The Point of View Tapestry

by John Gilstrap

Two weeks ago, in my previous post here on TKZ, I used the example of a chess board to demonstrate the difference between omniscient POV and the close third-person.  Essentially, I pointed out that in any given game of chess, the perspectives of the individual pawns, knights and royalty are entirely different than that of the chess master who’s sending them into battle.

This week, I want to expand on the theme of close third-person with a tip on how to make the 3P voice sing.  First, there’s the Gilstrapian view of what makes a story good: A good story is about compelling characters doing interesting things in interesting ways, all of which is presented in an engaging voice.  Those elements–character, action and voice–are not, however individual elements.  Rather, they form what I call a POV tapestry, where the various threads influence every element of the finished product.

POV drives everything from dialogue to setting to action.  As an illustration, consider that your POV character, Bob, finds himself in a desert, and you, as the writer, need to set the scene for your readers.  Consider these two options:

Bob pushed the car door open and climbed out into the brilliant sunshine.  Shielding his eyes, he scanned the horizon.  The beauty of the place took his breath away.  Rock formations glistened in shades of copper, gold and bronze.  The vegetation, while sparse, seemed to vibrate with shades of red and blue and yellow.  He was stranded in an artist’s paradise.

In this version, while we’re being introduced to the setting, we’re also learning something about Bob.  Perhaps he’s a romantic.  He’s certainly observant.

Now, consider this:

Opening the car door was like opening a blast furnace.  Super heated air hit Bob with what felt like a physical blow.  It took his breath away. The desiccated ground cracked under his feet as he stood, and as he scanned the scrub growth and rocky horizon, he understood that he no longer rested at the top of the food chain. Now he understood why we tested nukes in places like this.  

The setting in these two examples is the same.  The action is the same.  Both examples advance the story–whatever that may be–exactly the same distance.  But the voices–the critical element in pulling off 3P POV–are different.  Notice that there’s no need to say that Bob #1 is a fan of the desert, or that Bob #2 is not.  That’s because the descriptions are all filtered for the reader through the character’s point of view.

In an effective story, every word of every sentence and every sentence of every paragraph should advance not just plot or character or setting, but all of these at the same time.

In my seminars I ask students to take five or six minutes to describe the place of the class–room, building, campus, town, whatever they choose–and through the description alone, convey the character of the narrator.  It’s a worthwhile exercise.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, 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 the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

9 thoughts on “The Point of View Tapestry

  1. The tapestry analogy (did I get that one right, or is it a metaphor, or whatever?) is a good one. Everything has to be interwoven. And, when writing, if you decide to change the POV character for a scene, it’s so much more than just swapping “Mary” for “John” in dialogue tags.

    I love deep/close/intimate POV. I do something similar in my workshops, which is give a list of potential characters: artist, cowboy, cop, etc., and a choice of settings, and have attendees choose a setting and then describe it from two different character POVs.

  2. John, one of the best lessons I’ve learned here at TKZ is how to *not* stop the action of a story with description (the parts Elmore Leonard says readers skip over anyway). Your example of incorporating the POV’s attitude into the description keeps the reader’s interest w/o slowing the action or boring the reader, while further building the character.

    Another great tool! Thanks, John.

    • I second your comment, Debbie. The second description is relatable more to the characters I typically develop, and its double duty (describe the setting plus convey the POV character’s attitude) would not slow the action, short of wandering into that location while a proffered nuke test was underway. So often I see input here that does resonate and makes for a fresh review of WIP material. Good show, John, and thank you.

  3. Another trick to remember is to stay in the POV character’s vocabulary. An artist will use color names from his palette. Someone who knows nothing about cars will open the hood of the car and not have the correct words while a mechanic will.

    • Good point on the vocab. I used the word random in dialogue ith teenagers and had an editor offer suggestions to ‘improve’ the choice. I sent her a link to the Urban dictionary. That one, I got to win.

  4. I am a huge fan of a really close POV, and your two examples are wonderful examples of just why I prefer getting close to the character.

    In my current WIP, I’m trying out First Person, although, at first, I was afraid I’d end up using I, I, I, too much, but it’s not working out that way. Whew!

    As for the vocabulary comment by Marilynn Byerly, right on! In some of the editing projects I’ve taken on, even a word that’s not the character’s pops off the page and hits me in the eye. Ow!

    Thanks so much for posting this.

  5. I like how in your 2nd example, your character has an opinion about his surroundings & he’s at odds with it. The setting poses a threat or conflict. It’s not just a description of something pleasant.

    I can see describing a pleasing setting through the eyes of an artist or someone sensitive but as authors we choose how to paint the canvas of our world to make it interesting.

    No matter which way you go on setting, it’s definitely more appealing to see it through the eyes of a colorful character voice with an opinion…and conflict is always key.

  6. Really nice way of breaking this down, John. I ran into this in my current series. Two protagonists, teenagers, one male, one female, and they’re both under the same threat. Each will react but not exactly the same.

    Couldn’t get the reaction right for the guy. Struggled with it and nothing felt quite right. Then he punched a wall. So much better and so appropriate for a teenage boy.

    Though, in my case at that age, it was a water heater.

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