point of view slippage

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything on craft, but over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about POV.

In every discipline there are some concepts which are particularly hard for students to absorb. In linguistics there’s the concept of the phoneme, or, on the syntactic level, the passive. I run into really intelligent people who are confused and frightened by the passive. On a few occasions I have used a napkin in a restaurant to do my little passive spiel, and almost always it’s like coaxing somebody out on a high wire with no net. Once that’s been managed, I sometimes trot out my second party trick, which requires another napkin: the great vowel shift, or the house/husband goose/gosling puzzle.

Back to POV. In introductory creative writing classes it’s often simply explained with who’s the camera? — which character’s head are we in (assuming third person limited POV), through whose consciousness is this scene being filtered?

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of sloppy POV work. A scene opens with the POV character coming into a house where he’s never been before, meeting a person he wants to like. The details of what we as readers see can’t go beyond what that character sees and perceives. Which depends, in turn, on the character’s powers of observation, what’s on his mind, his background, and whether he got enough sleep last night.

There’s a famous writing exercise by John Gardner that goes something like this: character walking down a hill in a small city towards a bay. The weather is bright and warm. Describe the town and street from this character’s POV…

1. a woman who has just got a promotion she worked hard for
2. a teenager whose brother was just arrested for drug dealing
3. a man who has been spiraling deeper and deeper into depression
4. a five year old child on his or her way to the library with a parent

Each of these people will experience the street and the town differently. Of these four, only one is likely to notice, for example, that the crocus are coming up on the lawn outside the post office.

In the last couple days I’ve read passages in published novels where tough guys have observed things so counter to the characterization that I was pulled out of the story. Of course, a big bad detective could take note of the fact that the dead woman is wearing lilac pedalpushers, but then at some point you have to show me that he grew up doing his homework at the back of his mother’s dress shop, and has a quiet interest in watercolor. Otherwise it’s clear that the female author is observing and pushing her big bad male character to do the same. That’s classic author intrusion.

At different times, different POV approaches are fashionable among writers. First person narratives really had a strange hold on novels for a while there, but I think (I hope) that’s relaxing a little. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which won a lot of literary prizes and was widely read, is written in omniscient. I can’t remember the last contemporary novel I’ve read in omniscient POV. I was quite shocked, and then I settled down into the story and I admired the chance she took (which paid off).

Really, all you have to do is this: decide what approach you’re going to take, and stick to it. And hope for an editor who reads closely enough to catch this kind of slip.

8 Replies to “point of view slippage”

  1. Bel Canto was the book that made the omniscient POV click for me. That is, I finally understood what it is. Wonderful book too!

  2. I was trained in passive(smirk! Scientific studies are always supposed to be written in pasive voice.), POV makes plenty of sense, but what do you mean by the great vowel shift?

  3. At first I thought – oh yeah, there’s a way for each of those four to notice or comment mentally on the flowers in spring. Then I realized my inexperience at writing is showing. It would take a lot of explaining and possibly (probably?) non-plot-related writing to make the flowers important to everyone except the small child. This only came to mind as my two year old daughter handed me a pink plastic plate and said “you eat,” and when I absent-mindedly pretended to eat the plate, was scolded by her. “no mommy, on it.” They notice such details – it’s a fact. Wasn’t happy until I pretended a fork into existence and tried the food on the pink plate. She nodded in a satisfied way and said “na” the way she does for ‘yes.’ She will notice when I’m done eating the food on my pink plate too, I’ll guarantee you.

  4. And in the end, all I meant to say was – you’re right, but thanks for showing me that POV is a conscious decision made by a writer. I’ve always seen it from the character’s POV, as if they somehow dictate it to the writer. Well, of course, that could happen too, and maybe that’s where your editor comes in and tells you your characters are manhandling your established plot or style.

  5. I read a book last year (which shows how rare it seems to be these days) that was entirely omniscient, and it was a hard read for me. Just as I’d get comfy in one person’s head, whoosh, we’re in someone else’s. I felt like shaking the author and asking her why she was so afraid to just PICK ONE. I hop from POV, too, but stay in one for the duration of a scene (as opposed to paragraph to paragraph). It just feels easier; when the scene ends, the reader knows potential new POV.

    Then again, I read another book that was utterly delightful with the exception of perhaps six scenes — in a book that was otherwise deep POV for the female protagonist — that were from a male protagonists’ point of view. The overwhelming number of scenes and chapters (the first half of the book, really) from the female protag’s voice meant that when it suddenly became the male protag, I could see the writer at work. She might as well have held up a big huge neon sign that said, “there is no other way to communicate this but to switch POV, so here goes, and as soon as I’m done, we’ll go back–” which is exactly what she did. The second time she did it, I tried to figure out what we learned that couldn’t have come in via the female protag, and I never could. The scenes were well-written, but they felt superfluous and clunky solely because they were a POV that was so underutilized in the rest of the story — that switch in voice accorded them a gravity/import way beyond what the story/scenes really required.

    But it’s very much a concious decision — the problem, I think, is when’s one specific decision is too obvious to the reader. It then feels like one’s waving about a sign saying “woo! look at me! I’m writing!” Too self-conscious, I suppose.

    Then again, I love switching POV so the character (for instance, a brand-new undercover agent) who’s convinced he’s an utter dork in his first assignment… can be seen from someone else’s POV and comes across as lethal and dangerous, when in fact that “lethal stillness” was because (from 1st protag POV) he was terrified he’d trip over something on the carpet. Since I write fantasy, it’s too easy to have everyone be all badass and scary and knowledgeable, so hopping POV from scene to scene, while staying deep in each, is the best way to shoot down that “wah, such intimidating appearance” impression.

    I ramble. I am, as usual, procrastinating, and this time, you were my excuse. Off to read about vowels. Woot!

  6. sG: ramble away, this is interesting stuff. I confess that I have no problems with POV shifts within a scene as long as it’s handled deftly.

  7. Pam — that’s why it’s such a good exercise, it really makes the POV stuff clear. John Gardner’s writing books are very good, if you’re interested in more.

    May — Ann is a wonderful writer, and one of the things I like most about her is her willingness to take chances.

  8. (Nothing like the promise of an ARC to bring out the lurkers. I really thought about writing this comment a couple weeks ago &#133)

    Just after this post appeared, I was writing a scene in which a young man surprises a brother and sister sleeping in a meadow. I was writing from the point of view of the young man and describing the scene as I saw it in my head from the leisure of my sitting room, but then I deleted everything because I realized that the only things that my young man would see is that (1) the girl’s bodice was undone and (2) the brother has drawn a knife. Now that I think of it, those are probably the main things that anyone would notice.

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