One of the most common structural reasons a person’s manuscript may receive the cold shoulder from an agent or publisher follows from the apparently random admixture of narrative points of view within a story.
Let’s begin with a simple rule: A self-contained unit of a work should employ a single point of view. Ideally, the entire work follows from the same POV, but at a minimum, a chapter that starts in First Person Protagonist shouldn’t end up seguing into Second Person. Stories with inconsistent points of view require a very heavy editing lift to get them into shape, which is why POV confusion is such a barrier to publication: You can’t fix the error with just a few light edits to punctuation or word choice.
Authors select from one of eight points of view:
- First Person Protagonist — The story is told from the perspective of a main character. Like all the first-person approaches, the typical pronouns are “I” and “we,” and this POV is most conductive to unreliable narrators.
- First Person Witness — The main character’s story is told from the point of view of a different character; the “I” refers to the secondary character who serves as narrator.
- First Person Anecdotal — The story is told by a character about the main character, not as a witness but rather as a person who had learned the story from some other source. Think of your grandfather talking about what your uncle told him about the uncle’s latest vacation.
- Second Person — The writer uses “you” to talk to the reader, from the perspective of the protagonist. This style is hard to pull off in long-form fiction and is, as such, rare.
- Third Person Omniscient — A non-character narrator knows everything, including thoughts and feelings of all individual characters, but only knows what the characters know. Like all third-person approaches, the typical pronouns are “he,” “she,” “it” and “they.”
- Third Person Subjective — The narrator has access to the thoughts and motives of some characters, but not to all of them; if the narrator is limited to a single character, then the mode is called Third Person Limited. This over-the-shoulder style is the dominant form in novel-length fiction. One caveat, though: the narrator’s access should be fixed to a single character in the chapter. Other chapters can be told from the perspective of different characters, but there should be no changes within a chapter.
- Third Person Objective — The narrator enjoys no access to the inner thoughts, feelings or motivations of characters; think of this perspective as being a newspaper reporter telling a story she sees unfold before her.
- Universal Omniscient — the narrator knows information that’s unknown (or even unknowable) to the characters. Considered by some to be a variant of third-person omniscient.
From these eight POVs, an author crafts a story. But perspective can go awry. It’s relatively common for less experienced authors to flip among the three third-person POVs within a single scene.
Things to watch for during your self edit include:
- Picking the right POV. The “feel” of a story depends in large part on the narrative perspective. POV selection is a trade-off between intimacy with your main character and rounding out the reader’s understanding of a scene’s dynamics. If you picked the wrong POV at the start and then transitioned to a better one, good — but you need to rewrite the beginning to match the final POV.
- Living within the boundaries of the POV you’ve chosen. If you pick Third Person Limited, then you simply cannot assert what some other character thinks or feels, within that same chapter. Period. Nor should there arise a situation where the narrator, in an omniscient POV, doesn’t know something.
- Avoiding an over-reliance on narration to assert important plot points. Too many authors depend on the narrator to introduce some fact that conveniently addresses (but hardly resolves) a plot hole. In general, the characters should advance the plot, not the narrator, so when stories include the deus ex machina solutions that appear from the narrative ether, editors recoil. Many of those implausible resolutions include characters “suddenly remembering” or evidencing some skill or knowledge that heretofore hadn’t been known to the reader.
Readers can tell when you flip from a predominantly limited POV to an omniscient one. It’s cheating to write in, say, Third Person Limited then introduce some unknown fact and then claim you were writing Universal Omniscient the whole time. We readers know better.
Point-of-view errors sometimes prove hard to uncover if you’re not looking for them, but depending on the size of the slip, can require substantial rewriting to correct. Careful attention to POV early in the drafting phase can spare much wailing and gnashing of teeth later in the writing process.