Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What’s the Point… of View? By Austin S. Camacho

Recently a new writer hit me with a very good question. She said that every class she had taken and every book she had read about fiction writing cautioned authors to choose the point of view of their book with care, because it should stay the same throughout the story. Switching point of view is often pointed out as one of those errors that marks a writer as an amateur. Generally I agree. But she pointed out that more and more often she was seeing very successful writers changing points of view in their books. She wanted to know if the traditional wisdom was wrong, or if the rules had changed.

I would submit that most editors and agents you would send your manuscripts to would still consider POV hopping a pet peeve and a sign that they’re dealing with an untrained newbie. They would say, and I agree, that it's best to pick a POV and stick to it. But I can’t deny that many bestselling authors ignore this rule on a regular basis and still sell lots of books. Should we learn from this and follow their lead into a new set of fiction-writing rules?

I say no. First, pick any big name who changes POV and check out his earlier works. I think you’ll find that at the beginning of their writing careers, people don't violate POV rules. I think you have to obey the rules to GET published. But once you’ve got a couple best-sellers under your belt, the universe grants you a bit more latitude. For example, James Patterson seems to give almost every character in a novel some POV time, and worse, they’re all in third person except his protagonist who gets to be in first person! I can’t explain how he gets away with it, I just know he does.

On the other hand, Michael Connelly’s just that good. After several Harry Bosch books he began switching to the criminal’s POV, maybe just to keep things interesting. He’s just so good at what he does that he can make it work. Another writer might look like he was just making it up as he went along. But when Connelly does it, we trust that he knows what he's doing and we’re willing to go along for the ride. I know I’m revealing my blatant hero worship here, but I’d say if you think you’re as good as Connelly, go for it. Me, I’ll stick to one POV… most of the time.There are times that even we mere mortals can get away with going from first person to third person POV or having multiple POVs. For instance, what someone is telling a long story to your protagonist? That’s a reasonable time to switch POV to that of the storyteller.

Or, what if your detective is reading someone else’s letters? You could write a chapter that was the content of the letters, and put that chapter in the voice of the letter writer.

I’m sure there are other possibilities I can’t think of right now. The important thing is that it is very clear to a reader (an agent or an editor) that you did it on purpose with a clear plan, not just because you didn’t know any better. I think it’s always safer to play by the accepted rules – at least until you’re as big as James Patterson.


Terry Odell said...

First, I can't imagine a 'rule' that says one POV. The romance genre virtually demands two, hero and heroine.

I think the "rule" means that you need to stick with a POV until there's a darn good reason to switch. Hopping from one head to the next can give a reader whiplash.

But even that can be managed IF your switches are clear. Sometimes it's a scene break, sometimes it's an extra return between paragraphs, and sometimes it's a matter of going from deep POV in character A, pulling back to a more shallow POV, and then picking up with character B's POV.

I think Allison Brennan said she had something like 13 points of view in her first book.

Detective novels tend to stick to a single point of view because the reader is following along as the detective gets his clues.

I'm one who PREFERS fewer points of view, because if you hop into the villain's head, you've just changed genres from mystery to suspense.

Often, when I read a book with a POV character who shows up for 3 paragraphs once in the book, I wonder why the author couldn't find a better way to let the reader know what was happening.

But if you have a book with multiple characters who aren't on the page together, justified POV switches can help the story.

Just remember ... in the end, the book "belongs" to one character regardless of how many other POV characters you have.

(I could go on forever, since before I started writing, I had no clue what POV was, and it was my first lesson. Which says that quite likely, the average reader doesn't even notice. However, they may not get into the book and won't exactly know why.)

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

When I see a book where the author keeps switching POV back and forth in the same scene, I know they haven't a clue about POV.

What I always tell my students is one POV per scene if you are going to switch, pick the person who has most at stake in the scene to be the POV character and be sure and let the reader know right away that the scene is being seen and experience through a new person.

In my Deputy Tempe Crabtree mysteries I use close third person almost entirely through Tempe's POV. (In a couple of books, I've switched for just one scene to convey something important I couldn't do any other way.)

In my Rocky Bluff P.D. series I use multiple points of view but a new scene whenever I switch.


Deb Larson said...

I use multiple POV in my family saga, and oddly enough with one of my main characters I do not use his POV because he is so straight forward I can bring his personality to light. But I always have one POV per scene. No head jumping - I don't like that. Also no jumping from 1st person to 3rd person - very few can make that work.
DL Larson
PS: Austin - I'm nearly finished with your book, Russian Roulette. I'm really enjoying it! :)

Morgan Mandel said...

I get irritated by some bestselling authors who practice sloppy writing. I know many have deadlines, many even have other people ghost write their work. I won't name names, but there are too many great books out there to waste my time on slapped together ones. POV violations are just one example.

Morgan Mandel

Bob Sanchez said...

I agree that there's one standard for new writers and a different one for the bestselling authors.

As for rules, though, I am skeptical. Maybe it's better to treat them as guidelines that will provide a safety net for the inexperienced writer. A set of supposed "rules" implies that if you follow them all, you'll get published, and that just isn't true. In my humble opinion the important question isn't how many POVs you have but how clear your story is. Do the POV switches cause confusion? That's a problem.

Bob Sanchez

Kim Smith said...

I agree with Morgan and also, what the heck are the editors thinking allowing sloppy POV switches in a paragraph. Oh yeah, I have seen it !

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