Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Views on Point of View

by Stephanie Black

I enjoy writing in multiple third-person-limited points of view, where the reader sees the story through the eyes of multiple characters. This is not an omniscient POV. In an omniscient POV, you can move in and out of any character’s head whenever you want, and also add authorial commentary. In limited third person you can have multiple viewpoint characters in the novel, but only ONE viewpoint per scene—and no authorial narrator inserting things like “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom noticed it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” Omniscient POV worked wonderfully in Gone With the Wind, but is not common in modern genre fiction (the exception that comes to mind is Harry Potter-style openings where the author starts out broadly, but then zeros in to limited POV and stays there). If you’re writing genre fiction and start bouncing between heads in the middle of a scene, stop and think. Do you really INTEND to write in an omniscient viewpoint? Why? Are you SURE it works for your book and makes it stronger? Will editors like what you’ve done—or will they wonder if you knew what you were doing? Are you writing in Accidental Omniscient, i.e., you never really thought about it, but it would be handy to add Bob’s thoughts right here, even though up to now the scene has been in Jane’s POV? When in doubt, stick with third person limited. One scene=one set of eyeballs.

Whose eyeballs? You choose. Whose POV would be the most effective and work most powerfully in weaving the story you want to create? (But bear in mind the advice from my favorite writing guru, Jack Bickham, in his book The 38 Worst Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them): even with multiple viewpoints, you need one viewpoint to dominate the story. Make sure you’ve got a main character).

In my work in progress, I have a viewpoint character whom I’m demoting to non-viewpoint status. She’s a secondary character, and didn’t have all that many POV scenes, and I’m demoting her for a few reasons. 1-I was afraid the book was too soap opera, and her viewpoint scenes were among the soap. 2—The book was too long. It’s not deal-breaker long, but it could be tighter. 3-Removing POV from this character would make her more mysterious. On the downside, it removes the insight into her character and backstory that we enjoyed when we hung around in her head, but ah well. One must sacrifice for the good of the novel.

Making this change involved (or will involve—I’m not done with the draft yet) cutting a couple of her viewpoint scenes entirely, which includes moving needed info elsewhere. And in the case of a scene I wanted to keep, it involves flipping the POV so it now belongs to the other character in the scene.

Switching a scene into a new POV is not minor surgery. Even if what happens in the scene is still the same, it takes mega-rewriting to tell the story from a new POV. The thoughts, perceptions, attitudes, etc., now need to fit the new POV character, and we no longer get to peek into the thoughts of the other character in the scene. The POV character can observe, infer, and guess, but she can’t mind-read (unless your story is about telepathy). Here’s a sample—the first few lines from the scene, in two different versions:

One look at Carissa Willis’s flushed face made Summer switch the sarcastic greeting on her tongue to a new, softer one. “Thanks for driving all the way up here.”

“No problem.” Carisssa gave a smile that wilted before it formed. “Is—is Alan home?”

“No. He’s actually in Canfield. He and Gavin had some kind of business connected with Linda’s will.”

Carissa looked deeply relieved.

She really stinks at this deception thing, Summer thought as she waved Carissa into the house. Getting information out of Carissa was going to be insanely easy.

So we’re in Summer’s POV. What do we learn through hanging out in her head? We know Carissa is nervous because we see it in her face and hear it in her hesitant speech. What do we know about Summer herself? She doesn’t think much of Carissa, but she’s not made of steel—when she sees how nervous Carissa is, she tones down her urge to be sarcastic. We also know she wants information and she thinks it will be easy to get it out of Carissa.

Here’s a rewritten sample from Carissa’s POV. (I also changed the meeting place, so now they’re at Carissa’s house—that has nothing to do with the POV; it just made more sense.)

“Hi, Summer. Thanks for driving all the way out here.” Carissa’s cheeks burned at how stupid the words sounded. Why was she pretending to be friendly?

Summer smiled, but her smile wasn’t any friendlier than Carissa felt. She was very pretty and so together. Her shiny brown hair curved perfectly above her shoulders, and her olive skin was so smooth—how could anyone look that good without makeup? No, she was wearing a little eyeliner and a touch of mascara, but that was all. Her sweater fit smoothly over the kind of figure Carissa would need surgery to achieve.

Fighting an urge to suck in her stomach, Carissa asked, “Does Alan know you’re here?”

“No. I didn’t tell him anything, if that’s what you’re worried about. I haven’t blabbed your dirty secret.”

What do we learn this time around? We still know Carissa is nervous, but not because outside eyeballs see that she looks flushed. We feel her cheeks burn and know she feels stupid when she tries to act polite. The way she dwells mentally on Summer’s physical appearance and her own perceived shortcomings tells us something about Carissa—she’s got some hang-ups and self-esteem issues (here she is in a tense situation and she's self-conscious about her flabby abs?). Flip it back into Summer’s POV and no way would Summer see herself like Carissa does—in fact, she views herself as short and plain.

Point of view is one of the most powerful fiction-writing tools, so it pays to make sure you're wielding it in a way that will strengthen your story. Have fun!


At 10/27/2010 1:57 PM, Blogger Noble M Standing said...

My favorite POV style is the single character in third person POV.
I love the isolation of the MC and how everything gets experienced/interperted by them. I love the challenge of writing an entire book from one POV.
I'd never written like that until my last MS and found it to be my favorite, I was even lamenting the other day how in one story I HAD to add another POV character. :)

At 10/27/2010 3:46 PM, Blogger Michael Knudsen said...

Very nice post on POV. For me, third-limited is the best choice for the epic fantasy I'm working on, with 7 POV characters. The question came up, what to do if 2 or more of my pro/antagonists appear in the same scene, whose POV do I go with? The easy answer is, "whoever has the most at stake in that scene."

At 10/27/2010 6:36 PM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

A major difference between the two. I empathized with Carrisa but I admit, I loved the attitude in Summer's POV. ;)

At 10/27/2010 9:36 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

Excellent blog, Stephanie. I hope lots of writers read it because I have a hard time taking a novel seriously when there's tons of head hopping and the author/narrator blabs secrets only God and the author could possibly know.

At 10/28/2010 1:24 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thanks for the comments and insights. It's fascinating to hear what other writers like to do with POV.

LT, yeah, Summer has some fun attitude :) I hope it'll still come through even without POV scenes!

At 10/28/2010 4:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hold on there. I was under the impression from, well, a lot of sources, that the omniscient point of view was just that, omniscient. Omniscient viewpoint is actually the viewpoint of the author. Mathmatically it goes something like this:

Omniscient POV = Author's POV

Third person POV = Character’s POV

Which, if you think about it, is oxymoronic given that there are few if any omniscient authors on the planet, but that's a discussion for another day.

If you move from an omniscient point of view into the head of one of your third person characters you've jumped heads. Granted, it’s not as jarring or confusing as jumping between the heads of two or more third person characters in your scene, but it’s still another jump from the point of view of the author into the point of the view of the character. And along with that transition comes some of the "transitional jarring" associated with any head jumping. The omniscient author is usually aware of the need to keep the reader informed about the characters and that softens the transition, but there are still obvious changes in the ebb and flow of your pros. And the author should be keenly aware of those changes in order to choose wisely which point of view works for you story.

You may decide to stay in an omniscient authorial point of view through the entire scene. You may decide to begin in the omniscient viewpoint of the author only to slowly descend into the viewpoint of your selected point of view character. You may even decide to move back and forth between the author's omniscient point of the view and that of the third person character. Or you may junk the omniscient viewpoint entirely, in favor of a third person viewpoint throughout. It’s up to the author, but just make sure you know how each voice, and the transition from one voice to the other, will change how your story is received by the reader.

continued in the next post...

At 10/28/2010 4:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jumping from the head of the author into the head of the character then back to the head of the author is NOT THE OMNISICNET POINT OF VIEW. It’s two distinct points of view. It is jumping from one to the other. And that's an important distinction. If you're gonna write a novel, you need to have, at your command, a pretty good feel for how an omniscient view point will color the drama, the emotion, the narration, the exposition, the description, the dialogue, and the interior voice of your scene as compared to how the third person character point of view will alter how your story is presented and received.

If you choose the omniscient point of view, you have to ask questions about yourself that are usually reserved for your characters. Is the author educated? Is the author an author of the common man? A vagabond? A liberator? A clown? A joker? If you choose the author's point of view (omniscience) your word choices, how you describe the setting, how you present the characters, and how you evaluate the events in the scene, among many other interpretive tasks, will be presented through the author’s eyes, and it will reveal more about the author than it will about any of the characters. If you choose omniscience you allow the reader a window into your soul, rather than the soul of the character. Pretty scary, I'd say. And when you transition into the point of view of the character, from your head to their head, we now get to see the scene through the character’s eyes. If you're an educated author, but your character is an uneducated beggar on the street, the transitions will be noticeable, the change in word choice obvious. The descriptions the author selects will be at odds with the descriptions the beggar selects. A beggar, rightly so, views things differently than the educated wordsmith and your writing should reflect those differences. The voice will change. The tags on dialogue will morph into something rather distinct. Understanding how these transitions change your writing allows the author to make important choices about which voice they're going to employ.

These two different viewpoints (author omniscience and character third person) have a number of subtle differences. They are not the same. They impact your story in different ways. And you should understand those differences in order to wisely choose how you're going to employ them.

At 10/28/2010 4:37 PM, Blogger Charlie Moore said...

Yeah, that is one thing I get criticized about. POV shifts may be my Achilles heel. I guess I just write what I like. Great information and advice from everybody, nonetheless.


At 10/29/2010 12:53 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Anon, thanks for the great info and insights.

:) Charlie, yeah, POV can really take some attention and work, and it can be tricky avoiding slips.


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