Monday, September 27, 2010


by Margaret Birth

So, how are you, my friends?

Think that’s simply a nice, cordial greeting? Well, it is that, too. (I like to think that I’m a nice, cordial lady.) More than that, though, I want you to think about your reply—really think about it. When you do reply, you’ll probably begin by saying something like “Actually, I’ve been feeling...,” or “To tell you the truth, I’m doing....” When you reply, you’ll be speaking from your own—ta da!—point of view. As I like to say: Keep your point of view going one way, and you’ll always end up going the right way.

Here are some things to ponder about point of view:

* Whenever you start to write a new scene, ask yourself who would make the best viewpoint character. Is there a secret that you want to reveal to the reader, but that you don’t want the hero to tell the heroine yet? Then, the scene should be from either the hero’s point of view, or from that of a person with whom he already shares the secret. At the end of the previous scene, did one of your characters decide to take some kind of action? Then, perhaps your next scene should be in that character’s point of view and show that character taking action. Did the story’s antagonist deliver a devastating physical or emotional blow to the heroine in the previous scene? Then, your next scene should be in the heroine’s point of view and show her reacting—hurting, questioning, ranting and raving (if that’s her style), and ultimately formulating her own plan of action to overcome the crisis. Want to help the reader understand a particular conflict between your hero and heroine? Show, don’t tell, by putting one scene in his point of view and the next in hers. You can even keep them in the same setting for both scenes, and end the first scene in the middle of the argument and then begin the next scene in the middle of that same argument; this creates a tension that is irresistible to most readers.

* Here’s a way you can keep a scene in one particular character’s point of view: Imagine yourself in that person’s skin. For instance, if you decide that the scene should be in the hero’s point of view, think about what he would see, hear, taste, smell, feel, want, believe, or know—or not.

Wrong: “He didn’t see Susan walk up behind him.” (If “he didn’t see,” how could this be from his perspective???)

Right: “He didn’t realize that Susan had walked up behind him until she covered his eyes with her hands and whispered, ‘Guess who?’” (From his perspective, he could feel her hands on his eyes, and he could recognize the sound of her voice, and only then could he know that she’d walked up behind him.)

Every time you write a phrase like “he thought,” “she heard,” “he knew,” or “she wanted to,” ask yourself if your point-of-view character for that scene could think, hear, know, or want that thing; if not, you need to either axe the phrase or find another way to express it.

Wrong from the heroine’s point of view: “Jake wanted to scream.” (From Jake’s point of view, this is fine.)

Right from the heroine’s point of view: “Seeing the way Jake kept fisting his hands and clenching his jaw, she could tell that he was just barely restraining himself from screaming at her.”

It’s a bit time-consuming, but here’s a good writing exercise to help you practice point of view: First, decide on what you want to have happen in a scene and who the point-of-view character should be; next, write the scene with the viewpoint character narrating it in first-person (“I/mine/my”) point of view; and, last, rewrite that same scene in the third-person by switching all of the “I/mine/my” pronouns to “she/hers/her” or “he/his/him” (occasionally interjecting the character’s given name in place of “she” or “he,” in order to clarify and give your prose a nice rhythm). You may wish to try an optional, illuminating, addendum to this exercise: Do parts two and three again, from the viewpoint of a different character in the same scene. Tricky? Maybe a little. But, hey, that’s not a problem for you now—is it?♥

Margaret Birth is a Christian writer who has been widely published in short fiction, short nonfiction, and poetry, both in the U.S. and abroad; in addition to working as a freelance writer, she's spent over a decade freelancing for multiple publishers as a manuscript reader, proofreader, and copy editor. It's all of this experience on both sides of the publishing desk that has inspired her column, "The Write Stuff," which has appeared regularly in RWANYC's newsletter, Keynotes, for the past ten years.


  1. Thanks, Margaret. This is exactly the kind of how-to article I need right now. I've recently received some critiquing that tells me my POVs need work--was just struggling with it today, as a matter of fact. Elizabeth Palladino

  2. Elizabeth,

    I'm glad this helped.

    Just so you know, though, if you're given the general critique that "POVs need work," sometimes, in addition to what I wrote about in this post, there's a concern that POVs aren't "deep" enough. Characterization and point of view concerns can overlap in certain ways, and one of those ways is when there's not enough perceived distinction between characters for it to be clear whose POV is in the forefront of any given scene. So, POV is about who's perspective a scene is from, but it's also about clearly establishing what that perspective is and clearly associating that perspective with that particular character.

    Good luck!


  3. Margaret, great article on point of view! I will definitely use your writing tips on what I'm working on now. Karen K.

  4. Chiming in late... Margaret, you should teach! You put on the table and precisely map out things that writers may not be to clear about. This helps it all make sense. Thanks!!!

  5. I appreciate the compliment, Anne. Actually, I do like to teach creative writing workshops from time to time!