Whose Skin Am I In?
What is point of view?
In Techniques of the Selling Writer Dwight V. Swain says that POV is "the spot from which you view the story." OR "Whose skin am I in?"
Point of view basically means that everything happens as that character sees, hears, feels or experiences it. That means no looking through walls, or reading minds (unless you're writing a fantasy), no knowing what another character is doing or planning.
There are more different points of view from which a story can be written than you might imagine.
? The POV character may be the hero or the heroine.
? S/he may be another participant or an observer -- think of Watson in Sherlock Holmes stories, or Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe mysteries. They were participants, but they weren't the main character, they were the narrator, or the storyteller.
? S/he may the be author -- remember Jane Eyre when she would address "Dear reader?"
So how do you get inside someone's skin?
Many people throughout literary history, and even today, have thought the best way was to write in 1st person.
First Person Point of View:
Rita Mae Brown (I think) says that everyone's first book will be in first person. She says to go ahead and get it out of the way, then never write in it again. I agree with her first statement, but not necessarily with the second. There are some incredibly successful authors who write only in the first person.
One thing that's hard to do in 1st person is to describe "me." -- the heroine or hero, the point of view character. You certainly don't want to discuss "my lustrous raven tresses," or "my rippling abs." So how do you tell your reader what s/he looks like?
Many times you don't. 1st person is tricky. In my opinion, some of the best writers write in 1st person. A lot of people feel that first person distances the reader. I have trouble wrapping my brain around that notion. To me it is the most intimate and most effectively pulls me into the book . . .when it is done well.
An enduring master of first person is Mary Stewart, the author of The Ivy Tree, The Moonspinners, Nine Coaches Waiting, My Brother Michael, Eye of the Cat and numerous other wonderful gothic romances. At her best, there is no one better. When I read her books, I am the heroine. Unlike a lot of readers, I like first person.
In The Ivy Tree we never get a complete vision of the heroine, but little vignettes like this one can tell the reader a lot about the focal character.
He cleared his throat violently. "We thought you were dead."
His other hand reached forward and lifted my chin. He studied my face, turning it toward the light of the window. I bit my lip and waited, not meeting his gaze. He said nothing for a long time, then as harshly as before. "You've been unhappy, haven't you?"
Mary Stuart, in her inimitable way, doesn't tell us much, but that little scene, for all its briefness, tells us quite a lot about the heroine:
? She's been gone.
? She's hiding something.
? She doesn't trust herself not to give away her secret(s).
? She's unhappy.
? And she knows if she looks him in the eye, he'll know what she's hiding.
? We also know (by the way) that HE knows HER very well!!
In OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon, which is also written in 1st person, Diana gives us a quick look at the heroine through the hero's eyes.
His eyes raked me slowly from head to toe, traveling with a sort of insolent appreciation over the peony-sprigged cotton dress I wore, and lingering with an odd look of amusement on my legs. I did not at all understand the look , but it made me extremely nervous, and I backed up a step or two, until I was brought up sharp by bumping into a tree.
It's a little more obvious than Mary Stewart, but the 'leg' reference is important to the story. Still, it's not much. A good writer isn't going to give us much in 1st person. That's the beauty AND the difficulty of writing in this POV. 1st person puts you right inside the heroine's head from the opening line, and never lets you out. Everything is seen from the heroine's eyes. Everything. Nothing happens "off screen." Nothing happens that is not in the heroine's presence. It's just like real life.
Moving into modern writers, Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series is written in first person. In LEAN MEAN THIRTEEN, we get an immediate sense of Stephanie (if we already don't know her from the previous twelve books!)
For the past five minutes I've been parked outside my cousin Vinnie's bail bonds office in my crapolla car, debating whether to continue on with my day, or to return to my apartment and crawl back into bed. My name is Stephanie Plum, and Sensible Stephanie wanted to go back to bed. Loco Stephanie was thinking she should get on with it.
I was about to do something I knew I shouldn't do. The signs were all there in front of me. Sick stomach. Feeling of impending disaster. Knowledge that it was illegal. And yet, I was going to forge ahead with the plan. Not that this was especially unusual. Truth is, I've been dealing with impending doom for as long as I can remember. Heck, when I was six years old I sprinkled sugar on my head, convinced myself it was pixie dust, wished myself invisible, and walked into the boy's bathroom at school. I mean you don't know the water's over your head until you jump in, right?
When you read that opening paragraph, you've got to either love or hate Stephanie Plum. Whatever you're feeling about her, you know she's a character to be reckoned with.
What else do we know about her from that excerpt???
? She's arrogant
? Discontented with her life
? Impulsive yet self-analytical
? Has a conscience but doesn't listen to it often
You can use third person just like first person, if you stay in one person's head and never switch viewpoints.
But using third person does allow the author to occasionally use what is called NARRATOR VOICE, which you can't do with first person. This should be used carefully by novice writers.
In ASHES TO ASHES by Tami Hoag, she brilliantly switches viewpoint 3 or 4 times (depending on how you wish to classify the POVs) in 3 paragraphs. Her switches occur at an extraordinarily tense moment between the hero and heroine, when they meet for the first time in a long time.
Quinn stared at her. No one took him by surprise. Ever. He'd spent a lifetime building that level of control. That Kate Conlan could walk in the door and tilt the earth beneath his feet after all this time did not sit well. He ducked his head and cleared his throat. "Yeah. You're missed, Kate."
By WHOM? She wanted to ask, but instead she said, "I doubt it. The Bureau is like the Chinese Army. The personnel could march into the sea for a year and there'd still be plenty of warm bodies to fill the spots.
Oblivious of the discomfort at the other end of the table, the mayor brought the meeting to order. The press conference was less than an hour away. The politicians needed to get their ducks in a row. Who would speak first? Who would stand where? Who would say what?
The cops combed their mustaches and drummed their fingers on the table, impatient with the formalities.
So we have Quinn's POV, Kate's POV and what could either be classified as the Narrator's POV or the mayor's then the cops' POV. Brilliant!
Third Person - 2 viewpoints is the perennial favorite among romance novels. Most of the successful novels at this point in time are written in the heroine AND the hero's point of view, and occasionally one or more secondary characters. Although this POV is used a lot, you need to be careful in using it, and avoid head-hopping.
There are as many rules about how to change POV as there are editors!
Some say you should change POV with each scene, no oftener. Some people say it can be more often within love scenes. Others say it should never be more often than every chapter. I'm not sure you can put a rule on it, but you should be able to see when it works and when it doesn't.
Most editors will tell you that a POV switch should be seamless--unnoticeable. They'll tell you that a switch in POV should never be jarring.
Well, never say never. Listen to this excerpt from an old novella by Anne Stuart, The Monsters in the Closet.
He wasn't ready to give it up. He'd come here to face it, and face it he would. He and the house and the past would do battle. Heaven only knew who would rise triumphant. Heaven – and hell.
He moved slowly up the steps. The house was unlocked. He'd left word that it should never be locked. He'd hoped the mean streets of St. Bart would rise up and swallow it, that roving gangs would destroy it. But young gang members kept clear of it. Leaving it still, intact, waiting for him to return. And now he was back. Ready to face his past.
Ready to face what lay in wait in the darkness beyond.
Ready to face the monsters.
Emma Milsom liked to think of herself as a decisive woman, but at the moment she was in a state not far removed from complete confusion. She'd accepted the job with Teddy Winters against her better judgment.
BOING!!! Jarring POV. But isn't it wonderful?
Anne has done a fantastic job of drawing the reader into the story. I wasn't ready to hop into Emma Millson's head. I was just getting into the darkness and pain of the hero, whose name, by the way, I don't even know yet! But now, when I step back and look at that page as a writer, I see what kept me up an hour past my bedtime. That very switch in POV at that very moment. Now, not only am I dying to know more about the hero and what kind of monsters he must face in that old house, I am -- despite myself -- curious about the heroine. Because knowing good writers as I do, I KNOW Anne Stuart is going to fulfill my every wish and tell me before the end of the book, not only what monsters the hero is facing, but also why Emma Millson is in a state of almost complete confusion right now. AND because I know I'm reading a good, trusted author, I know she's going to tell me what Emma's confusion has to do with the hero and his monsters.
BY THE WAY, if you give the reader that kind of carrot in a story, you damn well better follow through and tie up those loose ends by the end of the story. Because if you don't the reader will never forgive you. And readers have LONG memories.
Most of the time you don't want the reader to be jarred in a POV switch. In fact, most of the time you don't really want the reader to know the POV has changed. So you aim for a seamless switch like this one from my book A FATHER'S SACRIFICE. At least I hope it seems seamless.
Natasha took another refreshing breath of cool night
air and curled her toes in her thong sandals, shivering as the cool
dampness of the dew spilled onto her toes.
What happened here, POV-wise? We started in Natasha's POV. She's happy to be outside (she has claustrophobia issues). She's alert, and when she sees Dylan, she's suspicious of his motives. So the scene starts in her POV because she's got the most at stake. But as soon as she challenges Dylan (Did you come out here looking for me?) the stakes change. He's confronted. His stakes are higher at this point. So we switched to his POV in the middle of a scene, and I hope it was seamless.
That's what you want to do. Use the natural breaks. After a statement like that, or at the natural end of a scene, or at the chapter break.
Another popular point of view is:
Third Person - multiple viewpoints.
There are those that will tell you that this POV is more indicative of a mainstream novel. Perhaps. I call this "Meanwhile back at the ranch," because more than anything, this POV reminds me of that kind of TV mini-series that sucks you in to one story only to wrench you out and into another.
A popular type of book that utilizes multiple viewpoints is the saga. Personally, I'm not fond of sagas. Just when I am really getting down to the meat of a story -- and for me the meat means getting to know and identify with the characters, I'm jerked out of their story and thrust into another one. It's like watching television -- like channel surfing.
Second Person - You and yours
I only know of one remotely successful book written in second person. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McEnerny, and I'm not sure he ever did it, or ever will do it, again.
At the subway station you wait fifteen minutes on the
platform for a train. Finally, a local, enervated by graffiti, shuffles
into the station. You get a seat and hoist a copy of the New York Post.
Omniscient - All seeing/All knowing POV
This is fine if you're writing a piece of expository prose, such as a certain type of short story. Margaret Atwood in her short story TRUE TRASH, gives us an excellent example of omniscient POV.
The waitresses are doing the dishes. Two to scrape, one to wash, one to rinse in the scalding-hot rinsing sink, three to dry. The other two sweep the floors and wipe off the tables. Later the number of dryers will vary because of days off – they'll choose to take their days off in twos, so they can double-date with the counselors – but today all are here. It's early in the season, things are still fluid, the territories are not yet staked out.
But the omniscient POV tends to distance the reader -- to place her outside the sphere of the story -- and makes it difficult for the reader to identify with the characters.
This is why omniscient POV may be undesirable in fiction where the author wants the reader to identify with and care about the main character(s).
What readers of popular fiction want to do is get inside the heads of the main characters, the hero and the heroine, and maybe even the villain, and you can't do that with omniscient POV.
Omniscient POV is what you slip into when you allow your heroine to "tap a perfect fingernail against a perfect tooth."
Now this is a great image, and a lot of authors could get away with it. But it is a case of jerking the reader out of the heroine's head.
The heroine is not thinking of her nails and her teeth as perfect. This is Omni describing the scene. Now this scene can be pulled back into the heroine's POV with the addition of an explanatory sentence or two.
"She tapped a perfect fingernail against a perfect tooth. Neither the nails nor the teeth were her own. Her teeth had been capped -- for enough money to put a respectable downpayment on a car, and the long nails were the best silk wraps. They ought to be perfect, she thought wryly."
This is similar to those mirror scenes we've all read. Heroines are always looking in the mirror and describing themselves. It's an author-ploy to give the reader the author's magnificent description of her magnificent heroine. If you have a scene like this, try to make it pertinent to the story. If she's looking at her hair, have her thinking how hard it is to tame that head full of wild curls, rather than just admiring her auburn tresses. J
Popular styles evolve in writing, just as they do in everything else, and currently the popular style in romance seems to be stories related from the hero and the heroine's POV with occasional forays into secondary characters. For many other types of writing it is different. Many times mysteries are from one POV only, or from the protagonist and the villain's POV.
Science fiction and fantasy writers seem to enjoy getting in as many different characters as possible, as do thriller writers.
In a romance novel, you should be aiming for a peculiar kind of omnipresence (not omniscience!). Jayne Ann Krentz in Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women put it this way. She said:
"In a really good romance, the experience for the reader is that of being in both the heroine's mind and the hero's at the same time. The reader knows what each character is feeling, what each is sensing, how each is being affected. She is also profoundly aware of the transcendent quality of the experience, of how it will alter the course of both the hero's and heroine's life. The whole thing is incredibly complex, exciting, and difficult to describe."
And this is not just true of romance, but of all types of fiction.
I think this is probably an apt description of everything we as writers are trying to do. We want to transcend reality, suspend disbelief, and transport the reader. For the reader, we're the Calgon Bouquet. As in that old commercial when the harried housewife says "Calgon take me away." your reader is in essence saying to you "take me away."
Take me to a place I've never been, and let me experience things I've never experienced or let me relive the best of my experiences through the life of the hero and the heroine.
As with so many things, the best way to get a handle on point of view is to read, read, read. A lot of people recommend reading your stuff aloud. This is an excellent idea, because many times you have no idea how bad something sounds until you hear it. For some reason, the eye will skip over the same problem time after time. Even better than reading aloud is speaking it into a tape recorder and listening to it. That will REALLY make you cringe. At least it does me.
I believe that deft handling of POV is one of the reasons readers will keep coming back to a particular author. It's why, in this ever changing technology, a reader will pick up a book instead of the remote control.
Think about that term. REMOTE CONTROL. Doesn't that kind of sound like what your television does to you? Isn't that scary?
Readers read so they can get into the character's minds and experience what the hero and heroine are experiencing. You just can't quite do that with television.
So when you write, don't shortchange your reader. Give her what she wants.
Whose Skin Am I In?
Maude Lucenda Enis Ricks
January 23, 1922-February 28, 2008
my beautiful, heroic mother.
January 26, 1920-January 13, 2010
My handsome loving father and my mother's knight in shining armor.