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:

Let the internal monologue 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 …

 

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10 Comments

  1. Brilliant. Slipping from a viewpoint is such an easy mistake to make…. the pitfalls of writing a novel or a story or a poem! But that one little slip-up can take a reader out of the dream of the book.

  2. My word! Better watch POV from now on in with an even more careful eye 🙂

  3. Lindsay says:

    It is an easy mistke, Becky, isn’t it, and as I said, something it’s all too easy to slip up on. But it does irritate me – although great when a writer is so confident of point of view they can manipulate for particular effects. I really enjoy it then!

  4. Lindsay says:

    Indeed, Polly! I am one of those martinets when it comes to unintentional viewpoint slippage!

  5. We’ve been really digging deep into POV in this first part of my MA Creative Writing, and it’s fascinating. What I’ve learned about my own writing is that there I definitely have a preference for either first person or third person close up POV, but that I can’t do any kind of omniscience – I think this is a self-consciousness about my ‘narrative voice’ coming through. But it’s all good experimenting 🙂

  6. Maureen Hall says:

    A timely reminder, for me at least. Thanks again, Lindsay! One of my problems is not being ‘rooted’ in my character and his/her world, so I will definitely be trying the ‘internal monologue’ idea.

  7. Lindsay says:

    I think that’s why point of view is so important – if the writer drifts, the sense of being in a character’s world also drifts for the reader.

  8. Lindsay says:

    Jo – I think first person or third person single pov gives the strongest sense of a character’s world. It feels a more intense experience for the reader. I think those two narrative persepctives tend to work better for a modern audience, while the omniscient or detached narrator can’t provide the immediacy. But can work if you want an ironical note.
    The experimenting is good, as trying different povs helps us see the advantages and disadvantages of the different methods.

  9. Lindsay, your view please … on my OU forum there’s a huge debate going on about whether or not you indent the first line when it’s dialogue … some say yes, some say no … what say you?

  10. Lindsay says:

    On my MA course, we were taught that you block the first line against the margin, even if it’s dialogue.

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