Elements of Critique: Point of View

What I wouldn’t give to be able to jump into her head and know what she’s thinking…

Married couples can relate easily to that thought, I’m sure.

But all of us at one time or another have looked at the inscrutable expression of someone whose opinion we value, and wondered what was taking place in those dark recesses of their mind. Or we’ve made assumptions about their thoughts, only to find out later that our guesses were way off.

If only telepathy was possible.

Well, surprise, it is.*

With some routine training, we can jump into the heads of other people and read their thoughts as if they were words written on a page.

*Offer void outside of works of fiction

Yes, today is P on the A to Z Blog challenge, and for my series that means looking at critiquing Point of View.

Once I know the point of view characters, or POV characters, and the overall style, I look for anything that disrupts the selected point of view. Maybe it’s a thought the POV character can’t know, or access to information they can’t have.

So that means knowing the basic options available to choose:

First person: Written as if someone is telling the story personally. The reader is in the head of one character and sees only what that character sees. They can hear that character’s thoughts only. The POV character’s eyes are the “movie camera” showing the story to the reader.

I stepped into the office and saw Mr. Smith waiting for me, back turned, staring out the window. What could this be about? I hope he doesn’t know I’ve been hacking government computers on my off-time.

‘Hello, Mr. Anderson,’ he said in that slow, dragging monotone as he turned to face me. “You’re late. Again.”

Man, I hate his condescending voice.

Third person limited: Written from one or a few characters’ points of view, but only one at a time. The reader hears the selected POV character’s thoughts, and no others. They see what takes place around the selected character and are aware of only what that character might know or witness. The “camera” can only see what the POV character sees, though there are likely a few POV characters to choose from throughout the course of the work.

Even though the summons seemed urgent, Anderson strolled down the hall. What does Smith want now?

He turned the corner and saw the office at the end of the hall. Sudden panic twisted up his insides. I hope the company hasn’t figured out I’ve been hacking government computers on my off-time.

With a deep breath, Anderson rapped the doorframe once and stepped into the office.

Mr. Smith stood at the floor-to-ceiling window, looking out at the hazy city. His lanky figure and balding head made a silhouette in the bright sunlight.

“Hello, Mr. Anderson,” he said as he turned toward the door, his mouth in that perpetual almost-snarl. “You’re late. Again.”

Man, I hate his condescending voice.

Third person omniscient: Written with as many POV characters as the writer desires. The writer can jump into anyone’s head and show any scene desired to tell the story. The “camera” can go anywhere.

Haze settled over the city like every other morning. The streets filled with bodies plodding to and fro, eyes glued to their cellphones, hands desperately gripping cups of coffee. The corporate headquarters of Neodyne Information Systems loomed over the skyscrapers surrounding it, and swarms of workers rushed in the main doors to start the day.

Inside a sea of cubicles, Anderson got a message from the manager’s secretary. “Smith wants you. Urgent.” Great. What now?

He sipped his coffee, set the cup down on the desk, and strolled down the long aisle to reach the hall. What does Smith want now?

* * *

In the large office, Mr. Smith looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows. Sunlight filtered through the haze, and Mr. Smith almost reached for his nondescript black sunglasses.

He paused.

No need to look like an Agent. I don’t want to give Mr. Anderson any ideas.
A rap sounded at the door. Mr. Smith checked his watch and turned toward the new arrival. “Hello, Mr. Anderson. You’re late. Again.”

Mr. Smith thought of what he’d seen in Anderson’s file. He shows a callous disregard for authority and a problematic lack of discipline. The records showed several letters of counseling over the last two years of employment.

This one matches the profile of a trouble-maker. And I really hate his face.

There are other points of view but they go beyond the scope of this blog post.

Hopefully those scenes give a rough idea of the differences. So, what do we watch out for when we critique a piece?

Does the POV character ever know something from a scene where they were not present? Does jamming the POV character into a scene in order to give us access to that moment feel forced, unnecessary, or awkward?

Similarly, does the writer show us something the POV character can’t see? In first person and third person limited POV, that character’s eyes are the movie camera from which the story is told. Anything that character can’t see is “off camera” and thus doesn’t belong in the story.

Does the writer ever give us insight into the thoughts of someone other than this POV character? The POV character can only assume the thoughts of another. This distinction has to be made clear, or it might appear the writer is telling us thoughts we shouldn’t have access to.

Also, sudden shifts in POV should be corrected. A piece of writing can’t start in first and jump to omniscient.

And if there’s more than one POV character, shifts between those characters should at the very least come as a new paragraph. Better yet, wait for a new scene to shift the “camera” view. Books often use some centered squiggles or symbols to show the break between POV characters. The three asterisks in my last example are meant to mimic that.

What about non-fiction? If the piece contains a story or anecdote, the rules of point of view still apply. If the piece is more academic or factual, then the only possible breach of point of view is the writer injecting opinion or a personal voice into the writing. Whether that is acceptable will depend on the purpose of the writing. A blog post on a historical event might be fine with the writer sharing thoughts on how that event mattered. A research paper not so much.

Whatever style we use, the purpose of writing is to communicate thought. Understanding the rules of that special form of telepathy helps us write clearer and avoid pitfalls that distract. This will better ensure the reader sees the topic from our point of view.

And that’s the whole point.

One thought on “Elements of Critique: Point of View”

  1. I just finished Angela Hunt’s wonderful booklet “Unmasking the Mystery of Point of View.” It was helpful, but I found your post quicker, cleaner, and easier to apply. Thanks Dave.

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