1.5.17 – Choosing a Point Of View for Your Novel

By J.T. Ellison

I’m in the dreaded beginning of my next novel, and it’s been very slow going for the past month.

The first 25,000 words are always difficult for me (I believe I’ve compared it to pulling teeth) but this beginning in particular is being a pain in my butt. The point of view (POV) keeps wanting to shift, which tells me something is desperately wrong with the story.

Normally I’d say it’s the story itself that’s the problem, but this time, I’ve completely outlined the book, from start to finish. I know the turns, the hooks, all of it. It’s a solid story, with a lot of subtleties (maybe too subtle to start, since I’m more used to writing wham bam thank you, ma’am beginnings, and I am exploring this as an issue). Maybe the outline and subtleties are a bit of the problem—my roadmap is too clear—but I think the real issue is the POV.

There are five distinct POVs in this book: three women, Vivian, Lauren, and Juliet; one teenager, Mindy; and one male, Zach.

Reason (and sanity) dictates I stick with close third for Lauren, Juliet, Mindy, and Zach. Vivian, for reasons that will go unmentioned at the moment, has a first person POV role of narrator. Which is all good.


Lauren started talking in first person. And that confused the voice for Vivian in my head.

I normally write in what I like to refer to as close third. It is a version of third person, past tense. Almost all my books are written this way. It’s a wonderful POV, very straightforward and easy to navigate.

What do I mean by close third? You, the reader, are very close to the character. So close that I could easily intersperse “me” and “I” for “she” and “her” and you might not notice right away. We are deeply inside the character’s head, observing and experiencing in real time, but I also have the ability to observe from outside, move into memories, and move to other character’s POVs.


First person, present tense: I enter the room and see the bed is on fire. Smoke chokes the air from the room. I am terrified. I turn and run, slamming the door behind me. Juliet calls to me, her voice a beacon.

Third person, present tense: Lauren enters the room and sees the bed is on fire. The smoke is thick; she can’t see or breathe. She is terrified, and rushes away, slamming the door behind her. Juliet calls to Lauren, her voice a beacon.

First person, past tense: I entered the room only to see the bed was on fire. Heavy smoke permeated the air, making it hard for me to see. Terrified, I ran from the room, slamming the door behind me. Juliet called to me, her voice a beacon.

Close third: Lauren entered the room and saw the flames dancing, shredding the bedclothes. The smoke was thick enough to make her eyes tear, and she rushed out, terrified, slamming the door behind her. She could hear Juliet calling, her voice a beacon.

First person is always going to be the most intimate. But it’s limited to that person’s view alone. I can’t see what Mindy is thinking, or Juliet. The observations are straightforward and immediate. It’s not my typical novel form, and I don’t feel terribly confident in it for something long-form. Short stories, sure. But a whole novel? I fear it won’t hold up.

I switched to close third for Juliet’s first scene, and it felt very comfortable. But when I tried that for Lauren, it didn’t. Lauren was still speaking in first person, present tense.

So I’ve been dithering for a couple of weeks now, wrestling with these changes in voice. WTF, right?

Finally, I started complaining that I’ve been stuck, and then sought out the advice of a couple of friends, one of whom read two chapters, one in each format. She affirms what my gut was saying—it was too jarring to move from close third, past tense to first person, present. I know authors who can do it. I’m not one of them.

So this morning I set out to change Lauren back to close third.

Of course, she didn’t like that at all. She wants to be heard, and heard immediately.

And oddly, a whole new POV cropped up. Currently, she’s in third person, present tense (see above). Things are unfolding through her eyes in real time. It puts a bit of a crimp in my style as far as the other characters, but the intimacy is there, and I think we’re going to have to be in her head in some way for her story to have the proper impact.

This may all change another ten times before I finish. Storytelling is generally not this much of a struggle for me, so I’m still looking closely at why I’m having a hard time kicking things off. I’ve been blaming it on the research, of which I did copious amounts today, and that helped me leapfrog to the spot where the story really begins.

Which begs the question—have I, as I am wont to do, started in the wrong place? One of the big differences between thriller and domestic noir is the slower unfurling of information. Domestic noir isn’t as in-your-face upfront as the thrillers I’m used to writing, especially at the beginning. There’s a hook, for sure, but this one isn’t a drop-a-body-on-page-two kind of story. Not in the way you’re used to from me, that is.

This does have a wham bam opening, it’s just a little quieter and different than my normal, so I’m probably being too hard on myself.

Regardless, I will continue questioning myself and my story. Am I trying to be too omniscient? Not omniscient enough? And what’s with this chick wanting us to be inside her head? It’s not a great place, I’ll tell you that up front.

No matter what happens, it’s a chance to grow as a writer, for sure.

What do you think about POV? Do you have a favorite style?

Via: JT Ellison


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