On POV

POV and how to become a POV wizard.it's just paper

POV = Point Of View

Get the POV wrong, or even a teeny bit wonky and reader will not think what you what him to think. My attempt at showing you a piece of paper, for example, didn’t work so well. Poor lighting, wrong angle, confusing paper shape, all could add up to reader thinking `cleavage`.

POV is used in the graphic arts such as painting or drawing – using perspective to display the image as the viewer might see it.

POV is used in filmmaking – showing the viewer what the character sees by way of placing the camera in the position of the character’s eyes.

POV in literature, and how to get the best from it, is today’s ramble.

But before one can SEE the magic, one must KNOW the magic.

Knowing the magic is to understand how reader’s brain handles any given viewpoint.

WARNING and DISCLAIMER – once you KNOW the magic there is no turning back. If you don’t want to become a discerning wizard… look away now!

Still here? Then let’s use a simple scene to examine the various POV uses:

  • FIRST PERSON POV

I open the door to find Janet sitting by the fire. She’s stroking Lucky on her lap. The cat hisses when it sees me. I try not to grin.

                “You’re late. Tea was over an hour ago,” says Janet.

                I shrug. Who cares? Mum’s cooking stinks anyway. “Sorry.”

                “And don’t say you got lost again, Johnny. Mum’s not stupid. Come and get warm.”

                Thinks she knows everything, my sister. If she knew I kicked her cat this morning she would be throwing me in the fire not inviting me to sit by it. I sit in the other chair and warm my hands in front of the flames.

                “Aren’t you going to tell me where you’ve been?”

                She has that look. Beady eyes and thin lips. I think she hates me. “At the pond, smashing ice.”

                She makes that horrible tutting sound and shakes her head as if smashing ice isn’t a cool thing.

                “I’m going to tell Mum. You know she doesn’t like you going to the pond.”

                Even the cat’s looking at me funny. I’ll kick it again as soon as I get the chance.

                “You know what happened to that girl last year. Her poor family.”

                Does she ever shut up?

                “What if that had been you, Johnny? It’s dangerous.”

                I spit at the fire just to make her tut again. Which she does.

                My spit sizzles down the grate.

                Janet gets up and hurries from the room. She takes the cat, too. She must have known.

#

In this example reader `becomes` Johnny. Using the `I` word allows reader to live the scene as the character. Any imagery invoked in reader’s brain is ONLY the imagery as seen by Johnny on his journey through the scene. Any information divulged via the narration is ONLY information privy to Johnny.

Using first person POV in this way can result in an intense read for the reader. Intense because, if writer uses the best word choice to suit the character, reader sinks into a depth of POV so realistic that the reader becomes the POV narrator and the story becomes compelling.

Understanding that word choice is as important to achieving POV depth as are the given observations, is a must if you want to achieve POV magic.

Let’s look at the scene again but with some word choices not so suited to the narrator…

I open the door to find Janet sitting by a roaring fire. She’s stroking Lucky on her lap. The cat hisses when it sees me. I try not to smile or to catch its eyes.

                “You’re late. Tea was over an hour ago,” says Janet.

                What the hell does she know? Mother is an awful cook anyway. “So I’m late.”

                “Well Mum’s not happy. Come and get warm.”

                She believes she knows it all, my sister. If she knew I kicked her disgusting cat every morning she would be throwing me in the fire not inviting me to sit by it. I take the chair opposite and warm myself.

                “Aren’t you going to tell me where you’ve been?”

                She has that disdainful look. I know I repulse her. “I’ve been to the pond, breaking the ice.”

                She makes that puerile tutting sound and shakes her head.

                “You know Mum doesn’t like you going to the pond.”

                Even the cat is acting aloof. I’ll kick it again as soon as I get the chance.

                “You know what happened to that girl last year. Her poor family.” She hitches the cat closer to her.

                “That dumb girl went skating in the middle. I’m not that dumb.”

                “What if that had been you, Johnny? It’s dangerous.”

                I spit at the fire, purely to make her tut again. Which she does.

                My saliva sizzles down the grate.

                Janet gets up and hurries from the room. She takes her rotten cat, too. She must have known.

Johnny seems older know, doesn’t he? Word choice – and I mean every single word – is just as important to achieving great POV depth as is the chosen POV style.

  • THIRD PERSON POV

In third person POV the narrator relays the action to the reader using `she` or `he`, does not `take the part` of one of the characters, but lets reader know what is happening and what the character might think or feel.

FIRST and THIRD person are the most commonly used narrative forms.

Used diligently, GREAT stories can be created – `GREAT` because depth of character (via pertinent word choice and relevant observation) allows reader to BECOME the character, to LIVE the story as it UNFOLDS to the CHARACTER.

Let’s now take a look at what reader’s reading brain is doing…

Reader begins with a blank screen, a stage for which you will supply characters and props to allow your story to be played out, much like watching a play or a film.

Use THIRD person POV and reader’s inbuilt `camera` will `watch` the scene/s unfold, watch the characters as you place them, `watch` the story.

Use FIRST person POV and reader’s inbuilt `camera` becomes the characters/narrators `eyes` – imagine the camera strapped to Johnny’s forehead as Johnny goes through his given actions and relays his given observations, reader will `see` the story unfold through Johnny’s camera.

A prime example would be to put Johnny on a rollercoaster. If the camera is on his forehead then the ride for the viewer/reader will be so much more exhilarating than if the camera were placed at ground level and we watched Johnny’s ride.

The more diligent the writer is, staying with Johnny, staying with ONLY those things he can see/hear/know – the more satisfying the read. Satisfying because reader has little work to do other than sit behind the camera of Johnny and enjoy the unfolding ride.

HEAD-HOPPING AND PLAYING GOD – HOW TO SPOIL YOUR POV

Okay, we know that diligence regarding word choice and observation can create powerful characterisation and therefore a wonderful read/ride for reader; now here’s what not to do…

  • HEAD-HOPPING

Some would argue that head hopping is okay. Why can’t we jump from character to character? What difference does it make if we get Janet’s point of view as well as Johnny’s point of view, and hey, why not even have the cat’s point of view?

To get that answer we must return to reader’s reading brain. Think of reader as having an inbuilt cursor, much like any computer will have a cursor for its user to give instruction to its processor. Click on that cursor and the processor runs off, doing its thing until the next instruction is given.

Reader’s cursor is in fact taking on the role of Johnny’s camera, moving around the scene/s as the story unfolds and processing the given information. To introduce head-hopping is to introduce a second cursor/processor, and reader must hold on to both cursors as the two processors unfold the action/story.

Introducing this secondary processor dilutes reader’s hold. Reader becomes two characters. Reader must open holding files to retain information given via two viewpoints. This is extra work for reader and undoubtedly the depth of POV lessens and the read can be confusing.

Let’s try that scene again…

Johnny opens the door to find Janet sitting by the fire. She’s stroking Lucky on her lap. The cat hisses when it sees him. He tries not to grin.

                “You’re late. Tea was over an hour ago,” says Janet. She gives him her scornful look. He should be grounded, like forever.

                Johnny shrugs. Who cares? Mum’s cooking stinks anyway. “Sorry.”

                “And don’t say you got lost again, Johnny. Mum’s not stupid. Come and get warm.” If I can get him to sit I can go and tell Mum, Janet thought. Then he’ll be for the high jump.

                Thinks she knows everything, my sister. If she knew I kicked her cat this morning she would be throwing me in the fire not inviting me to sit by it. Johnny sits in the other chair and warms hands hands in front of the flames.

                “Aren’t you going to tell me where you’ve been?” Janet knew he would probably lie anyway.

                She has that look. Beady eyes and downturned mouth. I think she hates me. “At the pond, smashing ice.” She makes that horrible tutting sound and shakes her head as if smashing ice isn’t a cool thing.

                “I’m going to tell Mum. You know she doesn’t like you going to the pond.” Lucky tenses in Janet’s lap. Lucky doesn’t like Johnny.

                Even the cat’s looking at me funny. I’ll kick it again as soon as I get the chance.

                “You know what happened to that girl last year. Her poor family.” Janet knew the girl. How often she’d wished it had been Johnny that died.

                Does she ever shut up?

                “What if that had been you, Johnny? It’s dangerous.”

                Johnny spits in the fire just to make her tut again. Which she does.

                His spit sizzles down the grate.

                Janet gets up and hurries from the room. She takes the cat, too.

#

Some might argue that head-hopping like this can bring a more interesting story. Interesting because we get to see Janet’s side, Janet’s feelings, etc. In part that is true, but in truth reader is running two processors, the work is harder to do than running one processor, and so the read can become confusing.

Realise this: There is NOTHING to gain from head-hopping mid-scene. NOTHING.

If you want to play more than one part then wait for a new scene/chapter.

Some of the best thrillers are composed of multiple character POVS but they only work because reader LIVES ONE HEAD/CAMERA/PROCESSOR at a time. ONE.

Want to switch to a new POV character? Then start a new scene/chapter. Doing so allows reader to run ONE processor at a time.

  • OMINSCIENT POV

Also known as the `God-like` POV, the narrator becomes all-knowing, divulging information which perhaps even the characters do not know. Sometimes this technique is used to create suspense (Little did he know it would be his last meal) (Little did she know it would snow that night and they’d be snowed in by morning) and so on.

Using this technique pulls the camera as far back as is possible. Reader becomes a know-it-all and his holding files expand in number to cope with the extra information, and so POV becomes diluted and detached as narrator goes off rambling about anything and everything and STORY gets left behind. So much so that discerning reader might put the book down and find another.

One such book which ended up on my fire is Stephen King’s `Gerald’s Game`

Jessie and Gerald go to secluded cabin for steamy weekend. Gerald handcuffs naked Jessie to bed then has fatal heart attack. Here we have a great `what if` and some diligent POV use and observations as Jessie tries to figure a way out while her husband lies decomposing on the floor.

So far so good.

But then the neighbour’s dog arrives, and what should be a tense read as the dog follows its nose to the smell of dead meat becomes a joke as the author intervenes and tells us all about the dog’s history and what it had for supper yesterday, who it belonged to, and where it went, and who it knew and so on. Not only was POV depth lost as narrator became God but story tension was wrecked and the book became kindling.

Let’s play God with Janet and Johnny (and Lucky)…

Johnny opens the door to find Janet sitting by the fire. She’s stroking Lucky on her lap. The cat hisses when it sees him. He tries not to grin.

                “You’re late. Tea was over an hour ago,” says Janet.

                Johnny shrugs. Who cares? Mum’s cooking stinks anyway. “Sorry.”

                “And don’t say you got lost again, Johnny. Mum’s not stupid. Come and get warm.”

                Thinks she knows everything, my sister. If she knew I kicked her cat this morning she would be throwing me in the fire not inviting me to sit by it. Johnny sits in the other chair and warms his hands in front of the flames.

                “Aren’t you going to tell me where you’ve been?”

                She has that look. Beady eyes and downturned mouth. I think she hates me. “At the pond, smashing ice.”

                She makes that horrible tutting sound and shakes her head as if smashing ice isn’t a cool thing.

                “I’m going to tell Mum. You know she doesn’t like you going to the pond. Then you’ll be grounded.” Little do they know, but tonight will bring the greatest storm. They’ll be snowed in for a week.

                Even the cat’s looking at me funny. I’ll kick it again as soon as I get the chance, thinks Johnny.

Lucky once ate a human finger. Road accident victim. The finger ended up in the grass thirty meters away. Lucky ate it while watching the emergency services clean up.

                “You know what happened to that girl last year. Her poor family,” says Janet.

                Does she ever shut up?

                “What if that had been you, Johnny? It’s dangerous.”

                Johnny spits in the fire just to make her tut again. Which she does.

                His spit sizzles down the grate.

                In the kitchen, Mother hears Johnny’s voice. She takes a deep breath. The boy is going to get the belt this time.

                Janet gets up and hurries from the room. She takes the cat, too. She must have known.

#

To summarise:

Head-hopping mid-scene is unnecessary and mostly disconcerting.

Being an omniscient narrator is unnecessary and mostly disconcerting.

Both of these things make reader work harder.

Both of these things dilute POV/character and therefore weaken story.

To create magical writing, intense and compelling characterisation, you must give reader the camera and have him use only one internal processor per scene.

THAT is POV MAGIC!

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Leave a comment

7 Comments

  1. louisewise

     /  September 14, 2013

    Took me pages to see the picture was a piece of paper instead of boobs! Great post! More please. 🙂

    Reply
  2. I finished reading a book where the author hopped from head to head in middle of scenes. All it did was make the characters seem the same. They lost their depth.

    Reply
  3. Terrific stuff, John! Thanks much.

    Reply
  1. On POV | Louisewise's Blog
  2. Good Writing | jjmarsh

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