Posted On June 5, 2009 by Print This Post

Mastering POV

rasley_imageToday we welcome Alicia Rasley to class.  Alicia couldn’t be with us for live blogging today, but she has written a fantastic post for us.  I read Alicia’s original point of view book several years ago and it literally changed my understanding of this complex topic.  If you are struggling with POV, you will love this post!

 Alicia is an award winning novelist and a nationally known writing workshop leader.  Her articles are collected on  Writer’s Digest Books released her writing craft book, The Power of Point of View, in 2008.  She lives in Indianapolis with her husband and two college-student sons. 

How do you feel about POV switches?  Is it okay to switch POV from scene to scene? 

Sure, and in some books, with more than one protagonist, like romances, it’s almost necessary.  The question is– should you change viewpoint within the scene? I’d say it depends on the effect you’re going to create (and if you want that effect), the type of book (some genres are more appropriate than others), your own inclinations (if you’re a natural multiple POV writer, why fight it– just do it well!), and how well you do it.  Too often, I think that writers think they need only to make one POV choice– single or multiple– and that’s it, but in fact, there are other choices after that, like whose POV is best here, and how do you best show that POV, and when if you’re going to switch is the best time to switch. 

Whatever POV approach you take, you can do it badly or you can do it well.  There’s no “easy POV” choice, only the one that’s best for you in this particular story or scene.

Do you see deep POV as a writing “fad” or is it here to stay?

If it’s a fad, it’s one that has lasted for a century. That is, the deep POV was really developed by the Modernist novelists (Joyce, Faulkner, etc.) because they wanted to go very deeply into one character’s mind and show how it worked and how the person felt. There’s very little that any of us would try that the Modernists haven’t already done– almost a century ago. 

However, deep POV as the preferred POV is probably on the downswing. While deep POV matched closely to the 20th C need to present the inner world and the psychology of characters, it probably isn’t as effective at what is shaping up to be the considerations of this century, interactivity and juxtaposition. Both of those are served better by multiple POV (done well, of course). So I think we might see more multiple POV in the future, more juxtaposition of viewpoints.

Can you give some examples of deep POV vs. regular ‘ole POV?

Deep POV sounds a lot like first person, only with third person pronouns. It’s close to the thoughts and feelings, and most important, it’s usually in the voice of the character. Nothing the character doesn’t experience is told. It is by no means the only or best POV approach for every writer and every story. I, for example, tend to write in single-POV (one character), but I like to have more control over the voice, and I like the emotional variations I can do with a slightly more distant POV.  (Humor, for one thing, is usually hard to do in deep POV– we don’t seem funny to ourselves, usually, do we?).  So keep in mind:

1) Many writers THINK they’re in deep POV, and they’re not.

2) Deep POV isn’t better or worse than other controlled POV approaches. It’s more appropriate for some stories and scenes, but by no means all.

That said, let me show how the same moment can be shown in varying levels of depth of POV.

1. It was approaching sunset when Carrie accidentally backed over her cheating boyfriend. Of course, she didn’t know he was her cheating boyfriend at the moment she shifted into reverse and started out of the driveway. But when they arrested her, the police assumed she knew all about the secret apartment in Soho.

(Fairly omniscient– notice the timeframe is extended from the moment to the arrest later. She didn’t know that he’d been cheating in the moment, but later learned.)

2. Carrie put the car in reverse and squinted into the rear-view mirror. The sun was almost at the horizon, and the glare was so bad she couldn’t see even the street behind her. She took a deep breath and took her foot off the brake and set it gently on the accelerator. Halfway down the drive, she felt the wheels hesitate, and then roll over something. Harry must have left his golf bag lying on the pavement again, and it would serve the jerk right if all his clubs were ruined.

(Deeper– we only know what she knows. And we get her perceptions, the glare, the hesitating wheels. We also get her thoughts, and a trace of her voice == she thinks “jerk”. But the voice is more authorial and controlled– complete sentences, no repetition.)

3. She didn’t mean to kill him. Really. Okay, so it turned out he’d been cheating all along. But no way she knew it then, when she backed out of the driveway and right over Harry. If she’d known, she would have put the car in forward and driven over him again. Yeah.

(Deep POV– much more her thoughts than her perceptions and actions. It’s also in her voice– notice the okay and yeah conversational markers.)

Here’s a single-third (more distant) example from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling:

            Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning. He had had it as long as he could remember, and the first question he could ever remember asking his Aunt Petunia was how he had gotten it.


Here is a deep-POV example– as much as possible, the author is using the character voice in voicing the character’s thoughts, and we are confined rather claustrophobically to her experience.


Still alive.


Awakening was hard, as always. The ultimate disappointment. It was a struggle to take in enough air to drive off nightmare sensations of asphyxiation. Lilith Iyapo lay gasping, shaking with the force of her effort. Her heart beat too fast, too loud. She curled around it, fetal, helpless. Circulation began to return to her arms and legs in flurries of minute, exquisite pains.

Dawn, by Octavia E. Butler

I just have to point out that deep POV isn’t nearly as common as so many writers think. (It took me quite awhile to find an example, well, one that I could cut and paste. 🙂 Single third-person is very common, and so is the immersive POV that lets us know the character’s thoughts and feelings. But writing entirely in the character’s own voice, confined entirely to her perceptions– much less common. For example, in the passage above, we don’t know if it’s day or night, because she doesn’t know (or notice).

 Single third-person has most of the advantages but is easier to control, and does have the benefit of highlighting more of YOUR voice. So there’s nothing sacred about deep POV.

 Here’s REALLY deep POV (from James Joyce):

 Singing with his eyes shut. Corney. Met her once in the park. In the dark. What a lark. Police tout. Her name and address she then told with my tooraloom tooraloom tay. O, surely he bagged it. Bury him cheap in a whatyoumaycall. With my tooraloom, tooraloom, tooraloom, tooraloom.

I recently read a popular book written in standard omniscient POV and had trouble connecting with the characters.  Do you think this is a result of getting too comfortable with the “intimacy” of books written in deep POV?

Actually, I’d say that the author might have wanted distance between the reader and the characters (maybe to keep the reader in suspense, or to hide some important facts– mysteries are often in omniscient for that reason). Or maybe the author just didn’t do a great job of characterization. Omniscient can in fact paradoxically make for more connection to the character (if done very well). After all, Dickens used omniscience, and here is a quite powerfully emotional scene (Sydney Carton is about to be guillotined, and reaches out to a girl in the wagon who is also facing death– this never fails to make me cry, and it’s very distant– maybe, just maybe, the distance seduced?):

The second tumbrel empties and moves on; the third comes up. Crash!-And the knitting-women, never faltering or pausing in their work, count Two.

The supposed Evrémonde descends, and the seamstress is lifted out next after him. He has not relinquished her patient hand in getting out, but still holds it as he promised. He gently places her with her back to the crashing engine that constantly whirrs up and falls, and she looks into his face and thanks him.

“But for you, dear stranger, I should not be so composed, for I am naturally a poor little thing, faint of heart; nor should I have been able to raise my thoughts to Him who was put to death, that we might have hope and comfort here to-day. I think you were sent to me by Heaven.”

“Or you to me,” says Sydney Carton. “Keep your eyes upon me, dear child, and mind no other object.”

“I mind nothing while I hold your hand. I shall mind nothing when I let it go, if they are rapid.”

“They will be rapid. Fear not!”

The two stand in the fast-thinning throng of victims, but they speak as if they were alone. Eye to eye, voice to voice, hand to hand, heart to heart, these two children of the Universal Mother, else so wide apart and differing, have come together on the dark highway, to repair home together, and to rest in her bosom.

But I do think that deep POV gives a more intense “inside” experience– it better! And it is more appropriate for books that delve deeply into one or two characters. But that doesn’t give an omniscient author an excuse — she still should be making you care about the characters. I don’t think you’re jaded by reading too much deep POV– I think that you can still be touched and handled <G> by omniscient done well.  After all, most 19th C novels are in omniscient, and though some impose a filter that makes it harder to get into the characters, I think we still “feel” Becky Sharp and Oliver Twist.

What are some of the more common mistakes you see with POV?  What is your biggest POV peeve? 

I think most writers these days know the basics of POV, but many don’t actually go beyond deciding they’re in A’s POV and should stay there. They aren’t actually seeing POV in all its power, as an aid to characterization, as a way to explore contradictions between what a character is saying and thinking, as a suspense-builder, as a means of describing something in an interesting way. I keep hearing these “rules” about what makes “deep POV,” and they’re all just about words, about words you supposedly can use and words you can’t use.  POV isn’t about words. It’s about the way the writer is presenting the character and action, and having some edict like “The POV character never thinks his own name, so have someone else call him that,” only gets in the way of the real task– knowing your characters and your story well enough that you can narrate a scene in a way that lets the reader experience it.  Tricks like “never using the word ‘thought'” are just tricks. That’s just not what POV is about.

 The most common problem I see with writers who are doing POV mostly right is that they sometimes lose track of the blocking — the action in the scene, especially the minor action (like crossing to the window or picking up a fork).  Often, when someone other than the POV character makes an action, the writer writes it in a way that makes it seem like we’re suddenly in the other character’s POV.  Sorry, I didn’t explain that well. Let me give an example:

 We’re in Mike’s POV, and Judy is the other character. So we’ve been inside Mike’s head as he sprawls on the easy chair. Judy’s in another part of the house.

When Judy came out of the kitchen, Mike was watching golf on the TV.

I thought that was in Judy’s POV. But it’s not– the next line is in Mike’s thoughts:

Mike looked up and wondered what was annoying her. Oh, right. Golf. She always complained he was wasting his life, golf at the club, golf video games, golf on the TV.I think the one line (When Judy) seems out of his POV because… well. Why? The verb “came out” is part of it, not sure. Would “emerge” be better? I guess “came out” somehow seems like it’s happening IN her, not like he’s observing her. Also he’s watching TV, so for a second, I have to wonder– how can he see her coming out?


So… lousy lines, I know, but I want to keep things simple. Do you read that as “out of viewpoint”? Or am I just compulsive?

And if you were going to fix it so that it was clearly (but not obtrusively) in his POV, just so there’s no “bump” felt by the reader, what would you do?

Would it help to flip the clauses so that “Mike” is first?

While Mike was watching golf on the TV, Judy came out of the kitchen.

Mike was watching golf on the TV when Judy came out of the kitchen.

Oddly enough, I came across this same issue in another book, and it was also about going through a door, so I wonder if entries and exits from a scene (which are often the point you can change POV effectively, so the reader might easily misinterpret) are especially dangerous. The sentence was something like:
Officer Coleman pushed through the door and out of the office.
If you (I mean, the viewpoint) were Lt. Juarez sitting at the desk watching the officer go, you’d write that line differently than if you were Officer Coleman leaving the office and the lieutenant behind.
Officer Coleman left and the office door swung shut behind him.
(We’re seeing through Juarez’s eyes, and we don’t see the officer go into the hallway, rather just the door closing.)
Officer Coleman pushed through the office door and into the empty hallway.
(We’re in the officer’s body, so we end up in the hallway.)

 So I think we need to read over the passages that are not clearly in the mind and thoughts of the POV character, that are narrating action, and make sure we don’t get out of POV.

 What is one tip you can give a new writer who is struggling with POV?

Find out what is natural for you (and I don’t mean headhopping or exerting no control– I mean omniscient, multiple, or single, or first) and work on doing that very well. Don’t fight your own nature. You are probably naturally drawn to writing the sort of books that fit your natural POV (for example, you like to write comedy… I wouldn’t be surprised if your natural POV was omniscient, which affords an ironic distance), and so your job is to learn how to do this POV approach well and how to vary it with the needs of the story.

 But that’s not really a tip. 🙂 A tip– get out your four favorite books and read them again, but this time with a set of highlighters. (Uh, you shouldn’t be using your first-edition hardcovers here. 🙂  Find a few great passages and start analyzing them for POV. Whose head are you in, for how long, and how do you know? What effect does that have on you? If there’s a shift to another POV, why did that happen, and how did you know that it happened? What words tipped you off?  Then take out your latest manuscript and try this exercise on your own story!  This should give you a better understanding of how your favorite authors use POV, and how you can discover and hone your own POV approach.

Your original POV book was a turning point for me in understanding POV.  I had read many (many, many!) books on POV, but yours was so straight forward it pushed me to another level.  Why do you think that is? Tell us about the new version of The Power of Point of View?

Thanks! I think the way I think and conceive of issues is common among writers, kind of an inside-out process, and I do hope that’s more helpful than the more outside analyst offered by literary critics.  But I also did graduate work on analyzing POV (Edgar Allan Poe’s), so I know that this issue of POV is not confined to modern writers. I’ve worked with so many writers, I do know the problems writers face with every paragraph!

 The new version is published by Writer’s Market, and I worked with one of the world’s great editors, Lauren Mosko, who taught me a lot about how to structure a non-fiction book with consistent chapter organization and sidebars. There are many, many more samples from published work, and reading recommendations for every type of POV, and all sorts of new discussions. I got very much into the difference between social and personal novels (say, A Tale of Two Cities — social, and David Copperfield– personal) and the effect that has on the POV choice.

Do you have any other helpful comments for writers?

I have a blog with my editor friend Theresa Stevens, and we discuss the issues that come up when we edit (often minor things, like hyphens, my latest post topic :). She’s more big picture than I am, and she’s great at deciphering pitches and improving queries. Give us a look-see:

Thank you, Alicia! 

That’s it for today and please join us on Monday when Kelsey will be discussing changing genres with Jessica Barksdale-Inclan.

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8 Responses to “Mastering POV”

  1. Alicia, welcome to RU!

    I’ve been dinged on contests for having an omniscient sentence or two at the end of a chapter/scene. They tell me it’s author intrusion, which might be true. I use this technique to enhance tension and to create a foreboding of what’s to come. As a reader, this technique always made me read on. Mind you, I only do this a handful of times through the entire book.

    Do you have an opinion on omniscient POV?

    Thanks! Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | June 5, 2009, 5:30 am
  2. Thanks for being with us, Alicia. This is an article that I will refer to again and again and… You get the picture.

    I normally “see” a scene in one character’s POV, but as I’ve progressed with my writing I’ve come to learn that original POV isn’t always the best one for the scene. My wonderful CPs have also helped me understand when I need to showcase the non-POV character’s emotions through actions and reactions.

    Hope you’ll join us again!

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | June 5, 2009, 9:28 am
  3. I really enjoyed your blog Alicia. You used great examples to show us mistakes that we all make. Thanks for the tips and I wish you the best.
    I bookmarked this blogspot for sure!

    Posted by Mary Ricksen | June 5, 2009, 5:27 pm
  4. So do you have an updated version of your book coming out? Did I understand that right? If so, when will it be out?
    Thanks so much for this and all of your work — I always learn so much from you, it’s just incredible!

    Posted by Merry Banerji | June 6, 2009, 7:09 am
  5. Nice blog post. Very informative. It’s great to learn from the best of the best. Wishing you many sales of your book, Alicia.

    Posted by Maggie Toussaint | June 6, 2009, 2:55 pm
  6. Thanks for this informative post. As a writer of romance, I sometimes feel the need to move from one character’s pov to another’s, especially during love scenes. I’ve sometimes wondered if this was a “mistake”, although I’ve been told my switches are quite smooth. It’s good to see the perspective that pov switches can be enhancing to a story if done well.

    In addition, your examples of deep pov truly enhanced my understanding of this topic. Wonderful information for any writer to have 🙂

    Posted by Wendy Gray | June 6, 2009, 9:20 pm
  7. Alicia, as usual, your posts on writing craft are first rate–thanks for another great one!

    Posted by Marilyn Brant | June 22, 2009, 4:06 pm
  8. Alicia,
    Thank you, a great post, I printed the blog, it’s on my desk.
    Margot Justes
    A Hotel in Paris

    Posted by Margot Justes | June 23, 2009, 7:58 am

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