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Writer-Talk Tuesday: Let’s Talk POINT OF VIEW

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

As a reminder, I’m spending the next several Tuesdays sharing comments I’ve made on past writing contest entries as a judge. Today’s comments come from the Point of View sections.

Is the point of view consistent? Are POV changes smooth and logical?

So that I don’t have to try to repeat everything I’ve said about POV before:
Make POV Work for You–Introduction
Make POV Work for You: Dispelling a Few POV Myths
Make POV Work for You: POV Begins with Character
Make POV Work for You: I’m Ready for My Closeup
Make POV Work for You: Avoiding Head-Hopping
Make POV Work for You: The Unreliable Narrator
Make POV Work for You: Character Vocabulary
Make POV Work for You: Show Don’t Tell (Part 1)
Make POV Work for You: More on Character Description
Make POV Work for You: Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)
Make POV Work for You: Writing the Male POV

Suggested Reading
The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley
Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress

The most important thing I can tell you for trying to get a good score on Point of View sections is to know the standard POV structure/voice for the genre you’re entering. Most YA is currently first person or third-person limited. Fantasy/Sci-Fi is usually third person, either limited or omniscient (but NOT head-hopping—read more about that here). Romance is third person/limited/past-tense. And so on. Unlike editors and agents who might be looking for that breakout writer who breaks the genre molds, contest judges are judging based on the Platonic ideal of the genre (or, to use the five-letter word we don’t like using here, they’re making sure you’re following the “rules”).

Once again, here are some comments I’ve made on past contest judging sheets about POV:

Even in a short novel, viewpoint scenes need to be meaty and long enough to have a significant impact on the story. Switching viewpoint characters every few paragraphs—even with a scene-break indicator between—is as jarring to the reader as head hopping.

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The standard Point of View for historical romance is Limited 3rd Person. What that means is that each scene is seen/experienced through the eyes/ears of only one viewpoint character. That means no switching back and forth between characters, no omniscient narrator who’s telling the story and occasionally dipping into various characters’ heads at will. This type of narrative should be written almost as if in First Person—very deep inside the viewpoint character’s head. The author cannot intrude and tell information that the character doesn’t know or wouldn’t think about or doesn’t experience with his own five senses.

Only the characters who are stakeholders in the story—in other words, their internal journeys affect the direction, conflict, climax, and resolution of the story—should have scenes written in their viewpoint. In a romance novel, this is usually limited to the hero and heroine.

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In deep (limited) POV, you cannot write anything that your viewpoint character cannot see, hear, smell, taste, feel, or know for him/herself. If you’re in your heroine’s viewpoint and you write: “her face turned red,” you’ve head-hopped. Why? Because that description is coming from an external observer. She can’t see her own face turn red. She can only experience the burning sensation, feel the mortification deep-down inside her soul, wish the floor would open up and swallow her.

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You have a tendency to shift POV—not just outside of the viewpoint character’s head (see where I’ve marked “head-hop”) but between third-person and first-person and between past-tense and present-tense verbs.

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You have shown that you have a pretty good handle on writing in first-person POV. Just be cautious about turning around and directly addressing the reader and breaking into second-person POV (“you”).

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You have a tendency to step outside of your POV character. For example: “The two women hugged . . .” The way to make sure you’re staying in Deep 3rd POV is to think about how you would write it if you were writing in 1st person: I hugged my sister or we hugged, not we two women hugged. Therefore, Jan hugged her sister or they hugged. In Deep 3rd POV, you cannot show what the POV character doesn’t see for herself.

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The main character is very identifiable and has a unique “voice” all of her own. However, I could not, for the life of me, remember her name right after finishing reading the excerpt. I could remember Chris (26 occurrences), Lisa (12 occurrences), Suzanne/Suz (24 occurrences), and Ben (13 occurrences). But the name of the main character was never used enough to establish it in my memory, which is one of the problems with writing in first person POV. When I teach writing classes on Opening Chapters or on Character Development, a rule of thumb I give is that in a first chapter, the viewpoint character’s name should be mentioned at least twice on each page. That would mean that Daphne should appear between 18 and 20 times in this excerpt. Unfortunately, it only appears 5 times. Which means her name is mentioned less than half the number of times of the least-mentioned secondary character (Lisa). So see if you can find a way to establish your main character’s name by using it more often in dialogue—have Chris call her by name right in his first line to get things rolling (which will also play into the idea that this isn’t the first time he’s done this).

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What questions or concerns do you have about viewpoint/POV, especially when it comes to contests or critiques?

3 Comments
  1. Thursday, March 22, 2012 5:37 am

    Good information. I *thought* I knew POV before I attended my first conference last year and then read Self Editing for Fiction Writers.
    Now my biggest question with it comes in knowing another character’s motivation. For example: in 1st POV, you can know a person is staring, but not exactly what they are staring at or why…right?

    • Thursday, March 22, 2012 5:38 am

      Er, that would be a character who is not the viewpoint character doing the staring. =)

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