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.

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