Category Archives: point of view character

What parents want writing teachers / tutors to teach

When parents ask for writing help for their children, what kind of help do they want?Child writing

  • Grammar?
  • Vocabulary?
  • Sentence structures?
  • Organizing?
  • Transitions?
  • Introductions and hooks?
  • Conclusions?
  • Spelling?
  • Cursive handwriting?
  • Details?
  • Revising?
  • Particular types of writing (paragraphs? essays? book reports? short answer responses? long answer responses? summaries?)
  • Narrative elements (character development? plot? setting? foreshadowing?  point of view? conflict? dialog? voice? suspense?)
  • Verb tenses?
  • Paraphrasing?
  • Clarity?
  • Dialog?
  • Figures of speech?

Most parents have no idea so many elements combine to create good writing.  When they see a list like this, they are taken aback.

That is why it is important for parents and teachers to agree on what students should learn at various ages.  If a parent thinks the student should be perfecting grammar, but the teacher instead focuses on organization of information, the parent will not be happy.  Or if a parent thinks a student should be using a great piece of rhetoric as a model, but the teacher wants the student to develop his own way of expression, again the parent will be dissatisfied.

Only when a parent is aware of all that a student is expected to learn can the parent and teacher have a meaningful conversation about how to improve a student’s writing.

Should your fiction have more than one point of view?

Tolstoy was a master of point of view.  When Anna Karenina begins, we learn about events from the perspective of Steva, Anna’s brother.  His way of deflecting responsibility for the chaos he causes—“[My] stupid smile is responsible for everything”—gives us insights into not only his personality but his morality.

boy writing on a window benchSeveral scenes later we are at a ball where 18-year-old Kitty watches as her suitor, Count Vronsky, the man she expects to propose at any moment, is captivated by the dazzling Anna.  We could be seeing this scene through the eyes of Count Vronsky, hearing why he finds Anna so captivating.  Or we could see it through Anna’s eyes, as she relishes her sexual power over Vronsky.

But Tolstoy lets us see the scene as one of betrayal through the eyes of unsophisticated Kitty.  She enters the scene as the belle of the ball, literally. She sees Anna and admires her, like everyone else, only gradually realizing that Vronsky has been swept off his feet by Anna.  Kitty’s hopes and dreams are shattered as Vronsky ignores her.  Her night of triumph turns into a night of horror.  And we, the readers, perceive all this through the mind of Kitty.

Both scenes offer emotional appeal, but because of the point of view Tolstoy chooses, that emotional appeal is intensified.

Are there any rules for changing point of view?  I’ve read that using more than two points of view in a novel is confusing for the reader, and that deciding on one point of view and sticking to it is better.  But as Tolstoy shows, multiple points of view can work, especially in a long novel written by a master.

So how do you decide?

  • If your piece of writing is short, probably one point of view is better. The reader doesn’t have time to switch back and forth in perspectives.  The writing can feel disjointed with more than one point of view.
  • If your writing is longer than a short story, two or more points of view can work, but usually the writer focuses on one protagonist and that protagonist determines the primary point of view.  Usually that point of view is either first person or third person limited (limited to that one character’s point of view).  I have read novels in which the point of view goes back and forth between two main characters–alternating with chapters–but it feels gimmicky to me unless there are two or three story lines.
  • Should you change point of view in a single work? Unless you are an accomplished writer who presents a second character with a unique perspective that enriches the work or acts as a foil to your protagonist, you should probably stick to a single point of view.  A novel is a biased form of writing, biased in favor of the protagonist.  Through speech or actions we can hear or see the perspective of other characters without interrupting the flow of one character’s point of view.

How to end a scene with style

Some student writers reach an exhaustion point when writing a narrative.  They are too tired to continue.  They want to stop—mid-sentence, if I’d let them—and write “To be continued,” as if that would solve their problem.

“You can do better than that,” I tell them, and together we brainstorm better breaks which will lure readers back to the next section of their narratives.

Point of view shifts. If all the action has been told from one character’s perspective, add a final sentence to show that someone else is watching.  “And so Little Red Riding Hood kissed her mother goodbye, waved and skipped through the dark forest, unaware that a big, bad wolf was watching and licking his lips.”  When the student resumes writing this piece, it can be from the wolf’s point of view.

To use a cliffhanger effectively, something must happen just before the end of the chapter, something that leaves the reader wondering.  “Mia crumpled up the test paper with the low grade and pouted.  She had studied so hard for that test.  She had—She felt a tap on her elbow from Ben, who sat behind her.  He passed his cell phone out of sight of their teacher, Mrs. Miller.  Mia read the text message.  “Are you all right?  For god’s sake, tell me you’re all right!”

Traveling or going to sleep. A scene can easily end with a character getting in the back seat of the car or on a spaceship.  When the next scene starts, the character can have arrived at her destination, a new location.  The actual traveling can be skipped over.  Or a character can go to bed for the night or take a nap, and when he awakens, a new scene begins without any explanation of how he slept or what he dreamed about.

Dialog.  If Hermione says to Harry Potter, “You better be extra careful, Harry,” and the scene ends, we, the readers, are led to believe Hermione’s words are important.  We suspect Harry will find himself in trouble soon.  For dialog to be an effective scene ender, the dialog needs to seem significant.  If one character says, “Bye,” and the other character says, “Bye,” that is not significant.

Foreshadowing.  A toddler is running around willy-nilly, and nearby a pregnant woman puts her hand on her abdomen, feeling an active baby kicking.  She smiles.  Or Cinderella hops into the carriage that will take her to the ball when one of her slippers falls off.  She laughs and slips it back on, waving to her fairy godmother.

None of these scene endings takes many words, just a sentence or two.  But they are far more elegant than slapping “To be continued” at the end of a sentence in the middle of a thought.  With a good scene ending, the writer lures the reader back.  The reader wants to continue reading.

How to end a scene with a page-turner


Have you ever gone to bed with a novel, planning to read for 20 minutes or so, and found yourself still engrossed an hour later?

How do good writers keep readers captivated ?

Good writers use cliff hangers to end a scene. Cliff hangers can be major events like who shot J.R. Ewing.  In the TV show ”Dallas” in the 1980s, viewers wondered all post-season who shot the villainous J.R. They tuned in in record numbers for the season opener in the fall.  The screen writer of that show wrote a huge cliff hanger.  But cliff hangers can also be small.  Who sent Mom a single rose when it wasn’t even her birthday?  And why did they do it?  Turn the page to find out.

Good writers foreshadow coming events to end a scene. When a grinning Rhett Butler watches Scarlett O’Hara ascend the stairs of the Wilkes mansion, Scarlet feels uncomfortable.  Later when Scarlett discovers that Rhett has overheard her baring her soul to Ashley Wilkes, Scarlet is mortified.  Her early discomfort foreshadows her later embarrassment.

Good writers end a scene with a change of action.  Shakespeare did this all the time in his plays.  A love scene is followed by a murder is followed by comic relief.  Police mysteries show a detective reaching a dead end  when the medical examiner phones to say he has discovered something.  We keep reading.

Good writers shift the point of view (POV) to end a scene.  Leo Toystoy starts Anna Karenina from the point of view of cavalier Stephen Oblonsky as he blames his affair with his children’s governess on his silly smile and his vibrant personality. Then the scene shirts to the head of his distraught wife, pregnant with her seventh child, who can see no option but to leave him.

Good writers use monologue or dialog to end a scene, and they write last words or last thoughts that are significant.  One character might admonish another to heed advice.  One character might rue the day he agreed to a blind date as he pushes a doorbell.  We turn the page to find out if he is right.

Good writers use surprise to end a scene. What if the guy ringing the doorbell is met by a huge dog, or a wise-cracking little sister, or his drop-dead beautiful date. . .and her big brother chaperone?

What all of these scene endings have in common is a question.  We, the readers or viewers, want to know something.  And so we keep reading.

Use cubing to entice your students into prewriting activities

My favorite prewriting organizer is a mindweb because of its informality and flexibility.

But I have recently discovered another organizer—the cube—which I am sure to use more of. Let me suggest you try it to. Here’s how.

A cube is just what it says, a six-sided three-dimensional shape. You can make one out of paper easily. (Go online to http://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Paper-Cube.com  or to other cube-making websites for easy directions).

Or you can buy an already made plastic cube or use a child’s block. The cube needs to be big enough to tape a word on each face, so even inch by inch by inch cubes will do though I prefer cubes with two-inch faces because they are easier to read.

diagram of a cube

One cube per student works, but so does one cube per group of students or even one cube per classroom for certain activities.

What words go on the faces? The options are almost limitless, but let me suggest a few for particular kinds of writing.

  • Suppose you (the teacher or parent) are trying to develop higher level thinking skills in a student. You could write the words from Bloom’s Taxonomy (remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing), writing one word on each face of the cube. (Make sure the students know what the words mean.) And suppose your student has just read the novel, Hatchet. You could write six questions, one for each kind of thinking, on a separate piece of paper. The student throws the cube and gets “applying.” He refers to the question about applying, such as, “Suppose the pilot had survived. How would Brian’s summer in Canada have been different? How would he be different at the end of the book?”  Or suppose he throws “analyzing.”  The question could be “Draw a chart showing the organization of the novel chapter by chapter.”
  • Or you could write words like “main characters,” “setting,” “initiating event ,” “problem to be solved,” “climax,” and “resolution/ending.” This set up could be used for almost every novel. The student throws the cube, and for each word or phrase, he takes two or three minutes to write down every detail he can think of. When he has written information for every word or phrase, the student is ready to begin writing a summary or a book review or other kind of writing.
  • Another kind of cube could have the names of six important characters from a novel (Harry Potter, Ron, Hagrid, Malfoy, Voldemort, and Dumbledore, for example). You ask a question related to the novel throw the cube.  The student has to think how that character might respond to that question. For example, you might throw “Ron” and ask, “Should Harry, at 11-years-old, confront Voldemort?  How would Ron respond?” If the student responded for each character, he could read over his answers, and write a reply from just one character’s point of view for a grade.
  • The cube can be used for nonfiction too. Suppose your student is studying a historical event, such as the creation of the Declaration of Independence. How would different people look at that document? On the cube you could write Thomas Jefferson, King George III, Tories, King Louis of France, a slave in Virginia, and Cherokees in north Georgia. In a classroom, each of six groups could write about the perspectives of one of these people.  Or a single student might write about two or three of the people.  Students are forced to consider a historical even from different vantage points.
  • Or in a science class, students learning about minerals could use a cube with such words as color, streaking, luster, hardness, density, and stratification. They could investigate a rock, describing its attributes using the cube as a guide. Or they could study the drought in California from the perspectives of a vineyard owner, a Silicon Valley geek, a migrant farm worker, an homeless person, a home owner whose well is dry, and a car wash worker.

All students would like the variety of using a cube, but less motivated students who might need a gimmick to foster interest might be particularly interested.

For more information, see research by Wiggins & McTighe, 2005.

Is a focal character the same thing as a point of view character?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  A focal character is the central character in a narrative. A point of view character is the character through whose eyes or mind we are learning about the story and the central character. Usually they are the same, but not always.

original cover of Sherlock HolmesIn the stories of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes is the focal character. We learn about his habits, such as his violin playing, his drug taking, and his disdain for people whom he considers his intellectual inferiors. More importantly we learn how his mind works—how he identifies subtle clues that others miss and how he uses them to solve difficult crimes.

But how do we learn all this? It’s though the eyes and ears of Dr. Watson. As Watson learns about Holmes, we learn about Holmes. As Watson is awed and appalled by Holmes’ behavior, we are awed and appalled. Dr. Watson is the point of view character.

Original cover of Huckleberry FinnIf a story is written in the first person, then the person telling the story is the point of view character. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout tells the story of her father’s legal defense of an innocent man. In that part of the story, Scout is the narrator but her father, Atticus, is the focal character. In Huckleberry Finn, Huck is both the focal character and the point of view character for the whole novel.

If a story is written in the third person, then the focal character can still be the point of view character. Hatchet is the story of teenager Brian Robeson who becomes stranded in the Canadian woods for a summer. It is written in the third person, but we hear the thoughts of Brian. “I have to get motivated, he thought, remembering Perpich. Right now I’m all I’ve got. I have to do something.”  Brian is both the focal character and the point of view character.

A few novels switch back and forth between point of view characters, both of whom are the focal characters. The first chapter focuses on Character One, giving the reader his emotions, thoughts and behavior, while the second chapter focuses on Character Two, giving the reader that character’s emotions, thoughts, and behavior. That there exist few books like this indicates that most authors—and maybe most readers—prefer a single point of view. Why? Perhaps two points of view are confusing. Or perhaps two points of view water down the impact of a story.

I recommend that if you are teaching children how to write narratives, that you explain the difference between focal characters and point of view characters by comparing versions of fairy tales. Read a traditional version of a fairy tale and then compare it to a “fractured” fairy tale. Use picture books to entice the students. Even high school kids will love this kind of lesson, but more importantly, they will remember the difference between focal character and point of view character.

Cover of "The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!"Read a traditional version of “The Three Little Pigs,” for example. Ask who the focal characters are. (Who is the story about? Often in fairy tales, the title gives it away.) From whose point of view is the story told? Usually in fairy tales it is from an unknown, god-like narrator. Then read a “fractured” fairy tale about the same story, such as Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs. This version is told from the point of view of the Wolf, who of course, is the focal character.

sleeping_beautyAnother good example is reading a traditional version of “Sleeping Beauty.” The focal character is the princess and usually the point of view is the “god-like” third person narrator. Then read Leah Wilcox’s Waking Beauty, which focuses on a prince who will do almost anything not to kiss the snoring Beauty—hollering, jumping on her bed, throwing water at her, even shooting her from a canon. The focal character and the point of view are the prince, certainly not Sleeping Beauty.

(The Common Core State Standards include a writing standard—ELAW1—which requires students to use an appropriate point of view. Also, a literature standard—ELARI6—requires students to understand an author’s point of view.)