Welcome to Workout #3 in a series of posts on Point of View (POV).
In the first, How to Keep Your Reader’s Attention, we practiced writing in a close narrative style to amp up the reader’s experience.
Narrators and Viewpoint Characters: Whose Line is it Anyway focused on using various POV to adjust the tone of our stories.
Today we are going to jog through the logistics of using POV to keep the reader involved. To get the most out of this series, I recommend you work through all three posts in order.
Changes in POV Come in Two Flavors
Smooth, creamy Neapolitan ice cream with it’s stripes of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate. Yum. That about describes shifts among the various 3rd person POVs, such as between Omniscient and Observer, or Observer and Limited. We slide right from one to the other. While they are all different flavors, they transition and blend smoothly.
The other type of POV shift is more of a Rocky Road experience. When we change between viewpoint characters, it’s like biting into an almond in your chocolate ice cream. It’s not smooth. We are either in one character’s mind or another’s. The experience may be delicious if you expect it, jarring if you don’t. We’ll get to that in a bit.
Third Person Zoom
Within the 3rd person POVs, you can use what I call the 3rd person zoom. We covered this pretty thoroughly in the previous post. Just be aware that when you change between various levels of 3rd person narrators, you still are changing POV. The change can be so subtle that your reader may not even notice. And that’s good.
We want to the control the experience for the reader without being heavy-handed about it.
Close Narrative Distance
POVs with a close narrative distance, either 1st person or 3rd person limited, let the reader experience the story from inside the mind of the viewpoint character. Because these viewpoints are so good at keeping the reader involved in the story, most of your storytelling will probably be from one of these POVs.
The reader identifies with the character and experiences the story on a personal level. But what happens when you want to change to a different viewpoint character?
No matter how smoothly you make your transition between viewpoint characters, your reader will momentarily be jarred from the story while you shift gears. To minimize this, you only want to shift viewpoint characters between chapters or scenes.
In general, avoid shifting viewpoints within scenes, or worse, within a sentence. Jumping from one character’s head to another will confuse your reader. A confused reader will not experience the story the way you want her to. She is likely to get frustrated and put down your story.
Control and Expectations
Decide where and how often you are going to allow yourself to shift POV. Introduce that pattern early in your story and stick to it. That way your reader knows what to expect.
If you begin the story in a character’s POV and shift to another character at beginning of the second chapter you are doing great. But if you start your third chapter in the head of one of these characters and then halfway through the second scene you jump into the head of a third character, you will jar and possibly confuse the reader. You set her up to expect that she would cruise through Chapter Three in the mind of the character who started off the chapter. Instead, she has come out of the experience you worked so hard to create. She struggles to figure out who this new guy is and where he came from. Be kind to your reader. Set up the POV expectations early and stick with them.
When you switch viewpoint characters, you want to orient your reader as soon as possible, preferably in the first sentence of the new scene or chapter. To do this, use the viewpoint character’s name in the first sentence of a new scene when you establish the scene’s time and place.
As shadows performed their macabre dance across the church floor, Donald stole into the crypt. He…
Scheming, Lying Narrators
Keep in mind that your reader’s experience is filtered through the perception of your narrator. You can use this to your advantage.
Some limited points of view have inherently unreliable narrators while we tend to trust 3rd person observer, detached and omniscient narrators. You control how reliable or unreliable you want your narrator/viewpoint character to be.
Unreliable narrators and limited viewpoints can come in handy if you want to keep something from your readers or color their perceptions.
First or 3rd Person, That is the Question
Readers identify more closely with 1st person characters because they experience the story from inside the character’s mind. While close identification is what we usually strive for, it can cause a couple problems.
1. A change in 1st person viewpoint character can severely disorient the reader. All the sudden “I” is a different person.
2. The reader may have identified so closely with the character, she will rush through any parts told from other characters’ viewpoints to get back to her favorite.
If you need more than one viewpoint character to tell the story, you may want to sacrifice a little of the immediacy of 1st person for the more natural POV shifts of the Limited 3rd Person POV.
By the way, shifts between a 1st and 3rd person narrator are problematic for the same reasons.
Consider Your Genre
Check some popular books in your genre to see what POVs their authors use. Can you explain why each is a good choice for your genre?
For example, many romance novels are told from two viewpoints, the male and female leads. A 3rd-person limited POV is a natural for this genre because the POV flips back and forth between the two leads.
Short stories are often written in 1st person. It is relatively easy to maintain one POV in a short story and the close narrative distance of 1st person helps the story resonate with readers.
What about a mystery? You would probably find it difficult to write one with an omniscient narrator. The reader might think, “If this guy already knows what happened, why doesn’t he tell me already?”
As you thumb through your favorites, you will find that not all books of a genre are written in the same POV. Consider the strengths and limitations of each POV and choose the one that best suits your particular story.
Bend the Rules
When you have a firm control over POV, you will be amazed what you can do with it. Bend the rules. Break them. Have fun. In the opening to his novel The Havana Room, Colin Harrison blends first-, second-, and third-person narration masterfully. It can be done, and to good effect. You can preview his book for free on Amazon.com.
Remember that POV is a tool. If you know the basics of what it can do, you’ll find all sorts of uses for it. In using it, you’ll find even more uses for it. Which brings us to the maxim: The more you practice, the better you’ll get.
1. Pick a book from the last workout that you particularly admire. Mark or list how many scenes and chapters are in each character’s POV to see the pattern emerge. While you are doing this, notice how the author lets the reader know a shift in viewpoint character occurred.
2. If you have an outline of your own story or novel, mark next to each scene whose POV you use. If you don’t have an outline, make a list of scenes and whose POV you use. Don’t be lazy about making this list and just do a couple scenes. Do the whole book. And keep the list–you might find it useful in the future. You can thank me later.
I’d love to hear from you either about these posts or topics you would like to see in the future. Throw in a comment at the end of this post. Happy Writing. –Kate