Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Back to school: A lesson in point of view

This post is for all the writers out there, especially those who are yet to be published. For everyone who's already got a handle on the following subject, you can go here and enjoy, especially if you're a True Blood fan: (If you're not a True Blood fan, you're out of luck. Sorry.)

As you may or may not know, I edit for two different e-publishers. So I get to see a lot of manuscripts. I even get to accept some. But there's one thing that's bound to make me, and any other editor, instantly reject a manuscript: poorly handled third person point of view. (pov)

In junior high school English (or its equivalent, depending on your country of origin), you may have learned these definitions of pov:

First Person-uses I; the protagonist (the narrator) can only show the writer what the I of the story sees and can only interpret the actions/feelings/thoughts of others. (Unless they're a mind-reader.) Like the story of your life with you as the main character, there's only one person through whose eyes you see.

Second Person-uses you (to be honest, I've never seen a definition of second person that anyone can understand and usually see this disclaimer instead of an example: not often used. Of course. No one understands it, so no one uses it. The most important thing to understand is this: Commercial fiction does not use second person, so don't utilize it even if you can figure out how to do it. )

Third Person-uses she, he, it; if it's not first person (I), this is the point of view used in commercial fiction. 

There are two forms of third-person: limited (where the writer is only able to describe what the viewpoint character sees) and omniscient, where the writer is God-like and can tell the reader what every character sees at any given moment in the story. This is where many writers run into trouble.

Many of the books we were asked (okay, forced) to read in school used omniscient third person point of view. And it worked well, for its time. Especially when we read books written in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. The writer of the story is as just as much present, in many cases, as the characters s/he's writing about. For example, here is the opening of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Notice how the author intrudes upon the story, as if dictating it to the reader. He (for I'm assuming it is a he, perhaps even Dickens himself) begins the story in first person, yet disappears after a few paragraphs to switch to third person omniscient:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

The reason this is omniscient? Because someone's describing the appearance of Scrooge as if observing him from across the room. Scrooge himself is not going to be able to describe his appearance without looking into a mirror (and he probably wouldn't do it in such an unflattering way). While this was a commonplace and acceptable technique for fiction in 1843, it's not what we do in today's fiction.

What today's readers expect is limited third person point of view, where the only thing they can see is what the character sees and the only thoughts they can read are the ones going on in the viewpoint character's head. It's almost like using first person (I) with third person pronouns.  Instead of being held at a distance and viewing a tableau as the 19th century reader was, readers of current fiction want to live vicariously through the character, seeing the world through their eyes. And while it's fine to use a variety of characters in your fiction (of course) what you need to realize is that many publishers have house style rules dictating one viewpoint character per scene. So the writer isn't able to hop from viewpoint to viewpoint--or shouldn't--but must use the eyes, voice and interpretations of a single character per scene.

This means that Miss Fanny Booboo isn't going to be in your opening scene doing something like this:

Fanny Booboo stood at the coffee maker, waiting for her first cup of the day. Her sky-blue eyes felt gritty and she wished she'd stopped dancing at three and gone home to bed at a decent hour. Say, eight o'clock. But no, she'd stayed and danced the night away like the love-sick idiot she was. She leaned against the counter and shook her shining blond hair, the sexy ringlets tumbling down her back to land exactly at the point in her slender waist where her hips gently swell into curves which had been known to inspire men to immediately declare they were in love. At least, until recently.

At first glance, this seems all right. But if we were truly in Miss Booboo's head (and point of view), we wouldn't be able to see the color of her eyes, the hair tumbling down her back, her slender waist, or her gently swelling hips. Not unless Fanny decided to reach up, yank her eyeballs out of their sockets and hold them in her palms like little, round and probably bloody cameras, to scan her appearance so the reader knows what she looks like. (Pretty yucky at that point, I would assume.) Only someone standing on the opposite side of the room observing her actions would be able to see this picture. There isn't, however, and we're not seeing the story through someone else's point of view, because we know what Fanny's thinking and her physical feelings. What's here is omniscient point of view--which, like I've said, is frowned upon in current commercial fiction--and it's what an editor will call a pov break.

If you've been working to get published and you receive a rejection with these words, stop and look at what you've written. Is your character seeing something she shouldn't/couldn't/wouldn't? If that's the case, put her sky-blue orbs back into her skull and rewrite the scene from her point of view. It will make for a cleaner narrative and--hopefully--result in less rejections.

Any questions? Feel free to ask. 

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