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Monthly Archives: September 2013
How to write deep POV: It’s all in your perspective
The basics of deep point of view in fiction
In fiction writing, there are a lot of soft “rules,” many of which may be broken, but ideally not before you’ve mastered them. For example, writers break fiction rules when they engage in too much telling and not enough showing, information dumping, improperly structuring scenes, and misusing dialogue tags (also known as attributions). But there is one rule I consider unbreakable in modern fiction, especially for first-time authors: stick to just one point-of-view character per scene.
Troubles with understanding point of view (POV) have plagued authors of many of the fiction manuscripts I’ve edited, and they’re not uncommon in published fiction too. This complex topic could fill a book―and, indeed, a number of books have been written on the subject. But I’ve kept this post as short as possible, while summarizing some key points that will help make POV concepts easier to understand.
What is POV?
POV is the perspective (either of the author, one character, or multiple characters) from which your story is written. The most common POVs are first person, past tense, where the protagonist (in other words, the subject) is I, and third person, past tense, where the protagonist and other characters are he or she. Most memoirs are written in first-person POV, for obvious reasons―the author is the narrator and protagonist.
Third-person multiple POV is a popular choice for fiction, in which the plot requires several characters―often the protagonist and an antagonist―to tell their perspectives in separate scenes.
In some cases, with fiction, first-person POV can be a good choice when a single protagonist is the focus, but the author is limited to staying in that one POV character’s head throughout, which can make it difficult to get the story told.
The second person, you, is difficult to write well and rarely used in fiction, but it can be effective if done skilfully. Ultimately, the story you’re attempting to tell will dictate the point of view(s) you’ll need to employ.
Another aspect of POV is deepness or closeness—the degree of distance you, as the narrator, want to maintain between your readers and your characters. By handling POV carefully, skilled authors can focus their readers’ attention on precisely the details or emotions they want to highlight, helping the reader to empathize and connect with their protagonists and antagonists alike.
Why is POV so difficult to master?
Understanding POV may be difficult because you are writing events from your own POV—a narrator’s POV―as you see them unfolding in your own imagination. This perspective, at its best, is called omniscient POV. You are writing as the omniscient author who knows what’s going on in the heads (and outside the heads) of all of your characters. The problem is that omniscient POV can quickly deteriorate into head-hopping. This is an amusing nontechnical term for shifting between multiple POVs within a single scene.
Omniscient, first person, third-person limited, and third person multiple POV
Omniscient POV used to be the gold standard of fiction writing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The omniscient author would look down upon his or her scenes, like a powerful god directing a movie, and describe every detail of every character’s thoughts from afar. It’s a very distant perspective, and it doesn’t allow readers to become intimately connected with your characters. Omniscient POV has largely fallen out of favour; today’s readers prefer close, deep POV limited to a single character per scene so they can form a connection with that character.
If you’re writing in the third person with only one POV character in your story, this is called third-person limited POV—the POV character is limited to one person. With this POV, it’s easier to stay inside that character’s head at all times, but just like first-person POV, it’s limiting because the entire story must be told from a single perspective. If you have multiple POV characters, it’s called third-person multiple POV, and each POV character gets to tell their part of the tale from their own perspective (as distinct from omniscient POV, which is the authorial voice). Again, a new scene should be started each time you switch to a new POV character.*
This point is so important, I’ll make it again: the problem with both omniscient and third-person multiple POVs is that they can quickly descend into head-hopping.
How to write deep (or close) POV
So how do you avoid head-hopping? How do you write strong POV? First, learn to spot POV jumps and shifts; once your awareness has been raised, it’s hard not to see head-hopping when you read it. Second, if your story has multiple POVs, make sure your POV character for any given scene is the character with the most at stake or with the most emotional investment in that scene. Third, immerse yourself deeply into the mind of your POV character and remain there as you write the entire scene. You are the POV character, sensing, thinking, and experiencing everything that character does. Don’t allow yourself to jump out and become the omniscient narrator, except maybe at the beginning of a scene where you are setting it. And never jump into another character’s head, not even for a moment. When you’re in the POV character’s head, write about only what that character perceives—what he sees, hears, tastes, smells, touches, knows, feels, thinks, and dreams. That’s it. You can’t write about what any other character experiences—until you start a new scene. Only then can you go inside another character’s head, remaining there for the extent of that scene too.
Let’s look at an example:
Austin looked adorable, Natasha thought, as he wadded up his jacket under his head and stretched out.
“Might as well get comfortable,” he said. “I’ll tell you about the real Mexico. Okay?”
“Okay,” she said, wishing she could just wrap him in her arms.
“Mexico and Canada are connected by butterflies. The gorgeous monarch butterfly makes a long journey every year between Michoacán state, Mexico, and the eastern part of Canada. It’s a beautiful symbol of something our two countries share. Don’t you love butterflies?”
Natasha nodded, dreaming. I love you more.
Austin continued, taking the gleam in her eye for sharp interest. She was staring so hard that he felt like an insect in a glass specimen case. She was intense, that was certain. Austin had noticed that if something caught her interest, she wouldn’t let go until satisfied that she knew everything on the subject.
In this example, the first five paragraphs are clearly from Natasha’s point of view. The writer gets deep into her POV by using indirect thoughts (Austin looked adorable; wishing she could just wrap him in her arms) and direct thoughts in italics (I love you more). But, jarringly, the sixth paragraph jumps to Austin’s POV, showing the reader what’s in his mind. POV jumps like this—head-hopping—are frustrating for the reader to follow, and worse, they don’t allow the reader to connect deeply with the characters. (Learn more about writing your characters’ thoughts, sometimes called interior monologue, in my blog post: Interior monologue: writing characters’ thoughts.)
Making POV corrections
So how do you correct POV shifts and jumps like this? Again, live inside your POV character’s head. Use words like “appeared,” “seemed,” “evidently,” and “clearly” to describe what the POV character observes (e.g., from Natasha’s POV, Austin seemed/appeared to be interested in her; Austin was clearly/evidently interested in her), but use these sparingly; overused, they can quickly become a lazy, Band-Aid fix. Show non-POV characters’ perspectives only through their dialogue or through how the POV character observes them. As an editor, I would probably eliminate that last paragraph altogether. But it could be revised as follows:
She listened as Austin continued, then realized she was staring, maybe too hard. I’d better back off a little, she thought. She hoped she wasn’t making him feel like an insect in a glass specimen case.
“You’re pretty intense, Natasha,” he said abruptly. “If something catches your interest, you don’t let go until you’re satisfied you know everything on the subject.”
Further POV tips
Certain aspects of your writing will change when you write deep POV for a character. Here are a few more tips:
- Use fewer dialogue tags for your POV character than for other characters. If you’ve written strong POV, readers will know it’s the POV character speaking. If a tag is needed, balance dialogue tags with action tags (a brief sentence showing a character’s gesture, expression, or movement, in place of a dialogue tag, to identify who is speaking) for all your characters:
→ Austin fumbled through his pack. “Where’s my copy of Dinosaurs Unlimited?”
- Balance direct and indirect thoughts. Direct thoughts provide deeper POV than indirect thoughts, but both are effective, and they should be balanced. Save direct thoughts for the most dramatic moments in your story. What’s the difference? Convention dictates that direct thoughts go in present tense, first person (much like dialogue), and often italics. Indirect thoughts go in past tense, third person (unless your story is already in present tense, first person), and regular font. Note: Again, often the tag can be eliminated from either of these thoughts for deeper POV. Balance dialogue, action, and thought tags with no tags at all.
→ Direct thought: When is Austin going to pay attention to me? Natasha wondered.
→ Indirect thought: When was Austin going to pay attention to her? Natasha wondered.
- Use the POV character’s name less often than the names of other characters. Be conservative with your use of your POV character’s name. Because he/she is the POV character, the reader knows whose perspective it is, so you don’t need to keep repeating the name. Use pronouns instead. Read aloud to get a sense of the flow and rhythm and to check whether you’ve overused the POV character’s name.
- Start most (but not all) new action with the POV character. This is subtle, but it’s effective. For example, if your POV character is Austin:
→ Okay: Jarrod plopped down next to Austin and nudged him in the ribs.
→ Better: Austin flinched as Jarrod plopped down next to him, too close, his bony elbow jabbing Austin’s ribcage.
- Refer to secondary characters in the way that the POV character would think of them. For example, if your POV character is Austin, he would probably not think of his father as Mr. Svendsen:
→ Incorrect: Moments later, Austin stepped into the garden, where he joined Mr. Svendsen.
→ Better: Moments later, Austin stepped into the garden, where he joined his father.
- For the most part, avoid verbs that filter action through the POV character. Specifically, avoid constructions like “Austin noticed” or “Austin saw” or “Austin heard.” It’s a given that the POV character is doing the noticing and seeing and hearing. If you write, “Austin noticed,” that’s you, the narrator, describing Austin noticing, and it dilutes the POV. In certain scenarios, however, these verbs can work. Use your judgment.
→ POV: Austin noticed the dinosaur tattoo on Natasha’s left shoulder.
→ Deep POV: A dinosaur tattoo adorned Natasha’s shoulder.
- Avoid describing a POV character’s facial expressions or physical features. Don’t detail hair, eye, or skin colour. A POV character can’t see his/her facial expressions or appearance unless looking in a mirror. But sometimes they can be felt.
→ Incorrect: Austin’s pale lips were chapped and his eyes were red.
→ Correct: Austin’s lips felt chapped and his eyes stung.
- Avoid using names of secondary characters until the POV character has been introduced to them. It’s subtly jarring to read about new characters by name if the POV character does not yet know their names. If you do this, that’s you, the narrator, jumping in with omniscient POV. Always use pronouns and other descriptors until secondary characters have been introduced to the POV character (Austin, in this case) by name.
→ Incorrect: Esmeralda joined the party, and Austin was struck by the beauty of this exotic-looking stranger. He promised himself he would find out her name before the evening’s end.
→ Correct: An exotic-looking woman joined the party, and Austin was struck by her beauty. He promised himself he would find out her name before the evening’s end.
- Write in a style and voice and at an education level appropriate for your POV character. For example, an ex-con hit man is going to think and speak differently—likely using much more casual language—than his target, a millionaire society woman from the Hamptons. A young child will think and speak at a much simpler level than an adult.
- End the scene when a POV character dies or becomes unconscious. A dead POV character can’t have a point of view. You’d be surprised at how often I encounter this in my editing. (Exception: unless he/she is unconscious and in a dream state.)
- Perhaps most importantly, involve your POV character in every aspect of the scene. Don’t simply write what your POV character is observing; write how the POV character feels about what he or she is observing.
It takes a lot of reading and writing many thousands of words to understand and perfect the nuances of POV, particularly deep POV, and I’ve only skimmed the surface here. Write, rewrite, and revise, always making sure to stay inside your POV character’s head. There’s lots to read about POV on the Internet; google “fiction deep POV” or “fiction close POV” and continue learning. And buy a book or two on the subject (I recommend Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint).
At its core, most fiction is about character. If your readers can’t connect with your characters on a deep, intimate level, you won’t engage them in your story, and you’ll lose them. Well-written, deep point of view will engage your readers, have them rooting for your characters, and keep them turning your book’s pages. And, after all, isn’t it every author’s biggest goal to write a book readers can’t put down?
* Please note that if you dig deep enough, you’ll always find authors who don’t follow these POV guidelines. These authors are either gifted writers who have already mastered the art of POV so they feel confident enough to experiment with it, or they are already established commercial successes, meaning their publishers allow them to break all kinds of rules as long as their books keep making money. As a new author, you should develop strong POV skills before attempting to break the “rules.”
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