Wednesday, November 7, 2007

3 Point of View Pitfalls

by Annette Lyon

I recently pulled out an ancient manuscript of mine and read through the first few pages. At first I was pleasantly surprised; the writing and dialogue weren't too bad. I still thought the language was fresh and fun.

One big problem, though: the point of view was nonexistent.

While some of my favorite authors, like L M Montgomery and Charles Dickens, could get away with either not having a point of view or using an omniscient point of view (where the narrator can see into everyone's head--and DOES, at any point), that method is far less likely to get your work into print today.

Readers and editors expect a clear point of view. Who's head are we in? Whatever is seen, thought, heard, felt, experienced, and (most importantly) interpreted, is through one person's eyes in that particular scene. You can have a few points of view in a novel, although more than 3-5 can get cumbersome.

Below are three pitfalls to avoid so your readers aren't getting dizzy trying to keep it all straight.

Pitfall #1: Hopping heads
As I said, you can have more than one point of view per book. Just don't hop between them willynilly. Don't switch even in the course of a scene. And absolutely never do what an author I recently read did by switching points of view at paragraph breaks--at nearly every paragraph break. It was hard to connect with the characters' thoughts and reactions when every few lines we're seeing the story through a different lens. The experience was flat at best and jarring at worst.

Pitfall #2: The Boring POV
Don't pick a random POV for each scene, showing the story from one person's head just because they happen to be there. Maybe another key person in the scene would provide a different--better--angle for the story.

Think about who has the most to lose. Often that's the right POV to pick. Maybe there's someone who has the possibility for misinterpretation of what's happening. Pick that POV. Who will react the strongest to the conflict in this scene? Latch onto that. Whichever POV you pick should help the scene be the most effective dramatically.

Pitfall #3: The POV Intrusion
This particular pitfall is so easy to fall into and not even realize it. The POV Intrusion is when the author is being so careful to stay inside one person's head that they get a little too carried away with pointing it out.

If we're in Sally's POV and she's waiting at a crosswalk, we don't need to be told that she sees a red car drive by. If the red car drives by (and we're in her POV), we can easily assume that she saw it. Same goes with all the other senses. Don't tell us that she heard the car's engine or noticed the cloud of exhaust. Just describe the sound of the engine, the smell of the exhaust.

This may sound like a little thing, but it's not: Every time you use a POV Intrusion, you're throwing up a flag to your reader that says, "POV Alert! Did you see it?" That pulls the reader out of the story.

Worse, it makes your reader less connected to your character. If Sally sees or notices something, the reader doesn't. It effectively keeps your reader one step away from the vicarious experience you're trying to create.

On the flip side, if you describe Sally's experience without the POV intrusion, the reader will feel it too, almost as if it's happening to them. In short, you've shown instead of told.

Point of view can be tricky, but it's a skill that's worth learning, especially if it gets your readers so entrenched in your story that they forget they aren't your characters.


A. Riley said...

The way I usually do POV isn't on your list of 3, so hopefully I'm doing it right.

I tend to do the main character's POV, with a little of the second main character's POV mixed in. Just enough to find out what the other character is thinking or what is happening with them - but not enough that you are still somewhat clueless like the first main character. Does that make sense?

My friends that read my book so far seemed to understand the POV, so I'm taking that as I'm doing it right.

Josi said...

I went back to my first book awhile back and POV was the first thing that jumped out at me. I realized then that I had learned a lot more then I thought I had since then.

Great advice, POV can be so jarring if not done well.

Anna said...

Wow - thanks for the information on POV Intrusion. I don't think I've ever heard of this particular POV problem. (You can tell I'm still wet behind the ears with this writing thing.)

My writers' group will appreciate this delectable morsel of writing wisdom.

Annette Lyon said...

a. riley--I think you're fine. Since your main characters is the one who should have the most at stake, it makes sense to show most scenes through his/her eyes. Sounds like you're doing great.

Julie Wright said...

I have an unpublished book that I wrote many years ago with more pov issues than you could possible imagine. It is shelved and I've no intention of ever letting the thing come to light . . . but I might steal a few characters from it and plant them in other books.

disp911gal said...

This I think is one of my biggest problems. I struggle with creating atmosphere without being able to link it to a person experiencing it. I know it would be just as effective to write: Cobwebs hung from the corners of the room and the floorboards creaked. But I always find myself writing: Character A noticed the cobwebs in the corners of the room and felt her spine crawl at the thought of the spiders who lived there. I think I overdo it,

Janette Rallison said...

My writers group calls me the POV police because I hate head hopping. Thanks for the great comments on POV!