Making your point by changing POV

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In this morning’s meeting of our Writer’s Workshop Manuscript Group, we wrapped up response to five writers’ offerings with a brief talk about changing point of view. The writers who meet each first Saturday went home with advice from Josip Novakovitch (Fiction Writer’s Workshop) and Sherri Szeman (The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing).

POV gets tagged a lot during manuscript workshops, in part because deviating from the missionary-position of single POV is so easy to spot. Making POV changes is an opportunity for both failure and brilliance. Just make sure each change is worth the trip.

Which POV are you choosing, or using? There are many definitions. Across the two writing teachers listed above I compiled the following list:

First person
First person multiple
First person collective observer
Second person
Epistolary, or first person letters
Outer limited
Inner limited
Third person
Third person limited
Third person objective
Third person subjective
Third person limited flexible
Third person omniscient
Third person multiple
Multiple viewpoints

There’s the possibility of “combo” as well, mixing several of the above throughout a story.

Novakovitch offers consistency as a guideline to help authors manage their shifts. Start early with a definite pattern, then stick to it. He also says first-time novelists or short story writers will do better by observing the conventions of POV. However,

Switching POVs can … derive information about an event initially in the first person. After the story has been assembled by several witnesses, and enough inferences have been made to cover even what has not been told by the witnesses, the event may be described without references to the sources; things can assume an objective third person perspective — and a composite report can be written about the motives of everybody involved.

E.M Forster said that shifting POV is “the right to intermittent knowledge” and that it parallels our perception in life. “We are stupider at some times than others; we can enter into people’s minds occassionally but not always, because our minds get tired.”

The best reason to shift POV might also come from Forster, who said that “this intermittence [of POVs] lends in the long run variety and color to the experiences we receive.”

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