Tag Archive | pov

Point of View and Voice

I’m starting my Point of View workshop tomorrow and as always before a workshop, I’ve been thinking about the topic. A workshop is always a challenge–how do you better communicate ideas? Do the students understand basic concepts? Are folks trying to run before they can walk? Is anyone even listening?

POV is tough in that I think most folks brush it off as not really that important, when it is in fact one of the most important decision to make. Whose POV best tells the story? What POV gives the most conflict? And, more to the point, what POV calls to you?

Point of view and a writer’s voice cannot be separated. It is what makes writer’s voice authentic. A writer who attempts third person when their skills, preference and characters call out for first person will fail. Just as a writer who attempts first person who really leans heart and soul to third person will end up with clunky writing. Or even worse–writing that just sounds like showing off. And heaven help the story when craft is put first. The poor reader ends up with stories that are just terrible because the writer is spending too much time saying “look at what I can do.” It is death for a story when the reader notices the writing first.

So what’s a writer to do? Learn by reading, of course.

A great fist step I always advise is look at your bookshelf. Are most of the novels in first person? Or third person? Or a mix? Can you even get through a book written in first person (or, heaven help us, first person present tense). My own style leans toward third person–I love that it disappears. But I’ve read and loved some excellent work in first person, and mixed–but it takes talent to pull this off. It also takes passion–and it needs to fit the writer’s voice.

Trying something on is fine for a writer just starting out. Sometimes the only way you know if a pair of jeans fits is to put them on. But it’s also important to figure out what works best for you. And for the story. It’s also important to have your techniques down solid–if your technical skills are weak, the whole story is going to fall apart for the reader. Mastery of technical skills is what allows you to forget them. They’re in your DNA and you do them without thought. But you want to know your intent, too. You want to know just what it is you want to have the story do.

And that thought came up in a recent discussion on a forum about mixing up points of view had me wanting to respond with a question. What’s best for the story? That is the question a writer needs to ask. We’re back to intent here. And then the writer must answer with authority. That is what provides the reader and the story an authentic voice.


Picking a Point of View

pietown1940When I first began writing fiction my viewpoint wandered all over the place. I was fine in first person, but the rest of it…omniscient on steroids. I’d throw in the viewpoint of the dog on just a whim. Thankfully, I had some other writers who would read my work and who pointed out a better path. I’m teaching an online workshop on Point of View starting this week. Getting control of viewpoint in a story gave my writing a huge jump in quality. But what is it about viewpoint control that really helps a story?

1-A connection to one character helps the reader into the story. When I learned how to write deep third person POV, and how to stick to a viewpoint and smooth any transitions, I discovered I could better hook readers into the story by connecting the reader to one character. Let’s face it, walking into a room of strangers is tough. If you connect with one person, now you have a reason to stay at the party. That’s the same with any book. A wandering viewpoint or a distant viewpoint can keep the reader from getting past the first couple of pages in your story.

2-Viewpoint control improves the emotion in a scene. I sort of knew this from writing first person, but it didn’t really sink in until I realized that picking the character with the most emotionally at stake in any scene gave me a stronger scene with more emotion. Changes in viewpoint changed the tension and the emotion in a scene–so a change at the wrong time drained my scenes of their impact. A lot of writers know instinctively to stay with the emotion. But I’ve also seen writers change viewpoint right when things are really cooking in a scene–the writer backs off from the best emotion and the reader is cheated. This is where viewpoint control can really improve your writing a lot (with very little effort).

3-Viewpoint control keeps the reader focused. This may sound obvious–too many jumps in viewpoint and the reader gets confused. A confused reader puts the book away and may never return. I’ve seen this in movies, too. I had to stop watching the Transformer movies–too many jump cuts and changes and viewpoints and I not only stopped following the action, I stopped caring. It just became noise. You want to learn how to handle any shift in viewpoint so the reader isn’t thrown out of your story.

4-Points of view tells the reader what’s important. I’ve seen–and I used to do this–stories where EVERYONE’S viewpoint gets shuffled into the story. The guy holding the door open in chapter ten, the second cousin of the heroine who appears only for a page in chapter twenty…on and on. A lot of this and the reader starts wondering who are the main characters and starts wanting a scorecard to keep track. I’ve only seen this handled really well once–in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the point of view shifts are to anything that’s funny (which is the point of the book, really). Can a lot of viewpoints be brilliantly handled? Sure–if you’ve got the talent to pull it off. But why stress yourself and the reader–stick with the viewpoints of the people who matter. One big lesson I learned–when in doubt keep it simple. Stick to one or two viewpoints.

5-Strong viewpoint control lets you increase the tension in your scenes and your stories. When I was jumping around with everyone’s viewpoint my story lost focus. The pacing suffered because I was sending the reader off on tangents. It’s a lot like that party I mentioned earlier–if you’re wandering around a party hearing snippets of conversations, you’re not really involved or caring about any of them. But if you stop and focus on one conversation or get involved in one argument, that pulls in your focus. Now you have something you care about, meaning things matter. That is key to having tension in a story. If the reader doesn’t care that the heroine may not ever really love the hero, or that the hero may not save the world, you can have all sorts of great action but the book is going to be a yawn. You want your viewpoint control focused and tight so the reader is also focused–and caring about what happens next.

6-Viewpoint control helps you write. I used to get stuck in stories. Somewhere between page fifty and one hundred the story would wander off a cliff. When I went back to look at these failures I saw I was not really attached to any one character–I hadn’t figured out whose viewpoint mattered, and so I didn’t really know whose story this was. It’s important to figure out the viewpoints you want to use because you want to tell those character’s stories–and you want to know who is at the center of any story. These days if I get stuck in a scene I always try two things: I change the viewpoint, or I go back to see if I have the conflict identified. That fixes just about every roadblock in my writing.

7-Smooth viewpoint shifts keep the reader in the story. Any transition–between viewpoints or in time or between scenes–is a place where the writer can lose the reader’s attention. It just seems a natural stopping point. Elizabeth Daly who wrote lovely mysteries in the late Forties and in the Fifties taught me a lot about how to smooth and handle transitions point. The key is to hint or introduce the start of the next scene before the last one ends. Nora Robert’s books also taught me a lot about handling viewpoint shifts. When you find writers who do something really well, take the work apart and see how they do things.

When in doubt, you can always stick to first person–but even first person has some tricks to it to keep it from becoming all about “I…I…I” But that’s something to cover in the workshop.











Viewpoint Shifts

One of the key techniques I learned as a writer is viewpoint control, meaning when to shift viewpoint and how to shift smoothly. This generally is not a problem for writers working in first person, but I’ve also read works lately like Shannon Mayer’s Rylee Adamson series which mix first person and third (that’s a trick too pull off!).writingdesk

I’m teaching a POV workshop this March-April and here are a few tips to help with knowing when to shift the viewpoint and how to shift smoothly.

When to shift viewpoint?

1-Don’t change the viewpoint unless you need to. Stick with the character who has the most emotionally at risk in a scene.

2-Stay with viewpoint as long as you can to keep the emotion and tension in a scene.

3-Only shift viewpoint if the scene becomes stuck, or the story forces you to switch.

For example, maybe you’re writing a love scene.  You’ve started in the heroine’s point of view because you want the reader identifying with her and this is a big emotional moment for her.  But the hero may have a moment, too, once the sex is over—maybe that’s the point he finds himself becoming emotionally involved with the heroine. You finish the scene out, and the hero has to leave. Right there, if you stay in the heroine’s viewpoint, the hero is going to walk out and that leaves the reader with just her and no conflict—if her issues in the scene are over, the hero’s AND his viewpoint need to come into the story.  Now you either have to have omniscient info about him and that could pull the reader out of the story, or you have to force thoughts into the heroine’s head that are going to read like plot exposition (and not really her thoughts).  Or you have to shift viewpoint if you want to follow the hero and stay with what’s going on with him. Now you have an excellent reason to change viewpoint.

Above all, make your decision to change viewpoint based on the fact that there’s no other choice to make this scene work.

How to shift viewpoint smoothly?

Shifting viewpoint is a lot like handing off a baton in a relay race–it’s easy to fumble it if you don’t smooth the shift for the reader. This  means you want to treat every point of view change as a place where you can lose the reader. Here are tips to help you smooth shifts:

1-Make viewpoint shifts happen in new paragraphs, not the same paragraph.

2-Use proper names not pronouns.

3-Use a bit of action to smooth the shift.

As an example of this, let’s look at an awkward viewpoint shift.

She ran into the room, panting hard, gasping for breathe. She wanted to tell him everything that had gone wrong, but would he understand? He thought she looked a mess, her hair tumbled and her face red, and he only wanted to help.

Right there we trip up the reader in that we move straight from one character’s head to another. Most readers will need to re-read that passage. So let’s apply the three tips–break up the paragraph, apply names, and use action to shift the viewpoint.

She ran into the room, panting hard, gasping for breathe. May wanted to tell him everything that had gone wrong, but would Tim understand? Leaning against the wall, May put out a hand to steady herself.

Tom covered May’s hand with his own. Under his touch, he could feel the heat from her skin, and her rapid pulse thudding hard in her wrist. He thought she looked a mess, her hair tumbled and her face red, and he only wanted to help.

The action of May reaching out and Tom covering her hand, the use of proper names before we move back into pronouns, and the paragraph break now all signal a viewpoint change.

But if you really want to force yourself to learn viewpoint control, write each chapter in one viewpoint only. You’ll learn a lot.



POV — What Readers Don’t Notice (Unless it’s Wrong)

Point of View is a phrase that writers use to death. It’s one of those things that a reader doesn’t notice until it’s done badly. But it’s also one of the most critical skills because it affects everything else in the story.

You don’t really think about until you have to figure out whose point of view gives you the best story.

Now, the “duh” moment here seems to be that well, of course any story uses the point of view of the main character. But sometimes that doesn’t work so well. Dr. Watson is the point of view character in Sherlock Holmes stories so Sherlock can seem smarter. (Watson’s no slouch, but by making him the POV character, the writer can hide clues that Sherlock will eventually use to make amazing deduction.)

My rule of thumb is to use the character with the most at risk in a scene–this gives the scene better conflict and drama. That risk also works better, too, if it’s emotional risk–a character who doesn’t care that a gun is pointed at him is not going to give you great drama if that character doesn’t care about dying. But this is a guideline, not a rule. Also, this doesn’t help with the whole story.

Should you write in third person, first person, multiple viewpoints, single?

This goes back to being a reader first.

What do you read? What do you like to read the most?

I’ll read just about anything, cereal boxes included. But while I like first person stories–when they’re good, they’re brilliant–I tend to read more third person. I’ve written first person stories, but I lean towards third person. But I’ve also learned over the years to control this so it’s a limited third person–I’m not dragging the reader into everybody’s heads.

There are also a few tricks to smooth viewpoint transition.

1 – Use proper names, not pronouns. He/she (or even worse, he/he) tends to put the reader deeper into his/her point of view. By moving out to a proper name, you’re moving the viewpoint out (like a camera would move out), which helps smooth the transition.

2 – Use action to hand off the POV switch. As in: Helen dropped the book. John caught it and handed it back. Notice how the action again moves the reader out of thought and into “seeing” a scene, so the action allows a change of POV by also helping move the POV out a little, into the room before dipping back into someone’s thoughts.

3 – Use clean sentence and paragraph structure to keep the transition cleaning. You can do anything, even change the point of view in the middle of a sentence. But why risk losing your reader by doing this? Instead, make your transitions clean and clear.

If you use POV right, no one will ever notice it. But oh, if you do it wrong, everyone knows.

Managing POV

Years ago, I was lucky enough to have Jo Beverley judge one of my manuscripts in a contest. Her one comment stuck with me–learn to control viewpoint and you’ll sell. She was right. Now, I’d already tightened up a lot of other craft technique, but viewpoint was a place where I went a bit fuzzy. I wasn’t even aware how much it slipped, but it made me take a really hard look at viewpoint—and to start practicing the habit of only changing viewpoint when I absolutely needed to be in someone else’s POV. This let me cut a lot of the deadwood out of my stories, making them tighter and stronger.

Since then, I’ve since seen a lot of the same old habit I had in contests entries. It’s like something most writers have to go through. And I’ve noticed that viewpoint control actually impacts a whole bunch of other things.

Tighter viewpoint control picks up the pacing. It forces you to show more and tell less (you can’t keep slipping in and out of omniscient POV). Tight control improves characterization, brings in more emotion, and you get a much better story. The reader also tends to be less confused, and becomes more engaged by the character—spending time with anyone (even a character) is a good way to get to know and like that person.

Yet, this is a place where a lot of folks seem to want to be a little loosey-goosey. Folks will say, “But I like to switch POV.” And, yes, switching is fine, but if you’re not doing it for a reason, you may be killing the best parts of your scene. This is where a little more discipline and a little less seat of the pants can help.

And first person viewpoint can help a writer lean a lot. I’ve written a lot of stories in first person, and I still use this technique for scenes that are giving me trouble. Don’t get me wrong, I love third person, but first person is a great way to learn more control. It’s also sometimes the best way to tell a story. But watch using several first persons in a story, that can be tiresome and confusing to a reader unless there are large chunks of time with each character.

With the contest entries I read, I also sometimes get the feeling that some writers may not be aware of what are the viewpoint options. And how do they tighten their control of these.  Managing POV is an important technique to learn, and master.

Viewpoint control is like any other writing technique.  It’s one you have to think about, study, and practice. Once you get really good at it, you can put it in your hip pocket and forget about it—until it comes time to edit and fix problems. And then you need to get back to basics.

I’m doing a workshop on Managing Viewpoint with Savvy Authors this month. Hopefully, this will help folks pick up a few more tips and techniques to bring out the best in their scenes, stories, and characters.  There are techniques that can help you smooth viewpoint transitions. And there are exercises that will strengthen your control of viewpoint.

Even with first person POV, there are ways to improve your control—you can still slip into omniscient from first person if you’re not careful.

And I’m hoping the workshop will remind me, too, of the basics that I always have to keep in mind to tell a good story.

It’s Not Just a Point of View

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.)