Point of view (POV) bungling is the most common tell of a newbie writer, and easier to avoid than to fix. POV errors can mean the difference between an agent or editor reading your work, or tossing it into the slush pile for an automatic rejection.
If you’re self-publishing, don’t fall into the “readers will know what I mean” trap. Indie writers have to maintain the highest writing standards, because readers scrutinize indie writers without mercy.
Before we get too into this, I should let you know that this is a crash course, short enough for a blog post. If you have questions, please feel free to ask in the comment section, and I will answer.
IDENTIFY YOUR POV STYLE
The first step to editing your finished novel for POV is figuring out what POV style you used. Ideally, you already knew this stuff before you wrote your novel. But if not, POV errors are fixable, usually without too much rewriting. I’ve edited for writers who instinctively wrote well and rarely made POV errors, who still didn’t really understand POV. So let’s establish some definitions.
First person. (I, me, my) In first person POV, a character tells the story from his or her own perspective: I did that. This can be one character (like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird), or duel or multiple characters who take turns.
Lorraine is panting to get at the typewriter now, so I’m going to let her before she has a heart attack. [End of chapter 1]
[Chapter 2] I should never have let John write the first chapter because he always has to twist things subliminally. I am not panting, and I’m not about to have a thrombosis. — The Pigman by Paul Zindel
Second person. (you, your) Second person POV tells the story from the perspective of an unseen character: You did that. This style is rarely used in fiction, but when it is, it’s most often short excerpts of extended dialogue (internal or spoken) within third-person storytelling. The you is not the reader, as in second person nonfiction, but rather it’s as if the narrator is telling the story both to and about himself.
On Bleecker Street you catch the scent of the Italian bakery. You stand at the corner of Bleecker and Cornelia and gaze at the windows on the fourth floor of a tenement. Behind those windows is the apartment you shared with Amanda when you first came to New York. — Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
Third person limited. (he, she, they) Third person limited is the most common writing style for novels. The writer tells the story in third person through the perspective of one or more characters: They did that. It’s called ‘limited,’ because the POV is limited to the experiences of one character at a time. Each character’s POV should sound unique, to go with his or her own personality.
There was a hush, and all turned their eyes on Frodo. He was shaken by a sudden shame and fear; and he felt a great reluctance to reveal the Ring, and a loathing of its touch. — The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
Omniscient (all knowing). In omniscient POV, the narrator knows everything, so the reader may know what any character experiences at any point in the story. This differs from head hopping (see below), because it’s in the narrator’s own voice, not the character’s voice. The omniscient narrator is not a character in the story. The narrator also may move about in time and space, and even talk to the reader directly.
“But you ain’t too warm now, though.” And it flattered her to reflect that she had discovered that the shirt was dry without anybody knowing that that was what she had in her mind. But in spite of her, Tom knew where the wind lay, now. –The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
EDIT FOR YOUR STYLE
Once you identify your POV style, you can fix language that doesn’t fit. I’ll be honest with you: It’s time consuming. You have to reread everything.
Writing is art. We all know that sometimes talented and creative writers deliberately break rules with brilliant results. If that’s you, you have my blessing to break any rule that you’ve mastered. If you’re a newbie, however, I suggest the following.
No head hopping. The most common POV error is head hopping. This is when a scene is written from one character’s POV (head), but something from another character’s POV slips in.
Example: John’s stomach dropped when he heard the news. He clutched the back of the couch to steady himself, a look of horror on his face.
The feeling in John’s stomach and knowing why he clutched the back of the couch are both from John’s POV. But John can’t see his own face, so the look of horror is from another POV.
No waffling. Don’t switch from one POV style to another, except in rare circumstances, and with deliberate care. For example, if you’re writing in third person limited and the story lines of two or more important characters merge at one major event, you might write that one scene in omniscient POV, in order to convey simultaneous reactions.
Write smooth transitions. Don’t shift POV without a clear break. Use a chapter break, scene break, or line break. Use words that clearly tell readers they are in a new POV.
Stephanie hesitated, then walked through the door into another much narrower hall. The door at the end was open. She’d taken three steps when a bang from behind startled her. The door had blown shut. Two in a row. She spun and ran toward the open door. [SCENE BREAK]
Jack dropped to the floor of the medium-sized boiler room and examined it in silence. — House by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker
No mind reading. This is a variation of head hopping. Unless your character has extra-sensory perception, she can’t know what someone else thought, saw, heard, or felt. She can, however, infer what someone else is thinking by noticing that character’s mannerism, or from past experience.
No oversharing. Getting into a character’s head means that you can let the reader in on some of that character’s inner thoughts and emotions. But don’t overdo it. Use a mix of emotion, action, and dialogue–including inner dialogue–to lead the reader through the scene. Even in an omniscient point of view, where the reader is privy to more than one character’s perspective at a time, don’t say everything. Let the reader figure it out.
Self-edit as much as you can and fix every POV error you find before handing over your manuscript. If you’re planning to publish the traditional way, polishing your manuscript can get your foot in the door with a publisher or agent. If you’re self-publishing and planning to hire an indie editor, self-editing first will save you a ton of editing fees.