Novel Point of View is NOT Camera Angle

POV mixups for authorsI think the reason we have so much trouble nowadays with slippery POV (Point of View) in novels is that so many new writers were brought up on film and TV. And many of these people mix up POV with camera angle. They think that because the film camera jumps all over and shows us the action from different angles, the writer can jump all over and show the action from the point of view of different characters. But these two concepts are not the same, even in film. When you move to a novel, it’s a different technique altogether. Because POV is not about what anyone sees. It’s about feeling what the character feels.

Most camera shots, in literary terms, are omniscient. Fly on the wall. The director chooses the shot to be from the best position to reveal what the director wants us to see. There is no pretense that the viewer is actually in that position.

The POV Shot

Sometimes, for a special effect, the director puts the camera where the character’s head is and shows us only what the character sees. Giving us a claustrophobic feeling. We don’t know what’s around us or behind us. If you have ever been snorkelling and had someone sneak up behind you in the water and touch you, you know exactly what I mean. Very scary.

This technique is often used when someone is running away or exploring a dangerous place or in some other high-tension situation. It is very effective, because it creates a “What if I was there?” boost to our imaginations. But like most effects, it is most effective if used rarely. Blair Witch Project notwithstanding. But this is not the same as Point of View in a book or film. Remember, POV is all about feelings, not vision.

In literary terms, most films are objective third person. We see outside action only. The only way to get into a character’s head is through a voiceover. Which, again, is most effective when rarely used. The big advantage the film has over the novel is that we get to see the actor’s face, and this is where we perceive most of the emotion. A film that is from a certain character’s POV will include a lot of close-ups of that character’s face, showing us what he or she is feeling.  You can’t do this in a novel. If you show us the character, you have jumped outside that person’s POV, and it startles the reader.

A novelist has limited ways to tell readers how the character is feeling, so another technique is necessary.

Types of Third Person POV in Novels

Objective – we see outside action only. Thoughts and feelings are revealed only by what characters do or say.

Limited – We see what one person sees, but more important, we can tell what he is thinking and feeling.

Omniscient – We see what all the people see, and we can also see what all of them are thinking and feeling.

Almost nobody writes in third-person objective anymore. Why not? Is there a rule? No. They don’t write in it because it’s not moving enough. It simply cannot compete with the emotions shown on the faces of film and television actors. It’s too objective, which means it is not effective at showing emotion.

But that might suggest that Limited is better and Omniscient will be best. As my old grandmother would say, “If a little bit’s good, a whole lot’s better.” Thus beginning writers want to write in a sort of omniscient style, because they can show all the emotions of everybody.

Wrongo. And here’s why.

Just like with all sorts of medications, the right dose is perfect, and too much spoils the effect. Sometimes fatally.

A Story is a Controlled Dream

Think of the emotional experience that is happening in the reader’s head. When you get to the very basics, as a reader you enter an imaginary experience as if you were the hero. In other words, through the use of your imagination, you turn every story into First Person. We all have experienced dreams. Reading a book or watching a movie is a controlled dream. I don’t know about you, but my dreams are all First Person, and I feel all the emotions personally.

So it stands to reason that the closest we can get to a dream in literature is the First Person, and the second closest is the Third Person Limited. In order to get involved totally in the story, we have to persuade ourselves that we are experiencing the actions and emotions of that character. We see what he sees, we feel what he feels, we think what he thinks.

And the moment the writer asks us to jump into the head of another character and experience a new set of emotions from another point of view, we wake up.

And believe me, dear writer, we don’t want that. It’s like starting from scratch all over again. Oh, sure. Experienced readers are good at it. If the POV changes are clearly indicated, we can hop heads all over the cast list. But we never get as close to the story as we do when we get into one head and stay there for the whole tale. Because in dreams we never get to be anyone else.

And Then There’s Conflict

One of the habits of human nature that we must remember is our love of taking sides. If you happen to choose two different POVs for your book, and those characters are on opposite sides in a conflict, you really put the reader in a bind when you switch POV. Seeing both sides of a problem usually reduces our ability to take sides. Thus the conflict suffers.

Make a Good Choice

So when you’re choosing the POV for your book, realize that usually you’re making the decision based on your convenience as a writer. It’s so much easier to show what’s happening if you can look at it from any character’s vision. You think that you can do that, because of all the movies you watch.

But remember that it isn’t what you’re looking at, it’s what you’re feeling. Every switch of POV causes a loss of emotional contact. It’s a trade-off, and only you can decide how much you’re willing to give away.

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

22 thoughts on “Novel Point of View is NOT Camera Angle”

  1. POV is one of the biggest challenges for writers. What makes it even mote so is that certain authors seem to get away with defying the ‘rules’ (yes, I know, rules can be broken if you know how). I have yet to see it done well. Thanks for shedding some light on this.

    1. Emotional connection is not the be-all-and end-all of novel writing. So if we have other objectives, and we have a good emotional connection with our characters, we can switch POV quite happily and not spoil your story. We just have to be careful and know what we’re doing and why.

  2. Great analogy. I think you really get to the heart of the issue with the confusion on POV. We all want to be mini directors, flashing around, but books are not TV shows or movies. We have a great deal more to work with in some ways, and using that POV well can really enhance our books.

  3. “Every switch of POV causes a loss of emotional contact.”
    Not sure I agree, Gordon. There was a period when my old publisher, Harlequin, allowed only the heroine’s POV in romances. Then it was changed and they wanted the hero’s POV too. Why? Because readers wanted to get closer to the hero. Because, when well done, it can improve the conflict. We can see what she’s thinking, what he’s thinking, we know they’re not on the same page and we understand better why the conflict occurs even while we hope they’ll get their act together. It’s perfectly possible, I’d say, to have good emotional contact with two characters even when they’re in conflict.

    But I do agree that change of POV is often badly done. Best for beginners to change POV only after a chapter break or maybe a clear text break. NOT in the middle of a scene. Nora Roberts can do that. Most people can’t.

    1. Hero and heroine POV is a two-edged sword. Yes, it means you can show us both sides of the story. Which is intellectually pleasing. But the tradeoff is that, as I mention in the article, seeing the conflict from two sides can reduce our ability to take one side and empathize with that person, so we have a reduction in emotional buy-in and in the conflict.
      Not that it can’t be done, and done well. Again, know the rule, and why you’re breaking it.

      1. With romance the conflict is not so much between the characters – we’re (hopefully) not taking sides – but usually with something external whose PoV we don’t see (some scheming brother-in-law, some evil mayor, some terrible lord – depends on the genre and story) which is why switching the PoV works. Ultimately they are not two characters on different sides of the conflict but the two who will team up in the end to overcome the conflict. Readers like both PoVs because they want to “hear” the male thinking all of that romantic mush (like how he must have her, can not live without her, etc). BUT it has backfired for me in a few stories where one or the other was, in my opinion, not likeable and so I spent the story thinking, “Why is she/he putting up with the other one? They’re horrible. Don’t walk, RUN! Run away!” But I guess you could have that even in single PoV because an unlikeable character is unlikeable no matter how much we see of them. Also, romance PoV tends to change at the chapter break and not just willy nilly, which makes a HUGE difference in pulling the reader out of a story, I think. We expect a change up as one chapter ends and a new starts – whether it’s a change of scene, change of day, etc. It’s the ones that swap six or seven times during a single chapter that make me grind my teeth, especially when there’s no clear defining mark and it’s written in first person so you don’t even know which “I” you’re reading about.

    2. Joanna: I, too published with Harlequin and all of my books had multiple POV from the get go. It is entirely possible to lose tension when switching POV. As an indie I say Author Choice. Done right, the book will satisfy readers. Done wrong, it won’t. But we cannot change the mind of a purist. I agree that POV changes are a challenge for new authors, especially those who have never been under contract or had the benefit of professional editors from traditional publishers. POV is just one element of a story though.

  4. Gordon, I think you’re right about authors making an erroneous connection between camera angles and PoV in stories. One of my favorite fantasy series is third-person limited from the main character’s PoV, and much of the “action” in the books is his interior monologue — so much so that I think Hollywood would have a hard time making a movie out of it. 😀

  5. This is probably the /best/ explanation of POV I’ve ever come across. Well done. The only thing I’d disagree with, and this may be personal preference only, is that you should stick to the one version of the ‘dream’. I like being able to see the protagonist from another character’s POV every now and then, and that’s because I never ‘become’ the protagonist. I prefer to stand outside while watching someone I [ususally] like, live an experience. You are probably right about readers not making the switch all that easily.

  6. Great post. Too much of a good thing isn’t good. I’ve heard in a few courses that a writer should evaluate each scene then write it in the POV that’s best suited to deliver the most drama. This is not the same thing as head hopping. For example in Outlander, the scenes from Claire’s POV are written first person and other scenes are written in Jamie’s POV is third person ominiscrnt. It works.

  7. Thank you for the excellent article. I notice lately many flash fiction writers are submitting stories with dialogue only, basically, one liners in quotes, and nothing else except a discussion without script hints. They seem to assume that the reader intuitively understands the discussion going on, which is often not the case. What advice would you give them?

  8. This is something I constantly fight with in my won MS. I write SF/Fantasy, and have characters coming in from other worlds and such. When they finally come together, which POV must I use? Some of the secondary characters are close to being the main POV. And there are elements of some scenes that need to be seen from both POV’s. Very confusing. As a reader, I hate too much head-hopping, so I try to limit it in my own stories.

  9. Excellent post, Gordon, thank you. POV choice and consistency is one of the more difficult concepts newer writers grapple with. You’ve explained it well using the book-t0-movie comparison. Often I’ll look at it this way: is there a reason for including a particular character’s POV? Is that scene better told from another character’s perspective, or are you just doing that because it’s more convenient to swing that POV around and be in everybody’s head? I want to get invested in characters when I read. If an author takes up a lot of “real estate” being in a character’s head and he/she doesn’t really have much to do with the story or never appears again, I get annoyed. But I disagree with you about showing POV from both sides of a conflict. When used well, that can really draw a reader in deeper. Like almost every writing choice, it depends on how you use it.

    1. I’m not saying “don’t use 2 POVs.” I’m just warning about a potential hazard. You trade one advantage for another. It all depends on what the author decides is the most important element of the story.

  10. With a limited pov (and I know it’s not really a camera angle) how can we handle a scene where the mc is elsewhere. I heard an author telling me I cannot have scenes where the mc is absent, since it’s all from his pov. I keep thinking: but… but… but…
    As long as those scenes move the story forward, can there not be things happening in the story that he just does not know about? All would be divulged from the outside, of course, not inside the heads…
    Just seems quite do-able to me…

    1. It’s really tough to come up with a good, simple argument as to why you can’t do that, because, if done properly, you can.
      Just be aware of two things: first, that the maximum empathy is created by being in one character’s head all the time. But maximum empathy for one character is not the be-all and end-all of every story. If you want another effect, then go for it.
      Secondly, be aware of the jolt that can happen if the reader is not expecting a POV switch: for example, if you spend 15 chapters in one person’s head, then suddenly switch to someone else’s. (Yes, I’ve seen that done.)

      1. Thanks so much!
        You know, part of your answer captures my main lack of understanding: I need lots of empathy for another character, too. It’s kind of a collision-of-two-cultures kind of story, and readers need to know both characters a bit, first, and eventually they merge. I’ll try to keep switches to chapter breaks. It’s just a thing of needing to know only what is inside the looney mc’s head. The rest of the characters will be understandable just by their outward appearances. Not head-hopping, but giving the reader a break from the lunacy and a bit of scene setting when he’s not present. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. Hope I’m right. Thanks again!

  11. A general comment that applies to most of these comments.
    Every reader has a little voice in the back of the head that notices when the author manipulates the story too much. We don’t want to give that little voice anything to say. So if your story has a POV change and the reader’s little voice says, “The author only did this because the reader needs to know such-and-such and the POV character couldn’t possibly know it,” then we have a problem. The reader has just discovered that the author isn’t good enough to manage the plot properly.
    The point is that a good author can find ways of getting the information across to the audience without stimulating that little voice.

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