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POV Logistics

12 Sep

Welcome to Workout #3 in a series of posts on Point of View (POV).

In the first, Good Fiction . . ., we practiced writing in a close narrative style to amp up the reader’s experience.

Whose Line is it Anyway? focused on using various POV to adjust the tone of our stories.

Today we are going to jog through the logistics of using POV to keep the reader involved.  To get the most out of this series, I recommend you work through all three posts in order.

Changes in POV Come in Two Flavors

Smooth, creamy Neapolitan ice cream with it’s stripes of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate.  Yum.  That about describes shifts among the various 3rd person POVs, such as between Omniscient and Observer, or Observer and Limited.  We slide right from one to the other.  While they are all different flavors, they transition and blend smoothly.

The other type of POV shift is more of a Rocky Road experience.  When we change between viewpoint characters, it’s like biting into an almond in your chocolate ice cream. It’s not smooth. We are either in one character’s mind or another’s. The experience may be delicious if you expect it, jarring if you don’t. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Third Person Zoom

Within the 3rd person POVs, you can use what I call the 3rd person zoom.  We covered this pretty thoroughly in the previous post.  Just be aware that when you change between various levels of 3rd person narrators, you still are changing POV.  The change can be so subtle that your reader may not even notice.  And that’s good.

We want to the control the experience for the reader without being heavy-handed about it.

Close Narrative Distance

POVs with a close narrative distance, either 1st person or 3rd person limited, let the reader experience the story from inside the mind of the viewpoint character. Because these viewpoints are so good at keeping the reader involved in the story, most of your storytelling will probably be from one of these POVs.

The reader identifies with the character and experiences the story on a personal level.  But what happens when you want to change to a different viewpoint character?

Smooth Shifting

No matter how smoothly you make your transition between viewpoint characters, your reader will momentarily be jarred from the story while you shift gears. To minimize this, you only want to shift viewpoint characters between chapters or scenes.

Warning

In general, avoid shifting viewpoints within scenes, or worse, within a sentence. Jumping from one character’s head to another will confuse your reader. A confused reader will not experience the story the way you want her to.  She is likely to get frustrated and put down your story.

Control and Expectations

Decide where and how often you are going to allow yourself to shift POV. Introduce that pattern early in your story and stick to it. That way your reader knows what to expect.

If you begin the story in a character’s POV and shift to another character at beginning of the second chapter you are doing great.  But if you start your third chapter in the head of one of these characters and then halfway through the second scene you jump into the head of a third character, you will jar and possibly confuse the reader. You set her up to expect that she would cruise through Chapter Three in the mind of the character who started off the chapter. Instead, she has come out of the experience you worked so hard to create.  She struggles to figure out who this new guy is and where he came from. Be kind to your reader. Set up the POV expectations early and stick with them.

Orientation

When you switch viewpoint characters, you want to orient your reader as soon as possible, preferably in the first sentence of the new scene or chapter. To do this, use the viewpoint character’s name in the first sentence of a new scene when you establish the scene’s time and place.

As shadows performed their macabre dance across the church floor, Donald stole into the crypt.  He…

Job done.

Scheming, Lying Narrators

Keep in mind that your reader’s experience is filtered through the perception of your narrator. You can use this to your advantage.

Some limited points of view have inherently unreliable narrators while we tend to trust 3rd person observer, detached and omniscient narrators. You control how reliable or unreliable you want your narrator/viewpoint character to be.

Unreliable narrators and limited viewpoints can come in handy if you want to keep something from your readers or color their perceptions.

First or 3rd Person, That is the Question

Readers identify more closely with 1st person characters because they experience the story from inside the character’s mind. While close identification is what we usually strive for, it can cause a couple problems.

1. A change in 1st person viewpoint character can severely disorient the reader.  All the sudden “I” is a different person.

2. The reader may have identified so closely with the character, she will rush through any parts told from other characters’ viewpoints to get back to her favorite.

If you need more than one viewpoint character to tell the story, you may want to sacrifice a little of the immediacy of 1st person for the more natural POV shifts of the Limited 3rd Person POV.

By the way, shifts between a 1st and 3rd person narrator are problematic for the same reasons.

Consider Your Genre

Check some popular books in your genre to see what POVs their authors use. Can you explain why each is a good choice for your genre?

For example, many romance novels are told from two viewpoints, the male and female leads. A 3rd-person limited POV is a natural for this genre because the POV flips back and forth between the two leads.

Short stories are often written in 1st person. It is relatively easy to maintain one POV in a short story and the close narrative distance of 1st person helps the story resonate with readers.

What about a mystery? You would probably find it difficult to write one with an omniscient narrator. The reader might think, “If this guy already knows what happened, why doesn’t he tell me already?”

As you thumb through your favorites, you will find that not all books of a genre are written in the same POV. Consider the strengths and limitations of each POV and choose the one that best suits your particular story.

Bend the Rules

When you have a firm control over POV, you will be amazed what you can do with it.  Bend the rules.  Break them.  Have fun.  In the opening to his novel The Havana Room, Colin Harrison blends first-, second-, and third-person narration masterfully.  It can be done, and to good effect.  You can preview his book for free on Amazon.com.

Remember that POV is a tool. If you know the basics of what it can do, you’ll find all sorts of uses for it. In using it, you’ll find even more uses for it. Which brings us to the maxim:  The more you practice, the better you’ll get.

Practice

1.  Pick a book from the last workout that you particularly admire. Mark or list how many scenes and chapters are in each character’s POV to see the pattern emerge. While you are doing this, notice how the author lets the reader know a shift in viewpoint character occurred.

2.  If you have an outline of your own story or novel, mark next to each scene whose POV you use. If you don’t have an outline, make a list of scenes and whose POV you use. Don’t be lazy about making this list and just do a couple scenes.  Do the whole book.  And keep the list–you might find it useful in the future.  You can thank me later.

I’d love to hear from you either about these posts or topics you would like to see in the future. Throw in a comment at the end of this post or under the Suggestion Box.  Happy Writing. —Kate

Whose Line is it Anyway? Narrators and Viewpoint Characters

10 Sep

Have you read the post Good Fiction Comes From the Minds of Your Characters?  Today we delve a little deeper into Points of View (POVs), throw around some technical jargon, uncover some popular POVs of the past and find out what is current.

Point of View is a powerful storytelling tool that lets you adjust the tone of your story and fine tune your reader’s experience. By adjusting the POV, you can give your story a detached news-report aura or an intense roller-coaster feel.

However, like any powerful tool, you need to know how to use it correctly.  So before we go any farther I’m going to let you in on a secret.

The key to using POV well is to keep in mind that the narrator of the story is not the author.

The Narrator is the Storyteller

This is easiest to see in a 1st person story where the narrator is the “I” character.  You tell the story from this character’s perspective whether he is the main character, a minor character, or a witness to the events of the story.  This comes naturally to many fiction writers.  We slip easily into the skin of our characters.  It’s almost scary.  But no matter how easy it is to assume the identity of our characters as we write, you wouldn’t argue that we actually are those characters. At least I hope you wouldn’t.  Unless you write memoirs.

Third person gets a little more tricky.  You may argue that it’s really you telling the story–the fictional narrator doesn’t exit.  Maybe, but you will write better if you think of the narrator as a fictional persona or “voice” you adopt to tell the story.  It’s important to separate the narrator from you, the author, because the “voice” of the narrator can be honed to reflect the thoughts and speech of the story’s characters.  It can even take on its own personality to lend an air of authenticity to a story.

Viewpoint Characters and Narrative Distance

If your story is told in 1st person, the narrator, the “I” character, is the viewpoint character.  Your reader experiences the story from this character’s POV.  Here the narrative distance (how close the narrator is to the character) is close and relatively fixed.

We see the story only through the lens of the viewpoint character’s capability to tell the story and his proximity to the events.  But don’t despair–if you choose the right viewpoint character/narrator, these limitations can work for you.  They add texture to your story and filter out information that you don’t want your reader to know.

Third Person Zoom

When we use a 3rd person POV, things gets a bit more complicated again. Third person stories can be told from inside a character’s mind or from a distance. Think of a zoom lens on a camera. If you zoom out to a wide-angle view, you can see a lot, but not in detail–this is good for a panoramic landscape shot. Zooming in gives you a detailed view but a narrower range of vision.  There is a continuum of 3rd person viewpoints, from tightly-focused which we call Limited to all-seeing which is often called Omniscient.

Within a 3rd person story, you can zoom in and out to vary the narrative distance. We sometimes see a similar effect used at the beginning of a movie. The opening credits begin with a sweeping panorama over mountains or a city. Then the camera gradually zooms in on a particular character in action.  Because you can vary the narrative distance, 3rd person POV is versatile like the zoom lens on your camera.

Four Useful Viewpoints

If you read much about narrative distance and POV, you will undoubtedly come across many terms for various levels of narrative distance. We will make it simple by adding just four viewpoints to your kit.  That’s all you need to effectively use the zoom lens of 3rd person.  Just to be clear–these are all variations on the 3rd person POV.

1.  Omniscient

The narrative equivalent of the wide-angle view has several names. Omniscient, All-Knowing, or God’s Eye POV are common terms because from this viewpoint you can see everything going on in the story even things no character can see. This kind of all-knowing narrator sounds like a traditional storyteller at a campfire or the narrator of children’s fables. This POV isn’t used often in modern fiction but was almost universal in stories before the novel was invented.

2.  Detached or Objective, “Just the Facts, Ma’am”

This is sometimes called the Fly on the Wall POV. The easiest way to write from a detached viewpoint is to imagine you are a fly on the wall. A literate fly. There is no viewpoint character. The narrator-fly can only report what it sees and hears and is never in the mind of any character. The result can be emotionally detached.

If you want your reader to identify with your characters, this is not the way to go, but it can be powerful when you want to convey the impression of an objective reporter or create an eerie detachment. John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl starts off with a long narrative in this style. It was a risky way to start a novel–you can decide whether it worked.

3.  Observer

We mentioned a witness-to-events narrator in 1st person and we can use a similar viewpoint character in third person. This is when a minor character sees and reports the action. It differs from the detached viewpoint in that a minor character is the viewpoint character.

4.  Limited

The limited 3rd person narrator is the counterpart to a 1st person narrator. The narrator takes on the persona of the viewpoint character even though he relays the story in 3rd person. If you want the reader to feel close to your character, you go deep into the mind and reveal the character’s experience and thoughts. At this level, the reader is only one step removed from being in immersed in a 1st person narrative.

Effectively, we have taken the camera lens and zoomed it in on a single character. We are so close that we are inside his mind where we are privy to his thoughts.

It’s called Limited so there is a catch–we are limited to that character’s viewpoint. The limitation is that we do not enter into the minds of other characters at the same time. There is no jumping from head to head. Es ist verboten! You must also be careful not to disclose any information that the viewpoint character would not know.  It can be hard, because stuff you the author know sometimes slips in.  Be vigilant.  Also writing in a close style will help.  (This is what we worked on in the post: Good Fiction Comes From the Minds of Your Characters.)

Most modern stories are written from this POV, usually alternating between two or more viewpoint characters, chapter by chapter.

Which POV to Use?

That is like asking a painter which brush you should use.  It’s a matter of choosing the right tool, be it brush or lens or POV, for the job at hand.  And that is why we study POV or any other element of fiction writing.  To know what tools we have in the box and to be able to pull out the right one when we need it.

That said, in the next workout we will go into more detail about choosing POVs and switching between them.

Until then, here are a couple exercises to strengthen your awareness of POV.

Practice

1. Assume you want to tell a story of a drug addict in denial.  Of the four types of 3rd person narrators described above, which would you use to accomplish the task?  Would a 1st person narrator work better that the 3rd person POV you chose?

2. Take several of your favorite novels off the shelves.  Choose books published within the last 50 years.  What are their genres?  Are they written in 1st or 3rd person limited or some other POV?

3. Read through a scene or two and notice whether the author sticks to a single POV throughout the scene.  We will work on changing viewpoints in the next post.

If you would like examples of how different POVs sound, there are excellent examples in Chapter Seven of Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft.  I highly recommend the entire book.

Good Fiction Comes From the Minds of Your Characters

6 Sep

Time to Shape up Your Fiction

How to Get Readers to Identify with Your Characters

What makes fiction come alive?

The short answer is identification.  If the reader sees herself in your character or situation and says, “Hey that could be me,” we have identification.  That shower scene in Psycho? It’s powerful not only because it’s graphic but because we all take showers.  We identify with that experience.

Point of View

A lot of techniques help readers identify with your character.  One of the most powerful is telling the story from the character’s perspective.  When we are in a character’s head, we are in that character’s Point of View (POV).  Your story can be written in either 1st person (I did that, I saw this) or 3rd person (he saw this, he did that) and still use the same viewpoint character.

Showing a Character’s Experience

What is important is how closely we represent that character’s experience.  When we tell a character’s inner thoughts and sensations, we are in a close POV.

Jim’s heart pounded as he ran.  That is Jim’s experience.  We can feel it too because we know the sensation.

If we write Jim exerted himself as he ran, we’ve completely lost the experience.  We are telling the reader what happened instead of letting her share it.

A Simple Trap

A trap we often fall into is adding a layer between reader and character.  For example if we write, Jim felt his heart pound as he ran, we have stepped back slightly from Jim’s heart pounded as he ran.  Now we see Jim feeling his heart pound.  There is a self-conscious layer between Jim’s experience and the reader’s.  That additional layer is the author telling the reader that Jim felt.

Don’t think that if you write in 1st person you are immune.  Consider the difference between I felt my heart pound as I ran and my heart pounded as I ran.

Omit Thought Words

Words that point out what the character is thinking like knew, thought, realized or wondered also separate the reader from the experience. Which do you think is stronger?

I knew there was no hope

or

There was no hope.

If you aren’t sure, try reading the two sentences aloud.  You may feel more comfortable with the first one because it sounds more polite, but the second is more direct.  When we are trying convey the experience, direct is what we want.

Show Emotions, Don’t Name Them

Words that name an emotion are shortcuts that rob the reader of experience.  It’s one thing to say Jane was sad, another much more effective thing to show her in that state.

To do that we have to be in Jane’s experience and know how she would feel and respond to the situation at hand.  It’s worth the extra effort because when you show your character responding at that level of detail, the reader identifies.

Practice

Now you should have a pretty good handle on what’s expected.  Look over the last scene you wrote and find where you can make the point of view closer.  Make the changes.  Then read the scene again to see how tightening up the POV strengthens your writing.

When you’re finished, you can hit shower.