of developing an author’s “voice,” so I also recommend The Warrior Writers’ Workshop, which is more geared to your personal psychology and how it affects your writing.  For Bob’s books, DVDs and workshops go to www.bobmayer.org.  

Until next time…






1 ping

Skip to comment form

    • sandysays1 on June 17, 2009 at 5:30 pm
    • Reply

    Enjoyed your post. Good for the beginner and vet.

  1. It took me about 40 manuscripts to figure POV out. And I’ve written in all of them. I did a complete manuscript in First Person. Then decided to rewrite it in Third Limited. The problem was, I ended up going through Omniscient to get there. So that tells me First and Omniscient are similar– one narrator, except in First it’s a character in the book. In omniscient it’s you the author. Both lend themselves to info-dump.

    • annieb123 on June 18, 2009 at 4:42 pm
    • Reply

    Great job. I could honest market for your blog. I keep telling everybody about it. I have been struggling with POV but I think I am going to have to keep struggling for a little while while I just try to get it out so as not to get to discouraged yet. Thank you so much for the great information.

    1. POV takes a lot of reading, a lot of practice, and a ton of mistakes. As an editor, it is easy to spot problems. As a writer? I’m still learning. I think POV is one of the toughest skills to master. Even best-selling authors mess it up.

  2. Awesome! You had me LOL at the end–“Keep an eye on Him…” 🙂

    I’m blessed that the Big Guy put me in a critique group that helped me get my POV on target. After I finished pulling my hair out, I realized that POV is a fascinating challenge, a great adventure. I’ve completed a mystery novel in Third-Person Shifting, with three people sharing the camera. Now I’m excited to explore other options–first up, a First-Person mystery short story.

    I had the privilege to hear Bob Mayer speak last fall, and I agree–his insight is unique and so helpful.

  3. POV is the hardest writing tool to master. It’s your voice. It’s what makes you special. It’s also the hardest thing to teach as a writer.

  4. very good ‘splaining! I notice you didn’t put in 2nd person 😉 . I know, I know, mostly a bizarre literary device, but my friend Danielle Younge-Ullman did a fabulous job mixing 1st and 2nd person in her debut, Falling Under, so thought I’d throw that in as an example in case anyone wondered how it could be used successfully.

  5. I notice there are only disadvantages written for first person, but no advantages. What about the immediate intimacy and investment in the character? It also always for a snappier style because it’s one unique person’s thoughts.

    1. Good point. Didn’t mean to leave it out. Was trying to keep the blog short…but tough to do with POV. Glad you brought it up. Thanks.

  6. P.O.V. is a constant challenge for me, but you’ve helped immensely! Thanks.

  1. […] Blood Lessons–Deadly Sins of Writing (Sin #4–POV Prostitution) […]

I LOVE hearing your thoughts!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.