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Make POV Work for You: Dispelling a Few POV Myths

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

After having lunch with fellow Tennessee author Kathy Cretsinger yesterday (who’s on her way to Scotland—I’m so jealous!) and talking with her about the upcoming ACFW National Conference, I had dreams last night about being at conference. Which made me think about all the things we hear from other writers when we’re all clustered together in places like conferences. I’m not talking about what editors and agents tell us in panels, but what other writers may say in workshops they teach or the information we exchange amongst ourselves at mealtimes or in the hallways. I have no experience with secular conferences, but I know at events like ACFW, all information is exchanged with the best of intentions. Just not always with the proper information.

Sometimes, an editor or agent may say something to an author in a one-on-one meeting about that author’s particular manuscript. The editor or agent may tell the author that the author needs to change the Point of View from 3rd to 1st, or needs to cut down on the number of Viewpoint characters. The author, without meaning to, internalizes this advice and takes it to mean that this whole genre of story should be written in 1st Person, or that there can never be more than a certain number of POV characters in any subsequent stories written in this genre.

      A great example of this is from when editors and agents began saying many years ago at conferences to “prefer active verbs,” just like it says in The Elements of Style (Strunk & White). We authors took this to mean we could never use anything BUT active verbs and not only that, we had to find the most obscure and colorful active verbs we could possibly find. I had an editor tell me—in a personal conversation, not in an “official” manner—that she actually missed seeing an occasional “was” in the manuscripts submitted to her.

So let’s look at some common misperceptions about Point of View.

1. First Person is easier to write than Third Person. When we tell someone a story about something that happened to us, we’re automatically crafting it in First Person. So we should all be experts in this Point of View and find it easy to write in, right? However, telling someone a five-minute-long story and writing a three hundred–page novel are two beasts entirely. Just like a Third Person Viewpoint character, a First Person Viewpoint character has to have something to reveal to the reader, a little at a time; have an interesting and dynamic character arc; and be able to build suspense by not revealing important information to the reader. In the series Hooking the Reader, we looked at how one of the best ways to keep a reader turning the pages, to keep them in suspense, is to be able to jump away to another character’s Viewpoint at a pivotal moment in the conflict. In First Person, you can’t do this (unless you’re using more than one First Person Viewpoint character, which can be done, but isn’t always effective and should be shied away from by writers who haven’t already mastered limited Third Person POV). In First Person, it’s harder to keep important information from the reader until the end of the story without the reader feeling cheated.

2. Omniscient POV and head-hopping are the same thing. Omniscient POV means that the author is basically narrating the story and can dip into any character’s thoughts at will. But authors experienced with using this POV are actually narrating and dipping. Authors who write in a headhopping style jump from one character’s thoughts to another without any transition between them, sometimes from sentence to sentence, sometimes within the same long sentence. Headhopping is jarring and sometimes confusing. Omniscient POV is more of of a “godlike” viewpoint on the story and one in which the narrator of the story becomes an invisible extra character. (Authors to read to study true omniscient POV are Hemingway, Dickens, Toni Morrison [Beloved], Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Jane Austen.)

3. As long as I’m not head-hopping, I can use multiple Viewpoint characters in every scene. You can—if you’re writing in Omniscient POV. But for genre fiction, editors are looking for authors who have a good command of writing Limited Third Person—meaning only one Viewpoint character per scene. Limiting yourself to only one character’s Viewpoint per scene will not only strengthen your story, it will also strengthen your skills as a writer. [You can break a scene into two character’s viewpoints—as long as you’re giving each character a sufficient chunk of the scene (e.g., half a chapter) before changing viewpoints with a definitive scene break.]

4. Bestselling authors in my genre head-hop and use omniscient POV, so I can, too. Many bestselling authors are grandfathered-in and don’t have to write to the same requirements that an untried, unpublished or newly published author must live up to. Why? Well, let’s look at what they’re doing right instead of what they’re doing wrong. The reason these authors have gained bestseller status is because they’re first and foremost great storytellers. They craft compelling characters. They’re experts at generating suspense. They use words in describing the setting the way a painter uses oils to create a masterpiece. And they sell books.

5. I have to write in the same Point of View (person) as every other author in my genre. For unpublished authors, this is one that isn’t necessarily a misperception or myth. Editors and agents are going to want to know just from looking at your sample chapters that you understand the genre you’re writing. They want to know that you understand that romance is typically written in Limited 3rd Person using the hero’s and heroine’s Viewpoints. We should always start out by choosing to use the accepted standards of our genres until we’re experts at them. Once we’re experts, then we can start writing outside the guidelines, experimenting with bringing different POVs to freshen up tried-and-true genres.

What are some other things you’ve heard or read and you’re wondering if they might also be mythical or misperceived?

  1. Wednesday, April 22, 2009 10:42 am

    No other myths/fallacies spring to mind, but I just want to add a big “AMEN” on #2 and #3. It’s important to realize that Limited 3rd with multiple viewpoints is the POV du jour, but it’s possible to write in other POVs.

    But #4 is also an important caveat. Claiming that a bestseller uses a technique so you can, too is like arguing “Jennie’s mom lets her do it.” Didn’t work in high school and won’t work in the real world.


  2. Carol Collett permalink
    Sunday, April 26, 2009 7:20 pm

    Can’t think of any other myths. But I think understanding POV is one of the most important skills for the writer.


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