July 19, 2006

Voint of pew

It’s back to "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" today and we take a look at "Point of View" – or rather, what I learnt about point of view from the book 🙂 So let’s plunge in …

When I first wrote "Honest, the Martian Ate Your Dog", I had a real problem with point of view :p I’d have one scene where things would switch between the viewpoints of two different characters. This concept, called head-hopping, is illustrated with a rather compelling example from Larry McMurtry’s "Lonesome Dove" in the opening to the chapter on point of view (POV) in "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers". Since I don’t know if I can reproduce even excerpts from other writers’ works (I don’t believe I can – not without permission …) I will have to rely on a much less effective method to illustrate the point. Basically, I will have to tell you how it works rather than show you (remember show vs. tell? :p)

But I guess I should draw back for a moment and get into the whole point of view thing first (even though anybody who’s a writer already knows all of this to begin with :p). Basically, point of view deals with the viewpoint that you present to the reader. Is the story told from the viewpoint of a particular character as the action unfolds? If so, this would be first-person POV as opposed to a story told from an external perspective looking in on the action taking place, which would be third-person POV. Even in third-person POV, you have to have one point of view character but the POV character can change from scene to scene. When the POV character switches from person to person within a given scene, that’s when head hopping takes place.

Then there is the omniscient POV, which is a whole another ballgame. I don’t think I want to get into that for the moment 🙂 Some books/authorities on writing get into a whole list of POVs. I believe I read somewhere that certain books list twenty-six different flavours of POV. But I believe if you break it all down, the basics come down to first-person, third-person or omniscient.

Of the above, first-person is probably the easiest one to write because it goes something like "I did this, I did that". I believe the one example that sticks most prominently in my mind for first-person POV is R. D. Blackmore’s "Lorna Doone" – that book has such a strong first-person voice that I still remember the voice even after about thirty years of first reading it 🙂 Another very popular example is of course, the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories which are all told in the POV of Dr. Watson.

The advantage to first-person POV? It’s the fact that the narrative voice is very intimate – it’s somebody telling their story to you personally. Third-person POV by comparison feels a lot more distant but the problem with first-person is the fact that you have to sustain the viewpoint character for the length of an entire novel. The character has to be strong and memorable and the reader has to be able to identify with the character enough to keep reading. With third-person, this becomes easier because you can draw on several different characters to provide viewpoints as you go along and there is a bigger pool of story tellers that you can get your reader involved with 🙂 The main thing to watch out for with third-person is head-hopping. Even in third person, readers feel more comfortable going through a scene with one POV character. When you start showing the thoughts and emotions of multiple characters in a third-person POV scene, people are unsure as to which characters eyes they’re witnessing the scene and this in turn tends to draw them out of the story.

There is much more on the subject of point of view but probably one entry is not going to be enough to cover it all. So I will try to continue on the same topic tomorrow 🙂

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Posted by Fahim at 8:19 am  |  1 Comment