On Writing: POV For Effect

To quote a certain animated movie, the difference between a villain and a supervillain is-


Ahem. As in, how you present a scene, and especially whose point of view the scene uses, makes a big difference in how the reader sees it.

Take the example of a car crash. Do you write that from the POV of the hapless driver who just got t-boned by a speeding car? The murderous carjacker on the run from the cops who’s now trying to disentangle himself from the wreck and keep on running, gun in hand? The cops in hot pursuit, trying not to swear as they call for an ambulance and keep after the wanted killer? The innocent bystander on the street-corner breathing hard because he almost stepped into that intersection?

Is your story about action? Or daily life, and how suddenly it can go horribly wrong? Do you want your reader to feel the terror and pain of a victim of crime? The horror and indecision as a civilian has to decide whether or not to jump into the scene? The coldness and lack of remorse of the criminal, or the grim determination of the cops that this one’s not going to get away?

Whose head you’re in colors the scene. Even in a third-person omniscient POV, what each character focuses on determines what your reader will see.

I’ll be frank; I’m not a fan of third-person omniscient. I see the world as a complex and confusing place, and as one person I only have a limited grasp of what exactly is going on. So I prefer to write the piece of “what’s going on” that an individual character knows about, and let the reader decide what the pieces add up to.

Back to the car crash. For the Victim, you want a contrast. Life smooth and quiet and normal – then bam. Maybe your victim was already having a bad day. Maybe they caught a glimpse of oncoming danger before the world went sideways. But the emotions in this POV are likely to center around shock and surprise. Fear should come a hair later; you need time to be afraid.

For the Carjacker, the adrenaline is already going. Reactions here likely include anger, frustration; maybe sadistic glee in someone’s pain, maybe fear of capture. But the only reason this might ruin the Carjacker’s day is he might get caught. And he hasn’t been. Yet.

For the Cops? Some shock and horror might fit. They were chasing this guy because he was a Bad Guy with probable intent to hurt people. Now he has. They didn’t stop him in time. But they will. Determination, possible guilt at not being fast enough; maybe the thrill of the chase, their adrenaline’s up too.

Bystander is likely to be a whirl of emotions. Because that was close, so close – but it missed him. He doesn’t have to get involved. Maybe he shouldn’t get involved. Leave it to the professionals; cops with guns, ambulances with paramedics. He doesn’t want to make things worse.

(But maybe no one else is coming in time. What does he do, what does he do…?)

Think about the facts you want your reader to see, the emotions you want them to feel, and how this will advance the story. Don’t be afraid to try writing the same scene from several different POVs. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right one!

17 thoughts on “On Writing: POV For Effect

  1. And beware the POV character that grows. I’m still staring in bafflement at my short little one shot song fic that I was worried wouldn’t have enough words to lyrics ratio, that is over 13,000 words, I had to shoehorn the song that inspires it into the ending, and this is the second edit run and I had to step away so I could analyze it better. (More words keep finding their way into this thing.) The main issue? The POV character is an OC, I have become highly invested in her, and I can’t figure out if I could/should cut some of the beginning so that it hits the canon characters faster. (I’m thinking I’ll just finish the whole thing, then cut to when the characters finally start talking. Maybe save the first bits for the author of the AU I’ve been mugged by.)

    And I know there are a lot of scenes that I would love an alternative view on. Because what one character knows vs what the POV character knows, and the effects of the scene. Was reading an Untamed fic, a Dark Materials AU, and there’s at least two scenes that I’m willing to beg the authors for Jiang Cheng’s/Sandu’s POV after the main story is done. The second scene, even without the author note, makes it very obvious that daemons are not the only AU thing that happened. So, I’m waiting for the main story to finish up so that the plot twists happen before being spoiled by the new scene.

    In the example of the car accident, maybe what you don’t know is that the criminal being chased is actually undercover. Maybe they’re illegally in the country. Or maybe they’re illegally on the planet, MIB style. Or they might be escaping from someone/where and they refuse to go back. The cops are working in good faith that they are chasing a deadly criminal, the victim certainly feels the same, and the bystander has no reason to doubt what they see. So. If the story is about escaping a bad situation, but you want it to be from the honest cops’ discovering the Big Bad, who has what information? Like the scene in Airwolf where we meet Caitlin. She’s flying a helicopter to chase down someone on the highway. We can get a lot of information from that scene, including that the local cop who took custody was setting off a lot of ‘something is wrong’ vibes. As a written format, having her be the POV character would probably be the best way to build suspense/obscure plot. The guy being chased knows he’s in serious trouble, and that she’s his only hope to get away safely now that he’s crashed. The local knows exactly why the guy was running, because he’s the Trouble. Caitlin is the only character in the scene who gives us the hooks and clues to draw us into the story further without throwing it all out there.

    Which, in intrigue stories, I hate knowing from the get go which character is the villain. Because then all the little things they do mean I’m yelling at the other characters for trusting them. Like in Tell No Tales. You did an excellent job of providing hints and clues that, once you know who it is, are obvious. But you don’t tell us who. Heck, I don’t think we even have the Big Bad in person for the majority of the book. But you made excellent use of POV and hints to obscure things. And the character that broke isn’t the actual villain. She was just, human. Not evil, not bad, just very, very human.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On a totally unrelated note, I was messing around on AO3’s Airwolf section when I discovered that Things Aren’t Always What They Seem is now posted over there, as of the end of May two years ago. Sadly, Twist of Fate now appears to only exist as a hard copy, but I will continue to hunt to see if I can find a soft copy.

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  2. One of the tricky things is the Unreliable Narrator.

    On the one hand, it’s perfectly reasonable.
    Nobody knows everything, and the reader should realize that they are getting one perspective.

    On the other hand, the reader is only getting the information the author tells them, and they can’t confirm anything.
    So if you deliberately feed them bad information, you can’t assume they’ll see through it without any hints.

    If you describe the scene as a warm, sunny day, and the person claims the car slid on a patch of ice, does that mean they were hallucinating the weather?
    Were they lying to excuse the crash?
    Did someone use magic to create an ice patch and make it vanish?

    Even if the reader knows the narrator is unreliable, they don’t know which parts are unreliable without some hints.


    On a completely unrelated note, there is a game on Steam called Accident.
    The game has you arriving on the scene of a car crash, going through the process of calling for help, checking the people, putting out fires, administering first aid etc…

    Then you switch into investigative mode, looking for clues for what happened.

    It’s kinda clunky, but it does a really good job putting you in the first person view.
    You’re looking around for other cars, running across an icy road watching for other vehicles.

    It definitely changes your perspective on what it means running back and forth between locations with a first aid kit and fire extinguisher.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you describe the scene as a warm, sunny day, and the person claims the car slid on a patch of ice, does that mean they were hallucinating the weather?
      Were they lying to excuse the crash?
      Did someone use magic to create an ice patch and make it vanish?

      Or is it an “Oh, California” situation?

      When I was….between four and six, best guess, knee high on a grasshopper– someone explained that the song wasn’t really nonsense, it was a funny way to describe reality. What sound like contradictions here:

      I sailed from Salem City with my washbowl on my knee.
      I’m goin’ to California, the gold dust for to see.
      It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry.
      The sun so hot I froze to death, oh brothers don’t you cry.

      Are, when you think about it, dead serious descriptions– I’ve camped in places with that nasty, damp fuzzy-rani all night that doesn’t amount to a quarter inch but still soaks everything, and Death Valley is famous for killing you with heat in the shade and then your corpse freezes solid that night.

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      1. I didn’t get freezing– the Navy ain’t that stupid– but I did have the “jump from holy F this is cold to holy F this is hot” during an hour and change of physical training in Pensacola.

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    2. Well… even in the snow, when the sky’s clear and there’s no wind, the day can be warm. The “no wind” part is absolutely critical for that, of course, at least if you’re standing still.

      If you’re not standing still, skiiing shirtless or in bikinis is a thing. And alleged to be perfectly comfortable, as long as you don’t fall down. Good way to get an all-over tan in the winter, too, I’m sure

      And, well, when you do get that sun on well-compacted ice, you get a super thin layer of water as the ice is melting, and suddenly you have a super-low coefficient of friction! To say nothing of the vapor in the air where the ice is sublimating in the sun, or the pavement has gotten warm enough to turn the melt-water into steam. (I’m not actually sure which one it is.)

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    3. And there’s two _very_ different types of unreliable narrator. There’s the good type, where it’s a case of the characters reasonably not knowing… and then there’s the bad type, where the readers are being lied to (usually so the author can pull a “ha! Got you!” later).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. then there’s the bad type, where the readers are being lied to (usually so the author can pull a “ha! Got you!” later)

        I almost always hate those– because they’re cheating. “I completely control your information and look at what you didn’t know because I lied to you, mwuahahah, I am so smart!”

        It’s like when people try to read Sherlock as a who-dun-it, rather than an adventure mystery– there isn’t enough information given to conclude what Sherlock does, generally. It works to show how crazy smart he is, and the books are fun in other ways, the point is different– but an author who got hooked on fool-the-audience in that style would be walled.

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      2. While stories from a decade or two ago that used the “lied to the readers” style tend to be “mysteries” who’s authors learned the wrong lessons from the old greats (as you just described), most of the modern ones tend to be “deconstructions” and similar things. Those tend to lie to us in two ways, by both lying to us about which set of tropes we should be interpreting stuff by _and_ by lying on the actual data provided, and do it for the purpose of hitting the readers over the head with the literary equivalent of the stupid psych tests like the trolley/lifeboat/etc “problems”. Their entire purpose is to say “you, the reader, are a bad and/or stupid person for believing X, and to prove that I will lie to you and tell you that X is true in my story and that my story is written in a way where X being true is the only reasonable interpretation, then at the end I’ll pull a ‘twist’ and add in details that directly contradict not just what you were told, but also what was show indirectly as necessarily true by the stuff around it, in such a way that I can try to claim believing X was bad.” (that Wandering Inn story, for example)

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  3. *glees* This is one of the big lessons in “Techniques of the Selling Writer.” Plain facts about feeling, if I’m reading the page header in that book right.

    It really should be said as many ways as possible, because the story is there to communicate, and not just facts, but *feelings*– so your “vocabulary” of setting and reactions and stuff HAS to be different.

    Liked by 2 people

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