Tuesday, March 24, 2009

When it comes to writing, what's your point of view?




God, how I hate having to deal with point of view. Whenever I'm writing, POV feels like a technical constraint that limits expression. It forces me to make choices, to rein myself in and be disciplined. I really hate that.
And yet it's critical that you set up POV correctly for your story. When you lose control of POV, you lose control of your story. And that's when you lose your reader. (For an earlier discussion about POV, see our February Sunday writing blog.)
At one of my writing groups this week, we spent some time debating how to handle point of view in one of our member's stories.

This particular story jumped in and out of the point of view of two characters within the confines of a two-person scene. On first reading, nothing seemed really wrong with the scene; I had to reread it several times to figure out why it lacked suspense and kept the reader at a distance. I finally decided that the real problem with the scene was its POV. In other words, there was way too much head-jumping going on.

So here's a general guideline to help you avoid a POV trap:

Use only one POV per chapter or section (Sections separated by asterisks or a space).

The story we were reading in group had a POV that shifted between paragraphs (aka omniscient POV). That constant shifting created a confusing overall effect. I think it may be possible to present POV this way, but it probably takes an extremely skilled writer to pull it off. So why even play with POV fire?

Omniscient

The omniscient POV lets the writer enter each character's head during a scene, and even lets the narrator provide direct observations. The story in my writing group is an example of a story that used an omniscient POV. It suffered from the same fate that omniscient POV stories usually do--the reader failed to engage with the characters or the story. Suspense was nonexistent.

Now that I've dissed the omniscient POV, however, I will admit that I'm considering using an omniscient narrative opening for my WIP thriller. In this case, the omniscient POV will function as a garnish, like the paprika sprinkled on top of the baked chicken to draw in the eye and make the dish look tasty.

First Person

Favorite of detective novel series (to the point of being cliche), the first person POV has decided pluses and minuses. It's a very intimate POV (you know everything going on in the character's head), but you can only know and see what that character learns and sees throughout the entire story.

It's tempting to use first-person POV, but trust it from a writer of first-person POV mysteries, it's incredibly awkward to try write your character into every single scene.
It's also awkward to make sure that your character doesn't "know" anything in the story that he or she hasn't seen, read, or been told.

Limited Third Person

Similar to the first person POV, only it uses he/she instead of "I". My sense is that this POV is getting less popular, but it may just be me.

Multiple Third Person

Lets the writer switch from character to character. This is probably the best choice for most thrillers. This POV lets you roam free on the range with the buffalo.

Mixed

This is a mixture of first person with multiple points of view. For example, some thrillers use a first-person POV for the bad guy while everyone else is presented in third person. This approach can help build suspense.


Second


This POV is so rare I forgot about it until Joe Moore reminded me about it in the comments just now, so I'm adding it back in. Second person POV is where the writer talks directly to the reader. No wonder it's an unusual POV--I find it completely annoying.
To wit:
You're walking along and then you realize someone is following you. You spin around and then...Blam-o!
Bleah.


So I'm wondering how you make your POV choices for your novels, and are there any POVs that you love? Loathe?

18 comments:

  1. Third Person Limited for me. I like to kepp my stories in a logical sequence of events. This POV allows the story to flow so that the reader comes across the twists and turns as the MC does. I find omni a little 'unfair' at times because I can feel the narrator holding back the information and just seems to drag out the story for the sake of it. Or maybe that's just me being paranoid.

    I've come across a lot of first person novels (especially thrillers) in recent times. More or less the same as Third Person Limited. I just get weirded out sometimes by 'I' repetitions and reading the story as if it is me in there. Not to say this happens all of the time, only when my wife catches me throwing out my clothes and replacing them with some cheap ones from the local handymart, and kindly lets me know to snap out of 'Reacher' mode. Hasn't happened for a while, but I believe the next Reacher book may be in first person.

    The mixed POV I blame on James Patterson. Sorry James but it really gets to me.

    JJ

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  2. First person POV also lets me write in a logical sequence, JJ, although I didn't appreciate that advantage when I started writing a series in the first person. And speaking of "I," I've had to employ all manner of sentence strategems to avoid overusing that pronoun. For example, flipping sentence structure, wildly varying sentence length, using fragments when describing inner thoughts...otherwise, one's writing starts to sound like the seagulls in that cartoon film--It becomes I! I! I! all the time. Of course, one would probably want to do all that simply in the cause of good writing, as well.

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  3. My first WIP is a thriller in multiple 3rd. My second will probably be mixed, because I like being able to step away from my protag and be the villain once in a while, but don't want my reader identifying with him or her as much.

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  4. Thanks for this post, Kathryn. I love talking about POV. Although it's fairly rare these days, I'm not a big fan of second person POV. And if it's paired with present tense, I'll probably put the book down. I don't have the patience to deal with it.

    Regarding shifting POV, one simple technique is called the "hand-off" and can be compared to a quarterback handing the ball off to the running back. If done correctly, the reader follows the player with the ball (POV) without getting confused. And the best part is that there's no need for a scene "drop", asterisks or line break since there's no time shift.

    It usually involves starting a multiple person scene in one character's POV then shifting to another, but not before the first is physically removed from the scene long enough to make the shift. As an example, a man and woman are sitting in a living room talking. We start the chapter or scene in the woman's POV. After a number of pages, the woman gets up, leaves the room and goes to the kitchen to prepare a meal. As she does, the writer keeps us in the living room thereby handing off the scene to the man. We can then slip into his POV for the remainder of the scene.

    The opposite could also happen; start in the man's POV and when the woman enters the kitchen, the reader goes with her as the shift takes place.

    A word of caution: This has to be done smoothly without confusing the reader. I would avoid introducing a new character's POV by using this technique. And I would limit it to one hand-off per chapter or scene. But it does solve a POV shift where no time change takes place.

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  5. Oh my gosh, Joe, I completely forgot about second person POV! I'm going to go back in and add it, and credit you for reminding me about it!

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  6. Multiple third person is the only POV voice that I hear naturally. At one level, it creates extra work for me because I have to fully flesh out multiple POV characters--give them the kind of inside persona that makes them real to the reader. On the other hand, it makes plotting easier for me because I can put good guys and bad guys on a collision course that they're not aware of, but the reader is.

    The trick in multiple third is to pick your POV characters carefully to make sure the right people reveal the story as it goes along.

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  7. I'm back after updating the blog about second person. Joe, that is the first time I've ever heard about the hand-off POV technique. Thank you! That is brand new to me. I've never even read that before, and I've read a lot of books about writing. John, I think I don't know enough yet to know what will come naturally to me. when I wrote YA detective novels, they were third person limited. My current series is first person. Right now I'm noodling with POV in my WIP thriller, and I'm thinking that multiple POV is the way to go, but I'm loving the idea of the omnisicient opener as a "shocker" to draw in the reader's interest. Jake, probably using the multiple POV will serve well to make your villain even creepier, especially if his or her identity is hidden throughout the novel.

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  8. I had written a novel, a weird blend of science-fiction, comic book fantasy, and political thriller, that required the reader to get into the heads of different characters.

    I didn't really have a plan on how I was going to do it going in, but then, as I was writing it, I realized that I was writing according to mood of the character I was writing about. If the character who was the "star" of the scene was in a bad mood, then everything would be described as harshly as possible, if they were happy, it was all sunshine and lollipops, even when it was raining. It just seemed to happen naturally.

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  9. I love first person. It's all about attitude, and done well is, as Kathryn suggests, the most intimate. I also agree it's important to keep POV singular in each scene. Joe's idea of the "handoff" seems to be the smooth equivalent of white space, so I can see that.

    Readers aren't nearly so concerned as we are with this, but POV "violations" affect them subliminally, and if done constantly colors their reaction. They may like but not love the story, for example, and can't explain why. It's the loss of intimacy that's happened over and over again, like numerous potholes on a long stretch of road.

    I would make the case that omniscient these days should be reserved for the epic, present or historical or fantasy, a la Lonesome Dove, for that very reason. Character bonding is more important than ever today, it seems.

    Shifting 3d is great for thrillers, as mentioned. You can cut away. That's what my WIP is. But I am having to make sure each POV is as warm and vital as the one for my Lead.

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  10. It is really subliminal, James. It surprised me that it took me several re-reads to figure out that it was a POV issue in the writing group sample that was the issue yesterday. Everything else seemed to be working fine. But by jumping back and forth in the POV, the whole thing just didn't work. And yet it kind of glides by the reader. It is kind of like a pothole thing. It just becomes a bumpy read. Furious, I long for the day when things just happen naturally. Sometimes I can't believe how much I labor over a few lines, and how slow the progress is. Maybe it'll break loose again and things will be like "sunshine and lollipops" for me, lol.

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  11. I've written some PI stories in first person. I love it for getting inside what is traditionally a lone wolf kind of character, seeing and feeling things as he does, in, essentially, real time.

    My current WIP is multiple POV. I like how t allows the reader to see how some characters know things other characters don't know, and how it allows me to show parts of the same scene from different POVs. I can use a line space to backtrack in time a little, to show how character saw what was just described throuhg character A's eyes. The reader may get to decide who is the more reliable narrator, use some of the Rashomon effect.

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  12. I usually write in a close third person, so you're in the head of whomever is the focus of each scene and only know what they know. Seems to work for me- although just for fun, in my next book I'll be alternating between first and third a la Michael Connolly. It's funny how freeing it is to write in first person again such a lengthy break from it.

    I find second person extremely annoying.

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  13. I'll agree, first person can be claustrophobic but sometimes it can be brilliant. I can't imagine "Catcher in the Rye" in any other POV than first person.

    I find I'm more of an "instinctual" writer which means I'm too lazy to think about consistency. So my writing tends to be a potpourri of POV's. Whatever seems to work at any given time. But as I "mature" I'm certainly more focused on what might be the best POV for any given situation. Learning and growing every day - I hope....

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  14. I love first person. It's the pov I use the most. I'm also comfortable with multiple third person. Second person is totally annoying to me.

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  15. Oh how I love topics like this. Its like college credit without paying the tuition. ;-)

    Thus far I have written almost exclusively in multiple or limited third person with one exception being a WW1 short story written through the eyes of the 19 year old soldier in the trenches...that story nearly gave me PTSD.

    Although I do enjoy an occasional first person tale, I just can't seem to get myself to write any novels that way. Seems like I can see into all of the characters heads and that's what ends up on the paper.

    If you want to hear me act out the one first person story I've done its at my website in audio, in the collection In The Shadows... episode 3...titled 1917.

    Oh, and these blog posts, I tend to write them in first person too. Although I suppose it would be weird to have a conversation in third person.

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  16. Oh, and JJ. Reacher has that same effect on me, my wife saws I tend to walk with a cool swagger when reading those...of course the coolness of the swagger is tempered by my more natural Guinness gut waddle.

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  17. I actually don't mind second person POV but agree it's more on an intriguing construct than an appealing (or accesssible) POV. I find the POV comes naturally to the story - I tend to have third person close with an emphasis on one character but in my last book I adopted multiple POVs so I guess the mixed third person worked for me then. I like first person as a reader but as a writer I worry it's too limiting.

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  18. Thanks, Basil! Whatever issue I'm working on (or worrying over) in my own writing, tends to come out in my weekly blog post. Clare, after doing a series in first-person, I'm having a lot of fun writing a thriller in multiple 3rd. It feels so free and expansive by contrast. I should post a picture of some wild Mustang (grin).

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