In fiction, consistency in point of view is critical, from making making sure you’re using the right pronouns to helping the reader smoothly follow from one character’s perspective to another. This report helps you check your pronouns for consistency, avoid unnecessary slips into second person point of view, and spot unnecessary or jarring point of view shifts from one character to another.
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Why is consistency with point of view important?
Often, a draft of a manuscript will contain errors in point of view—you might be writing in third person throughout, and suddenly have a paragraph or scene told in first person, or vice versa.
Or, you might be writing a book that alternates point of view, with some characters written in first person and some in third. This report helps you check that you’re being consistent with that structure throughout the novel.
Consistency with pronouns: the pronoun-antecedent rule
Pronouns—he, she, it, they, we, us, etc – are meant to stand for or take the place of a noun.
However, writers often struggle with the pronoun-antecedent rule. This grammar rule says that the pronoun must “agree” with the noun it refers to.
Here’s the rule in a nutshell: If you have a singular noun, you must have a singular pronoun; if you have a plural noun, you must have a plural pronoun. In addition, those pronouns must also match the gender of the noun it refers to.
For example, if I wrote the following sentence, the pronouns don’t agree:
- The car chugged along, her engine groaning.
A car does not have a gender, so the pronoun that matches the car is “its,” not “her.” The correct version should be:
- The car chugged along, its engine groaning.
Here’s another example:
- Jennifer and Kate hung her coat on the rack.
Since there are two nouns that pronoun is referring to, the pronoun needs to be plural. The correct version should be:
- Jennifer and Kate hung their coats on the rack.
It’s easy for even accomplished writers to mix up the pronoun-antecedent rule, so this report is a quick way to double-check your work.
Avoiding second-person slips
In conversation, we mix our points of view easily and often—we’ll start out in first person and then slide into second without even noticing it. For example, someone might say:
- “I was at the doctor, and thought I’d be waiting forever, but the minute you walk in the door there, they have you whisked away to the back. I didn’t even have time to take off my coat!”
See how that went from first person (I, my) to second person (you)? We’re used to this in real life, but in writing, it can be jarring if you do it too much. Occasional use—in dialogue, in passing—is okay, but some writers are in the habit of doing it all the time. This report can help you double-check for places where you might be slipping from first- or third-person point of view to second too often.
Point of view consistency can help you avoid what we call “head hopping.” Head hopping is when you suddenly jump from one narrator’s point of view to another, with no warning to the reader. This can be very confusing to the reader, and is a common problem among even experienced writers.
This problem most often happens because writers are fuzzy on the point of view rules. Basically, the rule of thumb is that only one character should “own” a particular scene. When switching to a new narrator, wait until the end of that scene or chapter. If you switch abruptly to a new point of view in the middle of a scene or chapter, it makes it harder for the reader to follow along.
This issue is most common when writing in omniscient point of view. That means that some unnamed, all-knowing narrator is telling the story, and that narrator has access to every character’s thoughts and feelings.
But that doesn’t mean you can just jump from character to character at any moment – that’s “head hopping” and can be very confusing to the reader.
While you will occasionally find novels that successfully break the rules and contain more than one point of view in a single scene, it’s hard to pull that off well and is a technique that many readers and publishers do not like. Most of the time, a scene works better and reads more smoothly when there is only one point of view per scene.
The exception to the rule
Pronoun use: The exception to the pronoun rule is when you want to use “their” as a singular pronoun. For example:
- “Someone called, but they didn’t leave a message.”
Per strict grammar rules, “someone” is a singular noun, and therefore should correspond with one of our singular pronouns: he, she, or it, as in “Someone called, but he or she didn’t leave a message.”
But in fiction, you can use “they” more casually, as in our example above, or when the gender isn’t known or you don’t want the reader to know the gender of the character for some reason.
The use of “they” as singular pronoun would also be appropriate if you had a transgender character—because “they” is now considered the preferred pronoun for transgender people, you can do the same in fiction.
Related areas to look for in your manuscript
Point of view shifts often happen because of stream-of-consciousness writing—when writers are so busy focusing on the creative side of drafting that they forget to think about things like grammar, point of view, head hopping, and so on.
Another problem that often happens for the same reason is shifts in tense. Tense shifts are when you switch from present tense to past tense, or vice versa, without meaning to. For example, you might write:
- John hesitated in the doorway for a second, aware that every man in the bar was eyeing him. He squares his shoulders and makes himself take a seat. He told himself he had just as much right as anyone else to be there. If they didn’t like it, they could leave. He won’t be driven away.
Here, we start out in past tense, but in the second sentence, we’re in present tense. Then it’s back to past, and then to present again. Watch out for tense shifts. Generally, the rule is to stick with one tense throughout the manuscript or at least within each chapter.
The bottom line
Consistency in point of view requires a close and careful read to make sure your prose is as smooth and easy to follow as possible. Use this report to catch problem areas that might trip up readers and interrupt the flow of the story.