Monday, January 26, 2009

Heading into Danger: Choosing Point of View

I’m glad Jacqueline brought up point-of-view. Annually, I judge the Golden Heart—the prestigious contest run by the Romance Writers of America for unpublished writers—and a number of local-to-regional writing contests. I’ve also just returned from the Florida Romance Writers Cruise With Your Muse conference (yes, on a cruise ship) where I sat in on other workshops, taught my own and in general, hobnobbed with authors and writers on various topics, but most often the art and craft of writing.

POV seems to be the proverbial sticky-wicket for a lot of writers. In fact, very often when I teach workshops, there’s more than a handful in the audience who appear surprised that there are rules, there are serious craft considerations relating to POV. The fact that a scene or a chapter—or the fact that even an entire book could be based on the wrong POV hasn’t occurred to a number of writers out there.

It’s not that writers aren’t aware of POV (though not all know the acronym). It’s that many writers don’t seem to be aware of the decisions that need to be made in crafting. Or why these decisions are important.

“But it’s my characters’ story. It’s Bill’s and Ted’s and Mary’s and Alice’s,” the writer explains. And then proceeds to write a scene about what Bill does, then one about Ted, one about Mary and one about Alice. (Or worse—a scene where all are prominent and we’ll get to why that’s problematic in a bit.)

But a novel—the story you’re writing—is not just a recounting of incidents in one or more characters’ lives. It’s not a dayplanner come to life or a diary entry unfolding. A novel, as Jacqueline has taught me, is fiction and fiction is entertainment.

And don’t you forget that for a minute.

Ever see the Rockettes? Or any large choreographed production? Looks easy, seamless, doesn’t it? It takes hours and hours and days of practice, of drilling, of planning, of rehearsing.

Novels are no different. You just have words—not feet—dancing in a deliberate rhythm on the stage.

Reading a commercial genre fiction novel is, for the reader, a vicarious experience. I don’t think that comes as a shock to anyone out there. Readers read to immerse themselves in another’s life, another’s quest, another’s strivings, another’s failures, another’s challenges. Safely. All the adventure, none of the risk.

Readers also read, Dwight V.Swain sagely noted in his Techniques of the Selling Writer, to experience tension. And it’s the author’s job, Swain further noted, to manipulate the emotions of the reader.

Which ostensibly doesn’t sound all that hard—given that readers are already poised and salivating for the vicarious experience. They expect it. They demand it. They’re waiting for the writer to give them that magic carpet ride…waiting so intently, in fact, they’re willing to accept and believe all sorts of nonsense just to get that magic carpet under their readerly patooties. (That willingness to accept is called, in literary terms, the suspension of disbelief. But that’s a topic for another blog.)

So if it’s so damned easy to bring readers in, why is it so damned hard to write the correct POV?

Because fiction is entertainment and because readers do read to experience tension. And the wrong POV choice—or worse, the mixing of too many POVs—makes the piece un-entertaining and without tension.

In her (excellent) World Crafter’s Guild on her Sime~Gen site, Jacqueline often pens, “Whose story is it?” This directly relates to something I learned as a private investigator: “Who’s the best witness?” I can tell you from working oodles of vehicular accident cases that what witness #1 recounts may not at all be what witness #2 saw, or witness #3. Physical presence does not always translate to knowledge, and rarely translates to agreement.

Further, physical presence at an accident scene doesn’t immediately ensure the correct recounting of facts. Distance from the accident as well as location (ie: blocked view) are two factors that affect what a witness can impart. But other factors that come into play can include cultural, educational, and emotional issues. Let’s consider Mrs. Magillicuddy who witnesses Junior Snerd, the driver, clip the curb in front of the Magillicuddy house and plow his car into Mr. Magillicuddy’s brand new Lincoln MKZ parked in the driveway. Mrs. M will have an emotional reaction because it’s her husband’s car. Her view—her point of view—will be different from the UPS delivery driver exiting his brown truck across the street, who doesn’t really know the Magillicuddy’s or Snerd. Like it or not, emotions color memory and there’s a not a private detective, cop, attorney or judge that doesn’t know that. To Mrs. M, the oncoming car will likely—in hindsight—be remembered as larger and faster. More threatening, more menacing.

What does this have to do with writing fiction and POV?

Bear with me. I’ll get to it.

Now, the group of teenagers hanging out at the corner will have a different recounting of what happened when Snerd’s car whizzed by, stereo blaring. They may—because of their age and their teen-culture—be able to identify the song pounding through Snerd’s speakers and as well, might recognize the object in Snerd’s left hand as a cell phone, because those are things important to their world. But if asked whether it appeared Snerd’s car exceeded the posted speed limit, they might not be able to answer because—again, based on their teen-culture—a car with music blaring whose driver is texting on his cell phone is a “cool thing” (or whatever the current jargon is.)

Junior might even be a friend. Conflict of interest, that.

And Snerd, I assure you, has a very different recounting of what happened. (Insurance company files are full of statements from drivers who swear “that tree just jumped out in the road and hit my car.”)

So it’s a detective’s job to gather not only the facts from the witnesses, but ascertain those items which affect the facts, like distance, lighting, obstructions, and subjective factors like education, culture, relationships and so on. A report is then created from all the information culled.

A novel is not a report. A novel, Swain says, is desire plus danger. A novel, Jacqueline Lichtenberg teaches, is entertainment; it is a story whose essence is conflict.

Danger, desire, tension, conflict.

What does this have to do with POV? It teaches you that when you choose POV, you must always work from the character in whose POV the reader will experience the most conflict. Tension. Desire. When you work from the POV of the character whose recounting, whose experience will permit the reader to experience the most conflict, you’re feeding the reader’s desire for vicarious experiences, and you’ll keep the reader turning pages to find out what happens next (“What can I experience next?”).

Now, problems arise when writers get hopped-up on this emotional thing and believe More Is Better. “So,” newbie writer says aloud, “if the emotional experiences of one character in the scene can be gripped, then the emotional experiences of four characters in the scene will be fantastic!” And she writes the next few pages allowing the reader into the heads and hearts of all four characters, so that the readers knows the thoughts and feelings of all four characters at the same time.

Uh, no. It doesn’t work that way.

POV is like being a sports fan. You like the Tampa Bay Bucs (though likely not this year). You like the Tampa Bay Lightning. You root for the Rays, another local team in the Tampa-St Pete area. So when the Lightning play the Philadelphia Flyers, your focus, your interest, your emotion, your dedication is to the Lightning players on the ice.

But what if the sports field contained the Bucs, the Lightning and the Rays? Your loyalties, attention and emotions would be divided.

That’s one of the reasons multiple points-of-view in the same scene or (heaven forefend) paragraph doesn’t work: it splits reader loyalties. Instead of a 100% vested interest in Character A, the reader has a 25% interest in Character A, 25% in Character B, 25% in Character C and 25% in Character D.

Which makes the scene weak and the reader will lose interest.

Remember: readers read to experience tension.
Remember: reading is a vicarious experience.

Let’s go back to tension, which is where head-hopping or multiple POVs in the same scene fails.

If the reader knows what every character is thinking and feeling, then there can be no surprises, no secrets. And if there are no surprises and no secrets, then there is a lot less tension. And if there’s a lot less tension, there are a lot less reasons for the reader (or editor or agent) to keep turning the pages.

If you have a novel in which the newly assigned captain of a military starship believes—no, fears that the admiral of the fleet—who is currently on board— doesn’t trust her, you can ramp up tension by having that fear be all the reader experiences during that chapter. Throw in a few secrets—the new captain has a bit of a shady past that, if the admiral found out, would certain land her in the brig—if she lives that long—and you have more tension. More danger. More desire (to live, to succeed, to not be unmasked and killed for past sins). You can show (because good writers show and don’t tell) the admiral watching her with suspicion (or so she believes). You will then keep the reader turning pages because all the reader know in this chapter is what the captain knows—fear, suspicion, trepidation.

If, in that chapter or scene or (heaven forefend) those very paragraphs, you include the admiral’s thoughts and the reader learns that the admiral is not watching the captain’s every move because he suspects her, but because he’s secretly been in love with her for years…you then weaken the captain’s fears. The reader knows then that the captain really has nothing to worry about. Her fears are invalid. Her suspicions are bogus. It’s all really just a big misunderstanding.

So why keep reading? Where’s the tension the reader wants to experience vicariously? It’s watered down now. Ineffective.

“But, but, Linnea!” you wail. “That’s Games of Command. And we did learn about Kel-Paten’s feelings for Tasha.”

Yes, you did. But not in the same paragraph or scene. I gave you time to get emotionally invested in Tasha’s paranoia before I let you in on Branden Kel-Paten’s little secret. And when in the chapter where you learned about Kel-Paten’s little secret, you also learned about the huge risks and threat to him because of it.

I manipulated your emotions and you loved it.

I also kept you solidly in one point of view until I’d wrung those emotions out of you. Then and only then could I switch you to another character’s point of view, emotions and problems.

Did I do it flawlessly? Hell no. As author Mary Jo Putney so wisely said in a recent radio interview, each novel has limited real estate. You have a finite landscape in which to create your book. There are times you must cut, you must fudge. You have deadlines. You have word count limits. But even given all that, character POV is one of the elements a writer must always keep as a top priority.

Point of View is the tool by which you manipulate the reader because point of view is what places the reader into the character’s heart and mind. It is the means of the vicarious experience. Therefore, the point of view you choose must be the one that is the most impactful, most fraught with emotions, laced with desire, infused with danger. And you stay in that point of view long enough to make sure the reader has become vested in that character. The reader must care deeply and the reader can’t do that in a setting of divided loyalties or a cacophony of thoughts and feelings.

Going back to the accident between Magillicuddy and Snerd, whose story on the witness stand would you think would be the most impactful? The teens on the corner? The UPS driver? Or Snerd’s behind the wheel of the car? Which would have more sensations that were immediate and grabbing? Which would hold your attention longer?

The story you want to listen to is the point of view of that character.

Linnea Sinclair
// Interstellar Adventure Infused with Romance//
Available Now from Bantam: Shades of Dark
2009: Hope's Folly


  1. Anonymous2:17 PM EST

    As a reader this is one of the best explanations of POV (head hopping) I've ever read. I always knew it bugged me when POV wasn't done well but never really understood why.



  2. Linnea:

    Excellent rundown on why writers must put in the effort to learn to use Point of View with, shall we say, deliberate malice aforethought?

    The reader must get to know almost all that the POV character knows -- but the tension-creator is what the POV character does not know, and perhaps doesn't know that she doesn't know.

    The surprise ending and the "twist" that screenwriters are so fond of work best when you have strictly controlled the POV.

    In screenwriting, the POV is the camera work, the camera directing, as well as the script's structure.

    If you want to learn POV for narrative fiction - watch TV carefully for how the camera works a scene.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. Wow! Who's POV to use and why has come up the last two weeks in my writing group. The POV shits in one of the novels we are working over just felt wrong to a bunch of us. They bothered me but I couldn't articulate why other than they were a distraction. After reading Jacqueline and Linnea's last two post I feel like I have the vocabulary I needed to go back and say why they didn't work for me.


    One thing I seem to see a lot is a sudden POV shift because the writers suddenly feels the need to tell the reader some info the previous POV character had no way of knowing. Say for example something that happened when their main character was asleep, or knocked out, or something that happened when he/she was at another location. This sort of shift always has a "meanwhile back at the ranch..." sort of feel to me. What do you see as the best way of getting around that sort of situation?

  4. Mfitz:

    There is no "best way" to avoid that "sudden" POV shift.

    It happens because the writer's tool chest is bereft of the whole set of information-feed tools, and so the writer has no way other than shifting POV to impart the information.

    Often it happens that the payload of the story is so massive that such a writer achieves fame, glory and possibly fortune as well with a story that uses that cop-out of shifting POV instead of actually writing the story.

    In that case, the writer will stop learning usually unless they have a mentor who reads them the riot act every time they get lazy.

    I've done a number of posts on information feed techniques. I think I did one here on the expository lump and the source of it that reveals a number of the alternatives to shifting POV.

    You might want to read my analysis of what caused information feed errors and an expository lump disguised as dialogue which I posted at

    You should read the contest entry first (it's 12 pages of script; fast read), figure your own analysis, then read what I wrote and drop a comment if you have any questions.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  5. Oh, to be clear - a shifted POV is often a disguised expository lump, just the way a swatch of dialogue can be a disguised expository lump. The harder you work to disguise the lump, the harder it will be to convert the lump into actually written-story.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  6. Mfitz, Jacqueline is spot-on as to why sudden POV shifts happen. Most of the time, the writer's toolbox has run out of fun things and this is a last-ditch effort to impart info that could really be imparted more skillfully if the skill was give it's due.

    However--in defense of the sudden shift--I have to also note CJ Cherryh's wise words: FOLLOW NO RULE OFF A CLIFF.

    Writing is a living, organic thing. The rules we use, the craft we use are really guidelines. There are times one breaks a rule, breaks craft because one has to.

    Very often it has to do with the Putney quote I noted: limited real estate. You have X amount of pages in which to do Y. Now that may be the author getting overambitious or it may be the editor demanding things the author can't say no to. But reality dictates that authors under contract do not have years to write and rewrite and refine and improve per old-time movies that portray authors lounging on a chaise...muse on one shoulder, martini in one hand. It just doesn't happen that way. UNPUBLISHED writers HAVE that luxury. They can rework a manuscript until it glitters with perfection. Authors under contract and on deadline can't. So at times we cut corners.

    The other reason where a sudden POV shift may work is style and/or genre requirements. I could see something like that being workable in horror or thriller, for example. Shock value.

    But that doesn't mean it has to be unskillfull. As with any writing rule, my feeling is to know and apply the rule well before you try to break it. And if you do break it, know you're breaking it and have a damned good reason for doing so. Realize the effect a sudden POV shift has on your story, your characters, your readers.

    And that, I think, in a way answers your question of how to avoid it. You have to be cognizant of the methods and tools you use in writing your novel. Not in first draft, perhaps, but at some point you have to go back and analyze your work critically for craft applied. And you have to ask yourself if there's a better way than the method you choose at that point.

    I think many problems come with writers who can't get past the first draft as a draft. IF you've written a "meanwhile back at the ranch" shift, that's okay--as long as you know you then have to go back and make it better later. And you can. ;-) ~Linnea

  7. And Linnea is spot on!

    Absolutely, learn the rules, learn to craft a story using the rules.

    If you haven't done that yet, and come to a point in a story where you need to break a rule -- put the story aside and write something else until you have the craft tools to complete the first story effectively.


    If you've found a situation where some old rule doesn't apply to the art of what you are creating, invent a NEW RULE for others to follow.

    To do that, you must first master all the extant and currently applicable rules.

    Getting to that point, where you are the one making the rules, requires an apprenticeship, and journeymanship. You will be a Master when editors with money and a vast array of other writers to choose from come to you and ask for a specific type of thing.

    It may be a type of thing you've never written before, most likely will be.

    You turn it out to perfection.

    You know you are a Master.

    After that point, you make your own rules.

    By that point, you know better than to break rules.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  8. Seems to me that I am seeing people writing with POV because they think that is necessary for a "best seller" these days. It does seem to me that there are more books with "casts of thousands" being published lately. I think that comes from people watching so many ensemble cast TV shows. Any comment on that?

  9. Yes, I think TV is the biggest contributor to changes in what is or is not acclaimed in a text novel.

    Deploring changes of this sort do not achieve any goal.

    Understand what's lost, yes, but look closely at what is gained. There's always more value gained than lost in these generational changes.

    Find the gain. Use it to your advantage.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  10. As a wannabe writer, this blog has been one of the most educational I have read.
    Lately, I have been devouring books (some well written, some not so well written) and tried to analyse why I categorise some in one section and some in the other.
    Now, I see that the main contributor in the "not so well written group" is bad handling of POV shifts.
    The first time I read "Finders Keepers" I was impressed with the flow of the book. When I finished, I turned back to the first page and re-read it (never done that before)!
    The shifts of POV were seamless.
    So many others I have read lately have not been (none of your books ladies I may add!)
    If you are ever coming down to Australia for a writer's workshop or conference, Linnea. I will be a definite attendee. You are such a good teacher/explainer!