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Point of View–Showing vs. Telling

Monday, July 9, 2007

For those of you who’ve been with me a while, much of this post may seem familiar . . . because I’ve lifted most of it from the Showing vs. Telling series I did several months back.

Creating a deep, intimate point of view—getting the readers entrenched in each viewpoint character’s head—is inseparable from using a style of writing that shows rather than tells, in both limited and omniscient POV.

In omniscient POV, your readers are always going to feel a little more at-arms’-length from your characters, simply because of the fact that they’re never in one character’s head long enough to really feel comfortable becoming intimate with the characters. In limited POV, however, because the story is being told from only one viewpoint character’s POV at a time, the reader will settle in, will let their mental defenses drop, will become comfortable being intimate with the characters—but only if you use a showing, active style that allows them to be so.

Character Descriptions
See also Showing vs. Telling—Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, and Showing vs. Telling—In the Eye of the Beholder

Describing what a character looks like from his or her own viewpoint in a limited POV story can be difficult. Gone are the days when we could have our heroine stand in front of a mirror and think about her own appearance. We don’t want our characters to come off as egotistical or shallow because they’re thinking about what they look like (unless that is part of their characterization). Therefore, we must find a way somehow to show what they look like without telling—but in a way that feels natural.

It’s okay to have your character sweep her dark hair over her shoulder. It’s not perfect, but readers accept it. The easiest way to do it in 3rd Person/Limited is to describe each character in the other characters’ viewpoints. But most readers, especially romance readers, are going to want some kind of clues to begin building a mental picture of the character from the beginning. For examples from Susan May Warren’s and Linda Windsor’s novels, see Showing vs. Telling—Mirror, Mirror on the Wall and Showing vs. Telling—In the Eye of the Beholder.

Character Emotions
See also Showing vs. Telling—Feeeeeeeeeelings . . .
One of the points I hit repeatedly through the Showing vs. Telling series is the signpost words of telling: was (Character was adjective) and felt (Character felt emotion). Remember what I said about using felt to describe your characters’ emotions?

Starting today, however, train your brain to associate the word FELT with that heavy, scratchy, stiff fabric used for arts and crafts and not character emotions. Felt does not make comfortable clothing, so why “dress” your characters with it?

Make the emotions do something to the character (Fear ran down Molly’s spine like a hundred tiny mice with cold feet.)

What is your character’s internal vocabulary? If Molly isn’t afraid of mice, the above example wouldn’t be a good way to describe her fear. Your character’s age, cultural background, ethnicity, historical era, education, spirituality, etc., will all make a difference in the words you choose to use for the character’s internal emotional conflict. And each character’s should be different. This is one of the ways in which you give each character a unique voice in his or her viewpoint scenes.

For example, in Ransome’s Honor, my hero William is a sea captain—has been at sea since he was twelve years old:

William waited behind a middle-aged couple, careful to stay far enough behind to avoid the plumage swaying wildly from the back of the woman’s head.

Beyond the enormous white feathers, the crowd of well-dressed guests surged and ebbed like the tide rolling into Spithead harbor during a summer thunderstorm. His nerves tensed just as they did every time one of the lookouts cried, “Sail, oh!” But this wasn’t the sea, and these weren’t French and Spanish ships lying in wait to blow him out of the water. He must secure the guns, loose the headsail, and make forward progress into these unknown social waters.

This is his internal vocabulary; it’s how his experiences, his life impacts his thought processes.

The Five Senses
See also Showing vs. Telling—Do You See What I See? and Showing vs. Telling—Do You Smell What I Taste?
For the use of the five senses, I’m not going to try to summarize here what I wrote in the Showing vs. Telling posts. The most important reminder I can give here is that in limited point of view, you can only show what the viewpoint character experiences or knows for him- or herself. If the character doesn’t see it, you can’t show it (no statements like: Unbeknownst to Callie, John slipped out the front door while she set the dessert aflame).

The Sixth Sense
See also Showing vs. Telling—The Sixth Sense
Try to eliminate words such as knew, thought, and wondered from your writing. If you are deep into limited POV, you do not need to call attention to the fact that it is the viewpoint character who is knowing, thinking, or wondering. It’s just stream of consciousness—let it flow without the puppeteer’s hand showing through these telling signpost words. If you use italicized direct internal thoughts (which in limited POV should be used sparingly, if at all—click here for another discussion of that), you do not need to include the tag, “she thought.” The act of putting the thoughts in italics shows the reader that it is direct internal thought.

I’ll be at the ICRS tradeshow in Atlanta on Tuesday and Wednesday. Hopefully I’ll be able to at least get a few “encore” posts up, but if not, I’ll be back Thursday! If you have ideas for other writing-related topics you’d like to see discussed here, please post a comment.

6 Comments
  1. Monday, July 9, 2007 2:15 pm

    Great post Kaye–always good to have some reminders on Show v. Tell, and the was/felt syndrome. If you don’t get to post tomorrow and Wednesday I think we’ll understand. But we’ll miss you!

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  2. Monday, July 9, 2007 2:33 pm

    Have a wonderful time at ICRS. We’ll work hard stockpiling stuff for you to read when you get back! 🙂

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  3. Monday, July 9, 2007 2:59 pm

    I just pre-posted a couple of entries, so there’ll be something here even though I’m not! 🙂

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  4. Wednesday, July 11, 2007 9:30 am

    Great post, Kaye! This is one of those subjects that deserves constant reminders.

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  1. Upcoming Series: Make Point of View Work for You « KayeDacus.com
  2. Writing Series Spotlight: Showing vs. Telling and POV « KayeDacus.com

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