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Overcome The Limitations Of First Person POV: 5 Ways

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Would You Like to Overcome the Limitations of First Person POV?

Have you ever wanted to do the impossible in your stories?

That is, to have your narrator be everywhere and know everything, while staying in the first person point-of-view (pov)?

It sounds like a paradox. How can Jim, a normal human being, know what’s happening in Ellie’s kitchen three miles away, without clairvoyance or technology? And how can he know what she’s thinking at that moment, unless he is telepathic?

That’s the big drawback of staying in one character’s pov. It brings great intimacy to a story. The reader is within that person’s mind. But it also limits what the character can plausibly know or experience.

What’s the answer?

A work-around. Or rather, five of them. Here they are:

 

1. Introduce a ‘time slip’.

 

The narrator flashes forward to a future time, the period in which they’re actually telling the story and looking at events in retrospect.

‘At that moment, could I have seen it, Ellie was hiding her diary – with its terrible secrets – behind the loose brick in the kitchen wall. But that became clear to me only six months later. By then, it was too late.’

The reader is then returned from the future to the ‘present time’ of the story. The flash forward is barely noticed but the reader has been given information that the narrator could not have known at the time, plus a little scene hanger to tempt them to read on. And the pov stays with the narrator.

 

2. Drop in a speculation.

 

The narrator imagines what might be happening elsewhere.

‘I wondered what Jim might be doing at that moment. Saturday morning, the shooting range. It was a ritual. But who was he shooting at, really, every time he squinted his eyes and squeezed fifteen rounds from his Beretta 92FS into that paper target? I shuddered.’

If the narrator is imaginative, they can slip – speculatively – into the viewpoint of any character without leaving their chair.

 

3. Invoke a plausible ‘vision’.

 

Perhaps the narrator suffers some traumatic shock, or has a vivid dream, or their mind is distorted by fever, drugs or alcohol. They experience a ‘vision’ of something they could not know but which, perhaps, turns out to be true.

‘It was not possible but, in my dream, I saw Elmore knock on our door. My wife opened it. She beckoned him in. She was wearing only a smile and a negligee. It was not possible.’

Of course, these hallucinations are more believable if the narrator already has some glimmerings of the truth which their subconscious then pieces together. But it’s not necessary, so long as the narrator has a convincing reason to lapse into an altered state of consciousness.

 

4. Recreate a scene.

 

This is a favorite in crime fiction. The detective, or somebody playing that role, deliberately reconstructs an event they did not witness. They can do it for themselves in a private reflection or explain it to another character.

‘ “Let’s suppose the perp entered by the back door here…” I laid a knife on the table. “And our victim was watching television here.” I put a napkin in front of it. “His back was turned. The television was loud. He wouldn’t have heard a thing.” I stabbed the knife in the napkin.’

Or the narrator can play a ‘what if’ game in their heads.

‘Suppose the door had been unlocked? And the television was tuned to the Super Bowl? That’s loud. And the killer was wearing sneakers. Maybe he crept slowly…’

A narrator can also use the ‘what if’ strategy to simulate the thinking process of another character.

‘So where had Doris hidden my passport? Normally, she kept her valuables in the jewelry drawer but that didn’t sound right. The cookie jar? She had a few dollar bills saved there for emergencies. No. Where were our wedding photos? Stuffed in the shoe closet. Of course. I went to the shoe closet.’

 

5. Let body language ‘speak’ a character’s thoughts.

 

An astute narrator can deduce what a character might be thinking or feeling by their body language. So can any other character, and they can reveal it in their body language. There’s no need for an awkward shift to another person’s pov.

‘ “Forgive me, Ms. Smith, but are you correctly attired for a job interview?” The chairman gazed at the ceiling. He doesn’t like my lip stud.

“Some of our customers might find it,” the woman’s smile was cold, “a mite aggressive.” She doesn’t like it either.’

Now we know what both characters think. And if one or other stiffened or leaned back in their chairs we’d also know how they felt. Threatened. The narrator wouldn’t need to spell it out.

 

We can use any or all of these techniques to simulate a shift in pov while staying within the narrator’s viewpoint. That can be important in a short story where the immediacy of a single pov can have great power, and there is little space to rotate viewpoints between characters.

In a novel, there’s more space to shift between 2-3 povs, but even then, it’s important to stay primarily within one pov. Otherwise, the reader gets confused. These work-arounds keep our stories in focus.

What problems have you had with point of view? And what solutions have you found? Leave a comment and share your experiences!

 

About the author:

Dr John Yeoman, tutor in creative writing at a UK university, judges the Writers’ Village story competition. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that succeed in his free 14-part course at Writers’ Village.

Image: Overcome limitations courtesy of Bigstockphoto.com

 

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27 thoughts on “Overcome The Limitations Of First Person POV: 5 Ways”

  • Ali Jayne says:

    This was a great article, thank you!

    There is another POV solution that I often find in the books I read, and sometimes in the books I edit, using two or more personal POV’s. Sometimes this flips every chapter, odd numbers is one character, even numbers is the other character, sometimes it’s indicated by a pause “***” mid-chapter.

    From the point of view of a reader, I enjoy this option because you get to know the intimate thoughts of more than one main character, which builds the tension – who is really the bad guy, who is the good one?! The lines blur and change…constantly.

    As a writer, I quite like this option because it allows you to get into the psyche of both of your main characters :)

    Ali Jayne
    Ali Jayne recently posted..O CanadaMy Profile

  • John Yeoman says:

    Ali, that’s an interesting technique. To flip the pov between two protagonists works very well – David Morrell uses it a lot. But it can be very confusing in amateur hands! Perhaps the answer lies in giving each protagonist a different idiom (idiolect) or character signature in each scene so we always know where we are. Hm, I feel another blog post coming on…

  • These are good techniques. I’d never heard these discussed before. I always assumed that part of the appeal of first person was the unknown, the idea that everything is filtered through a unique, subjective frame, which leaves just enough wonder in the mind of the reader. So, I’ve embraced the limits of first person, but it’s good to know that I could add layers to it using various techniques. Thanks!
    Sarah L. Webb recently posted..Beautiful Skin by Goodie MobMy Profile

  • Carolyn McKenzie says:

    I found this very interesting and helpful – great points to remember for future writing. I’m a real fan of The Writers’ Village and Write to Done so keep up the fantastic posts both of you.

  • John Yeoman says:

    Thanks, Sarah and Carolyn!

  • Thanks for the interesting article and to t he commenters. I haven’t used the “recreate the scene” or “speculate” — will keep them in mind if I write another first person novel (or more likely, WHEN I do).

    The dual POV chatacters strikes me as tricky, in that keeping the voices of the two separate and distinct would require some effort. While I’ve never done this, I did have five (gulp) POV characters in my last novel, and I ended up assembling each of the voices into a single document after I was “done” so I could go over each for voice.

    • John Yeoman says:

      Wow, Margaret. Five pov characters? It sounds like Pirandello… Perhaps it would work if they were of very different ages and genders (and one was a dog). Otherwise, you’d certainly have a problem keeping their identities distinct.

  • Bea says:

    As usual, John, I’ve learned a lot from your post today. It’s definitely one to keep referring to. Thank you.

    Apropos of letting body language do the speaking for the non-viewpoint character, have you seen the “Non-verbal Dictionary”? It’s a free online resource which seems very useful for writers. You can check it out here: http://www.nonverbal-dictionary.org/#NonVerbal

  • DonettaS says:

    I seen the first comment from Ali. I had thought of that as I was reading through the techniques used on this post. One of my favorite novels uses ‘flipping’ of each character. In ‘Drowning Ruth’ by Christina Schwarz, she tells the story from the POV of each main character, which is three total. At the beginning of a chapter, or at times a break in paragraphs, she has typed the character’s name before beginning so the reader doesn’t have to guess who’s POV they are following After reading this post, I glanced back over ‘Drowning Ruth’ and seen how other styles were used, such as, a main character, Amanda, remembering something her sister had said as children. It’s quite interesting and after you pointed out here about POV, I can see where this could prove to be hard. She helps by listing who’s POV the reader is learning from, but she also has to give the reader knowledge of her sister without that technique because her sister is dead.
    This is an interesting topic and one I need to practice at a lot. Thank you for your wonderful post and sharing your knowledge.

  • Courtney says:

    Excellent tips. Poorly handled POV can be so confusing!
    Courtney recently posted..An Open Letter to The Province Newspaper Subscriber ServicesMy Profile

  • Thanks, Dr. Yeoman. I just signed up for your free course, and shared it with my Facebook and Twitter followers.

    In point 5, I assume that the italicized words are what the reader would deduce from the body language?
    Kathy Steinemann recently posted..Releasing the Words: Writers on WritingMy Profile

    • John Yeoman says:

      Welcome to my course, Kathy! The italicized words are supposed to indicate what the narrator has deduced from the couple’s body language. The reader might have made those deductions independently but it does no harm to spell them out. BTW: Italics are always a handy way to indicate thoughts or reflections without writing endlessly ‘she thought’. If you use italics to excess, of course as Dan Brown does, they become just a lazy way of writing.

  • pd workman says:

    Brilliant! I have seen (and probably used) all of these methods before, but I never would have tied them together as the solution to POV problems. Instead, I’d sit there staring at my computer screen trying to think my way out of the box I just wrote myself into. Thank you for your thoughts!
    pd workman recently posted..When do you find time to write?My Profile

  • Joanne says:

    I hate technique #1, really like 2,4 and 6.
    Another technique is to have other characters tell (in dialogue) what has happened elsewhere, or what they’re thinking, feeling, etc.
    Great post!

  • Bangla Blog says:

    Very nice post. Thank you

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