As editors happily reading our way through the slush pile of new submissions, we see things that often work and things that often don’t. When it comes to point of view, we’ve identified some common pitfalls and hopefully some helpful tips!
No matter what point of view you choose for your piece, consistency is important. That’s not to say there can’t be multiple POVs (although that can be a challenge to do in a short story), but the choice of viewpoint should have a purpose and serve the narrative. If, halfway through the story, the voice changes from first-person past tense to third-person present tense, there should be a good reason and the story should benefit from that POV switch. Avoid unintentionally confusing your reader!
Before we dive into heads, a few disclaimers: (1) This is a blog post, so it can’t cover everything. There are many variations of first, second, and third-person, including hybrid viewpoints, and I’m just going to hit some highlights. (2) These are not rules; there are always exceptions. (3) What do I know, eh? Write the story you want to write!
You may have heard advice that goes something like this: Never write in second-person. It’s too difficult to pull off. No one likes reading it. Don’t do it.
This kind of absolute can be bad advice. If you want to write in second-person, go for it! That being said, second-person can be a hard sell.
I admit that while reading submissions, I have said to myself, “Hm, second-person. This better be good.” It’s a personal bias, but not an uncommon one. Second-person is a turnoff for many readers, and writers should be aware of that.
Want to see second-person done well? Check out Alyssa Wong’s “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” (nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo) and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (won the Hugo). These are both beautiful, masterful works of fiction. Second-person can be done well (but we can’t all be Alyssa Wong or N.K. Jemisin).
Opinions on first-person vary among the Apparition Lit editors. Some of us really enjoy first-person. Some of us find first-person a bit of a hurdle, though not a deal-breaker.
What I like about first-person is getting to be inside the narrating character’s head. This can be a fantastic, immersive experience for the reader.
A common pitfall is the overuse of filter words. Filtering occurs when the author unnecessarily distances the reader from the character’s experience. Possible filter words include feel, realize, seem, hear, and see. Here’s an example.
- With filter words: I watched as the dark figure approached. I could hear the snow crunching under each staggered step. I felt myself shiver.
- Without the filter words: The dark figure approached, snow crunching under each staggered step. I shivered.
Neither example is phenomenal writing, but for purposes of illustrating overuse of filter words, the latter is stronger than the former.
Third-person has a few variations, and everyone has their preferences. I really enjoy third-person limited. In limited, the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of only one character and observes all the other characters externally. You can have multiple POVs in third-person limited, but your characters have to take turns.
For me, third-person limited can be just as immersive as first-person. A common problem we see is when the limited viewpoint is violated and the author has accidentally head-hopped or has made an observation the POV character would not have made.
- Head-hop example: Taco declared that first-person point of view will be always and forever her favorite point of view, and her sarcasm was not lost on Rebecca.
If our third-person limited viewpoint is supposed to be Taco, then this sentence accidentally hops into Rebecca’s head. Taco would need to hear Rebecca laugh or see her eye-roll to know that she got the joke.
- Example of just not true-to-character: Amy ran her delicate fingers through her soft-as-silk, flaxen hair.
We see this kind of flowery thing a lot. If you’re in third-person limited, is that sentence true to Amy’s character and how she sees herself? When Amy brushes her hair out of her face, is she aware of how delicate her fingers are and whether or not her hair is silky? Would she describe her hair color as flaxen? Maybe. You’re the author, and Amy is your character. And maybe Amy is a super narcissist who thinks like this. But if Amy is a normal human, then this description feels unnatural and just plain weird.
I hope these are helpful examples. They’re not strict Apparition Lit editor rules. Tell your story in the viewpoint that rings true for you. If you aren’t sure if your choice in point of view is working, try it in another viewpoint and see what you think. Maybe the story you wrote in third-person really comes alive when you rewrite it in first-person.
Play around with point of view and see what strengthens your story. We look forward to reading it!