Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Few Pointers on Point of View, Part 2: Viewpoint

Part 1 of A Few Pointers discussed the broad subject of Point of View (POV). For every story there's someone holding the camera through which we view the action. Whatever that specific camera captures of the action and characters is all that readers get to know about the story. But there is a deeper viewing level in POV narrating with subtle yet significant influence called viewpoint.

To be honest, it may be the camera/movie analogy that causes authors confusion with viewpoint when they write in any tense or POV, because the action in movies usually moves effortlessly from face to face and scene to scene, capturing emotions that aren’t necessarily viewed by the narrating character but must be viewed by the audience for significance in the storyline. When we use words to put all of that emotion and action on a page, we have tighter rules regarding flow to keep our story seamless for our readers. The POV narrator will choose characters to drive readers through each scene. This character becomes the viewpoint for the action as it plays out in relation to that character, his or her thoughts, feelings, observations, etc.

In a book, if the narrator chooses Darla to carry the scene, as her attention is captivated by one suitor, the narrator draws our attention to the action as it relates to Darla. We'll know what's making her blush, we can get insights from her observations, but we won't be able to know what the other suitor is thinking or feeling so long as she's not observing him.

If Darla is our viewpoint character, we will read the scene as it affects her; the scene will move as though bending and revolving around her. What her eyes observe in the dining hall will be what the narrator can offer comment on. The suitor she interacts with will be the focus of the narrator; the narrator will ignore the jealous suitor until Darla gives him notice. If the narrator enters the scene with Darla's viewpoint, to keep readers in the flow, the POV must stay fixed on Darla's presence and interactions.

Here's what an unwarranted viewpoint shift would read like if we started in Darla's viewpoint and suddenly entered Alfalfa's:
When she heard Waldo's voice, Darla turned from speaking with Alfalfa to greet him. She found it rude that he so obviously interrupted their dinner, but politely extended her hand as he bowed stiffly from the waist. Alfalfa couldn't believe Waldo would intrude on such a special moment.
The bolded phrases in that paragraph demonstrate how we enter two different sources of feeling/reaction during one scene. The reactive, observational, or internal feeling of the action should only be narrated through one character at a time, the character chosen as the viewpoint lens. Below is another example of what not to do.
Harry couldn’t believe what Ron had just said to him. He wanted to ring Ron’s stupid neck, but stupid Hermione stood between them with arms outstretched, keeping the boys apart. Ron looked back at Harry with smug satisfaction knowing his words had cut Harry deeply. Hermione loudly sighed with exasperation, impatient that her two friends would be such dolts over nothing.
Here, in one brief scene, we entered three different minds. Don’t do that. If you don’t see a problem with the flow in these paragraphs, your homework is to study up on POV and viewpoint.

One last example of viewpoint: Think of the Sherlock Holmes movie, A Game of Shadows. We mostly follow the action as described and put in motion by Sherlock, and every now and again we enter his mind to preview how he’s about to take down his opponent. He narrates a play-by-play of each blow the opponent will receive at his hand. That action unfolds from Sherlock’s viewpoint.

Well, in the ending struggle scene between Moriarty and Sherlock, we watch how the action will play out first according to Sherlock, but then Moriarty says in his mind, “Come now, you really think you’re the only one who can play this game?” Moriarty interrupts the Sherlock viewpoint, and where normally that could be a faux pas, it works because of the directing style and character development of the film.

When in Moriarty’s mind he succeeds in pushing Sherlock over the ledge, he raises his arms victorious. We get to partake of his emotion; we are suspended in his viewpoint. Then we shift back to the “present” moment before any of the envisioned fighting happens, back into the Sherlock viewpoint.

See how effortlessly the camera gets to move through viewpoints? We don’t even realize it as we watch movies unless we’re looking for it. And while movies can get away with this, books can’t. We’re so used to seeing it happen and some authors mistakenly mimic movies and try to pinball between viewpoints to cover everyone’s emotions in each scene. The problem is, we read differently than we watch. In film, we can only interpret by what we’re allowed to see, so movies have to show it all. There’s no expository paragraph that explains how Watson is feeling in the film; we watch his eyes stare in shock and slowly close in disbelief.

To take a peek at the differences between written and visual POV, I wrote out what that scene from the movie might read like as a scene in a book. We'll start right after Moriarty believes he will come out victor of the pretend fight scenario.
With pipe smoke pulsing from his mouth, Sherlock Holmes stared his nemesis down, cautious not to let his mind reveal his next move. He cracked a wide, uncertain smile and led his opponent to believe his thoughts surrendered with, “Conclusion inevitable . . .” Moriarty’s face broke with a satisfied sneer. Sherlock shifted his pipe around his teeth. “Unless—”

Whipping the pipe from his mouth, Sherlock blasted a puff of breath at the still-burning lighter in Moriarty’s hand. Tiny sparks flew at the professor’s face and instinctively he turned away. Locking Moriarty’s arms and body into a hold, Sherlock braced himself against the stone banister and kicked his foot up to the chess table to launch the pair of them over the edge.

In the instant before Sherlock pushed off, Watson hurried through the balcony door from inside the mansion. If any word of warning had been prepared on Watson’s lips, it instantly vanished as he took in the scene before him. Sherlock tossed his friend one last familiar smirk, closed his eyes, and pushed backward with all his might.
Sherlock knew that two were falling, but with eyes closed he regained his cherished solitude. He preferred to think of himself as purposefully taking an unconventional shortcut to the bottom of the mountain. He heard only the air rushing past his ears, felt only the stinging kiss of the raging waterfall mist. His opponent released him and they plunged into silence.

Watson stood by the door staring at the emptiness where an instant before his friend’s eyes stared back. He slowly blinked, daring not to believe. He stepped toward the banister, absently rounding the chess table with unfinished game. His eyes fixed on the ledge where the soft layer of snow had been abruptly swept away by the fallen. With his body rigid, Watson leaned out of the balcony shadows, his wrinkled brow catching the moonlight. He peered down the torrential falls at the tight canyon walls disappearing below the icy mist. He did not trust to hope even his cunning friend had survived such a drop.
In writing, it made more sense to follow Sherlock off the cliff and complete the action from his viewpoint before returning to finish the scene from Watson’s viewpoint. In the movie we watch Watson’s reaction for a few seconds before witnessing the two men falling. To do that in writing would cause readers to ping-pong between perspectives and it isn’t natural in the reading setting. But when the scene breaks naturally, switching to Watson to wrap up the emotion and observation is a seamless move in writing.

POV Points to Remember

1. Choose your story’s overall point of view according to the most important information that you’ll need to share.

If you’re going to need to include several scenes from the past or happening simultaneously to the main character’s storyline, don’t choose 1st person. If you need help finding out which POV might be best for your story, pick an important scene that involves multiple character and write it in each POV. You may discover you prefer one presentation of the scene over the others.

2. Choose your viewpoint character per scene and stick to it.

Whichever character will be introducing us to the scene and directing the “camera” around to capture the action they observe, remember to keep their lens as the only one you narrate and describe the action through.

3. Execute changes in viewpoint at clear and natural scene, chapter, or section breaks.

If you have questions or any other tips that helped you practice POV and viewpoint, leave a comment!

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Few Pointers on Point of View, Part 1

Our discussion on point of view (POV) will be covered in two parts: Point of View and Viewpoint. Yes, there's a difference! Today we'll take a good, hard look at POV so that the Viewpoint post makes (hopefully) perfect sense.

As writers, we will always be improving our style, craft, and depth of knowledge, but one of the first things we need to get a rope around is point of view.

Beautiful and wild ideas swirl and pace restlessly in our minds, roaring to get onto the page. Writers really aren't any different from circus animal trainers—and even trainers need training before they can authoritatively tame their ideas to enter the blank-page arena with graceful flow.

Here are a few pointers to help you gain Alpha status in the ring where your published words will put on the greatest novel show on earth. It's advice that might literarily save your life as an author.
Okay, maybe it's not that dramatic—but nothing will tip off an editor to your undeveloped writing ability quicker than an unwarranted shift in your story's POV tense or unwarranted shifts in viewpoint.


What Is POV?

Simply put, the POV is set from whoever narrates the story. But for creative flair, we like to think of POV as the camera filming your characters when and wherever they interact. She who holds the camera holds the POV power. We watch the "movie" of your story unfold through observations available from this narrator's “lens” or specified vantage point.

Establishing a solid POV allows your story to be seen through one steady lens and gives your readers stability plus the ability to get sucked into the story's believability. Giving you credibility. Indubitably.

If your story requires it, you can hand off camera duties, but you have to be careful to do it purposefully and, we'd advise, at a natural break in your story (like at a new chapter or scene break). The last thing you want to do is throw your readers out of your story because they don't know whose head they're in anymore. Most people are okay with sticking with a chosen POV and have a trickier time with sticking to the viewpoint, but what we see as editors all too often are writers who start out in past tense and teeter-totter to present tense or even fall off into the tricky pit of past perfect.

Some POV Examples

First Person. This narrator is also a character in the story, and we know the inner workings of only this character's mind and heart. He or she can only suppose or observe what other characters might be thinking or seem to be feeling. We watch the action unfold as if perched behind the eyes of our narrator only. If the character can't see or hear or sense what's happening, the reader can't either. It limits the writer to choose this POV, but it creates a very powerful connection for readers and the main narrating character.
For example, Suzanne Collins chose her main character, Katniss Everdeen, to tell the Hunger Games story in first person present tense. This means we only know the story as it unfolds according to Katniss in the very moment things are happening. If she gets knocked out a few dozen times, there will be action we miss out on until she comes to. Strategic dialogue or other means of discovery are the only ways we can catch up on what happened while her "camera lens" was blacked out.

First person can take on past tense as well, and we commonly read books with this POV. This is when the narrator speaks in “I was” and “we went” but might be able to offer greater insight along the way since the action is all being retold from happening in the past. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a good example of this POV.

Another version of first person POV that can be effective in telling some stories is the epistolary novel, where letters between characters lay the story out, both in past and in present tense. Past for describing the action ("He called upon me at my father's house.") and present for the emotion of the scribe ("I am horrified at the thought that he will come again tomorrow."), and this method allows for shifts in tense to be common and understandably sudden.

Second Person. This narrator refers to the reader, and is somewhat uncommon in fiction. You'll hear it a lot in song lyrics, poetry, self-help books, advertising, or awesome editorial blog posts. The narrator nudges you along from one idea, one suggestion, or one scene to the next. For novels, the selected narrator will confide in the reader, share secrets, take the reader on as a buddy or sidekick, and this can be very effective for readers to connect to your story. The author narrator introducing us to the Baudelaire children in A Series of Unfortunate Events immediately catches our attention by using a direct second-person approach.
“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading
some other book.”
Think of all the books you read to little kids. "What does the dog say?" the book asks the child. The child is immediately engaged because she is directly addressed to involve herself. The fuzzy monster in the picture is asking the child to follow along for a wild adventure.

Or, an author might use second person to tell someone else's story, someone who can't speak for themselves. This would include a dying father writing to his unborn child, laying out the dream he has for him to grow up, graduate, marry, and be successful in life. Or, a young girl, feeling ambitious, who writes a letter to her older self, outlining the goals she should accomplish by the ripe old age of twenty-two. Second person has a powerful presence when artfully employed.

Third Person. This is the narrating voice above the characters that is separate from the story. This may be the omniscient author himself or a voice he assigns to narrate the happenings of all the characters. And while most authors are extremely used to reading and writing in this POV, this is where the most mistakes are made in viewpoint shifts.
photo credit.
Third person present tense would include, "She steps sleepily toward the snake aquarium as if entranced by the soft glow and hum of the heat lamps. A small noise squeaks from the brown paper bag hanging loosely in her hand."

Third person past tense would read, "He spit on the ground and saw blood. His one rule: as long as he didn't start the fight, he felt perfectly justified offering his skills to finish it."

A moment of past perfect during past tense: "Harold sat on the church steps in his rented tuxedo, retracing every moment of the day in his mind. The morning's festivities had gone off without a hitch. His frowned deepened. Now the afternoon would also go off without a hitch—the one that would have made Bernice his forever."


To use the ringmaster analogy to further demonstrate POV examples, imagine you're a journalist in the stands, watching the dramatic display of courage unfold and tweeting live updates to your Twitter followers. You'll share the action from a withdrawn third-person POV, and you'll likely use past tense: "That lion just about bit off the tamer's arm! #circussnacks" or maybe present tense: "Oh no! A second lion entered the ring. Let's hope he's trained for this. #dinnerfortwo"

Now imagine you receive a colorful advertisement about the circus coming to town. It might include such direct phrases as:
"Are you ready for the MANE event?"
"We aren't LION when we say you don't want to miss this show!"
The author of that material addresses the reader directly in second-person POV.

Finally, imagine if the lion tamer held the whip in one hand and our POV camera in the other: reading the scene as told by the lion tamer would offer a dramatically different experience—or what about the lion himself? These two characters are actually involved in the action and can share a much more intimate account of the scene.
Photo credit.
Now, for a fun exercise, take a scene from your own work in progress and try it in a new tense or from a different POV. You may find that you like the life it brings to your story, but in the least, it may just get those writing juices flowing, so give it a try! Our pointers on viewpoint come next!

Tweetable: Need a refresher on point of view? The folks at @CastleEdit have got you covered: #writetip #amwriting