When you want to skillfully show or change points of view examples by accomplished authors help. Read 5 examples of skillful POV that show how to change points of view in a scene, how to give third person point of view the intimacy of first person narration, and more:
First: POV definitions
‘The technical term for describing who is telling the story and what their relation to the story is.‘ (p. 83)
The person telling the story, whose ‘voice’ we read it in, is called the ‘viewpoint character’. In first-person POV, this is the narrator who says ‘I’. In second-person point of view, the narrator says ‘you’. An example of second-person POV:
You wake and everything has changed. You don’t remember drinking heavily, but it feels as though you’ve blacked out. The room is dark and you bump your head as you grope the walls for a light switch.
Third-person point of view is one of the most common points of view. This is the narrator who describes characters actions using ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, they, or a gender-neutral pronoun. For example:
It slowly lowers itself from the tree, slithering down the rough bark, before it slides away into the underbrush, on the hunt.
These types of narration have additional variations. In third person POV, the narration can be ‘limited’ or ‘omniscient’. In ‘limited’ POV, we only read the thoughts and impressions of the character who is narrating. Other characters’ minds and feelings can only be known through what the viewpoint character experiences or believes.
In ‘omniscient’ narration, the author/narrator is free to move between different character’s viewpoints (the narrative isn’t ‘limited’ to a fixed perspective; it’s more like a fly on the wall).
Points of view examples and tips
Each of the following examples illustrates an important aspect of POV:
1: Using the uncommon second-person POV
Second-person POV is one of the least common in storytelling. Perhaps this is partly because second-person doesn’t allow as much character psychology. This is because the reader imagines themselves performing each action instead of a separate character.
Italo Calvino uses this aspect of second-person POV masterfully in his mystery novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. In this novel, you, the character/reader, purchase a book of the same title, only to find there are missing pages. You return the book to the store and you’re sent on a wild goose chase trying to find the right book with the ‘correct’ story.
Here’s an example of how Calvino uses second person to create suspense:
‘Here is page 31 again, page 32… and then what comes next? Page 17 all over again, a third time! What kind of book did they sell you, anyway? They bound together all these copies of the same signature, not another page in the whole book is any good.
You fling the book on the floor…’ (p. 46)
The second-person POV works because Calvino makes the story eventful and suspenseful. The familiar element of characters with ‘real’ psychology thus isn’t missed as plot keeps you guessing.
Another way you can use second-person POV is to show a character describing a typical event. This is the ‘general’ way we use the pronoun ‘you’:
‘I know this routine. You get up, prepare for work, miss the train, hail a cab, the cab driver almost knocks you down, there’s the worst traffic – yup, a typical Monday. I roll my eyes and re-tie my lace that’s come undone when I finally reach downtown.’
2: Writing third person POV with the intimacy of first person
One reason some writers prefer using first person POV over third is because a narrator who says ‘I’ can quickly feel like an old friend. The story comes across to us like the character’s most personal, private experience. Charlotte Bronte’s line ‘Reader, I married him’ in Jane Eyre is a good example of this effect.
Even so, third person can also create an intimate character portrait if written well. Virginia Woolf is a master of describing characters’ most private fleeting thoughts and feelings. Here, in To the Lighthouse, she describes the mother Mrs. Ramsay’s unease when her children are rude about her husband’s friend, Tansley:
‘Strife, divisions, difference of opinion, prejudices twisted into the very fibre of being, oh that they should begin so early, Mrs. Ramsay deplored. They were so critical, her children. They talked such nonsense.’ (p. 12)
Without Mrs Ramsay saying ‘I’ (she doesn’t say ‘I wish my children weren’t so critical’), Woolf creates a strong sense of Ramsay’s values (harmony and tolerance). She also shows Ramsay’s disappointment in her children not upholding these values.
The way Woolf includes the interjection ‘oh’, a word that would usually be said out loud, in narration, makes this passage come across in Ramsay’s voice.The sentence structure towards the end, how Woolf adds ‘her children’ (almost as an afterthought) also creates the effect of a personal stream of thoughts and reflections from Ramsay’s viewpoint.
3: Changing points of view mid-scene
Changing points of view within a scene may jolt readers. Especially if you change from one type of narration to another (for example first-person to third-person narration). At worst, this simply has a confusing effect:
I get up in the dark and fumble for the light switch. He finally finds it, turns it on and it’s blinding – there’s no cover over the bulb. I quickly turn it off again.
Because the action involving the light switch is continuous, we can guess the same character performs the action throughout. But when the pronoun ‘he’ first appears, we think ‘who is this?’ because we expect the ‘I’, the first-person narrator, to remain the actor in the scene.
Of course there are exceptions to every rule. For example, if you were writing about a character with multiple personalities or spirit possession, you could technically have two viewpoint characters in the same body, switching between ‘I’ and ‘he’ to describe the same person’s actions. But this is a fringe case, and the effect could be tiring and confusing if not handled carefully.
Where changing points of view mid-scene can (and does) work is in shifts between different third-person narrators. This multi-view approach shows characters’ different perceptions and feelings well. Virginia Woolf does this in many of her novels. Ursula le Guin offers a caveat about this type of POV shift in Steering the Craft:
‘A writer must be aware of, have a reason for, and be in control of all shifts of viewpoint character.’ (p. 91)
Here’s an example from To the Lighthouse. The Ramsays’ young son James feels irritated by his father competing for attention:
‘James, as he stood stiff between her knees, felt her rise in a rosy-flowered fruit tree laid with leaves and dancing boughs into which the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of his father, the egotistical man, plunged and smote, demanding sympathy.
‘Filled with her words, like a child who drops off satisfied, he said, at last, looking at her
with humble gratitude, restored, renewed, that he would take a turn […] He went.
‘Immediately, Mrs Ramsay seemed to fold herself together, one petal closed in another, and the whole fabric fell in exhaustion upon itself…’ (p. 44)
In the space of a page, Woolf moves effortlessly from James’ feelings (his anger at his father demanding his mother’s attention), to Mr Ramsay’s satisfaction at being reassured and his departure. From here, Woolf switches to Mrs Ramsay’s POV, describing her exhaustion.
Woolf starts a new paragraph with an indent for each new POV (at ‘filled’ and ‘immediately’). This helps to create clear separation between each viewpoint character’s thoughts.
4: Creating a vivid first-person narrator
Many of the best-loved novels have attained celebrated status in part because of how vivid their first-person narrators are. The joy of first-person POV is that you can filter a character’s quirks into the narration . Their styles of speech, for example. Compare the cynical Holden Caulfield who narrates J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to the narrator Saleem in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Both books open with the protagonist describing their backstory in first-person POV:
‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’ (The Catcher in the Rye, p.3)
Compare the voice of the disaffected teen with Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children:
‘I was born in the city of Bombay … once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date. I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more … On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact.’ (p. 3)
Saleem’s pauses create the sense of the narrator finding the right way to phrase and tell us his complex, involved story. Rushdie creates the impression of a narrator who wants to make sure he gives us the ‘truest’ account.
When you write in first-person POV, read examples such as the two above. How does Salinger create an angry teen viewpoint character? With forceful slang (‘lousy’, ‘crap’) and his implied rejection of authority and how he ‘should’ tell a story (his rejection of ‘David Copperfield kind of crap’.)
Rushdie, in contrast, creates his thoughtful, gifted character by using speech patterns – pauses – to show him as a character who takes pains to find the right words. Both authors’ viewpoint characters are vivid due to stylistic choices (e.g. word choice, grammar and sentence structure).
5: Signposting changes of viewpoint character
Although authors like Woolf are skilled at changing viewpoint characters within a single scene, it’s more common to change POV between chapters or sections. There are multiple ways to do this. One way to show the reader that a different character is narrating is simply to title each chapter with its narrator’s name.
William Faulkner does this in his poignant novella, As I Lay Dying. Each character in the Bundren family (along with several secondary characters) narrates a chapter.
You can also do as Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Love in the Time of Cholera and simply signal a shift of viewpoint character with the wording of your new chapter’s first sentence.
In this example, the preceding chapter is narrated by Fermina Daza, whose husband has died. She spies an unrequited love, Florentino Ariza, who has come to pay his respects. Florentino is the viewpoint character when the next chapter begins. Here is the tail end of Fermina’s chapter, followed by viewpoint change:
‘Only then did she realize that she had slept a long time without dying, sobbing in her sleep, and that while she slept, sobbing, she had thought more about Florentino Ariza than about her dead husband.’
‘Florentino Ariza, on the other hand, had not stopped thinking of her for a single moment since Fermina Daza had rejected him out of hand after a long and troubled love affair fifty-one years, nine months, and four days ago.’ (pp. 51-53)
It’s clear who the focal character is with the change in chapter. Marquez also skilfully shows the emotional impact of this long-awaited encounter from both characters’ points of view.
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