Any writer crafting any work of fiction must consider the question of point of view. But it’s one of those questions for which there is no right answer. There’s no such thing as the best point of view or the correct point of view. There’s only the point of view that best fits the author’s intent for the story they mean to tell.
So anything can work. That doesn’t mean everything does.
In my work as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, I’ve come across nearly every mistake or misstep you might find in a manuscript. But when it comes to point of view, there are some mistakes I see more often than others. Here are four extremely common errors that can emerge in the course of defining and maintaining a consistent point of view. Watch out! These can slip by even the most experienced of writers.
1) Omniscient Point of View Does Not Mean Every Point of View
In the abstract, if there were a best point of view, it would seem to be third-person omniscient. After all, in third-person omniscient, you have the freedom to explore any character’s point of view at any time. What could be simpler?
But what many novice writers don’t realize is that access to all information—everyone’s point of view—can be very difficult to manage. And there are consequences to providing too many points of view, or points of view that don’t actually serve your story.
When the reader knows so much more than the protagonist, it can be difficult to experience important plot points the same way the protagonist does. When the reader spends too much time inside the mind of the antagonist, you risk undercutting the tension that might come from wondering what the antagonist’s next move is going to be.
Providing too many different points of view in the early pages can confuse the identity of the protagonist and, and it makes unclear what action actually defines and drives the narrative. It can lead to a great deal of overwriting too, as information already revealed in one point of view is revealed again to another character, and then another, and then another. It may be new and surprising to each character, but for readers it’s repetitive and redundant.
This doesn’t mean third-person omniscient point of view should be avoided. It only means that it should be approached with caution.
- Don’t reveal the thoughts of every character just because you can. Instead, take the time to consider whose point of view you need, and why.
- Consider the pros and cons of each perspective each time you provide it.
- Third-person omniscient on its own has few limitations, but it can be wise to add limitations of your own. Limitations help focus and define your story.
2) Beware the Collective Perspective
Another occasional hazard within the context of a third-person omniscient perspective is a tendency to present multiple characters’ point of view collectively. The more characters present in a scene, the more of a risk this becomes.
You might note that your characters are shocked. You note that their hearts are pounding. You note that they’re all wondering why this is happening now, tonight of all nights.
But the more you ascribe the same thoughts and feelings to multiple characters, the less each character feels like a real, individual person. And that makes each substantially less convincing.
People who act exactly the same way and think exactly the same thing at exactly the same time don’t read as people. They read as robots.
Remember that groups of people, and even crowds, are collections of individuals. That doesn’t mean they can’t all cheer at the same time, or that they can’t all be shocked by a surprising development, but the more specific the perspective ascribed to multiple characters, the more unlikely it is that all of them could share that perspective. This is one of the rare contexts in which specificity can be a problem more than an asset.
3) Don’t Change Point of View over the Phone
Speaking of specificity, this particular guideline may appear unusually narrow, and even a little arbitrary. But in fact, shifting point of view during phone calls is one of the most common point-of-view issues I encounter as a book editor. It has a lot to do with the way readers experience point of view within the context of a scene.
Say your protagonist is on the phone with his daughter. He mentions that her mother is in the hospital, and you indicate in narration that the daughter wonders to herself what happened. Why is that a problem?
It’s a problem because the daughter is not part of our established setting.
Think about it: A phone call, of course, doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Like all action, it occurs in a particular time and place defined by our setting—in this instance, maybe the kitchen. But the character on the other end of the phone is not in the kitchen. The character on the other end of the phone is in another setting far away—in fact, in an altogether different scene.
The reason the daughter’s point of view is jarring is that it exists outside the context of the scene and setting we’ve established.
Does that mean that you can’t establish a new setting at the start of the call and show the daughter’s experience simultaneously? Of course you can, if you choose to, and if you’ve established a third-person omniscient point of view or a third-person limited point of view focused on these two specific characters. But most often, it’s more effective to define the experience of characters on the other end of the phone on the basis of what the first character hears and thinks.
4) Point of View Is Not Just What and Who
Phone calls are not the only scenario in which context matters. We know of course that writing point of view consistently is not just about utilizing the right pronouns. Yet, sometimes we forget that point of view is not only about what and who—but also when.
Consider a first-person, past tense manuscript in which the protagonist describes walking through an old, dusty hallway and opening a mysterious door at the other end. The narrator then writes: “I can’t remember what happened next.”
This sentence isn’t just a change in tense. It’s also a change in context. It’s a statement that reveals some sort of present-day vantage from which the protagonist is remembering the events described in the story. If you establish this early in the narrative, that’s fine, but if this statement comes about late in the manuscript, suddenly you’re raising a litany of questions you probably didn’t intend:
- When exactly is the protagonist telling this story? How far removed is she from the present day of the narrative?
- Why is she telling this story?
- To whom is she telling the story?
- Why are we only learning about this now?
The last question may be the most significant because it relates to the importance of maintaining a consistent point of view.
Fundamentally, point of view defines a reader’s relationship with the story. A shift in point of view confuses that relationship. And while we remain in first person in the example above, a shift from a narrator who exists only in the present of the story to a narrator looking back upon the story from the future is a change in point of view. If that’s unintentional, then naturally it’s something that needs to be addressed.
Choosing the Best Point of View for Your Story
These are far from the only point of view missteps to be found in manuscripts in progress, but they’re amongst the most common errors, and they’re indicative of the challenges of point of view. More than anything else they come down to focus.
Sometimes we struggle to focus on a limited number of perspectives, or the individuality of characters in a scene, or the specific context of that scene, or even the origin and timing of our point of view. That confuses our intentions, and it confuses our story.
So what do we do? We take our time. And we consider:
- What point of view do you need to tell your story effectively?
- What point of view is most relevant or significant in this particular scene?
- What are the pros and cons of including this point of view?
- What questions are raised by this point of view? Are they questions you want the reader to ask?
- How does each individual character experience the scene?
In other words, take care with point of view. The clearer you are on the perspective you want, the better defined your narrative will become.