I’m confused about point of view. In my story—so far—I only reveal to the reader what the main character, a child, can see/hear. Not often, but at times, I write that the child “wondered” or he “noticed” or “they looked to him like”… In these cases I would have to be in the child’s head to know these things (maybe “noticed” could be ascertained from the outside). What is the point of view if I talk about what he wondered or thought or what something looked like to him, and what point of view is it if I never do that?

On another note: There are occasional points in the story, however, where it would be expedient to show what’s going on in, for example, a phone conversation that the child can’t hear. Or, for another example, place the reader in a car parked outside an apartment to show two other characters noticing the child walking in the building. I would only show their dialogue and actions, but at no time would I get into any other character’s heads. What point of view is this if I include those scenes with other characters actions that the child can't see, and what is it if I never do? (And just to be sure I understand, what is the point of view if at times, I include what another character is thinking?)

If I stick to describing scenes that the only child and hear and see, that of course is possible, and could be interesting, but, it’s severely limiting. So I’m stuck trying to figure this out before I go too far down any road. So far, there is no scene outside the child’s vision. I had a couple but I cut them on the advice that it might look like a mistake if there were only 1 or 2 of these moments, but what if I want to do it more often (but still not very often)?

Example: In one scene the child is having a phone conversation with his dad. But when he hands the phone back to another character, it would be convenient to keep hearing the conversation between the dad and the other character (but the child can’t hear any it because he left the room). If I stick to only the child’s point of view, then I can't show this and I have to find some way (which is very contrived at this point) to give that additional conversation info to the reader. If I can continue with the conversation, that would be helpful, but I don’t want to make a POV mistake (when is it one?). I might also want to extend scene after the kid leaves the room and the character sets down the phone and discusses what he talked about with another character.

If I do this, what might be a technique for doing this effectively and do you have examples?

I really appreciate the clarification as I've been reading about it online, but still can't seem to apply it my story.


3 Answers 3


When you present the story as a character experiences it, it's third person limited, or third person subjective PoV.

When you don't do that (but still use 3rd person), it's third person omniscient PoV, or third person objective PoV.

It's ok to switch from one character's PoV to the PoV of another character. In fact, one way to categorise a story's major characters is to talk of "PoV characters," i.e., those characters whose PoV's we experience the story through.

Although we can argue nothing is "wrong" in storytelling technique if you manage to pull it off, there are some major issues to keep in mind, such as clarity, consistency, pace, and style. In general, it is considered bad practice to switch PoV's in an undisciplined way, because the story tends to have trouble with all these issues if you do. Instead, the standard advice would be that you very clearly signal to the reader when you are switching PoV's, and don't do this too often. So, for example, it works well if you switch PoV's when you start a new chapter, but never within a chapter. If 99% of the story is from one PoV, you could include small "interludes" or other clearly separated scenes, in 3rd person omniscient, to provide information the PoV character simply would not have.

Alternatively, you can find clever ways to stay in a single PoV. E.g. in your case the child hears grownups talking about something, and you clearly separate his understanding from the reader's: the reader gets useful info, but the child is merely vexed that his parents are talking about "grownupy" things he does not understand or care about.

If you skip around between PoV's without discipline, you can hurt--

Clarity: the reader isn't sure what's going on, because she has been interpreting the narration as telling her what is going on inside a specific character's head, yet this interpretation now fails

Consistency: maintaining a limited PoV is a convention the reader buys into, and when you break the convention, the reader may feel lost

Pace: A PoV change can have an impact similar to a scene change, it is a break in the narration, and if you do this at the wrong time, you can hurt the narration's pace

Style: At the end of the day, we're used to good stories following the "rules" of PoV, and, if you break them, unless you do so very creatively and competently, it will probably just seem amateurish

  • thanks so much, not sure why it's hard to grasp--i mean I get it in the abstract, but I draw a blank w/ my own examples--is there any way you might look at my examples and give any comment? best, R
    – romebot
    Commented Aug 22, 2019 at 22:49
  • please give it a try here in the comments and I will reply if I think I can see any improvements Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 5:41
  • Hello. I mean my examples in my original question.
    – romebot
    Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 7:10
  • Hi. I know. I do strongly recommend you give it a try yourself. Try to answer your own examples, using the material in the answers here. That way, we can see if there's something specific to the way you think about all this than needs more explanation. Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 7:36

In general, a first person POV is where the narrator is a character and says

I pointed the gun at his head. I said, "Notice, I am taking the safety off."

He spit at me.

Stories have been told in 1P but each chapter from a different character, but only from one character at a time.

The 2nd person POV is where the narrator makes YOU the character in the story.

You run to the end of the hall, but the woman is already gone. You exit the building, and cannot see her anywhere. You return to your apartment door, wondering if you should even touch this package.

The 3rd person POV comes in multiple flavors, and is the most often used. In all cases, the narration is always "He did this, She did that" etc. Dialogue tags are always "he said" or "Cathy said" or "they shouted" etc. Never "I said", never "you said." Also, the narrator never addresses the reader directly; nothing like "I'm not telling you what Harry discovered."

3rd Person Omniscient means the narrator knows all the thoughts and feelings of every character, and can switch amongst them at will.

The biggest writing problem with 3PO is not cheating the reader. Once they know that the narrator knows everything, they expect the narrator to tell them anything important. This makes it very difficult for Larry to lie to Mary, without the reader knowing Larry lied to Mary.

For example, suppose Mary grew up with a single Mom, now deceased, and Larry is her actual Father. You can't really save that as a twist for the end, and pretend this is never on Larry's mind when he seeks out Mary and tries to help her. If you are telling us Larry's thoughts and feelings, it is unfair to hide the facts of his motivation.

Third Person Limited (3PL) means you tell the story from the POV of one character, or often one character per chapter. It is bad form to mix POV's within a chapter.

That is limiting, you are correct that you cannot skip for a paragraph to the stalker's POV if you are in Cindy's POV. You can write from her stalker's POV, but then you can't tell us how Cindy is feeling about something, or what she's thinking. That is cheating, you should be in 3PO all along, but then you have the problem with characters keeping secrets.

You also have this problem if you are in 3PL and switch to the secret-keeper's POV, again, once we are in the POV the reader expects any major secrets to be revealed (thought about).

But there is another switch-up; 3PL can be shallow or deep. A shallow 3PL still follows one character, and doesn't show what they cannot sense, but doesn't talk about their thoughts or feelings. It is like watching a movie: absent any voice-overs, we only SEE and HEAR the characters, we don't know what they are thinking unless they tell us.

That is how they can get away with following a character, working alone, that we only realize much later is a villain. In 3PL shallow we just watch them doing and saying things. That may not sound like good writing, but I'd say movies have enjoyed some measure of success as entertainment, so it can't be too bad.

Most 3PL is deep, meaning whichever character you are following, the narrator is privy to their thoughts, feelings, confusion, and entire mental state.

In general, even within 3PL, you should pick a lane and drive in it. Confused POV or sometimes omniscient, sometimes deep, sometimes shallow, is just disorienting to the reader. If you are a beginner without a track record of successful sales, agents and publishers will likely reject a book that tries to mix multiple flavors of 3PL. (They offer leeway to authors with a proven fan base, they can count on those sales. That's why bestselling authors can get away with doing stuff that would get a beginner rejected.)

For the OP specifically:

when the child leaves the room, it would be convenient if the reader kept with the conversation ...

...that would be helpful, I might also want to extend the scene

two people see the child walking into a building, and have a conversation about him ...

I would try very hard to eliminate these, more on that in a minute. Presuming it is impossible to sustain tension without scenes like this, I would indicate a scene change with three asterisks (***) centered on a line, followed by a POV change, to 3PL shallow. Meaning, pick some character (the guy on the phone, the driver of the char) and describe what they are doing as if in a movie, no thoughts, no feelings, no memories, no sensations, no description of the past of the character, just visuals and sound. Visualize the scene and pretend you can only see it through a camera. e.g., don't write "Jack was bored watching the building ..." That is a feeling. You can say,

Jack and Bill sat in the car. Bill was asleep, his hand on an expensive looking camera in his lap. Jack's head was drooping, his eyes closing for long seconds. As Marcus turned the corner, Jack suddenly grew alert and sat up, giving a back handed slap on the shoulder to Bill. Bill startled awake and automatically brought up the camera.

"That's the kid there," Jack said.

If you do this, it is very important to do it early. Find an excuse to do it in one of the first scene changes, like in the first ten pages or so (about 3% of the story). It is also something you should do often enough so the reader knows what it means, there's no hard rule, but once the reader sees one of these switches, they expect them throughout the book, and will anticipate them all the way into the final Act. In a way, these "asides" become like a story of their own and need their own arc, meaning these "outsiders" have a problem, it gets complicated, maybe it gets less complicated, then it gets resolved (they definitively succeed or fail).

So this is (IMO) not a technique you should use in just the first third or half of the story, that is probably a shortcut to exposition you should not be taking, because it will make the reader wonder where the outside POVs went.

If you have other scene changes within a chapter that STICK with the kids 3PL Deep POV, then in addition to the "***" you should signal these outsider 3PL Shallow POVs somehow.

I would do that by ensuring every one of them began with a name that is not the kid's name, i.e. the first word is a proper name like "Jack" or "Cheryl" or "Susan".

But when you talk about the MC, begin without a name, and use the 3PL Deep POV in the beginning (something that the reader quickly learns only applies to the kid). for example,

The smell of chili cooking made him realize he was hungry. He paused the cartoon on his phone and rose to investigate what was happening in the kitchen.

Both of those sentence depend on 3PL Deep; sensations and the reason he was rising. Versus 3PL Shallow:

Susan was leaned back in her chair, reading a folder. She closed it and sighed, then straightened up and picked up her phone, dialing a number on it, elbows on her desk. Richard answered her call.

"Susan? You got my report?"

"I did, and it's bullshit, Richie. Bullshit!"

"I know, don't pull the plug, not yet."

Let me make it clear this is not the only technique that will work; the point here is to devise a stylistic contrast between your 3PL Deep POV with the MC, and the 3PL Shallow POV with everyone else, so the reader never feels disoriented by the transitions.

  • @Amadeaus thanks for a clear explanation, but somehow I draw a blank w/ my own examples...if you have the time/inclination to comment on my specific scenarious, would be grateful... best, R
    – romebot
    Commented Aug 22, 2019 at 22:50

If you move out of the child's POV, make it really obvious.

  • Move that scene to its own chapter. Call it "Interlude" or something. Have the non-child POV scene be the only scene in the chapter.

  • If your book has Parts which are labeled, have this non-child POV scene only at the beginning of a Part, almost like a prologue.

It's fine if you use this technique judiciously, but try not to overdo it. If you're finding it's too hard, then you may have to rethink the POV structure of your story.

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