Near or Far?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Now that you have chosen a point of view, how closely do you want the reader to identify with the POV character or characters? Do you want us to look into their eyes and see their very souls? Or do you want to put some distance between us?

A distant POV is just what it says—distant. The reader views the character and his or her actions from across the room, seeing what any observant bystander does.
Middle distance is more like standing near the person. The reader can see the character’s expressions and guess what he or she is thinking or feeling, but it’s just a guess.
Close third person POV—sometimes called deep POV—takes the reader inside the character’s head. Readers know what the character is thinking and feeling as soon as it happens. And because we’re inside the character’s mind, the writer doesn’t have to use italics or say “he thought” or “she thought.” In fact, that ruins the moment. When you see an adorable baby coming toward you in a stroller, you don’t think, “I think that’s an adorable baby.” Your mind is much more direct. “What an adorable baby.” That’s the way it works for characters, too. And if you are trying to bring the reader up close and personal, use the character’s own wording. If he would use contractions or slang, put them in. If she uses stilted language when she talks, have her think that way, too—unless she’s pretending to be someone she isn’t.
Imagine that your POV character is a pyromaniac who just set a building on fire. Now he is standing nearby and watching it burn. These examples get increasingly closer.
A man stood in a doorway and watched the fire trucks arrive at the warehouse across the street. It had only taken them ten minutes, but the fire was already burning out of control.
As Marty watched the fire trucks arrive, a smile tugged at his lips. They had gotten there quickly, but the building was already a sheet of flames.
The colors were beautiful. The orange of the flames. The red of the fire trucks. Momma’s lime-green dress as she stood frozen at the top of the stairs. But nothing was as satisfying as her screams. Nine years ago now, and they were fading faster each time.
In the first example, we see what any observer can see, but we have to get closer to see the smile that wants to escape. And the last example takes us right inside Marty’s mind.
Playing with distance is like taking pictures with a zoom lens. Staying at the same setting all the time makes for boring pictures and, with some exceptions, for boring story-telling. Varying the distance can change the effect and add interest. But do it gradually or at a paragraph or scene break. Abrupt changes take your reader out of the story.
These techniques work well with third person and omniscient POV. They are less successful with first person since that POV puts the reader in the character’s head all the time. But there is still some room to play with distance. There was no “he” in the last example above, and it could be either first or third person. Adding “I” moves the camera a little farther away.
Now go out and write that novel. Experiment with different POVs and distances. Then choose what works best and do it right.
Because POV matters.

Playing God

Monday, July 20, 2015

Omniscient point of view is a little like playing God.

Imagine that the leopard in the picture is actually outside the fence, looking in. She is not involved in the action of the story, which occurs on this side of the wire. She can see the entire plot from beginning to end, and even before and after. She can also see into each character’s thoughts. If she uses all her knowledge when narrating the story, that’s an omniscient point of view.

Omniscient POV does not require the narrator to see things through a particular character’s eyes, and head-hopping within a scene is allowed. The writer talks to the reader directly rather than through one or more characters, although she might not identify herself as the writer. This POV was popular in the “olden days” of Charles Dickens and George Eliot but is mostly out of style now.

I said “mostly,” because some modern writers have used it very effectively. But here’s the rub, as Hamlet would say. If the omniscient point of view is done wrong, it looks like a multiple-third-person point of view riddled with errors: a mistake rather than a choice.

As a reader in the 21st century, I find that the omniscient point of view works only if I am clued in immediately for a short story or within the first page or two for a novel AND before the first character in the story speaks. Here are some examples of what works. 

  • Fairytales and folk tales tend to be told in omniscient point of view, as are some modern-day fantasies. The classic “once upon a time” clues the reader in.
  • In Holes, Louis Sachar talks directly to the reader, and he makes sure you can’t miss it. After a short first chapter that describes Camp Green Lake but contains no dialogue and no defined characters, Sachar begins the second chapter this way:
     The reader is probably asking: Why would anyone go to Camp Green Lake? 

  • In this example from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, notice the clear author intrusion in the second paragraph. I’ll give you the opening paragraph as well.
     Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

     Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is less direct but equally effective. The first paragraph reads like this:

     Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

J.K. Rowling has planted at least two clues in that paragraph. First, it starts with “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley” rather than focusing on either of them, as is normally the case when using a third person point of view. (E.g., “Mr. Dursley liked to tell his wife that the Dursleys were a perfectly normal family, thank you very much.”) Second, the next sentence contains language they might use to describe themselves in appropriate circumstances but not before they knew something strange or mysterious was coming.

And if that isn’t clue enough, the fourth paragraph starts by addressing the reader (“our story”) and telling us something about the future—something that is clearly not within the Dursley’s knowledge at the time.

     When Mr. and Mrs. Dursley woke up on the dull, gray Tuesday our story starts, there was nothing about the cloudy sky outside to suggest that strange and mysterious things would soon be happening all over the country. Mr. Dursley hummed as he picked out his most boring tie for work, and Mrs. Dursley gossiped away happily as she wrestled a screaming Dudley into his high chair.

     None of them noticed a large, tawny owl flutter past the window.

The first paragraph could conceivably be a POV error, but when followed by the fourth, we know it was intentional. That’s why we don’t question the fifth paragraph, which tells us something outside the Dursleys’ knowledge. By now we understand that this is an omniscient narrator and we are not confined to anyone’s head.

Even when the author tries to clue the reader in, omniscient can still be a bad choice. Since head-hopping is allowed within a scene, many writers think they can use it whenever they want. But that can be just as jarring in omniscient as it is in multiple third-person. And the practice makes sophisticated readers wonder if the author is ignorant about POV.

While omniscient can seem like a godsend (pun intended) for a lazy writer, it actually tends to highlight that laziness. So unless you are an experienced author who fully understands omniscient POV, I don’t recommend it.

In the examples given above, the storyteller never identifies himself or herself as anybody other than a disembodied author, making it a purely omniscient POV. Another option is to use a sort of hybrid POV that combines elements of omniscient with elements of first or third person by providing a flesh-and-blood narrator who tells the story after-the-fact. This could be either one of the characters involved in the main action or a bystander who knows the story. As with omniscient POV, however, you need to start by identifying the POV for the reader, usually by introducing the narrator and making it clear that the story is being told after-the-fact.

Here is how Barbara Gregorich does it in Dirty Proof:

     She wrenched the door open as if doorknobs were disposable, nuisances rather than aids. I flinched, scattering a handful of index cards across my desk. Of course, I didn’t know it was a she when the doorknob clattered, so I’m not telling the story in its proper sequence. But what burst in was a she, very definitely.

It doesn’t have to be a conventional storyteller, either. In The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the story is narrated by Death. When I said to make it a flesh-and-blood narrator, I used that phrase figuratively. The narrator needs a personality and a presence but not necessarily a physical body.

There is one other point of view that (barely) deserves mention, and that is second person. This is the story where the narrator is identified by “you.” I have read only one or two second-person stories in recent years, but that is more than enough. I found second person very disrupting, and I never read that author again. So if you want to gather a loyal following, don’t try it.

Next week I will cover psychic distance, which can be used effectively in both third person and omniscient POV.


He, She, or They

Monday, July 13, 2015

As with first person point of view, third person takes the reader into the head of a particular character. But third person is more flexible.

The first clue that you may be in third person POV? The narrator is referred to by name or as he or she. Here are the opening paragraphs of Violet Dawn by Brandilyn Collins.

     Paige Williams harbored a restless kinship with the living dead.

     Sleep, that nurturing, blessed state of subconsciousness, eluded her again this night. Almost 2:00 a.m., and rather than slumbering bliss, old memories nibbled at her like ragged-toothed wraiths.

     With a defeated sigh she rose from bed.

Normally when a book starts with a close-up on a particular individual and uses words like Paige (the character’s name), her, and she, that signals third-person POV. This isn’t an infallible test because it doesn’t rule out omniscient POV, which may use the same pronouns. As I will explain next week, however, the author who starts omniscient this way risks confusing her readers.

But it’s a good way to start a third-person narrative from Paige’s POV.

Third person has the same major constraint that first person does—the reader can only know what the POV character knows. But it is easier to get around the disadvantages of that approach.

One way to do that is by increasing distance. It’s hard to do first person well unless you are right inside that person’s thoughts. The same isn’t true with third person. If you back away, the reader still only sees what the character sees but doesn’t hear the chatter in the character’s head. And as long as the murder occurred offstage, this distance makes it easier to disguise the fact that the person is the murderer. Of course, it works with other genre as well, but murder is an easy example to understand.

If we want, however, we can still get close enough to see inside the third person POV character’s thoughts, even when they aren’t characterized that way. This passage from Violet Down occurs several paragraphs into the chapter.

     Intense yearning welled so suddenly within Paige that she nearly staggered in its presence. She clutched the towel tighter around her body, swaddling herself. The universe was so vast, the world so small. A mere speck of dust, Earth churned and groaned in the spheres of infinity. Upon that speck, mothers and fathers, children and friends laughed and cried and celebrated one another. No bigger than dust mites they were, compared with the vastness of space. Their lives, their loves—insignificant.

     So why did she long to be one of them?

I’ll talk more about distance in two weeks.

Let’s pause for a minute and consider the picture at the head of this post. Obviously, the lion on the right side of the picture has a different perspective than the two lionesses on the left. He’s up high, surveying his domain. They’re viewing things from ground level. And they appear to be very much alike, but maybe they aren’t. Maybe one is content with her lot, while the other is plotting a way to escape. So which of the three do you choose as your POV character? Any or all.

This is another way third person allows you to get around the constraint of knowing only what the POV character knows. Consider the old tale of five people and an elephant in a totally dark room. One person puts his arms around a leg, feels the rough skin, and believes it is a tree. Another grabs the tail and thinks it is a rope. It is only when the five compare their experiences that they realize they are sharing the room with an elephant. In the same way, readers gather knowledge from each of the POV characters and end up knowing more than any one of them does, at least until the end.

Readers of typical romance stories expect two third-person POV characters—the male protagonist and the female protagonist. Because the reader sees into both heads (one at a time), the reader knows that they are attracted to each other long before they actually connect.

That’s also the disadvantage of multiple POVs. Sometimes the writer wants the reader to stay in the dark with the protagonist. So you have to choose what works for you.

The biggest challenge the writer has with multiple POV is letting the reader know when the story leaves one head and enters another. Each character needs his or her own scenes because changing the POV character in the middle of one confuses the reader. Two or more POV characters can be in the same scene, but the reader should see the action through the eyes of only one of them. And each time you switch scenes, you need to start the new one with an indication of whose POV you are in now. Don’t do this:

     The pain pounded through Hannah’s head. Not again.

     Did she have another migraine headache, Dave wondered?

We must be in Hannah’s POV because we feel the pain pounding through her head and hear her internal, “not again.” Or, no, we must be in Dave’s because he is wondering if she has another migraine. Change it to this, instead:

     Watching Hannah grimace and rub her forehead, Dave frowned. Was she having another migraine headache?

Now we know we are in Dave’s POV because he is the one who is watching Hannah. And we don’t need to be in her head, because we can see the same clues Dave sees. It may not be the best-written example, but I hope it makes the point.

But, you ask, can’t a story have multiple first-person POV characters, too? Yes, it can, but first-person characters don’t think of themselves by name, so you have to put greater separation between the scenes than you do in multiple third-person POV. Some authors make the distinction by giving each POV character his or her own chapters and labeling them with the character’s name. Or it could be something as simple (and as hard) as starting each scene with an action or thought which is characteristic of that character and that character only. That way the reader will know who “I” is.

First person or third person, single or multiple, POV is the writer’s choice. Or maybe you would rather use an omniscient point of view.

That’s the subject of next week’s post.

POV Matters

Monday, July 6, 2015

One of the hardest parts of writing fiction is maintaining a consistent POV. But since many beginning writers don’t even know what POV is, I’ll start at the beginning.

POV stands for point of view, which is how the narrator sees things. Or, to put it another way, whose head are we in as the story is told?

A good story has a consistent POV within each scene. Otherwise, the reader gets confused. Even worse, POV errors take a reader who is caught up in the story and throw him or her out of it.

That doesn’t mean we’ll throw the book across the room, too. I’ve had that reaction sometimes. But I’ve finished some books that are riddled with POV errors. I keep reading because the plot is so compelling that I’ll put up with some disjointedness to find out what happens. Other authors get away with all those errors because they’ve already gained a following. Their books would be even better, however, if the authors paid attention to POV, and they would probably have bigger sales figures, too.

In any event, don’t you want to give your reader the best story you can?

It is impossible to do justice to POV in a blog post, or even in four blog posts, so all you will get here are the basics. For a more in-depth discussion, I recommend Chapters 12-15 of Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. I actually recommend the entire book, but those are the chapters that address POV.

There are many POVs to choose from, and this week I’ll look at first person. In the following weeks, I’ll cover third person (singular and multiple), omniscient, and second person. I’ll also discuss distance—how close the reader gets to the POV character(s).

The easiest way to recognize first person POV is by the first person pronouns. This is the story with a narrator who uses “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine.” Here are the first two paragraphs of Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt.

     “There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances,” my Aunt Adelaide had said. “One is to marry, and the other to find a post in keeping with her gentility.”

     As the train carried me through wooded hills and past green meadows, I was taking this second course; partly, I suppose, because I had never had an opportunity of trying the former.

The main advantage of first person POV is that it helps the reader identify with the narrator. The biggest disadvantage is that the reader can know only what the narrator knows. If you want to tell the reader about a meeting the POV character didn’t attend, then someone who was there must describe it to the POV character so that he or she knows, too.

I’m going to have a little fun by using animals for some of my examples. Look at the picture at the top of this post. If the zebra in the foreground is our POV character, what do we know as readers? We can’t see the people in the upper left or the zebra in the background because our POV character can’t see them. Still, that doesn’t mean we have to ignore them entirely. Or maybe we do. Again, it depends on what the POV character knows. If he knows there is another zebra who lives next door, we can know that, too. But if he doesn’t know that she is standing under the bridge right now, then we don’t know it, either. Or consider the people in the top left. If they are talking and the POV zebra hears them, then we know they are there and may even know what they are saying. But if he doesn’t turn around, we can’t know what they are wearing (unless that’s the topic of their conversation). So describing their clothing is a POV error.

Talking about clothing, even though a first person POV character knows what he or she looks like and is wearing, most people aren’t so obsessed with their appearance that they think about it all the time. That means you can’t just throw in a description of the POV character unless you also give him or her some reason to think about it, and the reason must be in character. A self-effacing woman isn’t likely to think about her clothes even when she is getting dressed—but she might if she is dressing to please her new mother-in-law.

The third paragraph of Mistress of Mellyn shows one way to describe a POV character. Personally, I think it is still rather forced, but the saving grace of this passage is the way in which it is told. We don’t just get a description of Martha’s outward appearance, we also get insights into her character.

     I pictured myself as I must appear to my fellow travelers if they bothered to glance my way, which was not very likely: a young woman of medium height, already past her first youth, being twenty-four years old, in a brown merino dress with cream lace collar and little tufts of lace at the cuffs. (Cream being so much more serviceable than white, as Aunt Adelaide told me.) My black cape was unbuttoned at the throat because it was hot in the carriage, and my brown velvet bonnet, tied with brown velvet ribbons under my chin, was the sort which was so becoming to feminine people like my sister Phillida but, I always felt, sat a little incongruously on heads like mine. My hair was thick with a coppery tinge, parted in the center, brought down at the sides of my too-long face, and made into a cumbersome knot to project behind the bonnet. My eyes were large, in some lights the color of amber, and were my best feature; but they were too bold—so said Aunt Adelaide; which meant that they had learned none of the feminine graces which were so becoming to a woman. My nose was too short, my mouth too wide. In fact, I thought, nothing seemed to fit; and I must resign myself to journeys such as this when I travel to and from the various posts which I shall occupy for the rest of my life, since it is necessary for me to earn a living, and I shall never achieve the first of those alternatives: a husband.

Can’t you just feel the cynicism of this educated gentlewoman who has resigned herself to being an old maid? (I apologize for the politically incorrect language, but that is how she would think of it.)

If you feel you have to force a description, ask yourself if you need one at all. If so, try to find a more natural way to fit it in. But if you do end up forcing it, at least make the description do double duty.

Even though the reader knows only what the POV character knows, that doesn’t mean the reader is the character’s clone. Although they have the same knowledge, they can draw different inferences from it. If a woman looks toward a POV character and winks a minute before another man passes him, the POV character may think the woman is flirting with him. The reader has the freedom to wonder if the woman was flirting with the other man, instead.

Another disadvantage to first person POV is that it’s hard to keep anything secret from the reader, who knows what the narrator does and thinks. If the first person narrator is a murderer, the reader will know who did it the minute the murder occurs. Maybe that’s what you want as the author, especially if the book is a thriller rather than a mystery. But if you want the murderer’s identity to be a secret until the end, or if you want the reader to unravel the clues, you may need to find a different POV character.

Or you can use an unreliable narrator. Maybe the murderer is delusional and her subconscious mind hides the knowledge of her deeds from her. Or maybe your POV character is Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes. He thinks he knows what is happening but is wrong, learning the truth only when Sherlock chooses to reveal it.

The point is simple. If you use first person POV, the reader can experience only what the POV character experiences and know only what the POV character knows. Using first person can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding. It depends on what you are trying to do.

And if first person doesn’t work, maybe third person will. That’s the subject of next week’s post.