Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Examining POV

Every story is told from a certain point of view, right? It's the very building block basic of telling a story. Who is telling the story?

In fiction, there are several standard points-of-view a writer can use to tell the story.

Omniscient: The all-knowing narrator. Usually a god-like character who looks into everyone's thoughts and feelings and sometimes comments upon them.
Examples: Atonement. (The first two sections of the novel are third person omniscient. Cecilia and Robbie's thoughts, feelings, and actions are recounted through those sections. It's only in part three of the book, which is in first person, that the reader realizes that the narrator of parts one and two is a character in the story.)

First Person: The story is told from one narrator's perspective (that is, one narrator at a time, using "I"). The advantages of 1st person are: a clear point-of-view, a strong sense of the character (because he or she is telling the reader the story), and it's pretty easy to write in 1st person. In relaying stories, "I" is a pretty natural place to start. Disadvantages? Your first person narrator can only experience one event or emotion at a time.
Examples: The Twilight series. The Hunger Games trilogy. The Catcher in the Rye.

Second Person: I've only read second person in fanfiction. The reader becomes a character in the piece. "You" become involved. Can be awkward to read, however.

Third Person, Omniscient: Told by a narrator (referring to the characters as "he," "she," "they") who knows everything about those characters, including thoughts, motivations and background. Will dip into anybody's head.
Examples: Pride and Prejudice. The Lord of the Rings (generally following Frodo, but also Aragorn and others.)

Third Person, Limited: The unidentified narrator refers to the characters as "he," "she", "they," but the narrator stays in one character's head at a time.
Examples: The Harry Potter series (it's third person, following Harry); The Other Boleyn Girl (We stayed with Mary Boleyn as narrator); and lots of other books.

Then we get into the tenses a story can be told in:

Present: Everything is happening now.

Past: Stuff has happened already.


Problems I've Run Into In POV-land

1.  I am guilty of head-hopping
That is, one writes a scene in one character's perspective. Then, on the next line or in the same paragraph, one switches to the other character's perspective. I still do this by accident. I think it still reads like it's from the POV character's perspective. Others say differently. I scratch head in confusion and wish we'd spent more time on POV in college. Naturally, head-hopping is easier to get wrong in third-person than in first. A part of head hopping is going from the limited pov to the omniscient pov randomly.

2. Past Imperfect
There's a time and place for using the past imperfect tense. That is, writing something like "Miles had expected the news for weeks." I have a problem, sometimes, where I use it all the time, when it's unnecessary. In fact, best used sparingly. It's distancing to the reader and you want them to identify with the story.

3. Changing Tenses
As in, going from present to past. This was most prevalent while writing Last Request, because there was a ton of flashbacks in there, but the main story was told in present tense. In that story, the tenses were supposed to change. It's when they're not supposed to change that you have a problem.

4. Transitioning (Oh, yes. Ha.)

5. Too Many Heads Peeked Into
See head-hopping above. Also, since it's third-person limited, I don't think telling the story from more than six characters' povs is really going to work well.

What kind of POV-centric problems do you have?

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