Thursday, November 15, 2012
Point of View - An Author's "Twelfth Man"
Much like the twelfth man in football, point of view serves as the "twelfth man" in your book. Point of view, when used skillfully, can become a character in and of itself, and it can bring the entire story to life. Point of view is what allows your readers to immerse themselves into the story. It allows readers to feel what the characters are feeling, to see what they're seeing. Point of view (POV) is what brings tears to your readers' eyes, makes their hearts race, and makes them curse the bad guy. It is a living, breathing entity that acts as an extra character to make things happen that otherwise wouldn't without it.
In short, POV is a vital weapon in your writing toolbox.
In my last blog post, I talked about head hopping, which is directly linked to POV. If you didn't read that post, you might want to take a moment to do so. Head hopping involves jumping from one POV to another to another without showing the readers where that shift in POV is occurring. You show this POV shift through the use of blank lines, asterisks, chapter breaks, or some other "marker" that serves to inform your readers that a change in POV is taking place, but without that "marker," the reader doesn't know the POV is shifting, thus a head hop.
The problem is that I think there are some major misconceptions and misunderstandings about what, exactly, POV is. For example, as I stated yesterday, I used to be a head hopper. And I used to be the worst kind, because I didn't even know I was doing it. I didn't understand what point of view was or how to write using clear POV. I didn't understand the concept of head hopping, and I had even taken some pretty hefty writing courses. How did I not fully understand POV and head hopping with all the training I'd had? I "sort of" grasped the concepts, but I was more or less throwing darts in a dimly lit room, hoping I was hitting the target. But I didn't give up, and I continued to read and study until finally POOF! I got it.
Was point of view and head hopping simply my kryptonite? My nemesis? Every writer has at least one area they really have to work on, so is POV mine? Or, is the concept of POV simply that confusing and hard to understand? In my post yesterday, I mentioned that I have talked to other authors who seem to hold the same confusion over POV that I used to have. They have been told so much about the different types of POVs they can write in that they're a mental mess over whether they're writing first person, third person, omniscient, close third person, limited omniscient, and so on.
So, here goes. I'm going to make this super simple for those of you who struggle with POV and how to use it:
There are three main types of POV in writing, and only two that dominate in fiction:
1. First Person (I need to go there. I saw him pull a gun. When he yelled, I trembled and ducked my head.)
2. Second Person (This is not a POV used in fiction. It's used primarily in nonfiction, where the author is addressing "you," the reader, so you can scratch this from your fiction arsenal.)
3. Third Person (Trace tried not to grin when Micah opened the box and pulled out a revolver. He knew how Micah felt about guns, preferring his blades to a bullet any day. And if Micah did use a gun, he preferred his semi-auto with the wide grip. But the way Micah's lip curled and his nose crinkled broke Trace's resolve, and he threw his head back, laughing loudly. Trace felt for Adam the next time Micah saw him. He really did.) [Note that every character was referred to as "he" or by name. Even the POV character, Trace, is referred to in that way.]
Screw omniscient and close third person and whatever other fancy POV names you've heard. First person and third person. That's all you need to know right now. Those two POVs will suffice in every story you want to write, and they're the safest place for new authors (and the majority of indie authors) to live.
NOTE: In stories, we refer to character POV, meaning, "What character's point of view are you writing from?" Stephenie Meyer wrote Twilight in first person POV, but her first person POV was Bella's, not Edward's or Jacob's. I write in third person POV in my stories, and I write third person from the points of view of Micah, Samantha, Traceon, Arion, Severin, etc. So, POV is a two-parter: 1) Will you write first person or third person? and 2) Which character will be your narrator, or point-of-view character, for the story or a particular scene?
The benefit of first person POV is that it allows your reader to become deeply ingrained inside the main character's head, which allows readers to see and feel the story more actively. The pitfall of first person is that you are relegated to one character's POV for the whole story. You can't go into another character's thoughts, because then you have broken the first person POV rule: How does character A know what character B is thinking? You would use first person if one character's POV is all you need to tell the story, as well as if you are comfortable writing first person, which some authors (me, for example) are not.
I held John's hand as we walked slowly back to my dorm. I was nervous. Would he kiss me when we got to my door? Or would he simply walk away?
Suddenly John stopped. Right there in the middle of the sidewalk. When he turned to me, he saw the way my eyes sparkled and stared down at my lip gloss-moistened lips, wondering how they would taste.
Obviously, we are NOT in John's POV in this excerpt. We are inside the thoughts of whoever he's with. Let's call her Julie. Would Julie know that John was seeing how her eyes sparkled? Would she refer to her own lips as lip gloss-moistened? Would she know that John was wondering how her lips would taste? No. In Julie's POV, she would probably think something like: When he turned to me, the way he stared first at my eyes and then my mouth made me frown. Did I have something on my face? Was there dried mustard on the corner of my mouth from the hot dog he'd bought me earlier at the carnival? Why was he staring so intently at my mouth? Would I taste like dried mustard if he kissed me right now?
See the difference? If we're writing from Julie's POV, all she can do is speculate about what John is looking at and why, as well as what his thoughts are. When you're writing in first person, you can't hop out of Julie's head into John's unless she's psychic or a mind reader.
Think about in real life: When you're standing in line at the grocery store, do you know what the guy in front of you is thinking? No. You can use visual cues to make an educated guess, for example, if he turns and scowls at the twenty items in your basket and then glances up at the sign that says "Express Lane - 12 Items or Less," but you can NOT know exactly what he is thinking. In the first person POV, this might be written as, "As I stood flipping through the latest gossip trash, I glanced up at the man in front of me. He was glaring into my basket, his head bent down in an almost accusing nature. Pointedly, he looked up at the sign over the register. 'Express Lane - 12 Items or Less.' Then he turned back and scowled at me. Apparently, the guy was the Gestapo of express lanes, and I could feel him mentally flogging me for committing a cardinal sin of the express checkouts everywhere. Setting my jaw, I felt like saluting the bastard with my middle finger, but kept my composure as I offered a stiff smile and squared my shoulders, not to be bullied by his passive-aggressive abuse."
I didn't have to fall into the Gestapo's POV to convey his thoughts and feelings. The POV of our first person narrator was able to do that.
NOTE: These examples show you how you can use your "twelfth man," POV, as a tool to create suspense, drama, characterization, and even comedy. I bet you even smiled at Julie's dried mustard musings or our checkout vigilante's middle fingered salute, didn't you? And wasn't Julie's POV so much more interesting than John's because of her mustard obsession, because she has no idea what John is seeing and thinking. That's how POV can become a living, breathing counterpart to your characters.
In third person, you are now writing a character's POV from a little bit of a distance, but through their eyes. The benefit of third person is that it allows you to step into the minds of multiple characters within one book. The pitfall is that it puts a measure of distance between the reader and the character. If multiple POVs are crucial to your story, this is the choice you must use, whether you'd like to use first person or not.
Julie held John's hand as they slowly made their way back to her dorm. She was nervous and wondered if he would kiss her once they reached her door or if he would simply walk away.
Suddenly, John stopped and pulled her to him. His gaze ranged her face, from her eyes to her mouth, and for a moment she wondered if dried mustard was stuck on the corner of her mouth from the hot dog he'd bought her at the carnival. Just her luck if it was. She always had bad luck like that.
God, he was going to kiss her. She could tell. It was in the way his eyelids half-closed and he gazed at her mouth. Please, please, she didn't want to taste like dried mustard.
When his lips pressed against hers, all thought stopped, and it was just the two of them, kissing under the light of the full moon.
Julie's hand felt good in his. Small, delicate, even kind. How did a hand feel kind? He didn't know, but hers did. And her palm didn't get all sweaty like other girls' hands did. She was perpetually dry, even though he could sense her nervousness.
He liked that she seemed nervous. It made him feel more chivalrous for some reason, as if she were a shy rabbit ready to skitter away even as he held out a carrot, hoping she would take it and snuggle up against his hand.
More than anything, he wanted to kiss her. He had wanted to kiss her all night, and to hell with caution, he couldn't wait any longer. Stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, he turned toward her and pulled her close, catching the way her eyes sparkled under the nearby streetlamp before letting his gaze drop to her heart-shaped mouth, pink and moist from the lip gloss she had applied earlier. Would she taste like strawberries or watermelons? Perhaps cherries? He needed to find out. Lowering his head, he let his lips embrace hers, drawing in the faint taste of...yes, watermelon.
See how much difference a change in POV makes?
This is where it gets fun. Whose POV do you use? Well, you use the most important one to the scene and/or overall plot. If Julie's neurotic behavior is what is most important, you would use her POV, but sprinkle in bits of John's through dialogue or through Julie's observations of his behavior. On the other hand, if John's romanticism is more important, you would use his POV and may not even need to delve into Julie's.
This is where the work of being an author comes into play, and it's why I get a little frustrated with authors who say, "Both POVs are important, so I'm just going to use omniscient or head hop. Maybe both." Both POVs may be important, but you can convey both POVs without head hopping and by sticking to the "one POV at a time" rule, as I've demonstrated in a couple of these examples. It just takes a little more work, but nobody said writing was easy. You do have to work at it. I've written plenty of scenes where multiple POVs were relevant, but instead of head hopping, I looked at each character's POV in turn, one at a time, without letting the action and chronology of the story suffer, while still conveying everything that needed to be conveyed to the reader and moving the story along. Yes, it required forethought and a little cognitive input from me. Yes, I had to rewrite a few scenes into another character's POV during edits when the original scene didn't work. Yes, I had to work at this. But that's what I have to do to make sure the story is reader-ready. It's what all authors should have to do if they care about their readers.
Furthermore, you don't want to "spill all" immediately and from every character's point of view all at once. You want to draw out the action and keep some suspense. Using POV skillfully helps you to do that. By keeping one character's POV silent, you can use another's to get the reader thinking about what's going on inside that other charcter's head. Is he the killer? Is he a witness? Did he sell the murder weapon to the killer and is afraid to speak up? Does he have a shady past that puts him in jeopardy? If we go into that character's POV, we'll be giving some of that information away, and that could be detrimental to the story. And if you use omniscient POV but keep the murderer's POV silent, readers will see the ploy and get a bit upset about it. I guess Agatha Christie did this, and it didn't go over, so she abandoned her omniscient POV experiment and returned to a more basic method of writing.
So, yes, writing POV is an art, and it can make or break your story.
I want to say to the authors who take the easy way out and head hop instead of utilizing strictly one POV at a time: You are missing a fabulous writing tool by not employing and using POV to help you tell your story. This is your twelfth man, for God's sake! Use him to build suspense, drama, conflict, and to let the reader in on the joke when the punchline is relevant! By skillfully utilizing POV shifts, you can have a powerful influence on your readers' reactions and can create a much more dynamic, multi-dimensional story that pulls your readers along like a current in a river, making them practically salivate to see what's going to happen next.
Most authors just don't know any better, though, like me when I was struggling to grasp the POV concept. They don't understand it, so they don't know how to use it. That's not their fault. They just need more practice and guidance. They get themselves tangled up in all the advanced literary jargon and confuse themselves, which is so easy to do. But this is why I try to post on my blog what I've learned, so that I can help those who want to be better writers achieve their goals.
When it comes to POV, keep it simple: use first person or third person, and stick with one character's POV at a time. See the world and tell the story through one character's eyes until it's time to switch to another character's. Once you master this method, you can experiment with more advanced POV methods...or not. You might find this is sufficient and perfect for your needs. Either way, with practice, you'll get there.
Happy reading and writing!