Thursday, 4 February 2010

MORE POINTS OF VIEW - SAYS WHO? SAYS I

I promised to go into a bit more detail about POV after my recent blog post on the topic. Call this one POV for non-beginners.

It’s not as simple as “Is it 3rd person or 1st person”. It’s not as simple as “if the POV character can’t see it, you can’t say it”. It’s not as simple as “don’t switch POV mid-chapter.”

In a way, however, it is as simple as my original exhortation: that every time you say anything, you ask yourself, “Says who?” And you answer it very, very honestly.

I would like to add two points:
  • If you are genuinely mired in the voice of your book, and if you think properly about every sentence, you will not get it wrong. And when you do, you will notice. Think not of rules but of voice and its integrity. BE your story, think your story, breathe and dream your story.
  • It is not difficult to repair POV slippages, once you’ve learnt how to spot them. I’m going to give you a real example.
After the last post about POV, "Sarah" asked a specific question that she was worrying about with her WIP. I asked her to send me something by email so that I could see whether her doubts about POV slippage in her WIP were correct. [If any non-writers are reading this, they may think they’ve stumbled on some kind of dodgy site!]

Sarah has given me permission to use her example here. She said:
“…..For instance, I'm trying to write a story about a city girl who ends up in an 1890s sheep station. Obviously she isn't going to know the names for a lot of stuff, but it could get a bit tedious if everything she comes across is described as 'the long brown cutting thing' or similar.

So in this example, I go from being inside Kavita's head as she wonders what's happened to her (she's just fallen down an old mine and woken up in the past), to a description of the homestead that I think is in a slightly different voice. Eg., it includes a post-and-rail fence, which I'm fairly sure she wouldn't describe that way:
                  
"Kavita woke. Sunlight shone through the lace curtain covering the window above her bed. It dappled the floor, which, reaching out to touch it, she discovered was bare dirt. Still here, then, she thought.
       She sat up. She felt groggy, but at least she was warm.
       What the hell was going on?
       Through the window she looked onto a garden of tangled herbs and flowers. Beyond the garden was bare ground, then a small stand of fruit trees covered in bright new leaves. Around the trees, and stretching either side around the house, ran a wooden fence made of rough-hewn posts and rails. A horse stood sedately in the paddock outside the fence and she could see a handful of cows and sheep. Beyond all this, far away, a sloping line of hills ran along the horizon, blue-green and dark with trees.
       Kavita looked down at the old-fashioned nightie she was wearing. It was plain, thick cotton, and when she lifted the hem she saw it was hand-stitched.
       This had to be a joke. Some kind of reality TV program where she’d been unsuspectingly kidnapped into a horse-and-cart community. Like the Amish. Were there Amish in Australia?
       Or it was all fake. It was one of those live museums and she was being filmed to see how she’d react. Either way, what was unlikely—what had definitely not happened—was that she’d fallen down a mineshaft and ended up in the nineteenth century.
       ‘No way,’ she said softly."
Sarah wonders if she’s stepping too far out of Kavita's head when she describes the paddock. The answer, in short, is Yes. But this is not a disaster and very easily fixed. I have fixed it for her, as you’ll see below.

All you have to do is apply the “says who?” question rigorously, and then make sure you are properly in voice. The answer to the “says who?” question is supposed to be “Kavita”. Not an impartial narrator. Not a narrator sitting on Kavita’s shoulder or following her around. And certainly not an omniscient one.

So, here is what I said to Sarah:
“I think (without having read the rest of it) that your instincts that it might not be OK are correct. I agree that you can't have her going round saying "the long brown cutting thing" etc etc, but there are ways round it. So, yes, you have inappropriate POV slippage and you'll need to put it right. The thing is that the POV is K's, even though it's 3rd person.

Here are some suggestions. Obviously some of them may totally have missed the point or repeated something you've already done, but I offer them as tricks to get round your issue, and you can adapt them and improve them. My comments and changes are in red. [By the way, Sentence 3 needs to be re-written – it’s clunky. But you weren’t asking me about that! I might also add something to the first para, something to show some disorientation.]

"Kavita woke. Sunlight shone through the lace curtain covering the window above her bed. It dappled the floor, which, reaching out to touch it, she discovered was bare dirt. Still here, then, she thought.
       She sat up. She felt groggy, but at least she was warm.
       There was something odd - a different smell. The sheets felt kind of rough. (I also think you should put the nightie bit here, as that's when she'd notice it. And instead of saying the hand-stitched bit so quickly, which she probably wouldn't have understood so fast, you could say: When she lifted the hem, it felt all bulky, with big, uneven stitches. As though someone had done it by hand.)
       What the hell was going on?
       Through the window she looked onto a garden of tangled herbs and flowers (say "plants" and then maybe specify - "roses and other flowers clambering everywhere". I don't think she'd know they were herbs). Beyond the garden was bare ground, then a small stand (would she say stand? group? cluster?) of fruit trees covered in bright new leaves (she wouldn't see that from so far away - omit). Around the trees, and stretching either side around the house, ran a wooden fence that looked like something from an ancient farm  - chunky, uneven posts and thin planks. A horse stood sedately in the paddock outside the fence and she could see a handful of cows and sheep. Beyond all this, far away, a sloping line of hills ran along the horizon, blue-green and dark with trees - I think she's describing too much here. You need to show some emotion now, some shock / confusion a bit earlier) It looked like a scene from one of those old-fashioned TV programmes - (I'm thinking of Little House on the Prairie but you can find a way to describe this).
   (Put this earlier: Kavita looked down at the old-fashioned nightie she was wearing. It was plain, thick cotton, and when she lifted the hem she saw it was hand-stitched.)
   (Now have her noticing one more thing, something odd in the room - maybe a jug of water and a bowl for washing?)
   This had to be a joke. Some kind of reality TV program where she’d been unsuspectingly kidnapped into a horse-and-cart community. Like the Amish. Were there Amish in Australia?
   Or it was all fake. It was one of those live museums and she was being filmed to see how she’d react. Either way, what was unlikely—what had definitely not happened—was that she’d fallen down a mineshaft and ended up in the nineteenth century. (Is the earlier context sufficient to support this guess? Is there a reason she'd come to the correct conclusion so quickly? If so, that's fine.)
   ‘No way,’ she said softly."
So, as you can see, it requires a bit of extra thought and some minor tweaking. It does not require a radical rethink of the POV. I know all that red makes it look like more than minor tweaking [I was a teacher, I NEED to use red] but it really isn't. It just requires thinking in character, in voice.

It’s also worth mentioning that if you [not Sarah, all of us writers] know this POV stuff before you start your WIP, you will find that POV slippages are minor and can easily be fixed. It’s all about getting properly into the voice of your narrator right from the start.

The secret is this: the narrator is actually a character itself. Every novel has a narrator, even if invisible, and it’s the voice, personality and mindset of that character which must sing out clearly in every sentence. It's like an actor getting into character, into the right voice. That's what you have to do. Put on the clothes of your narrator and feel what it is like to be him, her or it. Then speak.

BE your story, and tell it truly. Says who? Says I.

27 comments:

Rosalind Adam said...

Thank you for an interesting post. It's really helpful to see the way you've worked through and helped someone else with their POV problems.

I have tried turning several short pieces into the 1st person and then back to 3rd person to look in more detail at the issue of POV. For me that has been helpful but I will be taking away the prompt 'says who?' from this page. Thanks again.

Catherine Hughes said...

That helps.

WIP is going to be rewritten in 1st person. I don't think I slip then. But I know I do in 3rd. Plus, it's a lot about emotions, so it probably needs to be first person.

That leaves me with chunks of the story that no longer fit, but I will find a way round that!

Ta!

Cat

SF said...

Hello Nicola,
Oooh, I have to confess it was me, because seeing my name in quotations marks makes me feel like I've got something to hide! (Nothing apart from some POV slippage).

Thanks once again for looking at this for me and giving such useful feedback. You'll be pleased to know I de-clunked the 3rd sentence.

The more I write, the better I get with Kavita's POV, and the more frustrated I get because she doesn't see things the way I do!
- Sarah

Keren David said...

Very interesting and helpful. I've only written in the first person so far, this really helps to make the third person feel less impossible.

Ann Elle Altman said...

Wow, that was amazing. I have been working on my own POV this time around in my edits. I love your revisions and I love the two points. Thank you!

ann

Ivan said...

"Or it was all fake. It was one of those live museums and she was being filmed to see how she’d react. Either way, what was unlikely—what had definitely not happened—was that she’d fallen down a mineshaft and ended up in the nineteenth century."

I think you are far too easy on this line. I can't imagine any way she would be able to discount such a specific situation - it's ludicrous.
Like this, "Either way, what was unlikely - what had definitely not happened - was that she'd fallen down a mineshaft and ended up in the nineteenth century, or the eighteenth century, or fallen into a trench in the first world war, or through a space time continuum to England in the mid sixteenth century, or into some non date specific mineshaft in some non specified country, or even into the fresh foundations of a chapel in mid-twelth century Wales. No, none of these were likely."

I mean - come on!

Nicola Morgan said...

Ivan - this is a post about POV, not about the credibility of a plot, a plot which creates a context which we have not seen. You do not have nearly enough to go on in order to say whether this is credible, even if you were being asked to. Nor do I, nor was I asked to consider this. A skilful writer is able to suspend the disbelief of a reader in many ways. After all, are there not books with magic, parallel worlds, flying, supernatural powers, fantasy, and do readers not enter into these realms of the imagination if the story is well enough told?

Can we stick to the topic, please? POV, not plot credibility.

Xuxana said...

Phew! I'm glad I chose to write my novel from the first person point of view!

Anna Bowles said...

I find there’s one easy way to spot POV slippage. It’s when you come back into the character with a jolt and are a bit surprised to find yourself there (like when Kavita looks down at her nightie in the original version). It can be hard to realise you’re drifting away, because that’s gradual, but the jolt is always plain.

Sarah said...

Oh, wow! Great post.

Sarah/SF thank you for letting us in on your lesson with Nicola!

Helena Halme said...

I think POV is so important. The latest fashion to jump into a new POV when it's simply required by a plot twist, without following any kind of rules throughout a novel, drives me potty. It's lazy writing and disrupts the flow of the story.

On the other hand, just using single POV can become laborious and tedious, especially in 3rd person.

If only it was simple to write well...

Great post as always. xx

Jo Franklin said...

I think this your best post to date Nicola. Really specific and really useful.
Thanks.

Marisa Birns said...

These are the best kind of helpful posts that people can offer. Stating problem, then showing concrete examples.

"Says who?" will be on a sticky note pasted to my computer!

Thanks.

And good luck with your story, Sarah!

Kate said...

Very interesting and helpful post.

Kate x

Sally Zigmond said...

I agree, This is a great post. When I first read 'Sarah's' passage I could see no slippage at all. Then, when you analysed it, I thought, crumbs, that Morgan woman is right.

Attention to detail. That's where I go wrong.

David Griffin said...

> "The secret is this: the narrator is actually a character itself. Every novel has a narrator, even if invisible, and it’s the voice, personality and mindset of that character which must sing out clearly in every sentence."

Excellently put, Nicola.

> "It's like an actor getting into character, into the right voice. That's what you have to do. Put on the clothes of your narrator and feel what it is like to be him, her or it. Then speak."

Uuum: if I put on my narrator's clothes from my second novel, I'd be dressed as a woman! Ha! ;-)

:-)

Rebecca Knight said...

Thank you so much, Sarah, for sharing this piece of your story with us! :)

The concrete example was incredibly helpful. Thanks for going into more detail on the 3rd person narrator, Nicola :)!

hampshireflyer said...

Brilliantly useful - thank you!

Thomas Taylor said...

Fascinating. And it's interesting that you should have suggested smell as an early indication that kavita was somewhere very distant from home. A lot of writers overlook the sense of smell, and it's certain that the past would smell very different to the present. My WIP involves time travel, and I've had to tackle some of these very issues (A long-handled coppery thing? A warming pan!).

catdownunder said...

My tail is drooping. Mmm...this may be a good thing. You have reminded me (yet again) how difficult it is. On the other hand my whiskers are twitching. Thankyou. I think you just sorted out something for me!

Shelley said...

Thank you, Nicola, for this wisdom, and thank you, Sarah, for bravely sharing your work so that other writers can learn!

"Says who?" is something I will be keeping in mind from now on. My first novel was written in third person with two main characters, and when I went back recently and reread, I noticed a lot of slipping. I was describing attributes of one character that the narrating character wouldn't know. I think POV problems are more common than we think.

Thanks for this post, it's certainly helpful!

SF said...

Thanks everyone for encouragement, and I'm glad Nicola using my work as a specific example has been so helpful to you.

I think it's interesting that a few people here have said they prefer 1st person POV or find it easier - my POV slippage is even worse in 1st person!

helencaldwell said...

Very educational post. And thank you to Sarah for sharing!

Captain Black said...

For a bit of light relief, why not have a look at this example of writing from different viewpoints?

sheilamcperry said...

Thanks Nicola - it has taken me a long time to reach some sort of understanding of POV issues, and this post is a big help in clarifying them.
I think for me the main problem is that I don't really notice the kind of slippage you've pointed out here, but I think this is the kind of thing that jars for the reader and makes them think there's something wrong with the book but they can't quite put their finger on it!

myliteraryquest said...

Thank you for sharing, armed with this and the first POV article I feel much more prepared to tackle the daunting task of editing for voice and flow.

JaneF said...

Thanks Sarah and Nicola - that was great. As others have said, it really helps to see editing 'in action' like this.

But now I want to know what happens to Kavita when she leaves that room...