I get asked several similar questions from many of the authors I mentor and I see some similarities on the writing forums I frequent as well. I’m going to take some time today to discuss one such repeat patron: Point of View (POV, for short).
As you develop your story idea (notice I didn’t say “plot”), you may ask yourself – what POV should I use?
Here is the only question that should be burning in your mind: Whose story is this?
If you write with outlines (I still disagree), this should be bolded and at the top of your sacrilegious outline: Whose story is this?
If you prefer notecards with characters/ideas on them (notice the absence of “plot devices”), this should be at the top of every notecard: Whose story is this?
If you only write with the barest of notes (most of them in your addled brain), this should be already answered: Whose story is this?
Notice a pattern to my advice here?
One of the most important tasks you need to accomplish before putting pen to paper/finger to keyboard is decide a) whose story this is and b) the driving force behind the narrative.
These 2 items will both solidify your focus (which will spill thru to the reader) and give the story all the fuel it needs.
If you meander from the start, with no care to narrative or a sense of who’s driving that narrative – the reader might just close the book and move on to something more engaging. I know I do.
So, what does all this have to do with point of view?
This should be obvious at this point, but I’ll go into some explanation here.
There are three main components to your narrative mode: view, voice & time. And I do think you should fix them in that order. Wikipedia has a great overview article on each concept and I’m not going to delve into detail on their attributes. Rather, I’m going to talk more about view and how to choose it.
View is the most critical (in my opinion), as the others will fall into place (usually) based upon your preferred writing style and given writing talents (some folk are just masters of the present tense, for example). I’m going to narrow it down further and only speak to POV as it relates to character. Does the title of this blog post make sense now? 🙂
Who’s your POV character(s)?
Ahhh… Here we are, and only after ~400 words. I’m nothing if not meandering!
Once you decide “Whose story is this?”, the question of POV kinda answers itself.
Coming of age city teen? The city teen, of course.
Human falls in love with mysterious vampire? The human of course (to keep the tension & mystery going even after the reveal)
Hero’s journey? The hero, obviously.
Crime drama following both the crime and the police effort? Perhaps one POV character from each side.
Brilliant detective and his/her sidekick? Well, either. Maybe part of showing the brilliance is telling the story from the sidekick’s perspective (Elementary, Mr. Watson).
Notice anything similar amongst all my examples here?
You guessed it. Matt Tip #1: Limit your POV to as few characters as possible… and pick the right one(s)!
While jumping from mind to mind can be effective for your book, here are some examples of where it chops the narrative and hinders the story:
- Going back in time (either to rehash the narrative from a different POV or to spend a few pages in a past event, for another character… ugh)
- To Explain (why do some writers feel the need to explain every little thing? no, we don’t need to know why Nancy reacted the way she did – show it from Bob’s discovery or from dialogue later. don’t tell it from her POV because you feel the reader needs constant explanation.)
- To world build (common in fantasy works, this traps the reader in endless exposition for the sole purpose of building the world. ugh.. it combines the top 2 bullets into a dark abyss of narrative suck.)
- Wants. As a storyteller, you might want to add something (the villain’s POV, for example). When push comes to shove, you must clearly define your narrative wants and needs. Step back and objectively look at your story. You may want to show something from a different POV, but do you really need to? Can you still show what you want to show from your main POV and thus keep the narrative flowing? Usually, the answer is “yes.”, and you’ve solved that POV quandary.
The best way to avoid these narrative sinkholes? Strive to have as few POV characters as possible. I suggest ONE. Your story will dictate if you need another.
Matt Tip #2: If you must have multiple POV characters, don’t switch mid-paragraph
I’d go as far as to yell: don’t switch mid-chapter, but I’ve seen talented writers pull this off. So, I dunno… As a rule, perhaps you shouldn’t even try.
Matt Tip #3: Keep your Voice and Time consistent
This should be a no-brainer for any fiction writer, but I feel the need to re-emphasize:
- Don’t change narrative timing.
- Changing voice within a narrative is quite common & useful. Just don’t do it without a smooth/obvious transition.
- Voice changes should be temporary, always snapping back to the “main” voice.
As with all my “advice”, I caution: your mileage may vary. You may not agree with all I have to say and that’s just fine. As much as fiction is subjective, so too is advice on writing fiction.
If you have more views on character points of view – feel free to post in the comments below. You can try to sway me from my belief in the almighty “one POV character”, but you will fail. Miserably. Embarrassingly. And Grammatically. 🙂