Sunday, July 24, 2011

Writing Advice 6 — Point of View

About seven year ago I was reading a book and it was annoying me, but I couldn’t understand why. It was a young adult novel, a simple, fun story and I should have liked it, but I didn’t. It was confusing and hard to follow, which I thought strange for a kid’s book.

This was back right around the time I signed with my first literary agent. I sent her The Crown Conspriacy and was waiting to hear from her. When she finished she responded by saying she liked it but had a problem with the shifting point of view or PoV. I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. What was PoV? My agent acted as if I had just asked what year it was.

PoV, she explained,  was the perspective you are writing from—which character’s head you are in—who is experiencing the story. When you write:

It was a hot day.

That sentence can mean many things depending on PoV. Consider the difference between an ice cube’s PoV verses a cold-blooded lizard.  So the question is, who thinks it is a hot day?

The three basic PoV categories are First Person, Second Person, and Third Person. There are lots of sub-categories to these that I’m not going to get into as this is a basic topic and not advanced theory, and because I’m not a literature professor.  

The easiest PoV is the First Person Narrative. This is when the writer appears to be writing about themselves, easily identified by all that “I”s. First person is easy, not because it is easy to write in. First person is very limiting and often makes writing a story very hard, but it makes it easy to avoid mistakes. You are constantly reminded of who’s head you are in. I know Third Person stories where the main character has consistently been the only PoV, and they die before the end of the novel. This is a mistake that is hard to make when writing in first person.  It also makes it a little harder to Tell rather than Show as you are clearly limited by what the very singular narrator knows.

There is also Second Person, which is rarely used. This is when the writer addresses the reader as if they are a character in the story defined by the word “you,” as in, “You enter the house and sit down, crossing your legs and tapping your toes while you wait.” I consider this a novelty PoV, something short story writers might use, or a novelist might employ for a brief time to off-set something.

Then there is Third Person. This is the most common in literature, because it allows the greatest freedom and provides the largest number of options. As such there are more than one type. Third Person can be a character telling another person’s story, or an omniscient narrator telling the story. There are further breakdowns and this is where things get tricky.

Most people prefer the Omniscient Third, and there are sub-sets of this, but I’m only going to focus on two: Close and Distant.

A Close Third PoV is where the writer is describing the world using the mind of a specific character. Everything described is to be interpreted as how the character sees it, and not necessarily how it objectively is, and is limited to what the character knows. A Distance Third PoV is when a totally omniscient narrator, relates everything objectively.

The Crown Conspiracy was written in mostly Close Third, but the mistake I was making, the one my agent pointed out, was that I would jump from one character’s PoV to another. One of the great advantages of Third Person is being able to present more than one PoV, the mistake occurs when the PoV shifts mid-scene. One minute you are in one character’s head, seeing the world through their eyes and values and then with no warning or other indication, like a scene break or chapter change, you are in another person’s head seeing the same things differently. The issue is that as a reader, you have no idea there has been a change and suddenly you are obtaining sometimes contradictory thoughts.

Bobby held the ball and planned to throw it through the big window.

He would never throw it through the window. No one ever did. The very idea that he was threatening to do it was stupid.

Bobby threw the ball and shattered the window and Steve was shocked.

The first line is presented in Bobby’s PoV. The rest are in Steve’s PoV. Not knowing that the PoV had changed from Bobby to Steve, it is hard to determine who is thinking:  He would never throw it through the window. No one ever did. The very idea that he was threatening to do it was stupid.  Is this meant to show that Bobby is reflecting on the fact he won’t actually throw the ball and is only making a show of it? Or is Steve thinking that Bobby won’t do it. It introduces unnecessary confusion.

It wasn’t until my agent explained this to me that I realized this was why I wasn’t enjoying the book I was reading. The young adult story had a wildly shifting PoV that was driving me nuts without my realizing it.

Distant Third does not require a character present to relate a scene or series of events. However, being untethered, it also provides little structure and it is easy to get into trouble using it for it demands the use of Telling. It also lacks flavor, a true distant omniscient is void of any attitude or bias which makes the writing boring. I use Distant sparingly, and for specific reasons. At the end of Crown, the beginning of the final chapter starts with a grand Distant Third opening where I sum up events, and then “zoom in” to a street, and then a shop and finally the mind of a single character and I am back into Close Third. I’ve done this sort of things a few times much the way a movie director might chose a specific special effect shot. So while I feel it is okay to shift between the two in a story, and even in a scene it should be done sparingly or it will come off a bit like an amateur film maker zooming in and out all the time. 

Aside from clarity, PoV is a control that helps force writers to write better by limiting them and promoting Showing rather than Telling.

I recently read an aspiring writer’s novel that began with the main character thinking about themselves, how they look, and their relationships with the people they live with. This is a very common mistake. Take this for example:

Katy woke up and threw her long blonde hair back. She loved having long blond hair, it made her feel pretty. John came in the room. John was her uncle and she had lived with him and his wife Teri for most of her life, ever since Katy’s mother was killed in a terrible car accident. That was a horrible night that Katy could never forget.    

What’s wrong with this? For one thing, it doesn’t make sense. We are clearly in Katy’s head, but does anyone think this way? If you had long blonde hair, do you suppose that you would think how having it makes you feel pretty upon waking? You might think about it if you had a reason to—say you were on your way to an important date and you were concerned about your appearance—but no one wakes up thinking about how they look and how their attributes have always made them feel. This is clearly the writer Telling the reader what the character looks like. They are struggling to find a way to define the character and it shows.

Now we have John. How often are you sitting in a room when someone you have known all your life, like a brother, sister, parent or spouse enters and you begin thinking to yourself how you know this person, how you first met, etc. People don’t just reminisce whole relationships out of the blue. People are only focused on what is happening at that moment. They are confined to their motivation and what is concerning them at that time. Again, this is a form of Telling, and when you restrain the PoV to one character and then apply the focus of exactly what that character would be thinking at that moment in time based on their present situation, then the things you, as a writer, can address become very limited.

People don’t think about the kinds of things that would introduce them to others. They don’t think about the history of their family, or close friends. They usually don’t address others by name when speaking to them. They don’t ponder their life history. These are all contrivances invented by writers that steal the suspension of disbelief that is so important to any fiction work. It is also nothing more than another form of Telling. People react to the situation they are in, to their environment and to the motivation that drives them. If you want to convey information about a character’s past figure out how to show it. Create a reason for the thought.

A knock on the door woke her and Katy got up. Outside her bedroom was her Uncle John standing in his overalls, a day’s growth of beard on his face. “Breakfast,” he said and left. Katy moved to her closet pausing as she did every morning to touch the face of her mother and father framed in the photo on her dresser. The photo was an old Polaroid, turning yellow. It was the only photo she had of them—the only one that survived.  She found a blouse and a clean pair of jeans and got dressed.

In the above paragraph the same information is conveyed (minus the blond hair) but the reader isn’t directly told. The key thing to note is that the thought of her parents are triggered by an object, and that while a tragedy is hinted at, it is not fully explained. People often consider things fleetingly when stimulated to do so by a sight or sound, but there is usually no reason to ponder them deeply because they already know. This scene could be even better if the picture had fallen over giving Katy more reason to notice it, more reason to reflect on it.

Part of the skill of being a writer is becoming your characters. You are like an actor who transforms yourself into that other person and then transports yourself to that place. If you do this, then all that is necessary is to react to your surroundings as they would. The problem arises when a writer feels the need to get all kinds of information out. They think, I have to tell the reader Katy has long blond hair and who this John guy is, and how she came to be with him. The interesting thing new writers fail to see is that you really don’t.  Any story will be far better if you don’t explain much. Just drop the reader into a scene, let it unfold as it would in real-life, where there is no narrating voice-over explaining who these people are and why they are saying what they do. You’ll be surprised how much a reader will understand without being told. In addition, the effort to figure out who the characters are, what their relationship is, and what is happening and why, will feed their need to read more and give them both a sense of involvement, and a sense that the writer respects their intelligence.

One of the skills a new writer needs to master is patience. All too often writers want to blurt everything out. They have this great story to tell and want to get it all out there right away. They don’t feel they have time to hint at things, they don’t trust the reader to figure out clues, or to stay interested in a plot if you don’t tell them all the cool stuff up front. If they are writing a murder mystery they practically want to tell you who the murderer is in the first page, because it is so cool. I think this might be a lack of self-confidence combined with a misunderstanding of how long a book is, and the need to pace one’s self.

There is also the problem of a writer having all this information and feeling a need to impart it all. I’ve found, particularly in the fantasy genre, that while you might have a thousand pages of information, it is best to only use about ten. The rest isn’t needed to tell the story and putting it out there is just showing off all the work you did, as if the reader will give you credit for extra effort. In reality, you’ll just bore them.

So how do you get, and keep a reader interested in a story if you don’t expose them to the great and compelling aspects of your plot right away? And how do you keep your characters from becoming contrived robots? This is for another day.

That’s the bell. Next week we’ll look at Motivation, the Engines of a Story. Remember, no running in the halls


  1. I'm really enjoying your "classes", Professor. :) The difference between Showing and Telling was new to me and very interesting; the PoV, in general, is not. The difference is in the way you've explained it and the pitfalls, making me look at it with fresh eyes. Thank you. I look forward to your next class.

  2. I love it…and hate it…when I read a post like that and realize I have to go back and fix something I have written. There is always room for improvement and, often, that means more work.

    I am glad you talked about first person PoV. In the past, I was told that only amateurs and hacks write in first person. Then, when I thought back on the books that I really liked, I realized that a good portion of them were done in first person.

    As a writer, it certainly is easier to keep track of things when only dealing with one character’s brain. On the other hand, it is difficult to show some parts of the story when limited to only a single PoV. As you pointed out, it’s a trade off of sorts.

    Done improperly or with an unlikable character, first person PoV is a chore to read. As a reader, with no hope of a better character PoV on the horizon of the next chapter, you know you are in for a novel length grind.

    There are some very successful authors and books that are written in first person. When done well, I always find myself being able to identify with the character that is written in first person. As a reader, I am inside their head seeing just what they see. I am there, I am part of the story, if that makes sense.

    So thank you for not totally dismissing first person PoV’s. As writers or readers, we all have preferences on such things.

    Thanks Prof Sullivan. No tests or quizzes in this course, right?


  3. I don't know. Maybe I should hold a final just to see how much people have been paying attention.

    A belated congratulations on the release of "The Reluctant" Splitter. I suppose I can just check your work to see how to grade you. :)

    I'm glad you're getting something out of these, Mary is it? I was late learning about Show don't Tell, too. It helps.

  4. LOL, Thanks for mentioning it Prof Sullivan! I read somewhere that there are only half a dozen books you have ever really while you are welcomed to check it out, I fear I'll need a really BIG grading curve. The comparison between Lewis and Splitter ends at the initials.

    I hope that someday Robin posts a comment on her blog concerning where the tipping point is between good reviews and sales. Both of your stories are really inspirational for other authors but my wife won't even read my book let lone publish it lol.

    I now have "Show, Don't Tell" taped to my monitor. Those of us that are just learning need the insight and the reminders.


  5. Thank you so much for posting this. I've been writing on and off for years, but I've been making a firm attempt recently at improving my skills and this piece was a wonderful help to me. I'm so happy I randomly found this!

  6. Thank you.
    You are so good at expressing the meat and potatoes of the subject of each lesson, it makes me optimistic that I will be able to improve my writing.
    I find your generosity as amazing and lovely as your books.
    : )

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