Monday, June 23, 2014

Stick to the Point of View

One fundamental thing that writers and readers alike notice very quickly in a story is the point of view from which the story is told. In other words, through which character's eyes are events being realized and related to the reader. We call this the "point of view" of the story. 

Some stories contain multiple points of view. In other words, the story is told from the perceptions of more than one character. Occasionally a story is told from the point of view of an invisible narrator who is not a character who is part of the action but an omniscient commentator. If you've ever seen the movie George of the Jungle, the narrator is a hilarious and integral part of the story. 

Where mystery and suspense are concerned, a narrator is rarely used. The story generally revealed through the eyes of one or more of the involved characters. In this blog post, I'm going to attempt to explain a few of the intricacies of "point of view" for the writer's education and the reader's delectation. 

The term Point of View is defined as a position from which something is considered or evaluated, a standpoint, or a place of perception. In fiction writing, the position from which anything is considered in any given scene should be the character through whose head we are viewing events. This particular character is the point-of-view character. For simplicity, I will refer to point of view as POV and the point-of-view character as POVC.

In order to remain firmly inside the POVC’s head, nothing in a scene can be presented for reader consideration that is outside that character’s awareness. When judging writing contest entries, I often see POV issues similar to the following.

* * * * * * *

        At a long creak from the attic above, Karen froze, heart pounding. Was that a footfall? Unaware, Karen’s hold on the vase of flowers relaxed, and she dropped it.

* * * * * * *

If Karen is the POVC and isn’t consciously aware that her hold on the vase slipped then it is a POV violation to mention that she dropped the vase until the very moment when she realizes her unconscious action. The segment could be rewritten like this:

* * * * * * *

       Karen froze, heart pounding. Was that long creak a footfall in the attic above? She held her breath.

       Crash!

       Cool moisture splashed her ankles. Karen shrieked and jumped back.

     That sound hadn’t come from above. She gazed toward her feet at a tangle of bright blooms scattered amid shards of glass and splotches of water on the hardwood floor. Her heart sank. What a fraidy-cat she was. One little out-of-the-ordinary sound and she dropped the beautiful vase of flowers Glen had given her.

* * * * * * *

See how this sequence flows in a linear and logical fashion with only what Karen sees, knows, thinks, and experiences in the moment? We remain firmly in the now. We haven’t run ahead of events, lagged behind, or inserted information that could only come from an invisible narrator. How much more poignant this event becomes when we stay inside the POVC’s head.

Another type of POV issue I commonly see is something like this:

* * * * * * *

       Bill turned away and didn’t notice Chet slip out the door.


* * * * * * *

If we are in Bill’s POV, and he didn’t notice Chet’s sneaky retreat, then the incident cannot be mentioned. So how does the writer convey to the reader that Chet has escaped? Here is a possible rewrite that doesn't violate POV:

* * * * * * *

       Fists clenching and unclenching, Bill gazed around the kitchen. Where was that louse? He had to be here somewhere.


       “Chet, I need to talk to you. Now!”


       Silence answered Bill’s shout.


       He strode toward the living room. A gentle whoosh of air behind him stopped him in his tracks. Bill whirled. The screen door was settling back into place. The coward was on the run.


* * * * * * *

Now the reader knows that Chet slipped out the door, but we haven’t left Bill’s POV. By refusing to take the lazy way out and “tell” the information through a POV violation, the story becomes much more immediate and exciting.

Feel free to shoot me POV questions in the comments section of this post. Anyone who comments or asks a question is eligible for a drawing to win their choice of a copy of my handbook for writers called Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View or a copy of my July release, Shake Down.


BIO: Award-winning author and writing teacher, Jill Elizabeth Nelson, writes what she likes to read—tales of adventure seasoned with romance, humor, and faith. Jill is a popular speaker for conferences, writers groups, and libraries. She delights to bring the “Ahah! Moment” to students as they make new skills their own.

Visit Jill on the web at: www.jillelizabethnelson.com or look her up on Facebook or Twitter: https://www.facebook.com/JillElizabethNelson.Author or @JillElizNelson.

10 comments:

  1. Yes, I've studied Jill's book, 'Rivet Your Readers With Deep Point of View,' and it completely changed the way I write. I don't know how successful I've been in implementing this approach, but at least I've learnt what to aim for.

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  2. Jill, thanks for pointing out one of the simplest yet most frequently ignored "rules" (if one believes in such things, and I do) in writing fiction. Although I've seen best-selling authors ignore this rule, I don't dare until I join their ranks. For now, I'll follow the rule.The writer should put the camera and microphone on the shoulder of one character and record only his/her perceptions for that scene.

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  3. Hi, Jill. I've read "Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View," and it was truly an eye-opening experience. I'm still striving to digest and implement all that I learned there. It's one of those books that bears re-reading at least once a year. Thanks!

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  4. Thanks for this blog. Great, clear examples of what point of view is all about. This is something I did not fully understand until I had written about five novels! I have heard lots about your book 'Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View' and would love to own a copy. Thanks for this opportunity. jobert[at]tpg[dot]com[dot]au.

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  5. Hi Jill, Thanks for this post. I too have read Rivet Your Readers which was a great introduction to Deep Point of View and which I have endeavoured to implement in my own writing. In the examples you give above the writer reveals more than the POV character knows. I was wondering about the opposite - can the writer reveal only part of what the POV character knows. And when is it not okay to keep some information under wraps.

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  6. Hi, All. Thanks for the insightful comments. Glad to hear that my Rivet book is proving useful to fellow writers. :-) Good question, Jeanette, about revealing only part of what the POV character knows. In one sense, yes, that is permitted. As a story unfolds, the POV character may make oblique references to backstory incidents that are only fully revealed and developed as the story progresses--perhaps over a period of many chapters or most of the book. However, this can get tricky if a vital point is withheld from readers for no other purpose than keeping them from guessing whodunit. They tend not to appreciate that. Clear as mud?

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  7. Thank you for the examples. It's opened my eyes to some changes I need to make in my writing. I would love a chance to win a copy of Rivet Your Readers.
    lill dot kohler at gmail dot com

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  8. What a great basic writing skill you've written about! I just downloaded your Rivet book. I write non-fiction- nothing published but it seems the same advice works in that genre, too.
    You are a new author to me and I'm glad I found you on Goodreads through looking at Gail Martin's page.
    This insight also will help me as a book review writer as I consider what is and isn't working in a book. Thanks!

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  9. This is a great post. POV was something I struggled with immensely in my first novel. And I'll admit I sometimes head-hop sometimes. Unconsciously! My heart goes to my dear and wonderful editor for putting up with me. I'll be sure to share this post with anyone who has the same problem I had.

    Blessings! Renee-Ann <><

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  10. Hey, Lill, great news! You are the winner of your choice of Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View or my new release, Shake Down. I'll contact you via email to get your choice. Thanks, everyone, for dropping by the blog. Jill

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