Establishing the point of view is a vital part of writing a story. In general, books are written in the first-person or the third-person point of view. In first-person point of view, the narrator is one of the characters. You’ll see sentences saying ‘I did this’ or ‘I did that’. In the third-person point of view, you’ll read ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’. If you’re writing in the first person, the narrator can’t know what other characters are thinking because the action is seen through that character’s eyes. The reader only ‘sees’ the narrator’s point of view. If you’re writing in the first person and you describe the thoughts in another character’s head, readers won’t be convinced.
But beware – even if you write in third person, it’s important to be consistent in your point of view. There are two ways you can approach third person point of view. One is where the narrator is omniscient. In other words, the narrator can know what’s going on in any character’s head and can be ‘present’ in any scene. This point of view is usual for non-fiction but not as popular in modern fiction as it might have been a long time ago. It’s hard to do it well, for the writer has to work harder to get readers to connect with any of the characters.
A popular alternative is to write in the third person, but from only one or just a few characters’ perspectives. It’s easier for readers to feel a connection with characters this way than with an omniscient narrator. It’s also easier to let a character’s personality come through strongly, because you’ll be using the same ‘voice’ throughout the story. As with first person, the reader should only be able to ‘get inside’ the head of the character whose point of view we’re seeing the action from.
Some writers switch between characters’ points of view from one chapter or section to the next, and that’s fine; it can be a useful technique. But switching from one character’s thoughts to another’s within the same passage or chapter can be confusing and can prevent the reader from developing a deeper connection with any one character. This is a very common mistake called ‘mind-hopping’. Consider the following passage, in which we jump from Mary’s head to Kelvin’s and back.
Mary scurried along the darkening street.
I never imagined I’d end up living in this neighbourhood, she thought. What a dump.
A figure stepped out of the shadows. Mary yelped, her heart thundering.
‘It’s OK, Mary, it’s just me, Kelvin. From the office?’
The figure moved slightly and in the street light she saw his features: receding hairline, long nose, moustache. It took her a few seconds to recognise him out of his uniform.
Mary sighed. ‘You gave me a fright.’
‘Sorry,’ said Kelvin, feeling guilty. She’s very jumpy, poor thing, he thought. I guess she’s not used to living in the city. He made a mental note to be kinder to Mary at work.
‘It’s OK,’ Mary said, embarrassed. She wanted to ask him to walk her home, but she didn’t want to appear pathetic.
Rather than mind-hopping from one character to another in an exchange like this, it’s better to choose the point of view of one character and stick to it.
About this blog
Through my experience as an editor, a reader and a book reviewer, I’ve noticed that some writing faults keep just popping up again and again. As an author, I’m especially aware of those writing crimes that I’m frequently tempted to commit myself. This series of brief tips addresses the common writing problems that I’ve encountered. Following them will help make your writing clear, accurate and stylish.