Let’s start with a disclaimer—I am not a POV purist. I’m probably going to sound like one, but really I’m fine with viewpoint shifts in a story, so long as they work. But I think most folks use the “I’m not a purist” line as an excuse not to master POV technique. And a lot of folks just don’t know why they need strong POV control in a story.
Back before my first book sold, I was lucky enough to get Jo Beverley as a judge in a contest (she writes historical romance and if you have not read her work, go and buy her books—she’s good). She stressed one comment—master your POV and you’ll sell. She was right. Back then, I had something I see a lot from journeyman writers—floating POV.
Floating POV is when the viewpoint is sort of third person and sort of omniscient. It’s sort of in one character, but sort of not. This can show up in first person, too, where it’s sort of first person, but sort of omniscient, so don’t think you’re immune there. However, it is less likely to show up in first person, which is one of the big advantages to using it. The big problem with floating POV is that it leaves the reader floating above and out of the story, too—the reader ends up emotionally detached. It’s weak writing.
Deep POV, the opposite of floating POV, is about reader immersion. And by deep, I mean viewpoint that is locked within a character. This means locked right behind that character’s eyes and within that character’s head and emotions. Deep POV can be locked in first person or third person, but it is locked tight. When you lock POV like this, it’s very tough to shift—both because you as the author start rolling along with the character, and each shift is a place to lose the reader. With deep POV you naturally tend to want to put viewpoint shifts at chapter breaks or major scene shifts instead of putting these viewpoint changes within a scene.
All transitions in a story are slippery places—chapter shifts, scene shifts and viewpoint shifts are the places where a reader can pause, slip out of the story and put the book down. Put enough of shifts into a scene, or too many fast shifting scenes before the reader is deep in a story, and you can see how POV purists end up having a good point—you’re better off being a purist than someone who changes POV so much that it pushes the reader out of the story.
Like any other writing technique, POV control is about mastering the technique. That’s an advantage a POV purist has because that person has nailed this part of the craft. And if you don’t practice a discipline, if you’re always loose with your POV, you won’t learn how to control your story (or the reader’s attention).
Coming from a background where I’ve dabbled in the other arts—music, painting, dance—I’m a believer in solid technique as a foundation. The stronger your technical skills, the more you can let them run on auto-pilot and focus on the fun stuff. When I played violin, every practice started with a half hour of scales. Only then could I dive into the music and have it come out sweet. Scales both limbered up my skills and improved my technique. A writer doesn’t really have the equivalent of musical scales, but we can still practice technique.
To improve my control of POV and my technical skills, I set myself the following disciplines.
First book I sold, I kept to one character’s viewpoint per chapter. This became the technical exercise in the book. If I needed to cover another character’s emotions in a scene, the following chapter could go back a bit in time to do that scene from that character. But I was a POV Nazi for myself and kept to one character’s POV in each chapter. This deepened my characterization and the emotion in the scenes. It gave me the control I needed—but I still have to go back to this practice at times (yes, those skills you don’t practice get rusty).
Next thing was to write more in first person. I still do this. While I like third person for the flexibility it gives of putting the viewpoints of a lot of characters into a story, I’ll still use first person to write a scene. After the scene is written, if the story is all in third person I’ll shift the first person scene into third person. First person helps me get into my characters and also works a lot like those musical scales to keep my technical skills sharp. It also gives me more emotional bang in my scene, and keeps me honest about my viewpoint control (it’s so easy to think you’re doing this well when you’re not—I always say there’s the story in your head, the story on the page, and the story in the reader’s head, and these don’t always match).
The last discipline is to always ask—do I need to shift viewpoint? (Hint: “Because I feel like it” is never a good enough answer.) Viewpoint shifts need to be treated like any other part of the story—they need a lot of good reasons to be in the story, or they need to be left out. That which does not improve a story will detract. If I have three good reasons to need a viewpoint shift—including the best one, which is that another person in the scene now has more emotionally at stake in the scene—only then will I look at crafting a shift.
Granted, sometimes the instinct to shift viewpoints is one you need to listen to. Writer instincts need to be developed and used. But sometimes this is also justification for a lazy habit that you need to pound out of your writing. This is where you have to be able to look at your writing and know that the scene works—it’s giving you the emotion you need, so don’t touch it. Or you have to apply the discipline to rewrite it and keep the reader within the viewpoint of the key character in that scene so the reader gets every ounce of emotion from that scene.
When you have to make a viewpoint transition, you want to use some technique to smooth this (it’s like a baton hand-off in a relay race, and if you fumble this, the reader can trip right out of your story). But that’s the subject for another day, and for the POV workshop that I teach (shameless plug there, but if you don’t take this workshop, at least pick up Orson Scott Card’s book, Characters & Viewpoint to grab some good tips).
I won’t tell you, “Master POV and you’ll sell.” You may have other writing or story issues to address. But I will say that mastering immersive POV—the ability to put your reader into the story and keep the reader there, the ability to control viewpoint so well that it the craft is transparent to the reader—is key to becoming a great storyteller.
At least, that’s my point of view.
(First published as a guest blog at the FFnP RWA Blogspot.)