One common mistake I see when editing is the shifting point of view (POV). It’s important to keep your POV in mind as you write, so that you don’t inadvertently shift into an omniscient narration when you had no intention of doing so.
There are four types of POV: first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient. A brief overview:
First person: Narrated by your main character, using pronouns like “I,” “me,” and “we.” Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is an excellent example of this. Written in diary form, this book uses the first person POV to relate the main character’s ascent into brilliance, and subsequent deterioration again. Reading this from Charlie’s first person POV engages us and involves us emotionally.
Example: “Just leave me alone. I’m not myself. I’m falling apart, and I don’t want you here.” (From Flowers for Algernon)
Keep in mind: Your narrator can’t know what others around him are thinking, feeling, or seeing. If you need to relay that information, put it in dialogue.
Bad: I knew Mom felt terrible. My cheeks turned red in embarrassment.
Better: “I feel terrible,” Mom said. I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks.
Second person: Narrating the story from the reader’s point of view, using pronouns like “you” and “your.” Second person is tricky, and often reads awkwardly. Successful novels written this way are few and far between, but one shining example is Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. As an editor, I would recommend that only experienced writers try this. It’s very difficult to pull this off well.
Example: “You have a bad memory for details. You can tell her the date of the Spanish Armada, but you couldn’t even guess at the balance of your checkbook.” (From Bright Lights, Big City)
Keep in mind: If you insist on using second person narration, you must be even more mindful of showing, not telling.
Bad: Your girlfriend is mad. She leaves, and you are sad.
Better: Your girlfriend stomps her foot. “You’re impossible,” she shouts, and stalks out, slamming the door behind her. The tears well in your eyes.
Third person limited: This is when you narrate a story through only one character. The reader can only see scenes in which this character is present; can only hear what he hears, can only know what he is feeling. It’s a great way to get your readers to care about the character and become quickly engaged in their adventure. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury makes excellent use of this point of view.
Example: “Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark. It never went away, that smile, it never ever went away, as long as he remembered.” (From Fahrenheit 451)
Keep in mind: Again, your character cannot know what others around him are thinking, feeling, or seeing. If you need to relay that information, put it in dialogue.
Bad: Scott had been in love with Kelly since high school. He didn’t know that his best friend Joey had slept with her on senior prom night.
Better: Scott had been in love with Kelly since high school. He’d even forgiven her when she told him she’d slept with his best friend Joey on senior prom night.
Third person omniscient: Narrating from every point of view, spoon-feeding to the reader every emotion, reaction, and thought each character is having. As a writer, it gives you a lot of freedom, but it is much more difficult to get a reader engaged and invested in your story using this POV. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson does third person omniscient well, but note: Larsson gives a clear visual break (either by starting a new chapter, or indicating a section break) before switching heads, and stays within that one head throughout the section.
Example: “Normally, seven minutes of another person’s company was enough to give her a headache, so she set things up to live as a recluse. She was perfectly content as long as people left her in peace. Unfortunately, society was not very smart or understanding.” (From The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Keep in mind: This is a particularly bad POV for short stories. A short story needs to grab the reader quickly and get them emotionally invested in the character(s). If you’re cramming information about everyone down their throats, they’ll stop reading.
Bad: Larry hated Shemp on sight. It was his hair. Curly was more cautious, and would wait to see what kind of guy Shemp was before passing judgement. Moe thought Shemp was a doofus. Shemp thought the trio seemed nice.
Better: Larry found Shemp’s lack of curls offensive. He looked at his brothers, but Curly and Moe said nothing. “You guys seem nice,” Shemp said.
Remember, choose your POV carefully, and be mindful to stay within its parameters as you write.
Do you have a favorite point of view? Why do you prefer it? Share your thoughts below!
Stacey Longo is the author of Ordinary Boy (nominated for a Pushcart Prize) and Secret Things: Twelve Tales to Terrify. Her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Shroud, Shock Totem, and the Litchfield Literary Review.
She is a past Hiram Award winner, and was a featured author on the 2014 Connecticut Authors Trail. A former humor columnist for the Block Island Times, she maintains a weekly humor blog at www.staceylongo.com.