The point of view you choose to tell your story will impact everything. It shapes the information your readers receive, when and how they receive it, and why it matters to them.
At the same time, point of view is tricky to get a handle on. And there’s one common pitfall I see in many writers’ novels—one I want to rescue you from today.
Let’s talk about an essential principle to keep in mind when you’re choosing your novel’s point of view.
As an editor, I see a lot of first drafts. And I see a lot of first drafts from writers who are pretty new to writing, which means they have all these amazing story ideas, and they’re still building the skills to craft the stories well.
And one of the places where I see those writers get tripped up most often is point of view.
3 Reasons POV Gets Messy
Point of view is super complicated! It makes total sense to me that writers get tripped up here. And it’s complicated for a lot of reasons.
1. There are so many options for POV
First up, there are so many choices you can make with your point of view, so many cool ways you can structure it. So point of view is complicated because you just have so many options.
2. POV impacts everything
And second, point of view impacts everything. The point of view you choose for your story impacts how your reader gets access to information about the story, and what information they have access to. And since at its core, storytelling is just telling your reader information about a story, this is huge. Point of view shapes the entire story.
So it’s complicated not only because you have so many options, but because those options have enormous impact on your story and your reader’s experience.
3. POV limits the information you can convey to your readers
And third, point of view is complicated because you, the writer, have nearly infinite information about the story—and point of view limits the information you can convey to the reader. Which means there will be information in your head that does not make it to the page.
And especially for writers who are early on in exploring writing and point of view, this is really tricky—figuring out what information your readers need, and when, and how to tell them a great story without giving them every single piece of information you know.
The “Easy Out” Writers Use to Escape These Complications
So point of view is complicated. It’s complicated because you have a lot of options, and because your point of view shapes your story, and because you have so much information in your head that you know about your story, and you want to share it all with your readers.
And when you put all those factors together, here’s what I often see happen:
A writer will set out to write their first novel, and they’ll use third person omniscient point of view.
It seems like it solves all those problems: you’re unlimited. You can share the perspective of any character in the story.
Walk into a gym? We can get inside the mind of every single person working out.
Argument between two characters? We can hear both sides of the argument in real time by flipping back and forth between both characters’ heads.
Is a minor side character up to something and the protagonist isn’t around to see? No worries—we’ll just follow the side character for a while and see everything they’re seeing and thinking and feeling.
Third person omniscient gives you the power to share absolutely any information you feel you might need to share at any point. There are no limits. You have access to everything, and your reader can have access to everything, too.
It’s perfect, right?
Well . . . not really.
POV Limits You—And That’s Great News
Here’s the thing: the strength of any point of view is in its limitations.
When you’re using first person point of view, or when you’re using third person but you’re limited to just one character, the reader has access to only the information that that character has access to.
That creates a close attachment between the reader and the character: we feel really connected to this person because we’re seeing what they see, hearing what they think, feeling what they feel right along with them.
And when they don’t know information, we’re curious. We feel the same suspense of not-knowing that they feel.
This is a fantastic way to build tension in your story, to build the narrative drive that compels the reader to keep turning pages so we can find out what’s next. We have to keep reading because we don’t have all the information!
So those are two ways in which the limitations of first and close third point of view are actually their strengths:
- Because the point of view is limited, we get really attached to the one character we do know well,
- And because the point of view is limited, we don’t have all the information all the time, and we have to keep turning pages to find out what happens next.
The Challenges of Limitations
Of course, those same limitations also come with challenges of their own.
How do you help the reader get to know the characters that aren’t the one we’re attached to because of the close point of view?
And how do you share information with the reader if there’s something you think the reader needs to know that your point of view character can’t access?
Plus, there’s an even more basic question that I think writers get stuck on when they’re just getting started and they’re practicing point of view for the first time:
How do you even know what point of view you’re using? How do you know you’re staying within the limitations of the point of view you’ve chosen?
Those are big challenges!
Personally, I think they’re the kinds of challenges that breed more creativity—they’re really fun and interesting problems to solve. For instance, if you need to share information with your reader about something your point of view character doesn’t know, you might have to find a creative way for that character to discover that information.
I love that kind of creative challenge. It’s like a fun puzzle to solve.
But when writers are just getting started with point of view, they often don’t see those kinds of fun puzzles. What they see is a bunch of information and a need to share it all with the reader.
And so they default to a point of view that will allow them to do that. It’s a point of view that, at least on the surface, it doesn’t seem to matter whether they can figure out how to stay within limitations. They imagine that by using this point of view, they won’t have to worry about whether they are staying within the limits of a particular point of view.
In other words, I see a lot of writers default to third person omniscient.
The Challenges of NO Limitations
Don’t get me wrong here—when used well, third person omniscient is an absolutely incredible point of view. It allows writers to craft really complex and powerful stories. It allows the reader to piece together information the protagonist might not have and make connections that the protagonist might not see.
The thing is, when it is done well, third person omniscient also has limitations.
Writers choose specific characters whose perspectives we’ll see, and they choose those characters for specific reasons. Writers make sure to give the reader exactly the information we need to engage with the story. And writers carefully and intentionally withhold information even when they could share it so that they can build the right tension in the right way at the right time.
When writers use third person omniscient well, they still have limitations—but they have to establish those limitations for themselves.
And that is way, way more challenging than using a point of view where the limitations are already baked in, rules you’ll need to learn and follow.
It’s a lot easier to master a set of rules that already exists and that you know is tried and true and works than it is to walk into a wide-open playground and create your own rules from scratch.
Let me tell you a story.
The Risks and Rewards of Deep-Frying Fish
A few years ago, my friend’s dad was frying some fish. He decided to deep-fry it outside—you know, where you get a big deep fryer vat and you put it over a burner that’s hooked up to a propane tank and you pour in a few gallons of oil, and then you heat it all up to nearly 400 degrees Fahrenheit and hope nothing goes wrong.
Well, he did all that, and then he went to put the fish in. And I wasn’t there to witness the particulars, but here’s the general idea: the whole thing exploded.
The oil went everywhere. It sprayed across the whole entire yard, onto the grass and the rocks and the trees. And it caught fire, so the grass and the rocks and the trees were all on fire.
And then there was a whole different problem—not the problem of whether the fish will get perfectly fried or not, but the problem of how do we put out the fire in the crepe myrtle.
The good news is, they did put out the fire. Happily, there was no long-term damage. The only lasting effect was that the yard was covered in fishy oil, and they have a lot of beagles, and for months after the explosion, every time the beagles went into the yard they’d just wander around licking all the rocks.
The Risks and Rewards of Third Person Omniscient
Third person omniscient point of view is like attempting to deep fry a fish.
If you master it, if you do it really, really well, if you create your own limitations to enhance your story and you stick to them carefully, you’ll end up with a beautiful fish fried to perfection.
But if you don’t carefully select third person omniscient because it best fits your story, but wander into it by default—
—if you don’t set the right limitations to use it to enhance your story, and if you break any rules you do set for yourself—
—then you’ll end up with a yard full of oily rocks that are also on fire.
Your third person omniscient point of view will explode everywhere. We’ll get information from every direction, from every person we ever encounter in the story.
We won’t be able to put it all together and understand why every detail matters, how they’re all working together to craft a larger message. We’ll just be overwhelmed and confused and maybe a little sticky and smelly.
Deep-fried fish can be delicious, I’m sure. But I personally would not choose deep-frying a fish in my backyard over a propane tank to be the first time I ever try frying any food.
Third person omniscient is a really powerful point of view, and when done well, it’s amazing.
I’ve mentioned the novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin on the podcast before as an example of third person omniscient that I really love. I’ll add to that Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus as another brilliant example of third person omniscient done well that I’ve read and loved recently.
That said, it’s really tricky and comes with a lot of risks, of overwhelming your reader with too much information and muddling your story. So I don’t recommend starting with third person omniscient if you’re writing your first book and you’re still getting a handle on how point of view works.
Whichever POV You Choose, Choose Deliberately
Here’s the larger point I want to leave you with, though:
Choose your point of view with intention.
Choose it because it is the point of view that will best serve your story, the point of view that will best enable you to communicate to your reader the point you want to make.
Choose the point of view that will give the reader the information they need and withhold the information that will best increase their tension.
Choose your point of view because it will enhance your story.
Don’t just fall into a point of view by default.
And once you’ve made your choice, find some novels that use that point of view really, really well and study what they do and how they do it.
Look for the limitations of that point of view—the boundaries, the information it doesn’t share. And look for how those authors have used those limitations to their advantage.
Because once you’ve mastered the art of using limitations to fuel more creativity, you’ll be even more prepared to explore all the other point of view possibilities out there—and there are so, so many to explore.
And you’ll serve your readers perfectly fried fish rather than a yard full of oily rocks on fire.