Thursday, December 8, 2011

Understanding Point of View (POV)

Point of View (POV) can be one of the harder aspects of fiction to understand, and also a trickier concept to explain. It’s just below, on the complexity scale of “show-don’t-tell” (and whoever invented that little rule ought to be spanked)

One of the most common difficulties to understanding POV is in the explaining of it. Because while we must be in the head of one character and can only know their thoughts and emotions, we must also be in the body of the scene and take into consideration the surrounding cast members emotions as well. Especially the head of the last character we were in. If we have a corresponding scene where we break and go from one character to the other, the previous character cannot become a cardboard cutout and we must continue to play their emotions.

But this new character we are inside must not know what the first character is thinking.

It’s a lot less complicated than it looks.

 Think of POV this way: you are facing your best friend. Can you hear her thoughts? Can you see what she is thinking? Can you feel her emotions?


What can you do? You can observe. Are her arms crossed? Is her brow furrowed? Is she pacing? Wringing her hands, but still smiling? Does she nod when she shouldn’t nod to what you are saying?

Body language is a POV master’s best friend. While you are in the head of one character you can only rely on how—or how not—observant they are. What vibes is your second character sending into the scene that makes a difference in how your POV character sees the moment?

Another way to look at POV is to imagine blinders. There is a reason they put blinders on a horse pulling a buggy or carriage—especially when that horse must pull their vehicle down the road. It’s so they cannot see the incoming traffic and be spooked.

When we are “driving” our characters through the scenes, think about what they can and cannot see. They cannot see what is behind them. They cannot see into the future. They can only see where they are pointed.

Within POV you have varied degrees of options to play with. The most restricting being 1st person POV.  1st person does not allow you to be in the head of any other character expect the main one—“I”. Through this character you then have to compensate for all the senses, the emotions and a great deal of action and body language to SHOW how the rest of the cast perceives your main character in that situation.  (I just knew that tricky show-don’t-tell rule was going to slip in there somewhere)

3rd person POV is the most commonly used, because you can access other heads during the story. Rule #1 you MUST break the scene visually on the page. Either with a two paragraph break or a symbol such as: *** or ~ ~ ~ or ###

Something that shouts WATCH, I’M CHANGING THE GAME. Readers do not like to tricked or jerked around.

When changing “heads” in the middle of a scene, not only should you put some symbol, but also make it clear which character’s head you have entered. Either by having them perform some action, saying their name or possibly repeating the very last phrase of the previous character’s thoughts/actions. Warning: this last method will be very old very fast if used too often. I personally suggest only once per book.

Short example:

John rubbed the back of his neck and a growl tickled the back of his throat. Couldn’t she see how a mess he was making of this? That he was trying and why couldn’t she cut him just a bit of release from that chock chain she tied around his neck? He’d shout ‘halleluiah’ when she finally got it.


When would he finally get it that all she wanted was in his best interest? Sally crossed her arms

Do you see how immediately we realize we are no longer in “John’s” head, but now firmly in Sally’s? Once you have established the POV shift, do not keep rehashing the same emotions from her POV. Keep the scene moving. We understand their tension and emotions, now we need to see forward action.

In recap:

A POV character cannot ever see what is going on except what is directly in front of him or her.

A POV character cannot hear, see, feel and directly understand the true emotions of the second characters in the scene with them.

A POV character must have the most to lose within the scene for the moment to hold the truest potential for conflict.

What do you struggle with the most when it comes to POV? Let’s diagnose the problem.

Casey Herringshaw is a homeschool graduate and has been writing since high school. She lives in rural Eastern Oregon in a town more densely populated with cows than people.


Faith said...

Great post :) I find that sometimes I don't want to leave a certain character's head and write something in another character's. It's kinda hard for me to get the last one out of my head, so I don't write different characters POVs in the same writing period, if I do, I go crazy! Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

Just when I think I've got the POV thing down, I will go back and read my work and UGH...I've head hopped. I don't do it very often anymore, but it's kinda funny to read. :)

Yvonne Blake said...

Great post!
I need blinders, but keen observation of body language.
I am writing in 3rd person, but I found it helpful to write a difficult scene in 1st person to get in that particular character's head. Then I re-write it in 3rd person to include more narration.
Thanks for your explanation. I know I'll be coming back to it often to see if I'm still on track.

Casey said...

FAYE, that actually might be a good problem to have. ;-) It means you are dialed into your characters and are seeing the world through their eyes.

SHERRINDA, the trickiest are those little tiny places where it seems it could almost go either way, you know what I'm saying? Those are the kind that can trip me up. But where I don't struggle so much with POV, I REALLY struggle with showing/telling. :)

YVONNE, body language is very important to remember when it comes to writing in a different POV. We have to remember that those other characters still have thoughts and emotions, we just can't SEE the actual "words" of their emotions. SHOW through body language and dialogue and you'll have characters that dance on the page. :)

Jeanne Takenaka said...

This was a great post, Casey. I loved your picture. It immediately brought to mind a mini-workshop I heard Jeff Gerke teach. He used the idea of a camera lens to help us understand showing vs telling (I know. Here it is. AGAIN). But, I think we could take the analogy and apply it here, too. What our POV character can see through a camera lens is what we are allowed to write about. Does that make sense?

Anyway, you explained very well and gave some good tips for helping us do a good job staying in the POV we're writing. Thanks!

Casey said...

Yes Jeanne! A camera lens, blinders, whatever it takes for you as an individual to think about the restrictions of POV. ALSO, did you see that Randy replied to your comment yesterday? Be sure and check that out.:)

Lisa L Keck said...

Thanks for the help. I am getting better but man in the beginning the term POV was like nails on chalkboard. I think my favorite scene to do in my first book was the wedding from the POV of the blind bride. I have a question. If I change POV at the chapter break do I need hash marks?

Embrace said...

Thanks for this post Casey. I like the way you describe it.
I write in first person - it is the resounding clang in my head and I cannot seem to write in 3rd person ... yet. But, I like that my character has to 'figure out' what is happening in the story the same as the reader does. I know my ideas are not the majority though.
BTW, do you think I could get some of those horse blinders - it might help me not be spooked by the sideways onslaught as well. ;)

(I'm all for the spanking thing too! I was thinking of a pool noodle attack.)

Casey said...

LISA, welcome to the Alley. :) I can just "see" that scene from the blind bride now. That would be a neat (but challenging!) scene to create! As for chapter breaks, are you referring to the end of a chapter and beginning of the next? Then no, you wouldn't need hashtags because the chapter break serves as that shift and the reader knows something different might be happening. Does that answer your question?

JODI, I write in 1st person too and have once again begun playing in the 3rd person waters. It's been a switch, but not as hard as I thought. Getting POV right can be a challenge, but ultimately your readers (and while they might not KNOW it intentionally) they will really appreciate the quality of the writing.

LOL! Love the pool noodles. ;-)

Pepper said...

Great reminder, Case.
POV is so tricky, but I love the line you said about keeping our heads in our characters but our minds on the scene.
Very cool thought

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Casey, thank you for this post! I'm working on a super important scene in my WIP right now and it's just not quite right. I'm really in my characters head but I've barely been saying anything about the body language of the other character and this post helped. I'm not having trouble staying in the right POV, but I sure am having trouble getting the right perspective. Thanks!

Casey said...

PEPPER, thank you. :)

CINDY, I'm with you there. I rarely have struggles with POV, but with getting the right balance of body language and emotion can be tedious. But you get it right, wow it really works!

Beth K. Vogt said...

Ah, POV.
I hate it when I get whiplash reading a book ... or when I realize I've given a reader whiplash!
Sometimes what I do is put my hands up around my face -- literal blinders -- and tell myself "This is all my POV character can see. They can't see themselves frown or smile or smirk."
Now, I can describe how the frown or smile or smirk feels ... but I try to avoid saying "He smiled" or "She frowned."
To me, that's a POV break.