Monday, September 03, 2007

Altering Point of View

I finished the book I was talking about on Sunday by scanning the last sixty pages or so. And even in scanning I found something else to criticize. I mentioned how an attack by the story’s werewolf happened out of the reader’s direct experience and had to be “told” to the main character. Although this resulted in a very weak experience for the reader, I thought the reason why the author probably did it this way was because they didn’t want to break point-of-view. Although the book was written in third person limited rather than first person, everything had been shown from the POV of the main character, an ex-marine turned deputy sheriff. Since the deputy wasn’t present at the attack he had to be told about it. My thinking was mistaken.

About thirty pages later a female character is attacked by the werewolf and the scene is shown from her POV, the only time in the book where POV is shifted. As an action scene, however, it actually worked a lot better and I would have far preferred that the writer shift POV when needed to keep the dramatic action up front with the reader.

In third person limited, shifting POV is not a problem as long as it is done between scenes rather than within scenes, and as long as it is clearly indicated. I hate it if I’m in a character’s head in an individual scene and am suddenly vaulted into another character in that same scene. I don’t have a problem at all if we shift POV when a new chapter begins, or even within a chapter if the scene shift is indicated by a number or an extra space. All you need to do is start with the name of the character whose head we are going to be in, and stay there consistently within the scene.


Steve Malley said...

Changing POV within a scene, 'head hopping' is a pet peeve of mine, too.

With one of my graphic novels (TEMPLAR, in case anyone's keeping track), I'd planned to follow the heroine throughout the book. One POV, as it were.

Then I found out I really, *really* needed to spend a few pages with the bad guy. The story fell apart if I didn't.

My solution? Go back through the story and see how many other scenes worked as well or better from his POV. The end result was a much stronger story.

For something with razor-handed evil children in it...

Steve Malley said...

Actually, in the early Robicheaux novels, we can see James Lee Burke working out the same problem. Sometimes, he just *needed* to spend time away from his first-person narrator.

At first, the device used (with uneven results) was that these other characters 'told' Dave their stories, or that he pieced together their stories himself with his detectivating.

Later, Burke just drops the fig leaf of device and goes for it. What he *doesn't* do is leave us with a third-hand account of what ought to be a major action scene. Nor does he cover action in a way that leaves any of us confused about what actually happened.

That's right. Detectivating.

Charles Gramlich said...

"Detectivating." I'm going to start calling such words Malleyisms. ;)

Lisa said...

These are some great observations Charles and Steve. I'm working on a story told in 3rd and I'm alternating POV between two characters. The challenge I'm working through now is in determining how, when and why to shift. You've just inspired me to go back and analyze each scene and determine which POV will be the most impactful. Thanks for the insights.

Erik Donald France said...

Great thoughts. PoV shifts are tricky, to be sure. Occasionally some writers can pull it off in short stories, which is cool if it works and terribler if it doesn't.


Erik Donald France said...

typo : terrible ;)

Angie said...

I know quite a few writers who swap points of view whenever they feel like it. I know almost as many who regularly swap back and forth paragraph by paragraph. [headdesk] It drives me insane, especially when the story and writing are otherwise very good.

I'm with Steve in that I prefer my POV switching to be distributed pretty evenly. My last novella had two major characters and each chapter started out in the POV of Character A and finished in the POV of Character B. (With a scene break in between, of course.) The early chapters were mostly in A's POV, with just a page or two from B's POV, but gradually backed up the point where they shifted so that by the last chapter we got a page or two from A's POV and then the rest from B's POV. The reader knows A better at the beginning, but sees more of what's going on from B's POV as the story progresses and they get to know him.

You can do a lot of cool things with structure and POV, although I always wonder whether I'm the only one who notices. [wry smile]


Drizel said...

head hoping is tricky. I like being one character and living, breathing, think just that one person:)

GOOD ADVICE....thanks Charles:)

the walking man said...

I just write 'em until their done and then, read it and re-write,re-write,re-write and re-write until it doesn't sound stupid & I can't stand it anymore then I put it away and forget about it and move on.

But then no one ever 'taught' me there was any other way to write a novel length work.



Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, I thought "terribler" was just another Malleyism. LOL.

Lisa, that's a good thing to do, I'd say. It's not always obvious at first whose POV would have the most impact.

Angie, that freely swapping of POV is like being on drugs, and not in a good way. I'd rather have a single POV than have someone switch back and forth at random. In "Cold in the Light" I switched POV at the beginning of chapters, and with numbered scenes within the chapters. But each scene was told from a single POV.

Etain, yes, me too.

Mark, the only other way, I guess, is to outline but I tend not to do that myself.

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks for telling us more about this book and the problems it had with POV. We were able to learn from the author's mistakes without having to wade through the book ourselves. Good deal.

I've only read your Talera books, which are always from one point of view. In your other writings, how do you usually choose the POV character for a scene? Do you usually choose correctly the first time, or do you have to try the scene in several ways? How do you know when it's right?

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna, Cold in the Light was told in third person limited and I switched POVs between a lot of characters. Each chapter was broken into smaller subsections that were numbered (1, 2, 3, etc). Every time I switched to a new number the POV shifted, but within the numbered section only one POV was shown, and I always began the section with the name of the person whose head we were in. Most of the time this just came naturally, as in that it just seemed the right thing to do. However, there were definetely times when I wrote a section from one POV and then rewrote it from another that seemed better.

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks, Charles, for taking the time to answer my questions. I find learning about other people's writing methods useful.