Keeping Perspective: Importance of Point of View in WritingEditor and Author Vrinda Pendred explains ‘point of view’ (POV) in writing, and the impact of an omniscient narrator, alternating POV, and sticking to one POV.

A hot topic in any creative writing class is ‘point of view’ (POV), meaning the perspective you adopt within a story.  There are three main perspectives you might choose to employ in your writing:

  • Single POV
  • Multiple POV
  • Omniscient (universal) POV

In my work as an editor, and as an avid reader of works by independent authors, I frequently see the above writing techniques mixed up.  For example, a book might start out with a single POV, and then surprise me by adding in a second POV halfway through.  The author might even employ the omniscient POV partway through a paragraph, before returning to the single perspective.  These sudden shifts in perspective make our writing confusing, and even frustrating, to read.  The trouble is, it’s easy to slip up.  Indeed, many writers will change POV without realising they’re doing it.  That’s why I thought it would be useful to explain just what each of the three main perspectives entails, how to use them, and how to avoid mixing them up in your writing.

Single Point of View

If you choose to write your story from a single POV, it will be told by one character and we will see the action through only their ‘eyes’.  This can be achieved through either first person (I, me) or third person (he, she) narration.  In my opinion, the single POV, when done correctly, can deepen the emotions within your story, as it allows the reader to get under your main character’s ‘skin’ and live their life with them; it makes them ‘real’.

Another aspect of the single POV is its unreliability.  When we’re only told one side of the story, this immediately creates bias.  We can never truly know what other characters think or feel.  Depending on your story, you might use this to ‘mess with the reader’s head’.  A great example is the film Memento, where we are only ever shown the action from the protagonist’s perspective, and we easily get swept up in a web of lies, before the revelatory shock ending.

However, it is important to remember that this single perspective means you cannot add information your narrator would not be aware of.  For example, as an editor and a reader, I often come across lines like this (this is not from a real book):

Jennifer turned away, unable to face him anymore, while John looked longingly at her.

Let’s say this story is otherwise written from Jennifer’s POV.  As a reader, I want to know how Jennifer knows John is looking at her when she no longer faces him.  As an editor, I’d like to change this sentence to something like:

Jennifer turned away, unable to face him anymore.  Yet still she felt John’s stare on her.

Now, the action is consistently shown from Jennifer’s POV.  We don’t know what John is thinking or feeling, but it is implied that he is watching her.  This maintains the mystery between our two characters, enhances tension and keeps things clear for the reader.

Multiple Points of View

If you feel want to get under the ‘skin’ of more than one character, you might try telling your story from more than one perspective.  This allows the reader to develop attachments to multiple characters.  It also opens the door to other literary techniques, such as ‘dramatic irony’, where the reader knows things the characters don’t.  For example, you might choose to reveal who your villain is, but not tell your protagonist, causing the reader to shout in frustration as the protagonist naively falls in love with the very person who plans to kill them.

As with the single POV, the keys to succeeding with multiple points of view are consistency and clarity.  This means: don’t head-hop within one scene.  Instead, assign each chapter of your novel to a different character.  If it’s a short story, create sub-divisions within the story (marked with asterisks, for instance) and switch POV with each scene.  As long as there is a clear distinction between perspectives, and the POV remains consistent within each section of your story, your readers will follow the changes.

However, don’t write 10 chapters of a novel from one POV and then switch POV in chapter 11.  If you plan to change perspectives throughout your book, make that clear from chapter 2.  If it’s a short story, make it clear from the first scene change – and make sure that scene change happens early in the piece.

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The Omniscient Narrator

Now we come to what I find to be the most commonly confused narrative technique – something you might accidentally be employing, without even realising it.  For that reason, it requires lengthier discussion.

The term ‘omniscient narrator’ (or ‘universal narrator’) refers to a Godlike narrator who can see all the action in your story and look into the minds of all your characters.  We, as readers, never know who this narrator is or how they have come into their omniscient position.  We might equate the narrator with the author, but this can be a dangerous assumption.

You’ll find the omniscient narrator in many older books, particularly those by Victorian writers such as Jane Austen.  Modern literature tends not to employ the technique so much, particularly as we are now encouraged to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ a story; there is a risk, with omniscient narration, simply to ‘tell’.

Why Might You Use an Omniscient Narrator?

The only reason I can think you might want to use an omniscient narrator in modern writing is if you wish to make an overarching statement or commentary.  For example, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice famously opens with the line, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’  This is not the view of Lizzie or Darcy, but of the narrator.  It is also not to be taken seriously, as the narration is ironic in tone throughout the story.  In this way, Austen uses her narration to express satirical views about the society in which she lives.

Take care not to confuse this with single POV first-person narration, such as that employed in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  This novel first appears to be omnisciently narrated, but at its close we learn the identity of that narrator and realise the story was, in fact, told from the perspective of one character, making the narration biased and unreliable.  Therefore, at the end of Dickens’ classic, we no longer know how to interpret the events of the story we’ve just been told, or what to believe.  Omniscient narration cannot achieve this.

The Drawbacks of the Omniscient Narrator

Whilst one can successfully employ omniscient narration, I find it to be a cold method of writing.  To return to Pride and Prejudice, I’ve always felt the narrator is detached from her characters.  She floats above them, using them as puppets but never truly getting into their heads and hearts and showing us exactly what they feel.  We watch them, rather than experience their stories.  This gives a feeling of unreality.  Ultimately, I feel like Austen is mocking every one of her characters, even the ‘heroine’ Lizzie.  It feels deeply cynical, with nothing hopeful to latch onto.

There is also the risk of alienating your readers, if they equate you with your narrator, who happens to express controversial views.  A good example is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.  Whilst the narration tends to focus on Scarlett, it remains universal, with descriptions of a war Scarlett never sees first-hand.  This leads the reader to wonder whether some of the more racist views expressed in the book belong to Scarlett or the author – or both – something that is regularly attacked in online essays and reviews of the novel.

On a more practical level, I find omniscient narration can kill some of the mystery of a story.  To demonstrate what I mean, consider the following lines.  Note that these do not come from a real story, but they’re the sort of thing I often come across in independently published books:

Jennifer’s heart raced at his words.  She felt desperate to know if he felt the same as she, if he wanted her the way she wanted him.

John looked back at her and thought the same – wished he could express all that was in his heart, but feared she might not love him back.  Finally, he turned away.

In the above lines, we know Jennifer and John love each other, but they are both afraid to tell each other.  This creates dramatic irony, which could build tension within the story.  As long as you continue to employ that dramatic irony throughout the piece, you might have a success on your hands.  However, I find this technique tends to work best in tragedy (think Romeo and Juliet, or even daytime soap opera).

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If you aren’t aiming for tragedy, you might consider rewording the above lines as follows:

Jennifer’s heart raced at his words.  She felt desperate to know if he felt the same as she, if he wanted her the way she wanted him.

John looked back at her, his expression difficult to decipher.  Jennifer studied his eyes, the way they searched her own, and wondered what was going through his mind.

Finally, he turned away.

What we’ve just done is create a sense of mystery and tension.  Now, the reader does not know what John thinks of Jennifer; his feelings are merely hinted at.  The reader feels teased and will likely want to continue reading, to find out if John loves Jennifer the way she loves him.  Again, unless you’re aiming for epic tragedy, I believe this is a much more powerful way of writing.

Omniscient Narration versus Head-Hopping

In my experience, many writers believe they are employing the omniscient narrator, when in fact they are head-hopping.  Be clear that omniscient narration is not the same as jumping between perspectives whenever you feel like it.

For example, if your story is 20 pages long and the first 10 are written from Jennifer’s point of view, but you then switch to John’s POV for one page before returning to Jennifer’s perspective, this is not omniscient narration.  It’s confusing!  It also feels like you got stuck.  You didn’t know how to express John’s feelings from Jennifer’s perspective, so you briefly hopped into John’s head to give away the mystery, before returning to your original angle.  This kind of writing feels lazy and will irritate your readers.

To be truly omniscient, you need to detach yourself from your characters from the outset of your story and head-hop throughout every page.  This is harder than it sounds – another reason I don’t recommend it, unless you really feel confident in what you’re doing.  I’ll put my hands up and say I probably couldn’t keep it up, particularly not for the duration of a novel, without accidentally favouring one character’s POV over another.  It would require intensive editing, afterward.  I also don’t think it would be much fun to write, as I’d always feel ‘outside’ my characters’ heads.  For me, the joy of writing comes from getting inside them until they feel alive and real.

Closing Thoughts

Whatever perspective you choose to adopt in your writing, the keys are consistency and clarity.  Getting it right takes practice; it’s easy to slip into the wrong POV, without meaning to.  That’s why it’s so important to edit your writing carefully, afterward, looking for any accidental shifts in perspective.  It also helps to have an outside reader look for those shifts.

If you feel your writing could benefit from professional editing, to catch the kinds of shifts discussed in this article, please feel free to get in touch with me regarding the editing and proofreading services I offer.  Also, be sure to subscribe to this blog for more writing insights, and to share this article with anyone else you feel might find it useful.

Vrinda Pendred - Author & Editor

Vrinda Pendred originally grew up in Arizona, but moved to England in 1999, where she now lives with her husband and their two children. She is the author of the YA fantasy series The Wisdom, available from all good ebook shops. Her first novel was The Ladder, a story about two friends learning to grow through their difficult childhoods and find the light that lies inside themselves.

Vrinda also runs a publishing house for writers with neurological conditions, called Conditional Publications. Their first book, Check Mates: A Collection of Fiction, Poetry and Artwork about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, by People with OCD, was released in 2010 (Kindle and paperback), with future books in the pipeline.

In addition to her writing, Vrinda previously tutored GCSE / A-Level English, and currently works as a freelance proofreader and editor.  She holds a BA Hons in English with Creative Writing, a Proofreading qualification with Chapter House, and has completed work experience with Random House.

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