Nailing point of view
Mastery of viewpoint and narration require a fair amount of technical skill, thus it is not surprising many amateur writers are revealed in this way. Viewpoint and narration comprise a delicate, elaborate facade, in which one tiny break or inconsistency can be disastrous, the equivalent of striking a dissonant chord in the midst of a harmonious musical performance. (Noah Lukeman)
I completely agree with this quote from Noah Lukeman – although what he doesn’t say is that many so-called professional writers also don’t fully to understand the niceties or significance of point of view in fiction.I know creative writers tutors are sometimes accused of sticking too rigidly to set viewpoints and offering scathing criticism when students deviate. And I must admit to having a fairly strict approach to pov. I can’t stand lapses where the author doesn’t realise why it’s happened, or might realise it’s happened but not why. Where an author is fully in control of viewpoint and deliberately plays with it for effect, then that can be very satisfying to read. However, all too often the latter is NOT the case.
The main point of view pitfalls are:
- switching from I – first person – to he/she third person – to you – second person and so on, without the author realising the switch has taken place
- frequent switches between viewpoint characters – what is sometimes called head hopping
- viewpoint characters knowing things it’s not possible for them to know for example what another character is thinking
- an external detail attributed to a first or third person (singular) character for example ‘A look of amazement crossed my face.’ This is not how we experience amazement. If we are amazed by something, we don’t think Do you know, there is a look of amazement crossing my face! This problem is closely connected to telling when showing would be a better option.
- a viewpoint character who is not firmly rooted in their own being is one it’s harder for readers to engage with
So, the list of pitfalls is endless, so it’s not surprising we writers get it wrong sometimes. Even an experienced writer will sometimes realisetheir character is not fully rooted in their own world. I think one way for a writer to get into a character’s skin is to write an internalmonologue. Even if the character is not written in the first person, writing some internal monologues for that a character will often intensify an author’s understanding of what it means to be that character.
Let that internal monolgue out:
The phone rings. I don’t answer. It’s bound to be him. It won’t be good news. I pick up my book, but the words blur, smudge one into another, my brain smudges. I exchange the book for the phone. My hammering heart won’t rest … might as well get it over with. He answers with a half laugh. I think perhaps it’s going to be all right perhaps it won’t be what I’m expecting what I’m dreading. I ask about his tooth. An infection, he says. An abscess. I commiserate. The pain of toothache near the top in the hierarchy of pain. Then he starts. A waterfall of words. You did you didn’t you should you shouldn’t you said you showed you failed you did you didn’t you should you shouldn’t. I quiver while the fall of words lands on me. Drumming. Dinning. Thundering. Crashing. Drowning. Deafening. Deadening …I try to answer. I attempt to explain. I hear myself justifying. But the torrent of blame cascades over me again. You did you didn’t you should you shouldn’t … over and over … on and on. I speak. Tears push into my throat. I stop. But the waterfall doesn’t. It goes on. Drumming … drumming … drumming …