Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Point of View on Point of View

by Stephanie Black

I don’t have any sunburn stories as, um, vivid as Rob’s, so I’ll talk about point of view instead. I know—it’s not nearly as thrilling a topic. You think it’s easy blogging the day after the Heat Miser?

So here are my opinions for the day on viewpoint: I prefer that a story told in third person limited not head-hop mid-scene. I also find it jarring when a third person limited narrative slips into an objective-narrator-viewpoint.

I’m not talking about all types of third-person viewpoint here (I’m not riled up, Jeff, I swear!). Third person can work in a lot of different ways. Third person omniscient, wherein the narrator can enter any head at any time and offer commentary of his own can work brilliantly. Take, for example, Rob’s favorite book, Gone With the Wind. It opens with the following line:

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

It’s clear we’re not in Scarlett’s POV—she’d never think to herself, “Hey, I’m not that cute, but these clueless males will never see past my charm to notice it.” Obviously, we’re not in one of the twins’ POVs, (“Hey, come to think of it, Scarlett’s not that hot, but I’ll never notice it because I’m caught by her charm.”) As Mitchell goes on to describe Scarlett and the twins, it becomes clear that we’re reading authorial commentary. The book will be told in an omniscient POV. Mitchell tells most of the 1000-plus page story from Scarlett’s POV, but she hops into other heads whenever it suits her, offers authorial comments on Scarlett’s personality and gives Civil War info. And it all feels organic and seamless. We knew from the beginning what type of story we were reading and the omniscient viewpoint works wonderfully.

When head-hopping and author intrusion bother me are when the author starts off in third person limited and stays in it until suddenly, bam! Hey, I thought I was John. What am I doing in Emily’s head?

Avoiding mid-scene head-hopping is pretty common advice for writers; mark a viewpoint change with a scene or chapter break. (Though I understand that not all authors agree with this. One of my favorite authors head-hops in some of her books and Sariah said it’s not uncommon in romance novels (is that right, Sariah?) But hey, I'm expressing opinions today, and I prefer one viewpoint per scene for third person limited.

Here’s a more subtle type of viewpoint glitch:

Say we have a scene with John as a viewpoint character. We’ve been firmly in John’s head since the scene opened and we’re with him as he walks to the mailbox and finds a letter from the IRS.

John’s fingers trembled as he opened the letter. He read it quickly, wanting to get the bad news over with. A look of sorrow filled his eyes. He should have known that claiming the hundred pounds of chocolate he had consumed while writing his novel as a “business expense” would get him audited.

See the viewpoint problem? We’re viewing the world though John. He’ll notice his fingers are shaking. He’ll think regretfully about his tax misstep. But he’s not going to visualize how his own eyes look as he reads the letter. The comment about eyes is jarring. The reader was John and now the reader is outside of John, looking at him and noting that his eyes look sorrowful.

Or how about if we’re in Emily’s viewpoint:

Emily smiled at John, her heart pitter-pattering as she admired the cleft in his chin, the swirly little cowlick in his hair, his sky-blue eyes.

John wrapped his arm around Emily’s slender shoulders. “I love you.”

Call me nitpicky (okay, I'm nitpicky), but to me, the “slender shoulders” comment is jarring because Emily wouldn’t think of herself in those terms at that time. Her shoulders are just her shoulders, and even if she’s proud of how slender they are, she’s a lot more interested in the feel of John’s arm and that adorable cleft in his chin than in contemplating the width of her shoulders. The shoulder comment feels like we either jumped into John’s viewpoint (he admires those slender shoulders) or the author decided to slip in a little authorial observation.

Which is not to say you could never drop a shoulder comment in there if you’re writing from Emily’s viewpoint. If it’s true to the character and situation, then it works. For instance, if Emily has recently lost a lot of weight, maybe she’ll be conscious of the width of her shoulders. Or say Emily has always been self-conscious about her appearance:

Emily stared at John, her heart pitter-pattering. John thought she was beautiful?

John wrapped his arm around the skinny shoulders Emily had always regarded as a defect. “I love you just the way you are, darling,” he said. “Please, if you love me, burn that collection of eighties-style shoulder pads.”

Eliminating subtle slips in viewpoint can help keep the reader more firmly in your viewpoint character’s mind and increase reader-character identification.

So now I've filled my opinion quota for the day. Feel free to discuss/disagree. What do you like and dislike in viewpoint as a reader, writer, or both?


At 5/02/2007 2:48 PM, Blogger Josi said...

Great blog on POV. I agree with you completely, omniscient can be very confusing unless done very very well. I also prefer a good solid break between POV so I don't find myself thinking I'm somewhere I'm really not. Very well put.

At 5/02/2007 3:16 PM, Anonymous kerry said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly, but couldn't remember to follow those "rules" for the whole world and a new pair of skates besides!

Now I'm depressed.

Not really. Terrific blog, Stephanie! Thanks! I will once again screw my determination to the sticking place and strive to do better. Or perhaps I'll just write everything in first person henceforth. Nah, won't work. I can oftentimes manage to mess that up too . . . :-)

At 5/02/2007 4:56 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

Scarlett wasn't beautiful? Then what on earth were they doing casting Vivian Leigh in the role? Hollywood has rarely seen anyone as pretty as she is/was.

Thank you for pointing out that characters shouldn't describe themselves in certain ways -- it really is jarring.

I'm now going to take my abnormally lovely and graceful self on to the next blog.

At 5/03/2007 5:07 PM, Anonymous Jennie said...

Great blog, Stephanie. I hate it when I have to backtrack to figure out who is saying what. I don't care how many scenes are in a chapter, but I really hate it when the POV switches in the middle of a scene. I'm okay with switching heads for a sequel(reaction), but it's just confusing to switch POV during the scene. And yes, I do know it is an overdone common device in some mainstream romances,particularly those who do sports-style play-by-play sex scenes, but all of the ones I read sounded ridiculous. And I've read a lot of them, since I was the romance buyer for a large library for many years. I will admit there's a lot of unintentional humor that occurs when a character slips out of his/her POV and becomes an anonymous spectator to himself.


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