Point of view and psychological distance are closely related literary devices, and how an author approaches both can make or break a reader’s experience. Most of us are familiar with first person, second and third person, but branching out beyond that is a more advanced skill that beginning writers need time to grow into.
Amie edits and typesets books for self-published authors and helps writers polish their work. She is an imaginist, with a lot of ideas floating around in her head and a long list of places still to visit. She’s been swimming in books her whole life, therefore having a career as an editor and book designer was only natural.
On the podcast, Amie dove deep into the nuances of point of view, and psychological distance, giving us a mini-masterclass in the craft of the writing. Listen now.
Point of view is fairly straightforward. Basic literary devices like first person, second person, third person, require the use of pronouns such as she or he, or using You or I. After that, things start to get more complex. For example, third person allows for a character that is omniscient, or as Amie says, someone who is able to dip in and out of the heads of all the characters. Or take third person close, in which we know the thoughts and feelings of specific characters. Related to that, there’s third from far away, which is similar to the second person, in that all we see is what’s on the surface and we don’t necessarily know what’s actually going on in the characters’ heads.
Why POV Matters
POV is the filter through which the reader will experience the book. To create a good experience for the reader, the POV has to stay consistent, lest you lose your reader, or allow the suspension of belief to be broken. As an author, you don’t your reader to be confused or not understand what you’re doing.
What is Psychological Distance?
Psychological distance was first coined by John Gardner, in his book, The Art of Fiction. Gardner defined it as “distance that the reader feels between himself and the events of the story.” Amie makes the analogy that it’s like a movie that starts with a birds-eye view of a city, then zooms in to reveal an apartment, then zooms in closer so that we see the people inside the apartment, then even closer where we can see the character’s face. In a book, we achieve this through language and literary devices to create different dynamics, pacing, voices. By paying attention to psychological distance, writers can address issues that come up in using these different literary devices or points of view.
A Tip for Fixing Point of View Issues
Because keeping point of view consistent is key to creating a good experience for the reader, it’s important to review your manuscript for any issues that might crop up during reading. Amie’s number one tip for finding and fixing point of view problems is to read it out loud. In fact, this is a tip that can be used to find any sort of issue with your manuscript. Reading aloud allows your brain to pick up mistakes that might be missed by your eye. It’s also important to have another person read your manuscript.
On Breaking the Rules and Changing POV
As the adage goes, rules were meant to be broken, the caveat being that you need to know what the rules are before you can break them. A more skilled writer who wants to develop a full cast of characters might try to write from more than one point of view, but in general, a beginning writer is going to write from one point of view. And, some genres have conventions in place that practically demand one point of view, such as YA, where the goal is to get the YA reader to connect with one particular character.
The best way to break the POV consistency rule is to set the expectation at the beginning of the book, so that the reader is not thrown. When using the omniscient point of view, you might “head hop,” or jump from one character’s perspective to another, but this pattern needs to be established early on.
The best time to make decisions about point of view and psychological distance is during the planning stage. Amie recommends writing scenes from different perspectives, and seeing what works. With non-fiction, you may want to use the universal “We” (third person) or speak directly to the reader by using “You.” In fiction, do you want to reveal the inner thoughts and feelings of your characters?, or establish some distance by using the third person. Point of view can be addressed after the book is finished, but it’s much easier to play around with your options during the planning of your book, and make decisions then. No matter what, keep it consistent.
Creating Connection Through Consistency
As an author, you help readers feel connected to the characters in your story by being consistent in your point of view choices. If point of view creates an issue for the reader, they will simply stop reading, and you’ve lost your reader! It’s important to decide the right filter for the book– the filter will make or break the reader’s experience with your book.
Exercising Your POV Muscles
The best way to exercise those POV and psychological distance muscles is to, yes, keep writing, which we’ve all heard a thousand times before. But Amie specifically advises writing the same scene from multiple POVs or writing a letter in your character’s voice. Don’t be afraid to play with different perspectives and observe how these changes impact the story — how does it make you feel? What does it make you think? The goal here is not to achieve perfection right off the bat. This part of the writing process is messy but necessary.