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What's my POV?
Arthur Herzog
Special to WordSmitten

Often, new writers are quick to recognize how difficult it is to write scenes and to describe the action of characters within those scenes. Add to that the idea that within a scene or story arc, maintaining a character's Point-of-View is critical, and, well, the result can muddle up a manuscript. Other writers—when critiques on their manuscript include notations about "mixing POV" or "your POVs are distracting"—often have misunderstood the concept.

We asked Arthur Herzog who is noted for his bestselling books and book-to-film experiences to provide us with an overview for writers who are grappling with this point-of-view technique. While reading this article, imagine you have a video camera strapped to your forehead. It'll give you just the right perspective.


Just as you should strive to keep a balance among plot, settings and characterizations, so you should follow the rules in fiction regarding point of view--"POV" as denoted in film scripts for where the camera points.

Understanding POV is essential, or ought to be.

Even writers who parade on the bestseller list sometimes don't have the hang of it, with the result that the reader is jolted into disbelief.

Rarely can you deviate successfully from the POV you've established.
POV in fiction means who's telling the story and there are, essentially, three possible approaches.

  • First Person Singular - "I"
  • Third Person Singular - "he or she"
  • And the omniscient or universal narrator who sees all e.g., "God" or,
    in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby, the narrator "Nick"

Each POV has advantages and drawbacks. The main advantage of the omniscient approach is that it's the easiest to handle. That's the major reason so many writers select it. The universal narrator knows all and can enter a character's head any time he chooses. The drawback of the technique (all writing is technique) is that it can be shallow, distracting, and uneven. In the hands of a master, however, it is a fine approach.

First person singular narration is, ordinarily, the most difficult to achieve because "au" (as proofreaders designate authors) is compelled to relate and describe everything through the eyes of "I"--nothing can happen that "I" doesn't know about, and this means the writer must compress every event into a single perspective and finesse those who refuse to all within that context. (In Sophie's Choice, Styron used a one-step remove from the first person singular, an "I" narrator who tells someone else's story.)

A compromise between these two POVs is the third person singular, which allows for the continuity of a single perspective yet gives the writer latitude to describe things on his own, without the blinders of "I," even though "he" or "she" may not get as close to the bone as "I" can. It's also possible to have two third person singular points of view, as represented by two characters through whose eyes the story is told in alternating chapters, say. But if two's company, three's a crowd - and that demands the omniscient point of view.

The POV ought to be carefully and deliberately selected, even experimented with, in terms of the needs of the material.

Do it in advance to avoid the self-loathing that can result from squandering hours. But whatever the POV, and the difficulty of forcing the action into a particular frame, stay within it.

Arthur Herzog, author of ten novels (including Heat, Orca, and Aries Rising) also writes nonfiction (The Church Trap, The Woodchipper Murder and Vesco: From Wall Street to Castro's Cuba) and his short story appears in this edition of wordsmitten.com and is titled Tear Ducts.
This article on POV (Point of View), reprinted with permission from the author, is an excerpt from his book, How to Write Almost Anything Better - And Faster! (Hearthstone/Carlton Press NY). Educated at the University of Arizona, Stanford University and Columbia University, where he received an MA in English literature, Herzog writes for newspapers, magazines, and literary journals. Herzog and his wife Leslie reside in East Hampton, New York.

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