POV Confidence

Point Of View (POV), sometimes called person, or viewpoint, is a much analyzed and much deconstructed narrative technique. I think this is a mistake.

It is a very simplistic view — indeed it is a lie to children — that the experience of reading a story is one of associating, sympathizing, identifying, with a main character, and thereby imagining yourself in his place. We don't experience real life in such an insular, individualistic, egocentric way. We experience real life (much of the time) as a group; we see events and experiences through many pairs of eyes. When you witness some event, you cannot help but see the effect it has on others who witness it, though the expression, posture, movement. When you are caught up in some event, you experience it not only through your own thoughts and feelings, but those expressed on the faces of your companions, and the faces of witnesses and bystanders. Even when you are wholly alone (without any human company), your environment is as much affected by you as you by it, and as you witness your effect on your environment, so you experience your own actions from a separate (albeit inanimate) point of view.

But it is easy to get caught up in the lie of a single point of view. Not only does it simplify and de-mystify the work of the author, but it gives him the illusion of control. And that control is where it all goes wrong.

Broadly speaking, I classify POV as follows:

1. First person or non-first person.

This is an easy one most of the time. If the narrator says "I did this, I did that," then this is a first person narration. If the narrator says anything else, then it isn't. The issue is complicated by the fact that first person narration isn't always first person POV. Eh?

When the narrative conceit is of an agonist in some past event who decides to commit his account of the event to paper (as is the case in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries), the narrator will use "I" when talking about himself,  but might not always restrict himself to his own point of view. He can do this because he is narrating after the fact, and is in possession of additional facts and testimonies that he did not possess at the time. Here is a (made up) example:

While I conducted a thorough examination of the cellar, Holmes, wearing his customary expression of patient perplexity, returned to the library where he began a lengthy perusal of the late Duke's papers. Little did he know that he was being watched.

In the above case, the author is not slavishly restricting himself to what the (imaginary) narrator knew at the time, but uses what Watson must have found out later. I call this "what I didn't know" narration. It allows a first person narrator to go beyond his own point of view, and as such deliver a more rounded story, by which I mean one that includes witnesses other than himself.

2. Strong or Weak point of view.

Strong or Weak might just as well be expressed as structured or organic, disciplined or instinctive. "Weak" is not mean pejoratively. Strong POV is when the writer decides that the reader may know only what the current central character could know. As I have already suggested, this is a little artificial, but handled skillfully can lead to a real thrill-ride. Hitchcock uses this conceit in film (Vertigo, NxNW). Strong POV may be applied in either first or third person. (Or in extreme cases, second person. I fact when writing in second person, only strong POV is possible. And really, really odd. Try it sometime.)

Weak POV is harder to define. I can say that it leads to fewer problems for editor and reader, and is much closer to what I think of as natural narration, which is the way that you might tell an anecdote — for amusement or otherwise. Weak POV is a matter of telling the reader what the reader needs to know to experience the story as the writer intends. When different characters are acting in concurrently in mutually remote locations (or just mutually invisible locations), a gentle shift of POV allows the narrator to avoid lengthy recapping:

Sir Bedevere fought tirelessly; no matter the cost, he had to get through to the castle before it was too late. Robin was counting on him to save the Princess from a fate worse than … Bedevere wasn't thining about it, he was concentrating on the steady rise and fall of his sword.

Even as Bedevere fought his way to her, the Princess was not idle. Hearing the noise of battle, and sensing here fate was near, she had begun tearing the bedsheets into strips and braiding them together. She looked up at the bars on the window, then down at her hips. She would, she concluded, have to squash.

If I applied strong POV to Bedevere, then by the time the hapless knight will have fought his way to the Princess' bower, she will be long gone, and the narrator will either have to backtrack, or have Bedevere discover her means of escape, or worse still, have her recount her escape to him three chapters later when he finally catches up with her. In a good story, there is never time for explanation.

But strong POV leads to far worse excesses.

The twins, Alice and Bob, have, by the end of chapter four, become separated. The writer is having a blast alternating chapters from Alice' point of view and then from Bob's. In chapter 5, Alice sees Doctor Acula (the bad guy) for the first time. The narrator gives a suitably scary and ominous description of him, and he introduces himself and his evil schemes to Alice. Three chapters later, Bob espies Doctor Acula from a distance, and the writer finds himself in a rather silly quandary. How to describe the wicked Doctor such that the reader sense Bob's sense of foreboding without giving the reader the impression that Bob has recognized Doctor Acula, which of course he can't, since he hasn't  met him yet? Of course, it can't be done without giving the reader the profoundly confusing impression that there are two very similar bad guys.

I encounter this over and over again. Even experience, well respected writers varnish themselves into this corner.

Here's another: Around chapter 10, an ambiguous secondary character, Craig, needs to be introduced. For his introduction he's going to do something dramatic: pull of a daring robbery. But to keep him mysterious, the writer can't use Craig's point of view. However, neither Alice nor Bob are present, but the writer has decided that every chapter must use a strong POV. So, the writer invents Dave the Security guard. Chapter 10 is written from the point of view of Dave, who is variously trying to prevent Craig from getting in, then trying to protect the Diamond, then trying to catch Craig before he escapes. At the end of chapter 10, Craig leaps away into the darkness and Dave falls out of a high window. End of Dave.

I know some writers will try to excuse this clumsy and blatant mechanism as pathos. I for one ain't taken in, and I reckon the same is true of  most readers.

Finally, a word about head-hopping. Head-hopping is the much maligned practice of carelessly switching points of view within a single chapter, scene or even paragraph. At its worst it's really confusing, and it is really easy to mess up a narrative this way, so most editors will rightly discourage it, encouraging (I hope) using POV a little more weakly, or choosing one strong POV and sticking to it. However, head-hopping can be used to devastating effect.

In the first chapter of Mel Comley's new thriller, Cruel Justice, there is just one head-hop. It serves to accentuate the horror and brutality, and it is totally unavoidable. Read the first chapter here. Consciously or unconsciously, this is how to use POV.

POV isn't about what the character knows, it is about what the reader knows. EVERYTHING you write is about what the reader knows and what the reader feels and what the reader experiences. When you write, you aren't telling the reader what happened. You are using narrative to create an experience for the reader. The more you analyze and deconstruct your writing technique, the more you choose devices, styles, conceits because you like them, you know about them, you have seen others using them, the more you are writing for the benefit of the text, yourself, other writers and (heaven forfend!) critics.

Getting POV right is not about skill or technique, though. It is about confidence. And you get the confidence by knowing that you are telling the reader what he needs to know.

Do some live storytelling and you'll soon see.

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