Face it, we could fill a graduate seminar with Point of View; it’s that complex a matter. So I was being silly when I went to teach on Wednesday, and I thought I’d just give a brief overview of POV, then move on to the Plot unit.

The students had lots of questions. Some questions they didn’t know they had until I started talking, like “what’s the difference between close and distant?” Or, “how is multiple third different from omniscient?”

POV is something a lot of writers do instinctively. They start telling the story without a clear understanding of the craft involved in POV.

What’s wrong with that?

Nothing if said writer’s instincts are acute. But for the typical writer, there’s a lot wrong with that. POVs get sloppy. Manuscripts are a mishmash of multiple third and omniscient with ugly transitions and no clear signal to the reader that a switch is about to occur. Distance is not controlled, so the writer misses opportunities to heighten dramatic tension and reader engagement by getting in close with the character. And many writers are favoring multiple third, when a single or double close third would tighten the story and add suspense, overall increasing reader empathy with the main character.

Have I convinced you it’s worthwhile to learn about POV?

I’m going to give you the brief overview of POV that I gave my workshop students, then—just like they did—I’d love it if you typed your questions in the comments below.

POV combines three principle elements: number, person, and distance.

Number = the number of characters with a POV, usually defined as single or multiple.

Person = the character(s) through which we experience the story world and events.

Defined in terms of the pronoun used. E.g. Third person uses he, she, they.

Distance = the emotional distance between the narrator and the POV character(s).

First Person narrative (I, we) is about as close to the story as you can get, because the POV character functions as the narrator as well.

Second Person narrative (you) is difficult and rarely used. It functions best in short pieces, because it can become tedious to the reader. You can read a second person short story here.

Third Person narrative (she, he, they) is the most common POV.

Omniscient narrative (often confused with multiple third) is also difficult and seldom used in modern literature—it was more common in 19th and early 20th century works. Omniscient is distinguished from multiple third by the all-knowing narrator who is not bound by person, time, or space.

To factor in the distance, attach “close” or “distant” to any of those POVs, as in “close third” or “distant omniscient.” Are we looking through a character’s eyes, or at a character from above? A good analogy for distance is to think of the narrator as represented by the camera lens in a movie. Is the lens zoomed in or out?

Now that you’ve had an overview of the elements of POV, type your questions below. I’ll do my best to answer them all!

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