Writing Tips Continued: Changing your Point of View

Point of View, part 3

In Point of View Part 2, I touched upon the magic of writing your stories from a point of view character and how this can make your stories come to life. (If you don’t remember, that was back in September, so check it out here) We’ve only scratched the surface of the intricacies and potential mistakes inherent of this sort of writing. It’s time to dig a little deeper. The summary first:

Once you begin a scene in a specific character’s point of view, stay in that character’s head at least until the scene concludes and you’re ready to start the next scene.

No exceptions. Read the above paragraph as many times as you need to until it sinks in. If you think about breaking the rule, smack yourself. Then read it again.

No. Really. Don’t ever do it. I know when I have posted other rules, I have, without exception so far, followed up with examples of when it is okay to break that rule. But there is no exception to this rule.

Well….that is…..

Okay, okay, okay!! There is one exception that I know of, and that applies to romance and erotica intimacy scenes, where “head hopping” (further defined below) to a certain extent is permitted, but  since I’m not the person to talk about this, watch for a future guest blog from the current president of the Indiana Romance Writer’s chapter. (THAT should keep people checking my page daily for awhile.)

So let’s dig a little deeper.

First, it’s a generally accepted rule of thumb that a short story should start in, and stay in, a single character’s point of view from beginning to end. And yes, you’ll find many exceptions to this (including stories that open with an omniscient voice as discussed here), but generally, editors take a dim view of short stories that shift the point of view during the narrative. Too much shifting in a short story will cause an editor to add your story to the reject pile. And unless there is a clear and obvious reason for doing so that benefits the story greatly, a short story should stick to one point of view.

A novel, because it is a longer narrative, offers more opportunity to shift points of view. In thrillers and similar genres, a storyteller can ratchet up the tension by jumping from the hero to an occasional scene with the villain, with a blatant or understood “meanwhile”.   In fiction with romantic elements, a scene with Him, followed by a scene with Her, certainly makes for a pleasant reading experience. Several ambitious novelists can weave an epic story shifting between six, eight or even more characters (but the rule of changing the character point of view only between scenes or chapters still applies). Stephen King’s epic THE STAND is one of the better-known of this sort of storytelling.

AN ASIDE: I’ve seen an interesting new form of “first person from multiple points of view” used in commercial epic fantasy. The change of point of view takes place every chapter, heading the chapter with the name of the character, followed by a first person narrative from that character’s point of view. Then the next chapter is named after another character, and the narrative proceeds in the first person, but in that new character’s point of view. If you want to read something pretty cool in such a style, check out the epic fantasy series by Daniel Abraham.

Now, returning to point one: Never ever, ever, switch points of view in the middle of a scene–at least, don’t do it on purpose. This is called “head-hopping.” It’s a common mistake for beginning writers, and so far, it seems no matter how “good” or experienced one gets, it’s still easy to do on accident, even after years of practice.

What do I mean by head hopping?

A quick and obvious example:

      Tom walked into the bar. He looked around and saw the gorgeous blonde sitting at the bar across the room.

     Tammy noticed the burly man approach. She shook her head and released a sigh. The last thing she needed was another slimeball trying to pick her up.

The first paragraph presents Tom’s point of view, then the second paragraph “hopped” to Tammy’s point of view. The presents a number of problems in storytelling, not the least of which is, there is no dramatic or story-related reason to change heads.

Here’s something for new writers to look for. If the responses to your story from trusted pre-readers is that “it was just okay” but no one can tell you why they weren’t into it, or why it didn’t move them, check to see if you were head hopping. Chances are, you were.

Even if a reader can’t articulate what was “wrong” with a scene or story, head-hopping, because of its flip-flop structure, causes a mental fatigue and affects a reader’s ability to “escape” into a story. (That, plus too much emphasis on the visual approach as discussed here are two big signs of a beginner)

Plus, head-hopping blows great opportunities for drama. Take Tom in our example. Suppose he considers himself a charmer with the ladies and decides to approach Tammy. Written from his perspective, he would be oblivious to her attitude, and his surprise when she tells him to buzz off becomes the reader’s surprise at the same moment.

So how to choose a point of view? The first thing a writer should do before composing any scene is determine: who is the central character of the scene? Sometimes this is obvious. If Tom talks to Tammy, then Tammy leaves, and Tom continues to talk with the bartender, then compose the entire scene from Tom’s point of view. Otherwise you need to break the scene and resume the action from the head of another character. Just think the scene through. The answer is not always that simple, but more often than not, it is.

Why does this work so well? Because as human beings, we live life confined to our own head, and sticking with one character best re-creates our life experience. It’s a view readers are most familiar with because they live it every day.

So whether we’re talking about deep third or first person, all a writer needs to do is compose each scene from inside the head of a single character’s POV and stick with it. Easy, right?

Wrong.

Because there are several ways this can get fouled up, and we’ll look at some examples in the next blog.

Writing Tips Continued: Person or persons defined

After a too-long break, I’m finally continuing on with my writing tips series of articles. Specifically, it’s time to continue with the point of view discussion.

First of all, if you don’t know this series (and you might not, as I started it months ago and took a long break) you can start here, here, here, and finally, my first two parts on point of view here and here.

We’re almost ready to look much deeper at the process and pitfalls of keeping a consistent point of view, whether you’re composing a “deep third” or “first person” narrative, there’s a lot to track.

But first, let’s take a step back and define out terms–I probably shouldn’t presume that everyone knows what I mean by “deep third person” as opposed to any other person or point of view. So before we dig deep, we’re going to get rudimentary and review some terms many of you may not have considered since elementary grammar (but it won’t be painful, I promise). If you are a reader, you probably have experienced as many as three of these four “person” narratives even if you never knew them by name.

First Person: A story told from the first person point of view has much in common with the deep third person point of view discussed further down in this article. I sometimes think of it as the “diary voice” or the blog voice (this blog is written in first person). It’s distinguished by the word “I” throughout the narrative, such as: “As I walked along the sidewalk, something grabbed at my ankles.” The story unfolds as if the character is either sitting with you and telling you the tale or as if you are reading a written account or journal of the event.

First person narratives have a long, respected history in classic and contemporary literature, going back hundreds of years , but if polls are to be believed, the style has fallen out of favor with some contemporary readers. Some (perhaps questionable) statistics say 80% or more of modern readers prefer deep third over first person and some readers feel so strongly that they will put down a novel as soon as they discover it’s written in first person, and some magazines and book publishers won’t consider first person narratives (though not significant enough to make that a deciding factor in how a writer approaches a story). (I find it interesting that the latest Nancy Drew books, historically third person narratives, have changed to a first person approach with the latest incarnation.)

But the first person voice is still relevant in contemporary literature. That the first person narrative happens to come in second in popularity in a two-style race (or some weird mixed metaphor there) the style is alive, well, and thriving. A big reason for this is that it offers an intimacy (particularly in thrillers and horror stories) that other points of view do not. My first novel Haunting Blue is told from the first person perspective of my punk girl high school protagonist Blue Shaefer.

Although I’m a fan of the form, the first person tale offers some significant restrictions, the biggest being that the style pretty much locks an author into a single character’s perspective throughout an entire story. (There are some creative cheats, and I use one in Haunting Blue, but never mind…) No novel, properly told in the first person, could ever read, “And then I dropped down into a hole and the world went black. While I lay  unconscious, the ambulance arrived and the paramedics dropped down a rope…” Nor can it include a scene such as “Meanwhile, unknown to me, the villain and his henchmen were making plans….”

OPINION: A first person narrative makes a great first project for a new writer, because problems and errors in the manuscript are relatively easy to spot in the editing process.

Note–since posting this, it seems the above paragraphs are being seen as discouraging or dismissing first person narrative. I am not. Please see my comment after this article for further clarification of my view.

Second person: You may read your entire life and never experience a book or short story told in the second person point of view. (see what I did there?) Second person is usually confined to the realm of experimental literature, though I can think of one wildly popular and commercial series that uses the second person, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” juvenile novels and various copycats.

While second person is intended to immerse a reader into a story, it more often has the opposite effect, as the narrator inserts “you” into the action. A typical second person narrative reads: “You walk into the restaurant and sit down. You look at a menu. From the corner of your eye, you notice the school bully watching you from across the room. ” You get the idea. (See what I did again?) Given the goals of this series, we won’t be looking at second person narrative; it’s included here for the sake of completeness.

Omniscient third person narrative: The omniscient voice, or the “all-knowing” perspective, originated in the telling of myths, fairy tales, and other stories passed down from oral tradition, and can be found in ancient literature and even fairly modern genre pieces of the 1800s and early 20th century. In contemporary fiction, the omniscient narrative is used quite effectively in the introductory chapters of epic fantasy and as a valid “opening” to some thriller genres. A certain anthology style genre show of classic television utilized opening a story with an omniscient narrative in every episode.

An omniscient narrative voice can still be an effective story opener (my short story The Assurance Salesman has a brief omniscient opening, as does Robot Vampire) but  the wise storyteller settles into deep third person as soon as possible. A couple good examples should help clarify the omniscient voice. Let me channel my inner JRR Tolkien and Rod Serling, two legendary storytellers that utilized the omniscient narrative to great effect:

Bagnars are extraordinarily tall creatures, and quite bulky, but that’s not what makes them so odd. In spite of their appearance, Bagnars are terrified of the dark. And while they may look ferocious, they are rather gentle in disposition.

Or this.

Portrait of a writer. Paul Hallowby, age 30; a weaver of words; a knitter of narrative. Tonight he taps out his latest composition in a futile race to fill the virtual screen with the dark ramblings of his demented dreams. In a moment, someone will knock on Hallowby’s door. Who is that someone?  In this case, call that someone “Fate.” What happens next will change one writer’s wretched world forever.

Wow, wonder who that is! I’m guessing it’s a Bagnar. Okay, moving on.

That brings us to the deep third person point-of-view (often just called third person or deep third). Third person is the most popular, most accessible, in-demand narrative approach among contemporary readers. Deep third also offers a plethora of structural pitfalls for a writer to fall into. It has a lot in common with the first person narrative.

Technically, on a scene-by-scene basis, a first person short story or novel can be rewritten into a deep third narrative by simply changing the “I’s” and adjusting as you go. “I opened my wallet, only to find that someone had taken my cash.” becomes “Joe opened his wallet, only to find that someone had taken his cash.” And so on. If you need another example, go back to my point of view article here to read an entire scene in deep third from Chip’s point of view.

But while such a conversion creates a valid deep third story, the form offers more flexibility than that. One huge advantage that deep third offers over the first person is that your point of view character can change from scene to scene without confusing the reader. It’s a fairly standard practice to present a scene from the protagonist’s point of view, then start the next scene in another location and from the point of view of the villain (with an understood or implicit “meanwhile”).

In the next article, among other things, we’ll look at popular guidelines on how often a storyteller should change points of view in novels and short stories, and the reasons why.

Deep third person offers the emmersive experience of first person without the limitation of being trapped in a single character’s head. But as I said before, that versatility comes with a number of hidden traps and easy-to-make errors–errors that even experienced writers wind up making on occasion.

In the next couple of articles in this series, I’ll take a look at a few.

Note–an earlier version of this article stated that 80% or more readers would put down a book if it is written in first person. I wrote that in error. The statement has been corrected.

Point of View, Part Two

The  bottom line on why it’s better to have one.

Welcome to part two! Bear in mind there is no one right answer to this, but my rewrite of the scene I presented to you yesterday would look like this.

Chip Farren all-but-ran through the door of Smittie’s Pizzeria. The aroma of simmering meats and tomato sauce wafted through the dining area, and Chip sniffed in appreciation. He’d been craving an all-meats pizza all afternoon. What in the world possessed me to sign up for a three-hour trig class that started at noon? For the past hour, he’d struggled to concentrate over the grumbles of his own stomach.
He scanned the near-empty room, pleased to see Laverne, the co-owner and waitress of the eatery, approach him. “Hi, Hon. Good to see you again.” She winked and offered a smile that warmed his heart. “Just one today?”
Most or the time, Chip and his roommate Phil arrived as a pair. “He’s at the duplex tracking down a bug in our game.”
Laverne’s brows furrowed. He knew “the look” all too well. “You mean he skipped the math class? Again?” She shook her head. “Alright, this way.”
As if to shake off the wave of guilt, he shrugged. “I know, it’s just—”
Laverne cut him off. “It’s just you’re going to fail college if you don’t buckle down. And for what? A video game.”
Chip raised a finger. Now I have to object! “Not just a video game, Laverne, the greatest—”
“Greatest video game ever.” Laverne rolled her eyes. I know.” Laverne shook her head. “What am I going to do with you two?” She produced a well-worn order pad. “Oh, well. So, the usual?”
“Yep.”  Chip and Phil ordered a meats pizza at least four times a week.
“So a box for Phil?”
“Yep.”
“Tell him I said hi. And no more skipping classes.”
Chip nodded. “Okay, Laverne. I will.”
Her smile reappeared, and the room lit up, the harsh tones of her lecture forgotten.
She winked. “Also, we made extra breadsticks, so I’ll add a large order.”
“You don’t have to—”
“No charge for my favorite customer, Hon.” She turned and retreated to the kitchen. Chip’s gaze followed her until she disappeared through the kitchen door.
A wave of guilt consumed him, and he chastised himself. You have a girlfriend. You have a girlfriend. You have a girlfriend…

—-

Shifting a scene into a specific point of view is where the magic happens.

When you put your reader behind the eyes and into the skin of a character, you create layers to a scene that can’t be told with just visuals and dialog. We know Chip is hungry and wants pizza. Here, we learn much more about why he’s hungry. We also know what he’s hiding from Laverne, that his attraction to this particular eatery may have to do with more than just food.

Sure, we lost the description of Laverne’s clothes. Acquaintances who see each other every day, particularly when Laverne is wearing a “uniform,” stop noticing things like that. And how much did we lose versus the information we gained? Chip noticed the things important to him. Her wink, her smile, the way she walked, and how it affected his thoughts about his current girlfriend.

In terms of story, all these details are far more important than the color of Laverne’s blouse or Chip’s tennis shoes. We don’t need to say Laverne is a friendly waitress. We’re shown it. We don’t have to say Chip is smitten with Laverne, his every internal thought and response shows it to the reader.

As for the dialog, people who see each other every day don’t repeat obvious things to each other. But internal dialog and point of view narration compensate and allow the writer to still communicate the information to the reader. It’s not necessary for Laverne to say the order.

(whips out soapbox) This is why books are better than movies, and why books will always be better than movies. Contrary to what many beginning writers think, readers are not primarily interested in your plot, your twists, your scenes, or your quirky characters. Yes, they are interested in these things, but they are more interested in your ability to give them a satisfying escape from reality. An avid reader’s primary goal is to escape their problems and go somewhere else. Your success as a writer will depend on how well you provide that experience.

Readers want to drop behind the eyes and into the skin of someone else. When the cowboy gets on his horse and rides off after the villain, they want to feel the power and the speed of the horse beneath them. They want to taste the dirt. They want the rush of adrenaline as they close in on the villain. They want to swoon when the hero smiles at the heroine, or vice versa. They want to experience the thrill of that moment when the detective slaps the cuffs on the suspect that committed murder most foul.

Film depends on the video and the audio. That is literally all a film can bring to a viewer experience. A practiced writer can tap a reader’s imagination through evocative words. A writer becomes the imagination portal through which a reader can taste, act out, panic, consider, shrink away in fright, and so many other experiences by presenting your scenes through a point of view character.  (Hides soapbox)

So that’s plenty in defense of POV. Next time we’ll start to break down just how to do this.

Shameless plug: Find out more about Chip and Laverne in Virtual Blue.

Point of View, part 1

Why it’s so much better to have one

With apologies to new writers I have worked with through the years, I’m going to create my own version of the sort of early samples I read from beginning storytellers who have a passion and even a talent for the craft. See if you can figure out why a scene like this doesn’t work.

Hint: I blame TV and movies for this problem.

Chip Farren walked into the pizza shop. A college student, he wore a tan jacket with patched elbows over a Tron t-shirt, and also wore comfortable blue jeans and cheap tennis shoes.
A waitress approached, an attractive brunette wearing short-shorts, a dark top, and a short apron. “Hi, Hon. Good to see you again,” she said in a thick Hoosier drawl. “Just one today?”
“Yes, Laverne,” said Chip. “I’m on my way home from classes, but I can’t wait to start programming on my video game.”
The friendly waitress led Chip to a table covered in a red and white checkered tablecloth.
“Now, Chip, you really should concentrate on your school work. I think you could be a brilliant programmer if you just apply yourself.”
“You’re probably right, Laverne, but I just can’t help myself. Video games are my life, and the one I’m making with my roommate Phil is going to rock.”
Laverne waited with her pencil poised over her order pad. “What can I get for you?”
“Just the usual, Laverne.”
Laverne jotted into her notebook. “Large pizza, all the meats. Got it. Will you be bringing the leftovers home to Phil?”
Chip flashed a smile. “You know me too well, Laverne.”
“I’ll throw in some breadsticks, too. I know how much Phil loves breadsticks from Smittie’s!”
“Oh, you don’t have to—” Chip began to protest.
“No charge for my favorite customer,” she said, and walked away into the kitchen.

So….what’s wrong with this scene? (Those in the know will struggle to find anything right about it.)

Let me first point out the obvious. First of all, everything here is visual and communicated through obvious, stilted dialog. It’s like the writer set up a video camera in the corner to frame the room, and we’re watching the scene as performed by a pair of awkward amateur actors. What is not visually explained is spoken aloud in (really bad and unnatural) dialog. It bears a closer resemblance to a (bad) screenplay than prose fiction.

Now let’s dig a little deeper. Who’s the point of view character in this scene the student or the waitress?

That’s a trick question. There is no point of view.  Technically, it’s third person, a sort of dull omniscient narrator, unwilling to commit to either character.

Now think how the scene would be different if written from a point of view. Doesn’t matter which one, but for discussion’s sake, I’ll pick Chip’s point of view. Do you suppose he has an opinion about this restaurant? Would his other senses engage as he walked in? To pick an obvious one, what sort of aroma would greet him as he walked in?

Tune in for part two. In the meantime, here’s some optional homework. How would the scene play out if you put yourself into one of the character’s point of view? Include sights, sounds, smells, touch, internal thoughts, and opinions, where relevant. (Hint: feel free to change the dialog –a lot.)

If you’re brave, post your version in the comments. Tomorrow I’ll present my version, and we’ll examine what changed, and what makes it work better. Have fun!