Monday, April 14, 2014

A Few Pointers on Point of View, Part 1

Our discussion on point of view (POV) will be covered in two parts: Point of View and Viewpoint. Yes, there's a difference! Today we'll take a good, hard look at POV so that the Viewpoint post makes (hopefully) perfect sense.

As writers, we will always be improving our style, craft, and depth of knowledge, but one of the first things we need to get a rope around is point of view.

Beautiful and wild ideas swirl and pace restlessly in our minds, roaring to get onto the page. Writers really aren't any different from circus animal trainers—and even trainers need training before they can authoritatively tame their ideas to enter the blank-page arena with graceful flow.

Here are a few pointers to help you gain Alpha status in the ring where your published words will put on the greatest novel show on earth. It's advice that might literarily save your life as an author.
Okay, maybe it's not that dramatic—but nothing will tip off an editor to your undeveloped writing ability quicker than an unwarranted shift in your story's POV tense or unwarranted shifts in viewpoint.


What Is POV?

Simply put, the POV is set from whoever narrates the story. But for creative flair, we like to think of POV as the camera filming your characters when and wherever they interact. She who holds the camera holds the POV power. We watch the "movie" of your story unfold through observations available from this narrator's “lens” or specified vantage point.

Establishing a solid POV allows your story to be seen through one steady lens and gives your readers stability plus the ability to get sucked into the story's believability. Giving you credibility. Indubitably.

If your story requires it, you can hand off camera duties, but you have to be careful to do it purposefully and, we'd advise, at a natural break in your story (like at a new chapter or scene break). The last thing you want to do is throw your readers out of your story because they don't know whose head they're in anymore. Most people are okay with sticking with a chosen POV and have a trickier time with sticking to the viewpoint, but what we see as editors all too often are writers who start out in past tense and teeter-totter to present tense or even fall off into the tricky pit of past perfect.

Some POV Examples

First Person. This narrator is also a character in the story, and we know the inner workings of only this character's mind and heart. He or she can only suppose or observe what other characters might be thinking or seem to be feeling. We watch the action unfold as if perched behind the eyes of our narrator only. If the character can't see or hear or sense what's happening, the reader can't either. It limits the writer to choose this POV, but it creates a very powerful connection for readers and the main narrating character.
For example, Suzanne Collins chose her main character, Katniss Everdeen, to tell the Hunger Games story in first person present tense. This means we only know the story as it unfolds according to Katniss in the very moment things are happening. If she gets knocked out a few dozen times, there will be action we miss out on until she comes to. Strategic dialogue or other means of discovery are the only ways we can catch up on what happened while her "camera lens" was blacked out.

First person can take on past tense as well, and we commonly read books with this POV. This is when the narrator speaks in “I was” and “we went” but might be able to offer greater insight along the way since the action is all being retold from happening in the past. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a good example of this POV.

Another version of first person POV that can be effective in telling some stories is the epistolary novel, where letters between characters lay the story out, both in past and in present tense. Past for describing the action ("He called upon me at my father's house.") and present for the emotion of the scribe ("I am horrified at the thought that he will come again tomorrow."), and this method allows for shifts in tense to be common and understandably sudden.

Second Person. This narrator refers to the reader, and is somewhat uncommon in fiction. You'll hear it a lot in song lyrics, poetry, self-help books, advertising, or awesome editorial blog posts. The narrator nudges you along from one idea, one suggestion, or one scene to the next. For novels, the selected narrator will confide in the reader, share secrets, take the reader on as a buddy or sidekick, and this can be very effective for readers to connect to your story. The author narrator introducing us to the Baudelaire children in A Series of Unfortunate Events immediately catches our attention by using a direct second-person approach.
“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading
some other book.”
Think of all the books you read to little kids. "What does the dog say?" the book asks the child. The child is immediately engaged because she is directly addressed to involve herself. The fuzzy monster in the picture is asking the child to follow along for a wild adventure.

Or, an author might use second person to tell someone else's story, someone who can't speak for themselves. This would include a dying father writing to his unborn child, laying out the dream he has for him to grow up, graduate, marry, and be successful in life. Or, a young girl, feeling ambitious, who writes a letter to her older self, outlining the goals she should accomplish by the ripe old age of twenty-two. Second person has a powerful presence when artfully employed.

Third Person. This is the narrating voice above the characters that is separate from the story. This may be the omniscient author himself or a voice he assigns to narrate the happenings of all the characters. And while most authors are extremely used to reading and writing in this POV, this is where the most mistakes are made in viewpoint shifts.
photo credit.
Third person present tense would include, "She steps sleepily toward the snake aquarium as if entranced by the soft glow and hum of the heat lamps. A small noise squeaks from the brown paper bag hanging loosely in her hand."

Third person past tense would read, "He spit on the ground and saw blood. His one rule: as long as he didn't start the fight, he felt perfectly justified offering his skills to finish it."

A moment of past perfect during past tense: "Harold sat on the church steps in his rented tuxedo, retracing every moment of the day in his mind. The morning's festivities had gone off without a hitch. His frowned deepened. Now the afternoon would also go off without a hitch—the one that would have made Bernice his forever."


To use the ringmaster analogy to further demonstrate POV examples, imagine you're a journalist in the stands, watching the dramatic display of courage unfold and tweeting live updates to your Twitter followers. You'll share the action from a withdrawn third-person POV, and you'll likely use past tense: "That lion just about bit off the tamer's arm! #circussnacks" or maybe present tense: "Oh no! A second lion entered the ring. Let's hope he's trained for this. #dinnerfortwo"

Now imagine you receive a colorful advertisement about the circus coming to town. It might include such direct phrases as:
"Are you ready for the MANE event?"
"We aren't LION when we say you don't want to miss this show!"
The author of that material addresses the reader directly in second-person POV.

Finally, imagine if the lion tamer held the whip in one hand and our POV camera in the other: reading the scene as told by the lion tamer would offer a dramatically different experience—or what about the lion himself? These two characters are actually involved in the action and can share a much more intimate account of the scene.
Photo credit.
Now, for a fun exercise, take a scene from your own work in progress and try it in a new tense or from a different POV. You may find that you like the life it brings to your story, but in the least, it may just get those writing juices flowing, so give it a try! Our pointers on viewpoint come next!

Tweetable: Need a refresher on point of view? The folks at @CastleEdit have got you covered: #writetip #amwriting

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I love the challenge at the end to try writing something in all perspectives. :) Thanks!