I’ve edited more novels this year than ever before. What I’ve observed (without pointing fingers at anyone in particular) is that a lot of inexperienced story writers make the same mistakes. One area of particular challenge is point of view.
What is it?
The term “point of view” pertains to the filter through which readers experience any particular scene in a story. Point of view occurs through the filter of the five senses and includes thoughts, memories, and really anything that can go on in a character’s head.
One common rule of fiction writing today (which definitely wasn’t true one hundred years ago) is that point of view must remain consistent from the beginning of a scene (a slice of action in a story) to its end.
What’s wrong with it?
Readers want to experience story while “in the skin” not of the author but of one story character per scene through the narrative voice of first person or third person. The following is what you won’t find in fiction that is considered current according to today’s trends:
Gerald passed the garbage truck on the way home and screeched to a stop in front of the garage. No garbage containers were parked by the curb. He dashed out of the SUV, leaving the door swinging open, and lurched up the sidewalk. Heat crawled up his neck.
Did I not tell Willy to take out the garbage before nine?
The slam of a car door snapped Willy out of his video game trance. He glanced at the clock. 10:15.
He dashed to the living room picture window. His stomach lurched.
Uh-oh, Dad’s home early.
What’s wrong with this brief scene? Nothing grammatical. But according to fiction trends, it’s a mess mainly because the reader is “in the head” of two different characters in the same scene. That’s a fiction no-no.
How can I fix it?
One quick way to put a Band-aid on this problem is to add white space (otherwise known as a scene break) above “The slam of the car door . . .” Then we have two scenes instead of one, and the problem goes away.
But that’s probably the lazy way out.
The bigger questions that invite us to arrive at a more sound solution are, Whom is this scene about? In whose point of view will readers experience the greatest emotional journey?
What’s the bigger issue?
Let’s forget the nuts and bolts for a moment. What’s important to remember is that doing point of view right isn’t just a matter of taking the right steps to proper novel-writing technique (1-2-3). It emerges from a philosophy about what story is supposed to achieve. Which is a truly gripping emotional experience.
Without this understanding, you can follow the rules, sure. But you still aren’t getting it.
Novels, when done right, can do more than movies. Yes, that’s right. A movie is confined to the visual and the audible, whereas effective point of view invites us to smell the lilacs, feel the pain of childbirth, remember the sting of an old hurt, and feel the clog of grief catch in our throats as we stand beside a freshly dug grave.
Effective novel writing should invite readers to a supremely visceral experience. The reader wants to be ushered into another world that engages the emotions and offers an alternate universe for a time. Dare I say it? The reader is seeking escape.
Immersion into this alternate universe is the key. You want to weed out anything that snaps the reader out of it. That’s why doing point of view right is so fundamental to story craft that I decided to start there first.
What shatters that universe is yanking that poor reader out of one person’s head and slamming her into the “head” of another character. In fiction forum nomenclature, that’s called “head hopping,” and fiction editors everywhere (including me) will yell at you if you do it.
Okay, I might be exaggerating a little. In any case, take my advice: Don’t. Do. It.
“So I can never ever switch point of view?” you may ask. Of course you can switch point of view . . . in the next scene.
Stay in the point of view of one character per scene. Invite the reader to stand in that character’s shoes and experience life from the vantage point of his senses and unique memories, hangups, prejudices, and hurts. Invite her to become immersed in this alternate universe. Proper use of point of view will keep her immersed for as long as she desires.
For Further Reading:
- From Layoff to First Novel Contract
- Book Giveaway: Fatal Illusions