Friday, March 23, 2012

Staying in Point of View

Last Friday I shared links to Anna Staniszewski’s explanations of point of view. Choosing a point of view is a major decision. After you’ve chosen, you have to stay in that point of view. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Be careful not to state what any other character sees, hears or thinks. If you want to share that information, you have to show it through the other character’s action, expression or dialogue. For example, here’s a scene from Haunted: The Ghost on the Stairs. Tania has fainted, and Jon is trying to comfort her:

    I sat in the chair next to the bed. I cleared my throat. “How are you feeling?”
    She didn’t look up as she whispered, “All right.”
    She was mad at me. I said, “I’m sorry. Really, really sorry, I mean it.”
    She looked at me then, her eyes wide. “Sorry? What for?”
    “For letting you fall! You were right next to me and I should have caught you.”
    She shrugged. “Oh, that. It doesn’t matter.”
    I stared at her. Something was bothering her, but what? She looked down again, and I could just see her cheeks getting red through her fringe of hair. But now that I looked closer, she didn’t look angry. She looked … embarrassed?
    “Hardly anyone saw you,” I said. “Just Bruce and me and a couple of people behind the desk.”
    “That’s good.”
    OK, so that wasn’t it either.    

Here Jon can guess what Tania is thinking and feeling, by how she behaves – but he may be wrong. 

Staying within one point of view is typically easier in first person, because any jumps to another viewpoint will be obvious. And when the narrator tells us how someone else feels, we’ll assume we’re getting the main character’s interpretation, and they may be mistaken. Just be careful about having your narrator correctly understand what everyone else is thinking and feeling, unless she’s highly empathetic or psychic.

Close third person is one of the other most common points of view – you show things through one character’s eyes. (Having multiple viewpoint characters is essentially the same, if you’re showing the scene through only one character’s eyes at a time.) Here’s where I see writers slip out of viewpoint most often, in order to tell us what another character is thinking or feeling. Make sure you’re showing only what your main character can see and hear. 

Beware also about slipping out of viewpoint to describe the setting, or action that the main character doesn’t notice. Phrases to watch out for (when “she” is your viewpoint character):

  • She didn’t notice as he...
  • The day was lovely, but she didn’t notice.
  • Wrapped in her own thoughts, she didn’t see...

You can’t tell us what your viewpoint character is not noticing. You can have her barely notice something, or notice but not pay much attention. In a similar vein, you can’t have your viewpoint character fall asleep or go unconscious and then continue telling us what other people are doing or saying. You can have her fall asleep as someone is speaking, but forget the words by the time she wakes up again. But your main viewpoint character MUST be able to see, hear and/or feel whatever you share (or guess at it based on her observations).

And personally, I can’t stand foreshadowing with phrases such as She didn’t know it yet, but... or If she had known then what would happen.... It’s not only a viewpoint shift, it’s lazy writing. Don’t promise me that things will get more exciting in the future – make them interesting now.

Finally, be careful also about describing your main character’s appearance. For example, “Her blue eyes widened.” Granted, she knows she has blue eyes, and she may realize when she’s widening them. But would she really be thinking about the color of her eyes? That’s authorial intrusion, where the writer is trying to shove in some character description. To really stay in your character’s point of view, you have to show the world as she experiences it. You should be able to switch to first person, and still have it feel natural. For example, “I pulled my hair back into a ponytail” sounds natural. “I pulled my shoulder-length, blonde hair back into a ponytail” doesn’t quite, unless your MC is obsessed with her appearance.

Some beginning writers are tempted to use the omniscient viewpoint in order to avoid these complications. But true omniscient has its own problems. First of all, it’s less common today, especially in children’s literature, and can sound old-fashioned. (Writing as an outside, omniscient character can work for fables, folk tales and fairytales, which are traditionally in the storyteller’s voice and are supposed to feel a little old-fashioned). Second, the distance can keep your reader from feeling close to any one character. And third, most people who try it actually write in shifting third person, jumping between characters – which is probably the most difficult viewpoint to pull off successfully.

•    Review a recent piece of yours, checking carefully for subtle point of view shifts. Fix them.
•    Rewrite a short story, or a scene in a novel, from a different viewpoint. How do things change?

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I'm working with close third POV, but when I find myself having trouble with a scene, I practice in 1st person to be sure I'm keeping within that character's viewpoint. Then I change the sentences back into 3rd, and they are much stronger than they were at the start.