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June 7, 2011 / theoldsilly

Professor Old Silly’s Tutorial Tuesday – More on POV Issues

Welcome back to Bloggyversity, English class 10001.3b, “Writing With Power in Fiction.” Class, come to order, please, we have a very important subject to go over today, and I have not a bit of patience for your normal shenanigans. Stop throwing spitballs, turn off your ipods, cell phones, blackberries, etc., desist with Googling members of the opposite sex, get your faces out of Facebook, stop Twittering, adjust you monitors and undies and have a prompt seat.

Thank you. Ahem. Let’s begin with today’s subject.

In a previous class we covered the three most often used Points Of View: Omniscient POV (OPOV), 1st Person POV, and 3rd Person POV. Just a quick recap, if you missed that class and don’t want to retake the course – POV boils down to whose head you’re in. Which character’s emotions and feelings you’re going to have the reader experience.  It’s a powerful tool in any writer’s toolbox, and has a dramatic effect when one understands and uses it correctly. Used incorrectly, it can drastically reduce the potential amount of tension and conflict build-up in a story, and give the reader an uneasy, wondering feeling of: “Just who’s story is this about, anyway?” – if too much ‘head-hopping’ is going on. And this head-hopping is what we’ll discuss as our main topic today, but first a fast reminder summary of the three most often used POV’s in contemporary fiction.

Omniscient POV is told from the viewpoint of the writer, or, you might even say, of God.  The author knows, and the reader is allowed to see and know, everything; nothing is hidden.  Omniscient POV has its advantages, it makes it quite easy to introduce backstory, to give the reader a good sense of the place, time, atmosphere, setting, and etc. On the downside, it is a rather sterile way of writing. It does not allow the reader to get inside the heads and hearts of the characters, to feel with them as they move through the story. The characters are viewed from an impartial distance. Also, since the reader sees and knows everything, who is thinking what and who is doing what at all times, it is much more difficult to build suspense. Omniscient POV was used a great deal in the nineteenth century, but it is seldom used in popular contemporary novels. I’ve only included it in the “3 most used” category because most newbie writers use it without any knowledge of what they are doing with regard to POV, and hence sabotaging a great deal of potential in their stories.

Next, we have first person POV. Now you are only in one person’s point of view, and that being the main character – the one telling the story. You, the author, use “I” when spinning your tale. For example: I felt crucified. My gut tensed as she cursed and shouted foul threats at me that I felt would tear my soul apart.

The primary advantage to first person POV is, you are right inside the head and skin and emotional makeup of the main character. It can be extremely immediate and compelling. You get to live, breathe and feel the story right along with him or her. Of course, the more interesting the character you’ve created, the better in this respect. The downside to first person POV is that everything you, the reader, learn about the plot and story, you must learn through that character’s experience. This takes great skill as a writer. The reader is only getting one side of the story. While this technique can be used effectively in certain types of mysteries and/or romances, those where the author only wants the reader to know one perspective in an attempt to build more suspense and tension, it is generally not recommended for stories where the author wants the reader to have insight into all their important characters’ true feelings and/or motivations  – not limited to just the main character.

Third person POV is the most often used and popular today by fiction writers. Here is an example of third person: John felt crucified. His gut tensed as Mary cursed and shouted foul threats at him that he felt would tear his soul apart.

Now we are in John’s POV.  You know that because I’ve told us what he’s experiencing, feeling and thinking.  In third person POV, you can stay in one character’s viewpoint, and/or just as easily switch from one to another – the perfect compromise between omniscient and first person. You have more than one viewpoint at your disposal as a writer, creating balance with relative ease, with the added benefit of being able to get inside the heads of individual characters. 3rd Person Narrative (it is often called) is by far the most often and efficiently used POV in contemporary fiction.

Now there are several things to keep in mind while writing in 3rd POV. For one, the sooner you let the reader know whose head they’re in, the better. And it’s easy. Just tell the reader the character’s feelings. Here’s an example: After Mary had left, John felt as though he’d fallen off a cliff emotionally. He held his head and cried, thinking, god how far my life has fallen.

There is no doubt whose head we are in, hmm? No. From anyone else’s POV, we could not know what John felt and thought, unless it is through dialog and/or the descriptions and suppositions of other characters.

Now of paramount importance when using 3rd POV, and yes, I’m finally getting to the crux of today’s tutorial, thanks for your patience, and don’t get your undies all in a bunch – soon we’ll dismiss blog – this lesson is getting a bit long and I know you kids – probably thinking about partying and/or sex by now. But bear with me, okay? This is important. Two things:

1. When in third person, you can only tell the reader what the character that you are inside the head of is experiencing. This is a common mistake I see a lot. For instance, what’s wrong with this short segment?

John felt woozy. Too much to drink, he thought, moaning, as he clutched at his churning stomach. His head and the entire room started spinning. He leaned over a table and vomited, then passed out, dropping his drink. The goblet crashed to the hardwood, shattering into fine shards of glass and splattering Long Island all over the floor.

Did you catch my error? The last sentence. How would John know what happened to the drink? He’s already passed out. I switched to omniscient POV and told you, the reader, what happened next. This is a no-no. I should have had another character observe and comment on what happened to the drink if I wanted you to know that. Or perhaps have John come to later and see what had happened; you get the idea. That’s common error number one. Now for the issue of “head-hopping,” which is-

2. Once you establish the character whose POV you are in, in any given chapter or scene, you cannot “hop” over into the head of another character without a scene break or starting a new chapter. Look at this example:

John held his breath, careful not to be heard as he hid in the closet, knife in clenched hand, drenched in sweat and psychic anxiety. He heard the door to the bedroom open as Mary walked into the room. She was not feeling well, and wondered, What’s the closet door doing shut? I always leave it open a bit so the cat can get in and out. She went over to open it as John waited, knowing this was his chance for revenge – just three steps away.

This is in such blatant violation of 3rd POV (and let’s assume that the whole story was written all along in 3rd POV) that it is now flat out OPOV – as if we, the readers, are some spiritual being able to see, feel, and hear everything that both characters are doing at all times. If I wanted you to know Mary’s thoughts and feelings, I would have to switch scenes, get in her head, and let you, the reader, have to wonder and surmise what John was up to, only through what Mary is able to tell us through her experience. And see how this violation ruins any suspense? We know what’s going to happen, there is no surprise element available when you allow the reader into the heads of everyone at once.

Okay, ahm – there’s more to cover on this topic, and we’ll get back to it in a later blog class.  But right now I can tell you’re all antsy to get going and finish your blog-hopping, so – thank you, class, oh – and class?

Class?

Sigh, off to the teacher’s lounge for warm milk and cookies. Nobody cares anymore, it seems. Now that I think of it, a nice stiff Long Island would be better.

~~~~~

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27 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Margot Winston / Jun 7 2011 10:00 am

    Excellent class, as usual, Prof – I think I understand POV much better now. Helps me understand why some books read with such intimacy and others seem ‘distant’ somehow. Thanks!

    • theoldsilly / Jun 7 2011 10:54 am

      Glad you got it, Margot – makes a big difference, hmm?

  2. John Standish / Jun 7 2011 10:18 am

    “I get it!” John exclaimed and thought how brilliant he was, as Mary watched him and wondered how she could have ever fallen for such an idiot in the first place.

    😉

  3. Stanley Berber / Jun 7 2011 10:56 am

    I’ve read some books written in 1st POV and they CAN be very intimate and compelling. But I agree it takes considerable skill. OPOV, used to much, turns me off, though – like being held at arms length away from the reality of the world the characters are living in.

    • theoldsilly / Jun 7 2011 2:28 pm

      Yes, 1st POV is very powerful in the hands of a very good writer!

  4. Alex J. Cavanaugh / Jun 7 2011 12:54 pm

    Scene break – got it!

  5. Cactus Annie / Jun 7 2011 2:26 pm

    Great class as usual, Prof! Hey I didn’t skip out early – I was way in the back taking notes, ok? 😉

    • theoldsilly / Jun 7 2011 2:29 pm

      Oh there you are, I see … ok don’t worry, you won’t be marked down. 😉

  6. L. Diane Wolfe / Jun 7 2011 5:11 pm

    I’ve been head hopping I’m afraid. Better than head hunting though.

  7. tashabud / Jun 7 2011 9:26 pm

    This is very informative to this newbee writer. I’ll be more observant and more careful about my POVs from now on. I have so much to learn still, I’m afraid. Thanks again for your free tutorials.

  8. Stephen Tremp / Jun 7 2011 9:38 pm

    Ah, Long Island Iced Teas … what my friends took me out for on my 21st birthday. Hey, I left an award for you on my blog today. Its a bit cheesy, but then aren’t most awards?

    • theoldsilly / Jun 8 2011 9:06 am

      Stephen, awesome, thanks, I’ll be right over! 🙂

  9. James Peterson / Jun 8 2011 7:50 am

    I never really understood POV until now – thanks!

  10. Marcus Franks / Jun 8 2011 7:51 am

    I’ve heard ‘about’ POV, but never had it explained so easy to understand. Great class as always, Prof!

  11. Thelma Banks / Jun 8 2011 7:53 am

    Always enjoy this class, thanks again …… I keep these stored in a writer’s folder for in case I ever get up the nerve to write a book that’s been on my mind for like, forever, lol.

    • theoldsilly / Jun 8 2011 9:04 am

      Thelma I do hope you get around to writing that book! It’s a great experience, I think everyone should write at least one book in their life.

  12. Ronald Meyers / Jun 8 2011 9:07 am

    Makes sense to me – now. POV is a subtle aspect of writing that I as a reader can now appreciate much more. Great class, Old Silly!

    • theoldsilly / Jun 8 2011 11:26 am

      It does make a lot of sense once you really ‘get it’ doesn’t it, Ron. 😉

  13. Mark Phelps / Jun 8 2011 10:16 am

    I’m not even a writer but I still enjoy these classes and learn so much about what makes a good book good. Thanks again, Marv!

    • theoldsilly / Jun 8 2011 11:27 am

      Mark it’s good to get feedback from those like you who enjoy reading and, while not a writer yourself, study the elements of good writing. Good for you!

  14. Paul Delaney / Jun 8 2011 2:24 pm

    Was OPOV used more in the 19th century because of all the “epics” written back then – long, complex tales with multiple subplots and a vast array of characters interwoven into the saga?

    • theoldsilly / Jun 8 2011 2:26 pm

      Paul, while I don’t have any reference material to point to or back up that supposition, it would seem likely, yes. OPOV does lend itself to those kinds of massive literary fictional undertakings.

  15. Helen Ginger / Jun 8 2011 3:13 pm

    And you ended in your POV. So sad. Well, not terribly sad since you were about to get cookies and warm milk.

    • theoldsilly / Jun 8 2011 3:17 pm

      Nah, I went for the Long Island – and no, I’m not sad at all after that! 😉

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