Thursday, June 30, 2011

OFF WITH THEIR HEADS! How many 'Point of Views' is too many? And who's telling this story anyway?

"You’re only on chapter two, and you're on you're FOURTH POV! Too many POV's! Get rid of them!"
"But how can my 250K manuscript possibly be told from only three POV's??!!!" You cry out in protest, your heart sinking into a self-piteous puddle of goo...

Does the above exchange sound familiar, have any of you experienced this moment of reckoning via a tough editor, or a gestapo-esque critique partner?

To avoid falling victim to the editor’s guillotine regarding POVs aka ‘point of views’, and preserve your sanity, I offer you the following workshop. With some thoughtful planning ahead of time, you too can escape the POV warden’s wrath...

In this workshop we will discuss the use of those slippery POVs, how to use them not only to enhance your tale, but to produce a cohesive and satisfying read. After all, we want the readers to get what we’ve written, not be confused to the point of using your story as a projectile aimed at the out going box to the thrift store, or in the case of electronic books, hit the delete button.

In Lesson One, we will discuss the different POV narrations, and I will site a few examples of different POV’s used by some of your favorite authors, and perhaps some you’ve never heard of.

In Lesson Two, you will have a chance to practice writing short scenes from different POV’s, and see the advantages of one POV vs multiple POVs.

Lesson One:

How many of you as writers have struggled with POV in your stories? In a romance, who gets main billing, the heroine or the hero? In a horror story, is the tension built from just one main character’s richly rendered psyche telling the tale, or from multiple POV’s increasing the tension toward a collision course finale? In a mystery, does your intelligent, yet graceless, detective tell the story while you learn the clues as he does? In science fiction and fantasy can you tell your massive story, with beautifully wrought techno worlds and kingdoms, from only one person’s POV, or do you need ten? In paranormal urban fantasy, should you weave the plot using only your first person, 'kick your butt female', wielding a sword, while her love interest sits mutely on the sidelines?

These are all questions a writer confronts at one time or another when they embark into a new story. So you ask: what are the rules regarding Point of Views? Are there any?

Lazette Gifford, writer, editor, and site owner of the online writing group/forum, Forward Motion for Writers, maintains: “the only ‘rule’ is that all the POV characters be equally exciting and important to the story.” However, she is quick to add: “a reader needs to change gears in their head every time you change a POV, so... too many POVs can diffuse the power of the story.” 

An example of multiple POV use can be found in Anne Rice's The Mummy: by page 36, seven POV's have weighed in...

Lawrence (Archeologist and heroine's father)

Elliot (friend of Lawrence)

Julie (Lawrence's daughter)

Clerk (reading about Lawrence's death newspaper-his thoughts)

Randolf (Lawrence's broke brother)

Henry (villain)

Daisy (Henry's mistress)
The Mummy-Ramses

Could Ms. Rice have done it with fewer POV’s? Probably. Julie, the heroine, Henry, the Villain, Ramses the Mummy (hero-sort of) are keepers to make the story, but the clerk and his thoughts could have been absorbed, Daisy could have been introduced and described adequately from Henry, the villain’s, POV (and thus Daisy’s POV done away with), and well...the jury is still out on Elliot and Randolf.

The editors at Muse It Up Publishing also agree: keeping the POV’s tight to one or two main characters (with just one or two secondary character POVs) not only keeps the reader invested in the story and prevents “jarring” the reader out of the main story-line and plot, but strengthens the lead character as well. Although, these same editors will admit that there are times when the scope of the story may call for additional POV’s, especially if said POVs offer something of value to the whole story; then the editors will work with an author to obtain a happy medium.

In my quest for opinions regarding POV’s, I did an unofficial survey in one of my writer’s groups asking the question: what are the rules in regards to POV’s, and how many is too many. The answers were as varied as the writers themselves. Their common theme: use as many POV’s as necessary to tell a good story.

For instance, George R.R. Martin has a full cast of characters in his series, A Song of Fire and Ice, all fully fleshed out, and important to the story, whereas, Diana Gabaldon deftly weaves her richly detailed historical romance series from first person only; through Claire Randall’s eyes, the reader is drawn in and shown the lovely yet harrowing world of eighteenth century Scotland in a way you will forget you are reading from first person.

From the horror camp, Mary Shelley tells the story of her tragic monster from Victor Frankenstein’s first person POV exclusively. Stephen King wrote Misery from just one character’s perspective as well, however, Paul Sheldon’s tortured POV is written in third person limited, instead of first person, the effect...quite horrifying, in a visceral kind of way.

Within the mystery circle, Tony Hillerman crafted Skeleton Man, with a predictable pattern of several third person limited POV’s, the main characters, Detective Joe Leaphorn, and Sergeant Jim Chee, getting most face time, but interspersed throughout, in an expected order, are Joanna Craig (daughter of deceased man who died in plane crash), Bradford Chandler, (bad guy), Bernadette Manuelito (Jim Chee’s fiancee). Now, in vivid contrast to Tony Hillerman’s style, Janet Evanovich’s smart talking heroine, Stephanie Plum the bounty hunter, recounts her adventures and hilarious thoughts from first person POV only.

And in his dark fantasy, American Gods, Neil Gaiman spins this darkly rich tale through Shadow’s third person limited POV eyes, with a few interludes sprinkled throughout in third person omniscient POV.

But...before we get too far ahead of ourselves, here is a quick review of the different point of view narrations:

First Person: The story is told from one person's POV, from inside their mind only. Usually the first clue is the ‘I’.

Example: I woke up with a headache that made having a root canal seem like a picnic.

Third Person Limited: This narration is less limiting than first person, in that it allows you to widen your vision to what’s happening outside your character’s mind,

Example: Tony thought a root canal would be preferable to the ice pick stabbing his brain, the pain so intense, he missed the figure lurking down at the mouth of the alley. (In first person you are limited to the thoughts and reactions inside your character’s mind only, therefore in this POV, your MC could not know there is a shadow lurking at the mouth of the alley, but using third person, you broaden the MC’s horizons, so to speak.)

Third Person Subjective Multiple Viewpoint: This is simply having several character’s written in third person limited POV throughout a story (not to be confused with head hopping). There are your first level characters (your MC, hero or heroine, estranged friend or family, and or villain) and your second level characters (friend, sidekick, partner, medical expert, weapons expert, clergy, etc.)

A good example of multiple POVs used in a novel would be: Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton:

1st scene: Mike Bowman, real estate developer on west coast of Costa Rica (whose little girl is bitten by strange lizard).

2nd scene: Dr. Marty Guitterrez, contemplating strange bite on Mike Bowman’s little girl.

3rd scene: Elena Morales midwife in clinic in Bahia Anasco, finds baby attacked by strange birds.

4th scene: Introduction of Dr. Alan Grant, paleontologist (hero) outside Snakewater, Montana.

5th scene: Introduction of Ellie Sattler, Alan Grant’s estranged wife, and paleobotanist, also at dig in Montana.

6th scene: Donald Gennaro, general counsel for InGen, concerned about strange happenings down at Dr. Hammond’s amusement park.

7th scene: Tim the smart kid (Hammond’s grandchild) down at the Park.

And so get the idea. All these POV’s setting the tone, and leading up epic action adventure. The above demonstrates, that multiple POV’s with the right plot, especially used in Medical, Sci-Fi, and Spy thrillers, can be very effective.

Third Person Omniscient: This POV reveals the thoughts of everyone in the scene, if the writer so chooses. This POV, in my opinion, is effective when used sparingly in this day and age, because a whole story in which you know what everyone is thinking, outside of a purely literary piece, doesn’t leave much in the way of suspense, or hiding secrets; but most leaves the reader lacking that personal connection with the characters. Here is an example of third person omniscient:

A lane was forthwith opened through the crowd of spectators. Preceded by the beadle, and attended by an irregular procession of stern-browed men and unkindly visaged woman, Hester Prynne set forth towards the place appointed for her punishment. A crowd of eager and curious school-boys, understanding little of the matter at hand, except that it gave them a half-holiday, ran before her progress, turning their heads continually to stare into her face, and at the winking baby in her arms, and at the ignominious letter on her breast.

-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Second Person: I don’t have much experience with this narration, but from what I’ve read, the second person POV is best reserved for instruction manuals, but has been, and is used in fiction as well. (If anyone has examples of how this POV is used in fiction--well, then please share)

Task One: Take the first 3 books you find off your shelf, or off your e-reader. Go to first chapter (skip prologue if the story has one) and from the first page note: whether the scene is in 1st person or 3rd person, and whose POV is talking. Share your answers here in comments for fun.

* Next Lesson posted at Ten am Pacific Time.


Unknown said...

Leave it up to you to tackle a difficult but very popular topic. You've got a great handle on this. I usually read 3rd Person Subjective and that's how I write as well. I just read a 1st Person and of course Twilight is 1st Person. Whereas this most recent read in 1st Person is well done, I found it limiting but that's a personal preference.

Great topic.

Sara Durham Writer ~ Author said...

Thanks for stopping by Karen! I too, am more comfortable with 3rd person subjective. Maybe someday I'll try a story in first person:)

Thanks so much for stopping by!