Thursday, May 24, 2012

Some Words About POV

It's Memorial Day Weekend and for most people it's the kick-off to summer. It occurred to me Wednesday that in my job (thankfully) it's almost always summer. I'm not saying this to brag, I'm just saying this because I caught sight of the passage of time. And from thoughts of what I was doing last Memorial Day, or that time I was in high school and had to play baritone saxophone in a parade, it got me thinking about point of view in storytelling.

Also, on Wednesday night at my workshop there were a few questions about POV, and I got kind of amazed that people still had questions about it, even though I thought this topic has been aggressively beaten to death. So let's talk POV. We'll start with a definition and then deal with some common pitfalls.

What is it?
Point of View is the lens through which the reader receives the story. That's it. It is NOT the lens through which the character interacts and lives the story and it is most certainly not a "gimmick" that writers do in order to get Pavlovian praise from agents and book reviewers.

I make a distinction between how the reader receives the story and how a character goes through the story, because every character goes through the story in the first-person. (Just like all of us, we're all only ever in first person). What the POV does is take those character-first-person experiences and organize them in a particular way as the story needs.

Organize them how, you mean like shuffle them around from chapter to chapter?
Oh no. No no. Super double no. Don't do that. Don't hop, skip, and jump through POVs because you 'want to put us [the readers] in different characters' heads. That's...well, that's sort of like announcing you're an amateur while waving flares and a big banner shoots up behind you saying "I don't know any better." Don't do that.

But George RR Martin does it!
First, you are not George RR Martin. (I mean you could be, but really, if actual-GRRM is reading this blog, then I'm oblivious to my audience). Second, no he doesn't. He changes the focus between characters, but never the POV. He doesn't randomly jump from third-person Tyrion to first-person Brienne to second-person guy-next-to-a-guy-with-an-axe.

When you establish a POV, you're creating a little center to the particular universe of your story. Now maybe this universe exists for the duration of a whole book, or maybe it's just a chapter, but this POV is throughout the whole created-universe, not the character. POV is not a character.

Let's say you're writing a version of......Romeo and Juliet. And you want to make your version to what Romeo sees, his experiences, the reader follows on Romeo's shoulder, that sort of thing. So you make Romeo the narrator and tell this story in the first-person.

So anything Romeo does or thinks is going to be with an "I" involved (I did this, I think that, etc). And anytime another character does something, it's in the third-person, because this is Romeo's story, he's telling it, and we're (Romeo + reader) seeing this through Romeo's eyes.

Just because a new character comes into the scene doesn't mean we need to be in their head while Romeo's telling the story. This is the narrator's story, we see what they see, we discover what they do when they's sort of the beauty of first person.

But I'm not writing first-person.
Okay, so you're overseeing a whole load of people. Then your POV is as if you're looking down from the skies onto this whole diorama of your story, and the narrator, although not a character directly in the story is relating to us what's going on. You don't have to crack open the minds of every character for the reader to understand the story.

Yes I do. How else will they know what's going on?
If you write well enough AND trust your readers, they'll figure out what's going on. Here's an example:

John sits in his office. While writing his blog post, the rain falls outside and a truck pulls up across the street. From the truck emerges a man, who brings with him from the truck a clipboard. He then checks notes and walks to the blue house. The dog barks. More rain falls. John goes back to writing. 

Okay, that's not very well written, and I didn't have any character actively thinking anything, or did I? I implied that John is thinking (because he's writing a blog post) and implied the dog must be thinking (it's barking) and even the guy from the truck has to be thinking (he's checking notes on a clipboard)...but in order to tell you that story, did I have to sit down, hold your hand and explain to you what everyone was thinking? Or was there enough detail there to somewhat picture the scene?

So, the POV depends on the narrator?
Yes. If the narrator is an active participant in the story they're telling, then the reader is going to be limited in the scope of what they read -- If I'm telling you the story of what I did over the weekend, I'm only telling you about what I did. There's no mention of what happened half the world away in Guam or what somebody in Moscow was going to do.

If the narrator is playing puppetmaster and we get to watch them pull the strings and make characters dance, there may still be a limit on what information we get at a certain time. Because the author of the story can only describe so much at a given time. (Because, in part, the author is human and even though they control the whole entirety of their story, you can't compress EVERY thought into the same sentence.)

What can I do?
Okay, let's set some rules.

1. When you set up a POV, you're tied to it. Not quite as bad as a cell phone contract, but it's not a decision of whimsy. Pick a lens, and stick with it.

2. Avoid as best you can the desire or need to switch characters (yet stay in the same POV) because it does NOT tell the story more effectively. It's does two things instead:
a) weakens your story's pace, construction and cohesiveness
Why? Because if you're locked into first-person, but the "I" character constantly changes, the reader can't follow the story easily. Let the narrator dictate how the story is parsed to readers, and if Narrator X isn't good enough, rather than adding Narrator Y and Narrator Z to the mix, make X better.
b) demonstrates that you're a weak/poor/cowardly (yeah, I said it) writer.
Why? Because switching POV is a crutch. Sure it "tells the story most completely" but does it actual make you a better writer for doing it? Sure it's hard and scary to stick with one narrative voice all the way through a story, but (in case you've forgotten) storytelling is an art and a craft, and it's not supposed to be cakewalk simple. If that frightens you, maybe you shouldn't be writing. Throw away the crutches and walk on your own legs.

3. "Bleed on a drip." That means rather than just spew forth a litany of narrative elements (clues, story development, emotions, ideas) in some great wrist-slit pool and hold out hope that the reader can navigate it all and somehow share your vision (by the way, if you call your story a 'vision' it makes you sound like a knob) at the end, you control the pace. (Note: this takes talent and practice and edits and practice and talent.) Meter out when the reader gets certain details, and use the POV as the valve for that.

4. Want to know how to fix your POV issues? Talk to an editor! If you sequester yourself away (either intentionally or worse, you cry poor and say you can't afford to talk to outside people, or out of fear that people won't waah waah like you --- sorry, that argument really bugs me. Cowards. You want to get better, ask for help) then you're never going to fix your mistakes. Sure you might bury them deep in subtext or only make them once or twice...but that's one or two times too many and certainly visible to a reader, subtext or not.

And with that, I'm hopping off my soapbox and getting ready to enjoy my Memorial Day Weekend with a stack of books at the beach house. There will be NO blogpost Monday, because I won't be near a PC until Tuesday at the earliest.

Happy writing, have a great weekend. Rock on.