Fifth element in this series: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision
(Please read the Introduction, if you haven’t already.)
POINT OF VIEW
Point of View (POV) confounds many writers, but it is critical to a story, so you as writers need to be cognizant of how you employ POV and how it impacts your stories:
- Single—the entire story is told from the main character’s point of view, and it may be written in first-person. This is common in mysteries, from the POV of the detective or amateur sleuth, and the reader is two steps behind the protagonist, which creates the mystery.
- Limited omniscient—single POV within a scene, but multiple POV within the story. This is typical of a thriller or suspense story, where the good guy and the bad guy each have a POV, and the reader is two steps ahead of the good guy due to the bad guy’s POV, and that creates the suspense.
- Fully omniscient—multiple POV within scenes; “old school,” common in 19th and early to mid-20th century; no longer in fashion; a red flag to literary agents and publishers, who pejoratively call it “head hopping.”
E.g., Somerset Maugham, and Louis L’Amour, who in a scene in Keylock Man gave a POV to six men—and a horse. In a manuscript I edited, the author gave brief POV to a dog.
Do animals merit a POV? They can, but it needs to part of the story; maybe the animal is the main character. What’s the story reason?
The first two are considered the “rule of thumb” for today’s writing, while fully omniscient is considered to be old school and amateurish.
You may ask: How is POV established? POV is determined by what a specific character senses or thinks; i.e., what that character sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches, and that character’s internal thoughts.
If something occurs in a scene that the POV character cannot see or hear, etc., then that becomes a POV shift. Not recommended.
The most critical element is internal thought—what a character is thinking at any given moment. In fully omniscient POV, the author may divulge the internal thoughts and motivations of two or more characters within a scene. In limited omniscient and single POV, the author limits the internal thoughts to one character per scene. What the non-POV characters think or feel is revealed by what they say or what they do.
Ask yourself: What POV do I need to tell this story effectively? How does a single POV limit my options? How does multiple POV complicate my options?
How do writers get confused by POV? True story: A writer had been to a workshop and was told by a well-known literary agent that if she wanted her book to be acquired by a New York publisher, she had to have multiple points of view. So, she wrote scenes from one character’s POV, then rewrote the same scenes from another character’s POV. If the second scene had introduced new information, or revealed aspects of the character not apparent in the first scene, then that technique might have worked; but this author merely repeated the information revealed to the reader in the first scene, and therefore it served no purpose. I had no trouble killing that darling.
Important points to ponder:
POV sends a message to the reader: It says “this character is important to the story, so pay attention.” However, I see manuscripts in which minor, throwaway characters are not only given a POV, they get paragraphs or even pages of background, while more important characters get short changed.
There are consequences for head hopping: rejection by agents and publishers, as well as reader confusion over who the most important characters are and whether the reader should care about or empathize with those characters. If a reader gets confused, he or she may put the book down and pick up another.
Only give POV to a few important characters. Clarity, not confusion. Example: I edited a rehash of the Robin Hood legend. It began with a long prologue from the POV of Robin Hood’s sidekick, Little John, in which Little John saves Robin from drowning when the ship they were on during their return to England began to sink. I thought, This is great—a fresh retelling of the legend of Robin Hood from Little John’s POV. But in Chapter One, the POV shifts to Robin Hood and Little John never gets a POV again. So, the author had set my expectations with the prologue—which should have been Chapter One—then dashed those expectations. This novel came out of a prestigious writers’ workshop, and, don’t get me wrong, that prologue was beautifully written, and it no doubt received high marks in the workshop. But not only did the POV throw me off, the prologue was not necessary for the story. I recommended that she kill that darling.
You ask: How do I convey to the reader what a character is thinking or a character’s emotional state without going into that character’s POV?
Answer: Show, don’t tell: Show the character’s thoughts and emotions through that character’s words and/or actions, rather than telling:
- Telling/head hopping POV shift: She was pissed off.
- Showing/no head hopping: “To hell with you,” she muttered and punched him on the nose.
Recommendation: Create a POV outline. This is similar to a chapter outline, but it’s limited to identifying each character that has a POV in each chapter and each scene within a chapter. You will see at a glance how much, or how little, weight you have given to each character.
If you find that you have given POV to multiple characters in a chapter or, more importantly, in a scene, then you ask yourself, is this necessary? What’s the story reason? Is this my intent? Why is this character so important that he or she merits a POV?
You ask: Can I have multiple points of view in a story that’s written in first-person? Answer: Yes, as covered previously in Narrative Mode.
Murder mysteries often have a single POV—the detective, PI, or amateur sleuth—and often are written in first-person. So nothing happens in the story that is not through the eyes and ears of the main character.
Thrillers and suspense, by nature, require at least two POV—protagonist and antagonist—and may have a third or fourth, depending on the needs of the story.
But if you find that you have five, six, seven characters with POV, ask yourself why. Why do I need all of these characters’ POV? Why is this so critical? How can I write it differently so the POV remains with my two or three most important characters?
Sixth in the series: Characters