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POV Part II: The Third Eye A crash course in the “most complex element” of storytelling

In Janet Burroway’s book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, she describes point of view as the most complex element of fiction. This is because establishing point of view involves  tending to a complicated relationship between reader, author, and characters. Establishing a point of view and maintaining its consistency can be difficult even for authors who’ve been at it for a long time. When authors who are just starting out shift points of view, they often do it for good reason. Many times it’s because they believe that the shift in point of view is the best way to tell a particular part of the story, and often they may be right about this. However, that doesn’t mean that the shift isn’t a problem. As mentioned in POV Part I: A Telltale Sign that a Piece is not Ready for Publication, POV shifts that end up breaking the “pact” between reader and author can be a deal breaker for agents and publishers. This article will deal only with specifics pertaining to the third person point of view.

Avoiding this “breaking of the pact” and the subsequent destruction it causes to a reader’s suspension of disbelief is not only a matter of adhering to the rules, but also successfully making and maintaining your individual take on them. This means that you have a lot of options as an author, and that as long as you understand this complex relationship between you (the author), your readers, and the characters you’ve created, you can also exploit POV to tell the story almost any way you’d like. Each author’s distance from the characters and what degree/type of third person omniscience chosen is his own. In terms of authorial fingerprint it’s as individual as the author’s voice, and in truth, it can make or break your voice.  

The biggest challenge for an author is maintaining consistency throughout a given work. It’s not so much disobeying some kind of authoritative “sacred tenet” that is harmful to your writing, but breaking your own established rules. That’s when your reader will disconnect from the text and cease believing in your story. After all, how can a reader continue to suspend disbelief if you don’t seem to believe in what you’ve established in the world you created? And this is what you must avoid at all costs, because if your readers don’t follow you wherever you’re going, then you need to be satisfied with writing only for self, and be content with keeping your work safely tucked in a drawer. If you want an audience, you must know how to keep them connected.

In third person POV, authors have three basic options, and all have degrees of omniscience (never mind the paradox of this statement because I will explain). In the third person omniscient POV, the author is God. As an author you may freely tell the story from any perspective at anytime. You can be anywhere and everywhere. You know the thoughts and emotions of every character, and possibly even those of animals and inanimate objects if those are the rules you establish. In contrast, with the third person “limited omniscient” POV you may only be privy to the thoughts of a certain character, and you’re telling the story from this character’s POV, though you’re still a God-like voice telling this person’s story from the outside. There is also the third person “objective” POV in which the author sustains an emotional disconnect from the story and its characters. The author still knows all, but there is no judgment or assessment of a character’s inner thoughts, and there is a certain “matter-of-fact” sort of quality to the voice and tone. As Burroway notes in her first chapter on POV, Ernest Hemingway makes use of this POV successfully in his short story, “Hills Like White Elephants.”

As TED founder Renni Browne notes in her book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, authors often choose one form of the third person or another because of the limitations created by first person narration, which can severely limit options for plot development. One great exercise for any writer is to take a scene you’ve written and re-write it from as many different POVs as possible. If you do something like this early on during a project like a novel, you may find out that the POV you’d originally decided to use isn’t the best for the overall piece. And in addition to that you’ll achieve greater command over different POVs and keeping them consistent. You’ll learn the limitations of each through trial and error, and you’ll improve upon your craft through the kind of blood, sweat and tears that make good novels great.

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