I’ve been reading more widely than usual lately—thrillers, a variety of mysteries, literary fiction—as well as romantic suspense novels, which is what I write. One thing I have been paying attention to (a bother with being a writer as well as a reader) is the different ways author use viewpoint or point of view, or POV, a writer abbreviation. By that I mean the viewpoint from which the reader experiences the story. In school literature classes, we learned about first-person (I) and third-person narratives (he or she) with occasional mention of omniscient point of view, that is, by a narrator who sees all and knows all. Using only first person in a story limits the reader’s experience to only what that narrator sees, hears, feels emotionally, touches, knows, and experiences. The use of a single third-person narrator is much the same, except it’s “he” or “she” or the character’s name. Little did I know then that viewpoint involves a whole lot more.
There are different levels of POV. Objective (external) POV levels are used to establish context from a distance. Along with omniscient viewpoint, another external viewpoint level is camera-eye in which the reader hears and sees only what a camera would show, and there is no person’s viewpoint, just the camera presenting it. We may see these techniques in small doses, as for opening a scene to show the situation before entering a character’s head.
Personal (internal) POV levels descend deeper and deeper into the thoughts and feelings of a character. Each level incorporates the one above it. First is the action level. The reader is in the POV character’s body, experiencing the action but without feeling or thought. This level is useful in action scenes when there’s little time for emotional reactions. A little bit deeper is the perception level, involving the five senses. The reader experiences the scene by what the character sees, hears, smells, etc. This level works well to establish a scene’s setting.
The third level into a character’s POV is the thought level. The reader is not only in the action, movements, and sensory perceptions of the character, but inside his or her mind. The scene may show something unique about the character’s thoughts. The text might say:
Harry realized he and Blanche had been having the same argument for years. He’d had enough. “You’re vengeful, angry woman, Blanche.” He turned to go, feeling despondent about all the bitterness between them.
In this situation, the author is telling readers how Harry is thinking/feeling. The emotion or feeling level is next and is especially appropriate in moments of conflict. The most intimate POV level is that of voice along with emotion. Using voice is a tighter perspective inside the character. Both first-person and third-person narratives can dive deep, employing the character’s voice, emotions, perceptions, and action. It means using the character’s word choices and sentence patterns based on sex, education, occupation, interests, attitudes, styles, etc. Showing the emotion with visceral reactions (chest clenching, face warming, adrenaline ringing in the ears, etc.) is deeper than naming the emotion.
Here’s an example of intimate POV using voice and emotion. This is an excerpt from my book CLEOPATRA’S NECKLACE. Cleo has just found her cousin bleeding from a gunshot on a dark Venice street.
Mimi sprawled on her side, facing away from Cleo. Her legs and arms splayed like a discarded doll’s, unmoving. The street light glistened on the crimson spreading down her face and beneath her head. Cleo’s heart stopped. She jerked forward, her limbs stiff as if frozen.
She fell to her knees beside her fallen cousin. “No,” she breathed, a low moan welling up. “It can’t be, Mimi. Not you.” Her throat stung as if she’d swallowed acid. She punched the phone buttons. Once. Twice. Damn her clumsy fingers. How could this be happening? Finally the emergency dispatcher answered and Cleo stammered a report. She reached out. Stopped. Reached out again, her hand trembling. She drew a deep breath and pressed a finger to the still-warm neck. Laid a hand on Mimi’s back. Nothing. No breath. No pulse. She knelt there, white noise roaring in her ears, as the poisonous miasma of reality sank in. Her hand went to her throat. Mimi was dead.
Notice how Cleo’s emotions are visceral and direct. Without naming the emotions, readers know and even feel her horror and grief. This technique is done more often in romance novels, which have a more intimate and emotional narrative than most other genres. Using deep viewpoint effectively can lead to memorable characterizations.
We as readers don’t pay attention to how authors control the viewpoints used in a story. But as a writer, I ask myself as I craft a novel: Whose POV? How many viewpoints? Whose scene is it? What secrets do I want revealed? Or hidden? How deeply do I want to go into my POV character’s perspective?
I must control the point of view so it’s reader oriented to provide the experience I intend. I hope this all makes sense. I would love to answer your questions.
The Kindle version of ONCE BURNED, in my Task Force Eagle series, is on sale now through May 15 for only 99 cents. Here’s a short description: When Jake must protect Lani from a killer, his undercover case becomes tangled with the old fire that killed his girlfriend, Lani’s twin.
ONCE BURNED is one of eight that take place in Maine. You can find it here: http://getBook.at/OnceBurned
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Hey, Susan. This is a really good post explaining the difference in POV. I’m a stickler for staying in one POV for a chunk of time and not head-hopping. I’ve found that a number of times lately in books and it throws me right out of the story. I always have at least 3 POVs, the heroin, hero, and the bad dude. Getting to see inside the mind of the antagonist is so great to understand why he/she is doing the despicable deeds. In one of my books, the scene was really intense and I flipped back and forth fairly quickly, but I think it worked in that instance. I’ve shared. 🙂
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