Several of you have asked me to blog about Point of View (POV). There's a lot to say about it, but I want to keep this post fairly basic, so I'm not going into every subtlety. As with almost all rules, once you know them you can break them, but POV is an area where you must know the rules perfectly and have very good reasons for breaking them before you can do so.
POV is an anchoring mechanism for your reader's mind. You control your reader with it. When POV is done properly, your reader can engage. If you mess up the POV, it is jarring and discombobulating. Risky stuff. I'm all for avant-garde risky stuff, but only in the hands of an experienced professional. Would you go up in a plane with a beginner pilot and wish him to do acrobatics?
The basic idea of POV may seem simple: through whose eyes / mind is this story being told? But there are extra things to think about, which can produce complications or nuances, and this is where beginner / unpublished writers trip up:
- Every single sentence must fit the POV, not just the sentences obviously expressed or felt by the chosen character / narrator.
- Sometimes, we can have different POV within the book, but switching POV must be done properly, clearly, consistently and coherently, not just because the author fancies it.
- POV is not the same as "voice" but it is inextricably linked. Sometimes, a beginner writer may obey the technical rules of POV but have an inconsistency of voice. I'm not going to talk about voice [much] here, so please read this post if you want to know what I mean.
"It was a dark and stormy night..." Says who? Who is telling us that it was a dark and stormy night? At the moment, it could be anyone. Let's read on.
"It was a dark and stormy night when Carmelle Jones pulled up in front of the grim little cottage, flung open the car door and tottered across the cruel gravel as fast as her Manolo Blahniks would allow. The wind grabbed at her hair and rain spattered the notebook that she clutched to her chest. Cursing the impulse which had inspired her to sign up to a writers' retreat at this time of year - in the country, of all places - Carmelle rang the doorbell, shivering, dripping, and wondering just how long it would be before someone would pour her a glass of Merlot."So, this looks like a third person narrative, told from the POV of Carmelle Jones. We know her thoughts, at the same time as being able to see her from the outside. The narrator is not Carmelle, but is narrating Carmelle's thoughts while also being able to make observations about her appearance.
But here's the second paragraph:
"Inside the cottage, the sound of the doorbell woke Rob Flanders from a particularly pleasant dream as he dozed by the fire. An ex-SAS soldier, Rob always woke instantly, his ever-hard muscles ready for any action required. One smooth movement, and he was on his feet. He knew it was Carmelle Jones, of course. All the other writers had arrived. Soft and lardy, as usual, with arses made for sitting on. Too much laughing and weak eyes. Why he'd got into this business, he sometimes wondered, but someone had said there was money to be made from writers: all that poetic inspiration and not much sense, dreams of eternal fame and personal fulfilment. And he fancied a bit of smooth himself. Not that he'd fancied what he'd seen so far."So, a different POV. We're seeing the thoughts of two characters. This means it's looking like an omniscient narrator. OK, but the author [me] has to continue this. What I can't then do is have 95% of it being Carmelle's POV and every now and then slip into Rob's. [Not that I would want to slip into Rob's anything, obviously, but you know what I mean. I hope.]
One of the most common mistakes of unpublished writers is POV slippage - the random and convenient decisions by the writer to tell us what someone else sees. POV slippage is not OK. It's like bra slippage. Well, some people [men] mmight think that's OK. But it's not, is it, ladies? It's sloppy and cheap.
BUT, you can switch POV if you follow some rules. POV switches must be clear, deliberate and part of the overall structure of your book. Here are the rules [and please note: I am aiming at beginners / other unpublished writers here. There are some different options for more experienced writers.]
- Don't switch POV within a chapter. [But see point 4]. Keep different POV for separate chapters.
- If you do that, you should make a clear structure for this and not do it randomly. For example, at a few intervals through the book, cleverly spaced, you could have POV B, with most of the book in POV A. But see the next point.
- Make it clear that you have switched POV. You might do this by choosing a different font, but you should use another device as well. It could be obvious from the change in tone / voice; or you could make sure you use the name or whatever would alert the reader to the change of POV and preferably show whose POV it now is. Don't play silly buggers with your reader. Deathwatch is an example of deliberate, structural and obvious multiple POV.
- An exception to the 3rd point is if you have a device whereby every now and then we are taken directly into the head of the central character. This kind of internal monologue is usually depicted by italics. It's tricky to carry off and should be used sparingly, but it can be effective. Let me give you an example of a book which does this and also incorporates some POV switches to illustrate my points above.
Livia lay awake in her sleeping-bag. The wooden floor was hard under her back. She heard the soft breathing of the others and wondered what they dreamt of. Were all their thoughts and dreams as complicated as hers?
"Liv?" It was Marcus, still awake, too. "Are you sure you're all right?" His voice sounded so reasonable, so strong, so ignorant.
Don't ask. Don't ask. Don't bloody well ask or you might not like the answer. I feel like a speck of dust floating on the skin of the water. What will happen when the wind blows hard and the water shakes its skin away?As I say, don't do it too much or it gets irritating. The endless, angsty, internal thoughts of a character can be boring. So, keep the device for when you need it.
NB: if your story is in the first person, you do not also need the italicised internal ranting bits. Sounds obvious, but I keep seeing it in beginner writers' work. First person IS internal narration, so you don't need to differentiate.
First person is also tricky because you may be restricted from using descriptive language. This is because you can only use the language that the character would use. You must get into that character's voice and stay in it. If your character would not think of describing the pretty flowers, you can't describe the pretty flowers either.
I use the omniscient narrator in my next novel, Wasted. It's a highly individual, often sardonic, detached POV, really like some kind of fascinated God looking down and playing with the events below. It's right for this story but wouldn't have worked in other things I've written. It's right because in a way this book is about how the world works and how, if there were a God, he might play dice.
Narrator, POV and voice are intrinsic to your book. They will define it. And they are not things to think about later - you'll be able to tweak them later, to get them perfect and iron out any slippages, but you must nail them fully at the start. They will colour everything else you do.
Remember, for every sentence ask yourself: says who?