Monday, June 6, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- POV

Last post, I talked about making sure that your scene shows, rather than tells the story as it unfolds. One of the most powerful ways that you can “show” is by making effective use of Point of View.
For those of you who need a quick recap, the principle types of POV are:
  • First Person – The narrator is the “I” of the story
  • Omniscient – The story is told from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator. Characters are referred to in the third person “he” or “she”
  • Third Person Limited , also referred to as Deep Third Person -- The scene is told from the point of view of one of the participants in the action, who is referred to in the third person, i.e., he or she.

Most writers these days use Third Person Limited POV (TPL). Omniscient is still sometimes used for thrillers, suspense or mysteries, but even these genres are shifting towards TPL.  YA often uses first person to heighten reader identification.

TPL is a powerful tool. Like first person, it allows an author to get into the head of one of the characters and enables the reader to identify closely with that character. But it gives the writer a little more scope for description than first person, especially in love scenes. It also facilitates the use of more than one point of view character much more smoothly than first person.

First, check your scene for POV consistency.
  • Have you started and stayed in one character’s POV?
  • When you switch POVs, do you lead with a sentence that flags to the reader you are now in a different character’s head?
  • Have you chosen the most effective character as the POV character for this scene?
Popular wisdom says to select the character who has the most to lose as the POV character in any scene. This doesn’t always work for the most effective scene. If your scene feels weak, try telling it from the following alternative perspectives:
  • the person whose scene goal is the most powerful.
  • the person with the least knowledge in the scene
  • the person who has a secret
  • the person with the least power in the scene
  • the person with the most power in the scene
One thing to be very careful about is too many POV characters. In fact, plural POV characters flag to an editor that a writer is a beginner.

Depending on genres, you can get away with one to three POV characters without editors making a fuss. More than that, and you’d better have a powerful reason to bring the reader into so many heads.

Third Person Limited, used well, puts you right in the POV character’s world. You see the world through their eyes. This has some major implications.

Anyone who writes historicals knows to be careful of anachronisms. But it goes beyond that.

First, as people we all notice different things. What we notice is influenced by the time period we live in, our culture, our social and economic background, education, how familiar we are with the setting, our job or position, our age, our personal limitations (including our weight, disabilities, language), and our world view.

Put someone in a familiar setting and generally they tend to notice less. They take the familiar for granted, unless something has happened, such as a loss or death, that gives the familiar new meaning. The widow who never noticed how her husband bunched his towel on the rack, so it never dried thoroughly, will notice it now that he’s gone and regret that she never straightened it so it could dry properly. The divorcee will notice the same towel with anger – no wonder their linens always smelled of mildew.

On the other hand, put someone in a totally strange setting and they will quickly go on information overload. When we first moved to China, it was all I could do to cope with startling new architecture, the sidewalks crowded with people and bicycles, the shops with their goods spilling out onto the sidewalks. Every street corner looked the same. I struggled to memorize landmarks. Two months later, all these strange sights were familiar to me and not only did I quickly recognize the difference between San Xi Lu and Er Xi Lu (3rd Street West and 2nd Street West), but I also noticed when a new shop opened or when the stationer changed his window display.

  • Ask yourself, what would my POV character notice?
  • What would he or she feel about it?
  • Cut or alter things that aren’t true to character.
For example, a florist could give you the scientific names for the flowers in the centrepiece on William and Katherine’s wedding banquet table – and their provenance. A member of a bomb squad might not be able to identify the flowers in the centrepiece, but he would check it for a potential bomb.

Take the time to fine tune your imagery (including metaphors and similes) to reflect the character’s time period, occupation, interests. In my Arthurian trilogy, my heroine’s family is famous for raising war horses. Her POV contains a lot of horse imagery.

Now, look at the situation itself.
  • A person with a specific job to do is much more likely to notice the details of the scene that relate to that job than those not related to the job.
  • A person in danger or in a challenging situation is more likely to be aware of those things which challenge or threaten him or her.
  • A character’s emotional state can also influence what he or she notices. In a well-structured romance, for example, the reader picks up on the little things the heroine notices about the hero long before the heroine admits to herself she’s falling in love.
  • People who have just received a shock or blow of some kind often notice irrelevant details. Everyone in the United States who lived through JFK’s assassination can tell you precisely what they were doing the moment they heard he was shot – even though the incident happened forty-eight years ago.

How a POV character sees the details depends a lot on their culture, socio-economic status, and world view. For example, let’s take several different people walking today through District 6 in Cape Town, South Africa. They stop at the bulldozed down ruin of a house.

The story of District 6 inspired the movie District 9. District 6 was a multi-cultural part of Cape Town that happened to be close to the harbour and one of the most desirable pieces of real estate in Cape Town. During the apartheid period, the area was evacuated and its residents moved to one of the settlements. Before the neighbourhood could be turned to financial gain for the dominant whites, however, world opinion turned against South Africa’s apartheid scheme and the empty homes were left to rot. Eventually things got so bad, they were bulldozed down. Nothing has been done with the area, which now remains of a reminder of the earlier regime.
  • One person looking at the house might have been a descendent or one of the original occupants. She might see in a bit of china sticking out of the ground a lost way of life.
  • Another person – a developer perhaps -- might notice the prime harbour view and consider the waste that 20 or so square blocks of highly desirable commercial land can not be put to use.
  • Another person may see nothing but rubble and feel shame that this ever happened.
  • And so on…
 People don’t go through life merely seeing things. They have feelings about what they see. Put those feelings down on paper and you’ve turned POV into a powerful emotional tool.

Next post we’ll look at the emotional level of your scene and how you mine emotional opportunities.


1 comment:

  1. Great post. As much as I THINK I know what I'm doing, you reminded me of some good points that I need to think about when I'm editing== most importantly how different people notice different things. I have to remember that when I'm in a character's head. THanks Vicky!