Whose Point of View is That?

Workshop/Lecture at: Rendezvous Autumn Authors Affair, Chicago, Il.

The difference between showing and telling is often a subtle one. When someone says you’re telling, not showing, the resulting confusion is usually caused by the author’s not understanding what point of view really is and does.

When you *tell* something, if it’s the author telling it, as it too often is, it’s boring because the reader doesn’t care what you think, she only cares what the viewpoint character thinks. If you’re really into the head of the viewpoint character and stay there even during your narrative, it’s a lot more interesting and magically becomes ‘showing’.

The personality of the viewpoint character should always shine through, even in narrative, even in internal thoughts–which is what narrative really is. Narrative also includes tag lines, i.e., what the viewpoint character is doing or thinking while she’s talking.

To put it another way, when the viewpoint character is seeing or hearing or feeling something, and adds his/her personal touch (inner thoughts, unspoken comments) to it, there’s a reason for it being there. If it’s the author describing something and it’s not perfectly clear it’s the viewpoint character thinking or seeing or feeling something, then it’s author intrusion. It’s telling, not showing, there is no reason for it being there, and people tend to skip over those places no matter how important they might be.

The difference is in knowing in whose point of view you’re working, and personalizing whatever the viewpoint character is seeing or hearing or feeling. Keep in mind, your characters are every single syllable in your book. Without them, the magic goes away.

One of the hardest things about writing novels is understanding what point of view really means, and worse yet, trying to make sure you have it right. That’s because point of view is something we only have to worry about when we begin to write novels. It’s not taught in-depth in high school or college grammar courses, at least not anywhere near as in-depth as you need to learn it for writing novels. But it’s one of the most important parts of writing a novel that you’ll ever learn.

The overview is: Point of view is the process by which the author emotionally connects the reader to the story.

To make it even simpler, understanding point of view is thoroughly understanding that every word, every sentence, every page in your book is being seen, heard, felt, smelled, touched, thought of, or acted upon in some way by someone. Your people are your story. Your people do and see everything in your book. There is nothing in there that does not involve your people.

It takes a while for this to sink in because there’s so much to it, but you need to make a major effort to understand point of view and what it does, because it filters into and involves every aspect of writing a novel. So I’ll repeat, in a slightly different way, what I said in the previous paragraph:

Every word in your book involves someone’s point of view.

I won’t tell you that you should do all of one scene in one point of view, or how many points of view there should or shouldn’t be, or whether it should be first person or third, or whatever, because that’s an individual decision you have to make for yourself.

I will say you need to understand it and decide, before you write that first word, how you want to handle your point of view, because it’ll have a lot to do with your plotting and deciding ahead of time how you want to do it can save you months in rewrites. There’s a lot to think about before you start writing, and this is one of the major ones because point of view is full of land mines and they all trap new writers at first.

For instance, a short category romance often has only two main points of view, your hero and heroine, with maybe some, but generally not many, scenes involving other minor characters’ points of view. In any category romance, the main focus of the story is always the interaction between two people who are falling in love, although many other important things will be going on at the same time. In a mainstream novel, there may be many points of view; than again, maybe not. That’s up to you. In mainstream the author gets to choose.

So it’s important for you to know exactly which points of view you’re going to use before you start writing and then stick to it. If you know you can use more than one, which ones will they be? This one step will save you a lot of trouble later on in the book, especially if it’s going to be for a category line that only allows two.

Knowing this will keep you from leading up to one scene in which you discover you absolutely have to have someone else’s point of view, only to realize you can’t do it because they won’t let you. If that happens you’re stuck, and the solution is not easy, because you may have to re-think the rest of your book as well as what you’ve already written leading up to the scene in question.

I personally do one point of view per scene, unless it’s a very long scene and I definitely have to have more than one. But before I begin a book I decide exactly how I’m going to handle this throughout the book. Once I decide, I don’t have to worry about that any longer because I know my own choice ahead of time. So know your choices. If your publisher says only two, then it’s only two, and that’s not going to change no matter how much of a mess you’ll be in without the third one. You’ll have to re-do your plot.

Eight chapters into a book is way too late to decide you should have allowed for more or less points of view, especially if you’re on a deadline, because point of view is something you can’t mess around with. Either it’s consistent and it’s right, or it’s not. If it’s not, it’s going to take you a lot of time to correct your chapters.

If you can use more than two, this doesn’t mean just one scene with one different viewpoint character plopped in somewhere because you just now discovered you need more than one. Good pacing means these POV switches will occur and flow throughout the book, and you should plan for this ahead of time.

Second Generation has, in its prolog, one point of view. There are two men in this prolog. One is the father of the female protagonist whose story drives the book. The other man is the father of the future antagonist. The two men are together in the Colombian jungle, searching for an elusive emerald lode. You see both of them, they both speak, they both have action, they both have visible emotional reactions to everything, but it’s still all in one point of view because the entire prolog is shown through what’s going on in one man’s mind, Michael’s. Everything is what he sees or thinks or feels, or remembers someone else feeling through their reactions, which he has seen and heard.

You see the other father, his reactions and emotions are clear, but only as seen and felt by Michael. The reader never leaves Michael’s mind no matter what else is going on. This is his scene and only his scene. I set it up that way ahead of time.

More than one person in a scene can talk. They can all interact, they can all have emotional reactions your reader can see, but they all should still be shown only from the eyes and mind of your chosen viewpoint person. That’s the main way you can connect your reader to your story, by letting the reader sink into one person’s point of view at a time.

If you go back and forth, back and forth, attempting to get into the heads of all your characters, or even two of them, on one page, there is no real connection with the reader because your reader will not have enough time to generate enough emotional involvement and attachment. How can she, when she’s involved first with one, then the other, then back again, all in the space of one paragraph or one page? Your reader may be reading, but she’s not truly connecting. She can’t connect under those conditions.

In the prolog I spoke of, Michael carries the scene. He has the most at stake. Because of what the book is about, he’s the most emotionally involved person in that scene. That’s your criteria for deciding whose point of view you should use at any given time. It should always be whoever has the most emotional involvement, i.e., the most at stake in that scene or that part of the scene; therefore, it will also be the one who will generate the most emotional response from your reader.

In the first chapter, first scene, same book, there are three different people talking, doing things, reacting, but only two of them have points of view. Those two separate points of view were absolute killers when I first started writing that book and then set it aside for a number of years. I had no idea what I was doing regarding point of view at the time. But I did know there was something wrong with the way that scene felt. It felt jumbled and fragmented to me, although I couldn’t figure out what it was.

When I decided to finish the book I completely rewrote the first three chapters and separated that first scene in the first chapter into five different smaller segments, each from one of the two alternating points of view, depending on who was the most emotionally involved at that moment. I gave each of those segments several pages before switching to the other point of view. That cleared up all the questions that had been hovering in my own mind for so long–why did it sound so confusing and jumbled?

Whenever you find yourself confused, or your critique partners say they’re confused about who did or said or thought something, that’s what it almost always is. Your point of view is not clear even to you, the author.

The scene I just mentioned is only one of several scenes in a very long first chapter, but it works. It’s clear whose point of view it is at all times and they all segue back and forth easily. But-listen up, because here’s one of the tricks, which I already mentioned-each point of view needs at least a few pages all at one time, which gives the reader long enough to get into one mind and understand what’s going on there before it switches to another mind, another point of view.

Give your reader time to sink into one person’s mind and experience what’s going on there before you yank them out and pull them into another mind. That way, your reader will be able to connect with your character and will care more about what’s happening. If your reader doesn’t connect and doesn’t care, she’ll stop reading.

That’s what writing a novel is all about-knowing what’s going on in the mind of the immediate viewpoint person. Every scene in your book will have a viewpoint person, even if it’s only a short narrative scene describing the weather or the countryside or whatever. As long as you’re sure it’s in your viewpoint person’s mind, your narrative has a lot better chance at being interesting and fun to read because you’ll put the character’s personality into it, adding depth and even fun to your narrative..

In all narrative, somebody is getting rained on. Someone is seeing that sunset. Somebody is smelling the lilacs on the side of the road. The question you have to ask yourself every time is who. Who is seeing it? Who’s smelling it? Who’s trying to ignore it? Whose point of view is that?

The book I’m working on now, The Scoutmaster’s Wife, has much shorter chapters, each written from one-and only one-point of view, although each chapter contains several people with various reactions and most include more than one scene. But one person always carries the whole chapter in this book no matter how many scenes there are. That’s the way I set it up in my mind ahead of time. Why? Because that person is the one who’s the most emotionally involved with his or her scenes. That person has the most at stake in that chapter.

The whole book is told in alternating first person points of view. One chapter is Raven’s. She’s the Scoutmaster’s Wife. The next chapter is Jack’s. Jack is the chief of police. Raven and Jack each have separate problems, although they’re both heavily involved in the same murder mystery. Each of their separate problems all play a big part in the mystery, and their problems all interconnect. Nobody’s chapter overwrites the other person’s. Each person’s chapter moves the story forward.

Yes, it’s hard, it’s challenging, but I’m having fun doing it that way. The important thing here is, I decided all the point of view issues ahead of time so I don’t have to worry about them as I go along.

You don’t have to do it my way. That’s just my way for this book. It’s perfectly okay to have more than one point of view in a chapter or scene if that’s what you want to do. There’s nothing at all wrong with that unless you start head-hopping, i.e., jumping back and forth, back and forth on the same page, because if you do that, your reader will lose her emotional connection to the scene.

That’s something I struggled with in my first book, which was a Harlequin Superromance. I really felt I needed to have both points of view in the love scenes to show both of their emotional reactions. Those scenes gave me a lot of grief, and years later I realized that was why. That was also before I fully understood what point of view really was and what it should and shouldn’t do.

If I were doing that book today, I personally would write one love scene entirely in her pov and the second one entirely in his, because that’s how I prefer to work now. I know now that it involves the reader a lot more if the reader only has to cope with one point of view at a time.

I know some love scenes are written by head hopping in some romances, but it’s not good to constantly head-hop. Here’s one big reason why: When you make one character the viewpoint person in any scene, you’re subliminally telling your reader that you’re going to completely share that person’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and reactions with her. If you don’t completely share them, you’ve broken your word. That’s not original with me, by the way. I read it somewhere, I truly don’t remember where, but the gist of it made so much sense to me I’m tossing it in here for your benefit.

While this is not an ethics or economics class, the fact is, you’re asking strangers to give you money for something that comes straight out of your head. You’d better give them what they paid for or they won’t give you any more money.

Let me give you some don’ts here:

Don’t allow your viewpoint person to not see or hear something that’s going on in her scene. It may sound dramatic to you, to say something like, “Lucy never saw the man standing behind the bush and aiming his camera her way.” Don’t do that, not if this is currently Lucy’s point of view. Only what Lucy sees or hears or smells or feels belongs in her scene. You can show other characters having these sensations if you must, but only from the viewpoint person’s mind.

But-if it’s someone else’s point of view scene and that person sees the photographer and that person sees that Lucy doesn’t see him, then that’s okay, you can say it in that case. Otherwise, Lucy has to see it or it can’t be there.

That’s point of view.

Now, I know you’re not going to want to let Lucy see him, so-if you absolutely must have the photographer there-if it’s crucial to your plot, and you’ve decided ahead of time you’re going to have multiple points of view in this book-then give him his own point of view for a few pages if you want, so he can show your reader why he’s there, and what he’s doing, and how much trouble he’s gone to not to let Lucy see him while he’s there taking her picture.

But remember this: If that photographer is not going to show up in other scenes from his point of view that will forward your story, then his point of view is not important anywhere in the book. That’s part of your pacing. You don’t want to let just once scene in the whole book have his point of view.

Every sentence, every word in your book has to have a definite purpose. Either a character is important enough to bring into the book and give a few scenes of his own, in his own point of view, or he’s not. If he’s not, don’t let him have one. Be aware of that before you stumble into a plot point that will force you into that corner.

You for sure don’t want to go through almost an entire book with two points of view and then suddenly realize you’re going to have to give someone else their own point of view because how else can you do that one scene, and then switch back to your two major characters for the rest of the book. That won’t work. It’ll stick out like a long black hair poking out of a blemish on the perfect face of an otherwise beautiful woman. It’ll throw your pacing completely out of kilter.

So don’t even think about letting that happen. It won’t work. Know ahead of time that you can’t do it, and do something else because if you try to do it anyhow, you’re jumping point of view and you will get called on it and you will have rewrites.

Here’s another don’t. If you’re in Lucy’s point of view, don’t let the doorman at the hotel stand there watching her as she walks off while he’s thinking something like, “Nice legs, I wonder where they’re going.” You’ll pull your reader right out of Lucy’s head and plunk it down into the doorman’s head for just an instant. That’s not fair to your reader. You’ve yanked her and broken her connection to your real viewpoint person for no good reason. Don’t do that.

Here’s a do, and it’s a biggie. Know your characters’ backgrounds before you start writing your book. At the very least, have a general idea, because in order to keep inside the right point of view and do it right, you need to know your people.

Here’s an example. First point of view:

She stood alone in front of the TV store window, watching the two boxing champions on Channel 7 go at it. She almost couldn’t watch because she could never bear to see anyone hitting another person. Still, she was unable to move because she was paralyzed, rooted to the past. At the sound of each pow! her mind shot back in time, hearing the same sounds she’d heard over and over from the next room when she was a child. And now, her feet could not move, even though something inside screamed at her to escape, to get out, to get help somewhere, somehow.

Here’s a different character, same scene as above.

She stood alone in front of the TV store window, watching the two boxing champions on Channel 7 go at it, and all she saw was money. She watched the inhuman, ferocious look on Jake’s face as he pulled back for the next punch, and with every pow! her nerves grew more taut. Pow! Another punch. Her adrenaline darted from her head down to her toes; she could barely contain her excitement. She had fifty dollars on the outcome of this fight, and if she won she’d have five hundred, enough to buy that new Gucci shoulder bag in the window two stores down the street.

Not the best examples in the world but they’ll do. You get the idea, right? We see two different people in the same scene, but each has her own background, her own emotional baggage, her own wants and needs, so each point of view tells a very different story. As an added bonus, each point of view tells us something about the viewpoint person.

That’s point of view.

To further illustrate, here’s another don’t, especially important for new writers to understand. Don’t put yourself into the scene. Make sure you aren’t using your own lighthearted way of phrasing things if your point of view character is a deadly serious person. Make sure his descriptions and thoughts are his, not yours.

A real pitfall is when a female is writing from the male point of view, and vice versa. It can be done, good writers do it all the time, but you have to stay aware of the differences between their backgrounds, which are far more important than the male v/s female thing.

I bring this up because so many times, when reading a scene a new writer has written, I’ve picked up on her phrases, her way of speaking, her way of thinking, which is entirely different than the viewpoint person’s way of speaking or thinking would be. This is visible to others, so put it on your checklist.

That’s what they’re talking about when they tell you to give each person her own distinctive style. It doesn’t mean one person always has to drop his word endings, or has to speak every other word with some local or regional accent. In fact, that’s a bad idea because it’s annoying to the reader if you do it too much.

You should be able to write what your character says in a way that will be different without mutilating the English language. The way you do that is to know your characters ahead of time so you’ll be able to write as he or she would think, given their individual backgrounds.

The person who came from deep in the country is going to think and see things differently than a person raised through childhood in a hotel suite in Las Vegas or New York. A guy born and bred in Texas is going to have his own set of personal colloquialisms, the guy from England will have his own way of saying things. Use them once in a while, that’s enough to make him different. He doesn’t have to use Texas/country or British sayings in every sentence, so use a light touch with those things, but do use them some, because they help set your point of view character in the reader’s mind.

Here’s another illustration of the same point. The guy from Texas who was raised on a ranch and learned to eat his steaks black with plenty of hot sauce is always going to look at a meat a little differently than the guy from England, whose beloved mother’s specialty was boiled beef. Think about it, and imagine how each man would describe his favorite meal. They’re going to be totally different, right? Of course they are. You can’t escape it. The real reason new writers have so much trouble with inner dialog as well as narrative, is because they’re inserting their own thoughts into the characters’ space. The way to work around that is to know your characters’ backgrounds well before you begin.

Again: Those two men are always going to have different viewpoints at the same barbecue, and they’re going to internally as well as externally verbalize everything differently-not always by their accent, but always by their own personal background, which affects their point of view..

So when you write a scene, any scene, be aware of the differences in your people and keep yourself and your differences completely out of it. As you’re seeing your next scene in your mind, make every effort to put yourself into your viewpoint character’s head and see what he would see, not what you see, because you’re going to see two different things. This is the main reason why witnesses to crimes so often tell different stories. They’re usually not doing it on purpose. They just see what they would normally see.

You might look at a beautiful buffet table and notice the way the light shoots out from the different crystal cuts on the punch bowl, but chances are, the truck driver from wherever is going to be looking at the food and that’s about it. You see the crystal, he sees the food. See it as your viewpoint character would see it.

That’s point of view.

A mother looks at her antique china on the dinner table and thinks about all the dishes she has to wash herself, because she won’t let anyone else touch her good china.

Her nineteen year old football hero son sees the same antique china and thinks about how small the dinner plates are and he might cringe inside, remembering the time he broke one of his mother’s tiny demitasse cups. And he wonders what dessert will be.

Her brand new daughter-in-law sees the same antique china and wonders if she and her husband will inherit it. It’s all in the individual point of view.

That’s also what they mean when they say let your characters tell the story. They don’t really mean that you have to sit there at your computer playing Solitaire while you wait to hear strange new voices in your head. It simply means keep your point of view out of the picture, and use the character’s instead. If you know them well enough, if you understand that who they are, where they came from, and what sort of life they’ve had up to this point determines how they think and speak and act today, their voices will come through loud and clear. You won’t be able to stop them.

Let me go back to one thing I said and expand on it a bit, because I want to make sure you get this: The success or failure of your narrative passages, those long, drawn out pages people either love or hate, depends entirely on your clear understanding of point of view.

Whenever you start a chapter and find yourself writing a narrative passage without realizing you were going to, you need to stop right then, before you get too far into it, and carefully consider whose point of view this is. I already told you to pick whose it is before you start the scene, right?

If you do this, if you find yourself in the middle of a long-winded narrative passage, you can do one of two things. Either cut it and turn it into conversation here or somewhere else, or if you understand the fact that even though it is narrative, it’s still someone’s point of view, since you already have your viewpoint character picked out at the beginning of the scene, go for it, write it, but make sure you put your viewpoint character’s soul into it, not yours.

This is not your book, not your chapter, not your scene, unless you’re writing an autobiography. It’s your characters’ book all the way. Yes, your name goes on the cover, but it’s their book. It’s about them, not about you.

If you clearly understand that even though you’re writing narrative, your character is telling it, here’s another thought. This is your chance to do some really good writing. People who write deep, enduring fictional literature have discovered the magic of getting soul-deep into a viewpoint character’s mind and staying there, and they’re so good at it that they always manage to write something that makes their readers think, and remember. There’s nothing superficial about a true literary novel. They’re called literary for a reason. They get deep into the soul of the viewpoint character every time, and because they’re so deep into it, they pull out all the deep inner thoughts that all of us have, but too few of us can write.

You may be writing a short category romance, but what’s to stop you from making it the best short category romance your editor has ever seen? Show her! Get into the head of your viewpoint characters and stay there. There’s nothing wrong with letting them do some deep thinking from time to time no matter what you’re writing, and your story will be better for it.

Narrative passages done right can be a magnificent tool for connecting your readers to your story and telling them something they didn’t know about your viewpoint character, as well as entertaining them. Use that tool, but use it right. All narrative is in someone’s point of view.

The time when narrative becomes really boring is when the author begins lecturing and gets all wound out with her own rhetoric, using her knowledge and her background and her agenda, forgetting her viewpoint character’s. At that point, she pulls the reader out of the head he wants to be in and he gets bored as well as ticked off. At that point he turns off and tunes out. So keep your narrative interesting. Let your viewpoint character do the whole thing, and keep yourself and your way of speaking and your personal baggage and agendas out of it.

The reason I’m hammering this home is because so many times authors have something they want to say. But the important question you need to ask is, does this character want to say that? Does he have a good reason for saying it? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then go ahead and punch it out, but let him say it the way he’d say it, not the way you’d say it.

That’s Point of view.

Here’s a little homework assignment for you: Write the scene below using two different points of view:

Two people, one man, one woman, are sitting in a restaurant talking about whatever you want to choose.

Your first question should be, what’s at stake here? Write a fairly detailed scene in his point of view, then write another one with the same actions and the same dialog, but this time using her point of view.

What are his thoughts as they’re talking? Describe what he sees, and what he thinks as opposed to what he’s saying–that can be fun, and it tells you even more about his character.

Then write the same scene from her viewpoint. Others stop to talk to them, or pass by. What does each one of your characters think of these people? There are smells in the air. What does she smell, v/s what he smells? What does she see v/s what he sees? What does he hear, as opposed to what she hears? What movements does he make, v/s the movements she makes? Who’s the most nervous, who’s the calm one? Why? There’s going to be conflict in this scene, plenty of it, or there should be and there will be if you do it right, because the conflict will be in their separate points of view.

Happy Writing!

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