Taming POV: Think Camera Placement

By John Gilstrap

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:

  1. The kid’s POV;
  2. The POV of the guy who’s awaiting the signal;
  3. The POV of a passerby; or
  4. 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.



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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

14 thoughts on “Taming POV: Think Camera Placement

  1. POV was my first writing lesson, and I’m hyper sensitive to it still.
    Suzanne Brockmann has a great booklet on Deep POV (I think those here call it “Intimate”) and she uses the camera analogy, starting with the security camera mounted in the corner of the room and moves all the way to sticking the camera INSIDE the POV character’s head where it’s privy to everything that character experiences.

    Readers might not know anything about the mechanics of POV, but the right one, as you point out, can make the difference between them loving the book and going for more or saying, “It was okay, I guess.”

    • Readers probably don’t know why certain stories that should be good don’t live up to their potential, but I think more times than not it has to do with the little backstage details.

  2. Thanks for the shoutout on semicolons, John. Just to be clear, they are useful in non-fiction; in fiction, they’re energy-sucking ticks.

    I have a strict no-tick policy for fiction.

    Good reminders on POV here. Get into the heads, see (camera) from the C’s perspective. Advanced techniques of “deep” POV and using character voice for the narration can follow, but you have to get the basics down first.

  3. Love this…especially the examples of how to handle the exact same situation.

    POV is one of the most important choices a writer must make. Giving a crucial POV to the wrong character can be lethal. And sometimes, when you are stuck, shifting a POV to a different character can get you moving again. Just had this happen to me in my chapter yesterday. The scene just wasn’t working…did the job okay but…meh. But the dialogue had to be there for the plot’s sake. I realized that if I gave the scene to a different character, it worked fine.

    This always reminds me of Lana Turner in that tacky old movie, “Imitation of Life.” She’s trying to impress her director in her stage debut and she erupts during a rehearsal saying, “I just don’t believe my character would say this!” The exasperated director says, “But I need those lines in the play!” Lana says, “Well, give them to Amy.” (a different character). Ta-da…play saved. Lana becomes a star. But her daughter Sandra Dee still hates her…

    • I imagine every author who’s been around the block a few times has fallen into the same trap of portraying a scene through the eyes of the wrong character. This is one of the reasons why I have always preferred the process of re-writing over writing the first draft.

  4. I hope that woman who wrote the sex scene with a 14-year old wasn’t a high school teacher, just sayin’…😎 Great post, John! In my critique group, Many of my cowriters struggle with POV. I use the camera analogy to explain how you can change from one to the next. It’s such a great visual way to explain the concept. I ran aground recently when I read someone’s story, which seemed to have no discernible point of view. The writer (somewhat defensively) explained to me that it was written from “omniscient” point of view. It was also written in present tense. It was the single most dreadful 10 pages I’d ever read. As is often the case with newbie writers, however, this woman could not be convinced that both these approaches we’re doomed to failure. Nowadays whenever she brings more of it in, I don’t comment very much. It’s clearly a lost cause!

  5. I used to love creative writing assignments like this! Can I join your class? 😉

    Seriously, I love reading the same scene from different POVs. It reminds me of how we all can experience the same situations with completely different stories when we tell them to others.

    Awesome reminder of this.

  6. Terrific post, John. I love the depth of the POV with each of these characters. I’m taking 10 from my manuscript right now, and you’ve made me rethink my entire last scene, wondering if the current POV is the best. So many choices!

  7. John, Sounds like your seminar is a gold mine for writers. I picture a camera and microphone perched on the shoulder of the POV individual–if the sights and sounds I describe aren’t captured by those devices, I’m not maintaining a constant POV in my writing. Now you’ve added the information that the POV character’s “viewpoint” (figurative) affects how the scene is portrayed. Great stuff.

    • Thanks, Richard. By narrating through the selected character’s POV, that character’s development is deepened even further, simply through word choices.

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