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Guest Blogger Erica Vetsch–Making your Point (of View)

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

ericavetsch.jpgToday’s post is by a very special guest, my critique partner Erica Vetsch.

Thank you to Kaye for inviting me as a guest blogger to share my experience with learning the ins and outs of Point of View.   

When I joined the ACFW 1 January, 2004, I was completely clueless as to what all this POV talk was about.  My ignorance was made abundantly clear when I received my first ever contest judged entry back from the Noble Theme (now Genesis) Contest. 

My judges—may blessings rain down up on their heads—gently, but firmly, guided my first tottering steps in understanding POV.  Their comments included: “Whose head are we in here?” and “You’ve jumped about with your point of view quite a bit.  Most editors want to see a single point of view per scene.” Those poor judges.  In one scene in that—my first novel—I had no less than six POV characters. 

I was writing as if I was watching the story unfold on a TV screen.  First, I was looking over the hero’s shoulder at the heroine…quickly describe heroine as seen through hero’s eyes…then the camera shot changed to look over the heroine’s shoulder…quickly describe hero as seen through heroine’s eyes.  Every character in the scene got to have a say, got internal monologue, got their thoughts on the page. No secrets anywhere…that is, until I went all omniscient and dropped in a ‘Little did they know.’ 

Chaos reigned. 

At the advice of those contest judges, I began reading books on craft, focusing on the chapters about Point of View.  I’m going to recommend a few here. I know Kaye’s mentioned them, but another endorsement won’t hurt. J  

    Character, Emotion & Viewpoint, by Nancy Kress (in fact, if you can, try to get your hands on the entire Write Great Fiction Series from Writer’s Digest.  It will be money well spent.)
    Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein (It’s true, it really is a terrific book that will help ANY novelist become better.)
    Self-Editing for the Fiction Writer, by Browne and King (Some parts are nappers, and some I didn’t totally get, but they’re instructive on POV issues.)

Worlds of understanding opened before me as I studied.  Then I sat down to do the hard work.  I wrote.  I experimented. I edited. Theory is one thing.  Practice is another. There is no substitute, no class, no instruction book that will teach you as much as sitting your tookis down and writing. 

Regardless of the number of POVs you choose to use, the one hard and fast rule is (say it with me now) ONE POV PER SCENE. 

“But why?” you may ask. 

When I first became aware of ‘head-hopping,’ as shifting mid-scene (or mid-paragraph…or as I found in some places in my first novel, mid-sentence! Ouch!) is called, I was frustrated.  I had read books by best-selling authors, both CBA and ABA, who head-hopped more than a flea at a dog show. If it was good enough for them, well, it was good enough for me. And besides, I felt my story needed all those POV shifts for my readers to ‘get’ what was happening and to feel all the Emotion (with a capital E!) I was pouring into this work.

Boy howdy, was I wrong. It had the opposite effect. In replying to Kaye’s post of Thursday last, I mentioned a poem by John Godfrey Saxe (1816–1887) based upon a Hindu fable. I feel it illustrates the use of POV in creating emotion and tension. You can find the poem by clicking here.

Limited POV leads to conflict! Without conflict, you have no story! Each blind man in the poem knew only part of the whole, and each man was passionate about voicing his unique perspective. Your own characters have a unique perspective on the world you’ve created. When you limit the POV in a scene to one, it feels more like real life.  The same way you only know life as you perceive it, not the thoughts and perceptions of others around you, so too the reader will be drawn in, and in a sense, become the POV character as you limit the scene to that one character’s thoughts and perceptions.

So, how do you choose whose POV to write the scene in? I try to choose either the one who has the most at stake in the scene, or the one who has the most to learn. Who can succeed brilliantly in this scene, or who can fail spectacularly?  Who is the most frustrated, the most scared, the most angry, the most victimized? It ratchets up the tension in a hurry.

My last novel, Drums of the North Star, is historical fiction based upon the Minnesota/Dakota War of 1862. I used four POV characters, two men, two women. Each POV was necessary if I was going to cover all the events I wanted to over the six week period of the conflict. It was the number of POV’s that helped categorize the novel. While there is romance in it, the romance is not the crux of the story. Each POV carries its own weight and is needful for the unfolding of the plot. 

But in the romance I’m working on now, the only two POV’s that matter are the hero’s and the heroine’s. This is a short, category romance aimed at the Heartsong line. Adding other POV’s would dilute the drama between the H/H and add too much to the word count. 

My advice is: Don’t kick against this ‘rule’ regarding limiting your POV.  Embrace it. Don’t dilute the emotion and conflict of the story by hopping into everyone’s heads in each scene. If everything is known by the reader, why would they keep on reading? Instead, use the powerful POV tool to stir up conflict, to focus attention and emotion on the people who matter most in each scene, and to allow your reader a deeper look into the motivations, the frustrations, the needs and wants of the characters you love.  And the fact that it goes over well with editors is a nice bonus too. 

Thanks again to Kaye for inviting me to guest blog on this topic. Be sure to check the archives of this blog for a wealth of information and instruction on fiction writing. I daresay you won’t find better anywhere in cyberspace.

  1. Tuesday, July 3, 2007 12:21 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Erica. I too knew nothing about POV when I started and I still have a lot to learn. But I got that one hard, fast rule early. So I continue to be amazed by the number of recent releases I read that have multiple POVs in the same scene, if not paragraph.

    It makes me wonder how this stuff gets by, and I think it gives a false impression that getting published is easier than it really is. It also makes me have greater appreciation for those authors who really work to master the craft.


  2. Tuesday, July 3, 2007 2:53 pm

    You know, we all had to start somewhere. After reading Drums, I find it hard to imagine you hopping around in 6 different heads! Writing is a long and rewarding process, eh?


  3. Friday, July 6, 2007 1:06 pm

    You just described how I think everyone initially reacts to learning that they head-hop…I remember feeling the exact same way…published authors get away with it, it’s NECESSARY! Ha. I gave it up immediately b/c I wanted to “follow the rules” and in doing so, I was amazed at how much more I had to delve into my characters to get my points across. Now I just have to be careful I’m balancing the POV. I’d much rather write in my hero’s head than my heroines, strange but true.

    I wish all newbies to writing could read this post! It’s happened to so many of us, nothing personal, yet so many take it so hard, an attack on their “baby”! Part of the growing process as a writer.


  4. Friday, July 6, 2007 4:44 pm

    Here’s me as I tried, for the first time to write in 3rd/Limited POV:

    I really want to jump over and see what Bekka’s thinking right now.

    But this is Andrew’s viewpoint scene.

    Yeah, but he just said something that I know she’s having a great reaction to. Come on. Just one line–one thought.

    No. This is Andrew’s POV and he has some important introspection coming up in a few lines.

    But that brand new book I bought and read last weekend head-hopped all over the place. That was a best-selling author! If she can do it, why can’t I?

    Because you’re not a best-selling author. If you want to be, you’ll learn how to write in 3rd limited.

    You’re really cramping my style.

    No, I’m helping you gain a style, and a voice.

    (Lest you worry about me, see the Doctorow quote on my Fun Friday post this week!)



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