Point of Who?

By John Gilstrap
www.johngilstrap.com

Those of us who choose to write in the third person limited point of view face a critical challenge after every space break: Who’s going to own the next scene? That choice affects virtually every sentence that follows it. It affects the action, the voice, the word choice . . . everything. Point of view selections even inform the direction that the plot is going to take.

Let’s say that we’re going to write a fictional account of the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. For the uninitiated, that engagement, fought in July of 1863, is widely considered the turning point in the war—the defeat from which the Confederate Army never fully recovered. More than 160,000 troops descended on a town of 2,400 residents, and at the end of three days of fighting, over 60,000 lay dead or dying, with many thousands more left wounded on the battlefield.

In our fictional account of the story, who will our POV characters be? If we choose to tell a story set among the commanders (George Meade for the Union, Robert E. Lee for the Confederates), it seems to me that it would be too limiting to assume the role of either commander, if only because their lives and decisions are so well documented. Instead, I would probably create a fictional aide de camp whose thoughts and observations I would record. I would imagine that this choice would have us writing battle scenes from a big-picture, strategic world view.

Maybe we’d want to tell the story of the battle from the POV of a rank-and-file soldier, in which case our story would be less about momentous command decisions than it would be about the everyday soldier’s life of unending boredom punctuated by blind terror. Our character’s view of the battle would not concern itself with troop movements on the grand scale, but rather from the very limited perspective of a man under fire choking on the stench of smoke and blood. If he could see anything, it would likely be the shoulders of the soldier in front of him.

Another option might be to tell the story of a Gettysburg resident, a civilian facing the horrors of war and its aftermath. Shall we choose a young woman who fears for the safety of her children? A middle aged man who feels guilt for not being part of the battle? Maybe the town doctor who is facing an unending stream of catastrophic traumatic injuries.

Whichever choice we make, the story will report on the same event, but the perspectives taken on that event will be wildly disparate depending upon our choice of POV.

Take the historical nature of the event out of play and the same challenges continue to exist. If we’re writing a divorce drama from the POVs of both husband and wife, we need to choose which perspective delivers the most drama for the scene where the lawyer reveals the investigator’s tapes of the wife cheating on hubby. If we’re writing a story about a kidnapping, we need to decide whether the actual snatching is best revealed to the reader through the point of view of the victim or the mother who sees him being spirited away.

These are really important decisions. How do you make them? Do you have to go back and rewrite your choices like I have had to do more times than I like to think about? For you first-person writers, do you face any kind of the same choices in your writing, or does the narrow window insulate you from them?

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When it comes to writing, what’s your point of view?

God, how I hate having to deal with point of view. Whenever I’m writing, POV feels like a technical constraint that limits expression. It forces me to make choices, to rein myself in and be disciplined. I really hate that.
And yet it’s critical that you set up POV correctly for your story. When you lose control of POV, you lose control of your story. And that’s when you lose your reader. (For an earlier discussion about POV, see our February Sunday writing blog.)
At one of my writing groups this week, we spent some time debating how to handle point of view in one of our member’s stories.

This particular story jumped in and out of the point of view of two characters within the confines of a two-person scene. On first reading, nothing seemed really wrong with the scene; I had to reread it several times to figure out why it lacked suspense and kept the reader at a distance. I finally decided that the real problem with the scene was its POV. In other words, there was way too much head-jumping going on.

So here’s a general guideline to help you avoid a POV trap:

Use only one POV per chapter or section (Sections separated by asterisks or a space).

The story we were reading in group had a POV that shifted between paragraphs (aka omniscient POV). That constant shifting created a confusing overall effect. I think it may be possible to present POV this way, but it probably takes an extremely skilled writer to pull it off. So why even play with POV fire?

Omniscient

The omniscient POV lets the writer enter each character’s head during a scene, and even lets the narrator provide direct observations. The story in my writing group is an example of a story that used an omniscient POV. It suffered from the same fate that omniscient POV stories usually do–the reader failed to engage with the characters or the story. Suspense was nonexistent.

Now that I’ve dissed the omniscient POV, however, I will admit that I’m considering using an omniscient narrative opening for my WIP thriller. In this case, the omniscient POV will function as a garnish, like the paprika sprinkled on top of the baked chicken to draw in the eye and make the dish look tasty.

First Person

Favorite of detective novel series (to the point of being cliche), the first person POV has decided pluses and minuses. It’s a very intimate POV (you know everything going on in the character’s head), but you can only know and see what that character learns and sees throughout the entire story.

It’s tempting to use first-person POV, but trust it from a writer of first-person POV mysteries, it’s incredibly awkward to try write your character into every single scene.
It’s also awkward to make sure that your character doesn’t “know” anything in the story that he or she hasn’t seen, read, or been told.

Limited Third Person

Similar to the first person POV, only it uses he/she instead of “I”. My sense is that this POV is getting less popular, but it may just be me.

Multiple Third Person

Lets the writer switch from character to character. This is probably the best choice for most thrillers. This POV lets you roam free on the range with the buffalo.

Mixed

This is a mixture of first person with multiple points of view. For example, some thrillers use a first-person POV for the bad guy while everyone else is presented in third person. This approach can help build suspense.
Second
This POV is so rare I forgot about it until Joe Moore reminded me about it in the comments just now, so I’m adding it back in. Second person POV is where the writer talks directly to the reader. No wonder it’s an unusual POV–I find it completely annoying.
To wit:
You’re walking along and then you realize someone is following you. You spin around and then…Blam-o!
Bleah.
So I’m wondering how you make your POV choices for your novels, and are there any POVs that you love? Loathe?
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