Dear Writer-Friends,

I've been self-publishing since 2011, and I've shared the knowledge I've gained in two books: the Indie Author Survival Guide, Second Edition, and For Love or Money. I'm not an indie rockstar or a breakout success: I'm one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. These books are my way of helping my fellow authors discover the freedom of indie publishing. Write on, writer-friends!

S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Critique Wednesdays: Point of View

Beginning writers often struggle with point of view; even more accomplished writers can slip into their author voice when they're not paying attention, or neglect to draw their narrative deep into the POV of their character. Point of view affects storytelling as well as craft, and in some ways is the most basic part of writing: point of view is the story.

A Brief History of Storytelling
Stories began with an oral tradition, which was always "telling" in a distant third person (In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.) The Psalms of the Bible stand out in part because they are in first person, based on hymnals meant to be sung, rather than stories meant to be told: The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer... Jokes are the modern version of oral storytelling and are usually in distant third person: A priest, a rabbi, and a scientist walk into a bar... (Note: stand-up comics often use first person, which allows them even more range in their story telling. Also hilarity.)


Irish Oral Storytelling = Awesome

For a long time, written stories were primarily a transcription of the oral tradition. Only with advent of cheaper printing methods did storytelling start to transform, giving the writer new point-of-view tools with which to tell their story. Suddenly the written page separated the storyteller from the storylistener, and the writer could do all sorts of new tricks, including convince the reader that they were the character. That enabled storytelling to become much more personal.

Modern Storytelling
Whether you're using first person or third person (or heaven help you, second person), you can still use the distant storytelling style of the past, but modern stories tend to be more personal (there are of course exceptions to this). Many modern stories use Deep POV, which is just a way of saying your story is tightly bound to your POV character. Where beginning writers struggle is in confusing the two, mixing distant POV with Deep POV, or generally being unclear about whose POV we're in. It's important to have a strong grasp of this, because your choice of a point of view character answers the question: whose story is this?


I absolutely adored the snippet at the end of the new Spiderman movie, where Peter Parker is in class and the teacher in the background is lecturing on storytelling. She says, "There are many who will say there are 5 or 7 or a dozen basic stories in the world. And some who say there is only one: Who am I?" That captures the essence of what I love about Spiderman and other superhero movies - they are character studies written larger than life.

How to Do This - The Basics
There are two parts to this: 1) choose a POV character (or two or three, if using multiple POVs) that the story is mainly about and STAY IN THEIR HEAD.
  • Stay firmly in your character's head; don't stray off into other heads, including your own (i.e. don't narrate the story as if you're talking into a microphone).
  • Only switch POVs at scene changes (if using multiple POV characters); no "head hopping"
  • Color every thought, action and description with your POV character's perspective
    • it's not just a red velvet chair, it's the chair her grandmother used to knit scarves in
  • Don't describe things your POV character can't possibly know, or wouldn't normally remark on
Beginning writers often think they MUST give the thoughts of a secondary character or the reader won't understand what that character is thinking. But I don't have to be a mindreader(!) to know what you're thinking. I can tell by your words, actions, and body language. So can the reader. Make your reader feel the pain of your secondary characters without ever peeking inside their heads. You will have to work harder as a writer to do it, but I never promised this would be easy.

When you've mastered how to do this, then feel free to head-hop (Artemis Fowl), switch POVs in 1st person (The Red Pyramid), write from a distant perspective (A Series of Unfortunate Events), and break any other rule I've listed. Because you will know what you're doing, which is the only real rule for writers.

And the More Complicated Stuff
Once you've mastered the mechanics of staying with your POV character(s), then make sure you do the second part: 2) TELL THEIR STORY.
  • Don't hold forth at length on the politics of your storyworld (unless your character is a philosophy professor), except when it relates directly to your POV character's story
  • Don't describe the wonderful mechanics of your phase blaster unless it's misfired and your character is taking it apart to try to figure out why
  • Don't inventory the contents of a scene like a Pottery Barn catalogue (unless your character is an interior designer); describe all your scenes through character-colored glasses
  • Don't withhold information that your character knows, just to build suspense. The suspense should come from inside your character, the one whose story we are telling (writerly slight of hand, where you make your character think something that happens not to be true, is completely acceptable.) :)
  • Make sure your POV character is the most compelling/dimensional character in the story (don't let a secondary character steal the show); if another character's story is more interesting, perhaps you should be telling their story, from their POV.
The essence of Deep POV or close storytelling (whether in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person) is bonding your reader to your character, so that they can suspend their disbelief for a few hours and live the adventure. It's what moves the reader to cry, to laugh, to push your book into the hands of their friends and say, "You must read this!"

As promised, I'm giving away another 5 page critique!
(Only a couple more Critique Wednesdays left before summer runs away.)

Legalese: I'll randomly chose a winner of a 5 page critique via Rafflecopter. The critiques will be offline, not posted on the blog. My critique philosophy is "honesty with kindness." I believe someone can't learn while they're in pain, so it's important to temper the truth with gentleness. I also believe my job as a critiquer is to help you tell your story better, not change it to be the story I would write.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

17 comments:

  1. Great post! I see this issue a lot and I love how you break it down.

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    1. Thanks! I try to cover a range of what will help people – beginner to more advanced – but it’s hard to know what will help the most. At least it provides something you can point people to, when they ask. :)

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  2. I would recommend every writer, at least once in their careers, rewrites a 100,000 word MS from one POV into another. 3rd limited to 1st is what I did, but you can do something else. I've never learned as much about POV as I did doing that. It was a ton of work, sure, but it was worth it.

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    1. That is an excellent point! (And for the less brave, a short story might do the trick.) I did that once (1st person to 3rd, multiple POVs) and it was very instructive. There’s nothing like the hands-on mechanics to understand how the beast works.

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    2. I also did a 1st to 3rd, multiple pov. I totally agree with that.

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  3. I've written in both first and third. I've learned a lot. This is a great post. Thanks.

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  4. I'm dealing with this issues RIGHT now in my MS. I keep changing it back and forth and I can't decide which one fits the story better.

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    1. The way I've always heard best (to decide) is going back to story. Whose story is this? If you're just trying to get information in by having another POV, that's not the best reason. Try writing your blurb - a one paragraph distillation of the story - for each POV character you're considering. Your story should POP right out of that - if not, you may need to think about your story more, to have that firmly in your head, before deciding whose story it is. Good luck!

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  5. I admit, I do like interior design, pottery, and things made out of whicker.

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    1. Yes, but you could write a Pottery Barn catalogue I would actually want to read. :)

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  6. I found an older ms and I was appalled by the head hopping I did! Don't do that now :)

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  7. The first book I wrote was distant 3rd, sharing thoughts from multiple characters within the same scene. I've learned now that 1st person and deep 3rd are where it's at, especially for YA. Changing to 1st person was tough, but it was a great challenge that helped push my writing.

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    1. Exactly! I think writing in 1st/deep 3rd really helps hone your craft. Once you master that, you can play more. It's not that one or the other is right/wrong, but you have to challenge yourself to learn. :)

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  8. Great post, Sue! These are awesome tips to keep in my head when starting new books. On an unrelated note, I want to see that SPIDERMAN so bad! :o)

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  9. I almost always do third-person omniscient, but once in a great while will do something that's more third-person limited. A long time ago, I wrote more in the first-person (but only one book-length story, told in diary format), but it's been probably 20 years since I last did that. I've decided to finally take that pioneer saga off the shelf and give it a radical makeover, so it's going to be a challenge to see if I even remember how to write first-person and not get into anyone else's head!

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    1. Sounds like a great writing challenge! Good luck!

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  10. Ashes by Isla Bick is an amazing example of close 3rd person. You don't even realize it's not in first.

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Erudite comments from thoughtful readers