Taming point of view is a critical step toward taming a story.
A couple of times a year, I teach daylong seminars on writing suspense fiction. In one of my favorite writing exercises, I prompt students to picture the image of a 14-year-old boy stepping out the back door of a bar at 11:00 pm and lighting a cigarette. Then we spitball ideas as to the kid’s motivation for being there and doing that. It turns out that there are any number of reasons why a kid would be lighting a cigarette behind a bar, not the least of which is that he needs a cigarette. Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette, right?
To develop the exercise even further, though, for illustrative purposes, I tell students to assume that the kid is signaling another person. It could be that the coast is clear, or that he has the ransom or that the bartender is dead. Or something else. Just for grins and giggles, let’s say that he’s signaling that he’s successfully robbed the place, and that the accomplice can move on to the next step.
That scene could be described from any number of points of view:
- The kid’s POV;
- The POV of the guy who’s awaiting the signal;
- The POV of a passerby; or
- A combination of all of the above.
[Note to JSB: Those semicolons are for you, my friend, because I know how much you love them. :-)]
Once the point of view has been selected, everything else in the scene should flow through the POV character’s worldview. Remember, we’re showing, not telling.
From the kid’s point of view, does the smoke burn his throat and chest and make him cough, or does it calm him? Each of those choices develops the character differently. Are his hands shaking or are they steady? Is he frightened, excited, happy or sad? What does he see through the darkness? What does he hear?
From the accomplice/bad guy’s point of view, does he think of the kid in admiring terms or in deprecating ones? There’s a world of difference between,
That’s it, he thought. Tommy came through. Maybe this nightmare was about to end, and
It’s about time, he thought. The kid took his sweet damn time, but he finally grew enough smarts to do what was good for him.
What would a passerby think of this scene? Appalled, maybe, that a kid was at a bar to begin with, not to mention being out this late and smoking a cigarette. Suppose the passerby is his teacher. Is she disgusted to see him, or is she terrified that he might see her?
The students in my class make their own choices on motivation and POV and then I give them five minutes to write a scene. I am always amazed by how many words they can commit to paper in so short a time. Those who are willing to share what they’ve written are given an opportunity to read aloud. In one particularly memorable example, one of the students—a woman of a certain age—assumed the point of view of the kid’s teacher, and the essay went into detail of just how much she wanted him naked in bed with her. And it was well written. When she was done, it was as if she’d drawn a vacuum on the room. Silence. Yes, her piece made everyone squirm, but I give her credit for originality.
Think camera placement.
In my thriller series, Jonathan Grave is a badass weapons expert and saver of lives. Because he is the star of most of the scenes in which he appears, sentences like these work just fine:
Of the five bad guys who swarmed through the gate, three carried AR15 clones. That was plenty enough firepower to ruin his day, but Jonathan was far more concerned by the two goons on the flanks who toted M14s. When the balloon went up, they needed to die first.
The gun porn is important to a lot of my readers, but it will be glossed over by others. Either way, every reader will understand that Jonathan is keenly aware of his surroundings. At the very least, readers will understand that two guys’ rifles are more powerful than the other three.
Now let’s take that same action and write it from the point of view of a ten-year-old hostage who’s watching from a window.
Billy knew that he was supposed to be hiding, but he couldn’t help himself. Leaning in from the side, and pushing the drapes away just a little, he could see the expanse of the yard while exposing only one eye. His heartrate tripled. There were five of them. They all carried rifles—long, black, ugly things—and they all looked angry.
Billy’s POV has nothing to do with weaponry or tactics, and everything to do with his emotions. In either point of view, the reader would still know that there were five bad guys and that they were all well-armed.
The same scene written from the POV of the approaching bad guys might go something like this:
Parker would have sold his soul for a little cover. He tried to keep his team separated and therefore make a more complicated target, but there’s something about human nature that makes people want to stay close when they’re scared. And if these boys weren’t scared now, then they just didn’t understand the peril they were in. For the fifth time in the last minute, Parker ran his right thumb along his M4’s selector switch to make sure that it was still set to full-auto.
Either of these approaches would advance the story toward the same point, but by choosing the appropriate point of view, you choose which character will be more developed in the reader’s mind. Jonathan can’t know how frightened Billy is, nor can he know about Parker’s frustration with his team. Billy would be too scared to worry about anyone other than himself. For maximum impact in a scene like this, I would likely break the action into parts and tell the story from all points of view, with a physical space break between POV changes.
The approach that never works is one that goes something like this: Parker’s team worried that they were wandering into a trap . . . Teams don’t think in unison. Individuals within the team think unique thoughts which may or may not be similar to others’ but there’d be no way for them to know without talking about it. That’s where dialogue comes in.
And I’ll talk about that in a couple of weeks.