Point of View by Shannah Biondine

This literary expression means, “Who is seeing this?” or “Who is telling the reader this?”

In the famous story opening “It was a dark and stormy night…” Who is telling you about the weather? You don’t know yet, because there’s not enough information. Suppose the next sentence was: “Angela shivered beside the dying embers of the den fireplace, hoping Michael would call soon.”

Obviously it’s not Michael, because he’s nowhere around. Very likely it’s Angela herself…unless the sentence after that unfolds as: “Jessica stared at her sister, disgusted anew at how willingly she’d waste a perfectly good Friday night sitting home waiting for that big jerk to call.”

Now we realize it’s not Angela relating any of this. It’s her sister, Jessica. So in this scene, we’ve established Jessica as the viewpoint character.

What would you think, then, if I began a new paragraph like this? “Rubbing her forehead as she fought the vestiges of a headache that had been building since she crawled along the expressway with the other drones at six that evening, Angela frowned and stared at the mute phone.”

Do you realize what just happened? We snapped right out of one sister’s mind into the other’s! Neat trick, but not so neatly done. An editor would be groaning and marking POV in big red letters in the margin by that last paragraph.

Maybe this sounds excessively picky. After all, you could’ve figured out who was where and what was going on. Probably-but the key here is that a reader shouldn’t have to. When we write, we mastermind a stage production on paper, characters and events that behave as we dictate. It’s therefore our job as writers to lead the reader from beginning to end of the tale smoothly.

My first manuscript contained all the standard POV mistakes typical of novice writers. It took my critique group pointing out errors and explaining them to get me a grasp of where I’d foundered and why. Then editors took over that task, and I continued learning about POV.

Now I think of it as magic. And I don’t want you to learn the hard way. I’ll share the secrets behind the illusion. The basic rules are unbelievably simple:

1) Don’t change POV without meaning to, and
2) When you mean to, do it the right way.

Pretend I’m talking about tequila. Never a wise idea to be gulping the stuff unintentionally. And if you’re going to the local cantina to celebrate, you don’t want to seem like an amateur. So you learn about salt and lime. (I just can’t get into that whole worm thing, sorry.)

Point of view is an area where you can look like a foolish drunk or exhibit some smarts and class. What are you trying to tell those editors?

Scenes in good fiction are driven by a specific viewpoint character. As author, you need to select this person with awareness of dramatic effect.

Let’s say we’ve got a scene of revelation with Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and the doctor’s bumbling female housekeeper. Holmes is going to find some scrap of evidence and crack the case. How I impart this to my readers depends on the effect I desire to achieve with the scene. Using the same three characters, the effect will be different with each one as the viewpoint character.

If in the POV of Holmes himself, I’ll have to get across the thrill of discovery and take the reader through the mental connections this evidence has to other factors in the case. In essence, letting the reader be the detective. This could be exciting, particularly if my scene ends with someone announcing a new plot twist.

If the scene is told through Watson’s eyes, he’ll probably be slightly amazed at his cohort’s reasoning powers. Watson may actually reveal the plot twist that escalates the whole drama.

If I’m the housekeeper and the two men rush by, Holmes shouting, “Come, Watson! The game’s afoot!” even as they knock afternoon tea all over my apron, the effect on the story itself is likely to be a touch of comedy in an otherwise dark tale. The reader doesn’t really care what happens to me, because I’m a very minor character. So why are you in my head at all?

Avoid going into the minds of secondary characters, unless these characters are somehow pivotal to the plot. Remember that servants, shop vendors, taxi drivers, neighbors, or coworkers are often mere windowdressing.

Try to write entire chapters or scenes in the viewpoint of one character, shifting to another’s POV at chapter or scene breaks. This particular rule can be bent in spots, but be careful. Just as you don’t want to go into the minds of too many characters, you don’t want to have readers bouncing back and forth like a tennis ball. Too frequent POV shifts is known as “head hopping,” another bane for editors.

There’s a temptation in romance writing-because we have dual protagonists-to feel that as a writer you must give equal time to both heroine and hero. Doing this often produces the opposite effect of what you want to achieve. You end up with a listless, flat story. Life doesn’t come in nice even chunks. Remember that your viewpoint character “drives” the story action in a given scene. This should be the character with the most at stake, the most emotional impact, the best drama to offer. If you divide this up, you often lose the impetus completely.

However, there are times when it can be effective to use both points of view in the same scene. In romances, these would be love or fight scenes. These are highly-charged confrontations where both characters legitimately have everything at stake. You might begin in one protagonist’s viewpoint and then shift halfway or two-thirds of the way through the scene to give readers the other protagonist’s feelings and insights.

Don’t shift POV in mid-sentence or in the middle of a paragraph. Start fresh and give readers an immediate signifier. Why? If you don’t, you’ve left the scene without a driver! Let’s say your hero, Steve, just bared his soul in dialogue. Now you shift to the heroine’s POV with something like this:

“Samantha looked into Steve’s eyes, reading the same pain and anguish she’d heard in his voice.”

From that one line, as a reader, I now clearly understand that I’m not in Steve’s mind any longer, but am now relating from Samantha’s perspective. And you want this clear so your reader stays firmly in the story.

Remember, too, that sequences readers experience vicariously are more vivid than narrative. The viewpoint character doesn’t only speak and act-he or she also gauges the reactions of others. In the example with Steve and Samantha, readers interpret that Samantha is an empathetic, caring person. But I haven’ t told readers this about her; I’ve shown it.

And you scoffed when I said this stuff was magical!

Well, now you know how the rabbit got hidden inside the hat. Study the trick, again and again. Read a favorite novel, paying close attention to viewpoint. Is it constant throughout, or do you detect shifts? How did the author handle them? What signifier indicated shifting consciousness?

Tackle your own manuscript, looking for the same things. Be ruthless with that red pen. Better you now than an editor later!

Accidental shifts you never intended? Sometimes a minor fix can salvage the scene. A weak scene that feels flat? Who is driving? Is anyone? Is that the best character for the job?

Also beware the visitor at the front door of the cottage, which gets a loving description all away around to the back beyond tall hedges and a trickling fountain. How would someone be able to see and describe all this from the front porch?

You’ll develop a rhythm and sense of this. You have it already. It’s part of your voice. With practice and study, you’ll get better and better, until one day you’ll realize you almost never make the silly mistakes you did at first. You will have graduated from novice writer to novice magician. Luckily for all of us, agents and editors know the difference.

Author Bio:

Shannah Biondine has written several historical and paranormal romances for New Concepts Publishing, Bookmice, and LTDBooks. She has been an active member of RWA for 6 years and is a former chapter president. Her background includes many years as a professional non-fiction writer and serving as both freelance editor and book reviewer.

Copyright Shannah Biondine 2001


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