Thursday, February 28, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules -- POV

Thanks to those of you who commented yesterday. I have noted the other "rules" you'd like to cover.

I'll start with those I mentioned yesterday, the first being: One POV per scene.

Obviously this rule deals with writing in third person.

The old omniscient narrative of the classics is no longer in vogue. This is the POV that hovers over the action, showing us occurrences and thoughts from a removed "observer" viewpoint. It can even speak of action none of the characters are aware of. ("He didn't see the salivating goblin hiding behind the tree.")

In today's world of mass media, of in-your-face close-ups on TV, and reality shows, etc., omniscient POV seems too cold and distant. Readers want that intimate look into the character's mind. They want to feel the scene as the character feels it. And so POV has turned to favor close third person.

So why is it important to stick in only one character's head for the duration of a scene? Wouldn't it be even more intimate to know what all the characters are thinking at any given moment?

You can certainly find published authors who change POVs in a scene, some of them very successful. As a reader, this becomes a pretty subjective thing. I happen to really dislike "head-hopping." If the author tells a great story, I can manage to grit my teeth and overlook it--if it's not done every other paragraph. But in every case, no matter how good the story is, I think: the book would have been even better written if he'd stuck to one POV per scene. To put it another way: the novel is successful despite this weaker form of writing.

And yes, I did say weaker. Hold your tomatoes until I'm through, please.

Do you know how common it is for a brand-new author to head-hop? I'm not talking about aspiring writers who've had the benefit of attending a writers' conference and may have heard about this "rule." I mean the person who's driven to write, and all alone by herself, decides to plunk down at the keyboard ...

Why do beginning writers tend to do this? It's easier.

When I first started writing fiction, I was a head-hopper. I didn't even think about it. If I wanted to depict some reaction from a character, the natural thing to do was jump into his head. Then in reading novels, I began to see how other authors handled POV. How much deeper and richer their scenes were when told through one viewpoint. I rewrote my scenes--and they came alive.

Sticking with one POV per scene:

1. Forces an author to write more descriptively
2. Weaves perception of the POV character into the action, which
3. Heightens emotion
4. Allows the reader to settle

Imagine a scene between married couple John and Mary. John, a new Christian, is afraid she's having an affair. She's not--yet. But she's mighty close and feeling guilty about it. And she can't stand this new religiosity of John's, because he's so nice lately even though he's hurt, and that makes her feel even worse. We're in Mary's POV:

...He stood by the kitchen counter, weight on one leg and fingers rubbing the tile. Trying to appear so casual. As if he wasn't scared to death of ending up alone.

Guilt stabbed her. "You don't have to look so pious."

"Pious?" Surprise rippled across his face. "Is that what you think?"

"What I think, John, is that ever since you started going to church you've decided you're better than me. I can't possibly live up to your standards, even when I'm innocent."

"Innocent." John's hand fisted, and he leaned forward with desperation, as if to cling to the word...

Let's say this interchange is two pages into Mary's POV scene. Suddenly at the first sentence here, we switch to John's head:
He stood by the kitchen counter, weight on one leg and fingers rubbing the tile. Trying to look casual. He didn't want her to know he was scared to death of ending up alone.
In this version we don't lose description, but we do lose Mary's perception of how John looks and what he's feeling. And that perception, stated in her distinct POV voice, comes off with so much more layered emotion: As if he wasn't scared to death of ending up alone. In that one line from Mary's POV, we get the sense of her cattiness, her disgust at his weakness, yet her desire not to hurt him.

Following that perception is Mary's emotive reaction--guilt. But of course she doesn't want to show that, so she attacks John where he's most vulnerable--his new faith. If we couldn't see the first paragraph in her perspective, we wouldn't be as well set up to understand her reaction in the second.

Or let's say we jumped into John's POV in the third paragraph:
What? "Pious? Is that what you think?"
Here we get his surprised reaction. But we don't see the description of how it plays over his face.

In short, I think head-hopping is weaker writing because it's too easy to jump into a character's head and tell us what he's thinking. When the author stays in one character's head, but still wants the reader to know what the other character is thinking, that author must layer in description and perception to show us. (Hm, show vs. tell. Isn't there another "rule" about that?) The scene becomes richer.

As for point #4, the ability to settle, herein lies the oxymoron of head-hopping. The author may mix POVs believing it leads to deeper intimacy with all characters in a scene. Instead it leads to less. To really be intimate with a character, I need to see the world from her viewpoint for a certain amount of time before I'm snatched from it. I want to perceive other characters and their actions through her eyes. Hear, in her own distinct voice, her inner reaction to those actions. Then, at a scene change, it feels natural, since I'm already moving, to switch to another POV.

If you want to tell your story in true omniscient viewpoint--that removed, distant narrator's voice--and you think you have good reason, stick with it. This is a different kind of story altogether. (You may have a harder time persuading an editor, who's worried about appealing to the largest number of today's readers.) But true omniscient is different than multiple close POVs in one scene. If you want to write in close third person, which is the common format of today's fiction, I strongly suggest you stick to one POV per scene.

You may now launch your tomatoes.

Read Part 3


Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

No tomatoes coming from this direction. (That's why I never made it into the major leagues--I'd miss).
Your comments about consistent POV are on target, and I don't disagree with them.
I will take a moment to grieve for the omniscient POV, though. I'm reading John Grisham's latest, THE APPEAL, and it's told--exceedingly well--in omniscient viewpoint. Of course, most of us aren't Grisham, and I guess that's why we're admonished not to try that POV.
Thanks for your postings. said...

Excellent! Brandilynn, thanks so much for posting this. I've been reading your blog and wondering what in the world the deal with head-hopping is. I use POV on a per scene or per chapter basis, and I was really afraid that per scene was too much. Now I fully understand the concept of head hopping. Thank you!

PatriciaW said...

I think there's still a place for omniscient POV depending on the nature and genre of the story.

As a reader, I don't like when POV is changing all over the place, from character to character, from characters to omniscient.

As a writer, you betcha it's harder to stay in one head. But it makes me work and the result is usually better.

Timothy Fish said...

I’m with Richard in mourning the loss of the omniscient POV. For the most part, I agree with you. I agree that head hopping is less intimate and is often weaker writing. I will say, however, that there are situations where giving a reader a less intimate view is ideal. I will also say that the emotional state of the character is less important than the emotional response of the reader. As you indicated, a single POV allows the reader to settle, so abrupt head hopping evokes an unsettled feeling. In moderation, it can be good for a reader to feel unsettled. I believe it is one thing to change POV to help the story and quite another to do so out of laziness.

Anonymous said...

Your point that STORY RULES is exactly right. Writers cannot forget this. If a story needs to be told in omniscient POV, to tell it any other way would be weakening it. Omniscient POV is not dead. Nothing -- not one tool -- available to us in our writing toolboxes is wrong or off limits. The key to powerful writing is to always choose the right tool.

As I talk to new writers and edit their manuscripts, I often cringe at the attitudes seeping through the words. Rules are not meant to suffocate creativity. Goodness, they're not really even "rules" at all. How often are these "rules" broken? And how easily?

But, I would add ... how quickly are we weakening our stories by breaking the "rules"?

There is no such thing in our industry as the "Rules Police." There are only concerned teachers, editors, and fellow novelists who have learned why the "rules" are important -- how they strengthen stories and make them come alive. In the end, the decision to write powerfully always belongs to the story's creator. Decide well, cuz in the end, that decision will be revealed for all to see.

Thanks for taking this subject on, Brandilyn. I'll be sending my editing clients over to check it out. : )

Anonymous said...

Wow, Donna. Excellent.

T. Forkner said...

I have to agree that omniscient POV is almost gone in new literature, but every now and then someone like Jeffrey Overstreet comes along and it works perfectly for the story. Of course, he is also a very skilled writer with a very specific kind of storytelling
that lends itself to omniscient.