Friday, April 10, 2009

Do You Smell Something Burning?

As I'm neck-deep in thesis revisions, my mind refuses to let go of any writing topic but the thesis. Lucky you, that means you get to hear my lightbulb moment this week, and it's about point of view.

I don't know about the rest of the writing world, but POV has always been my least favorite topic. I caught onto the idea of POV very easily as a newbie romance writer, and I fell in line with the single-POV group without any arm wrestling involved. I never head-hopped, and my POV slips were minimal and minor. So leave it to me to get cocky about it.

My thesis is urban fantasy, opening up my choice on POV. Romance, with its once iron-clad third person POV rule, had never given me that opportunity. The Urban fantasy genre is full of first person POV with just a smattering of third person. Since the topic of my thesis revolves around what goes on inside the main character's noggin, I thought first person would be just peachy. I considered it a bonus that I could step outside of third person for the first time in a novel.

I started writing in first person and didn't look back. Until this week.

After receiving feedback from my mentor that my voice and the character's voice created an inconsistency, I considered switching to third person. I looked through the manuscript, a huge, intimidating pile of white paper on my desk, and pondered how changing the POV would change the story. I didn't like the shift, so I tossed third person as a choice and went back to considering my options.

Then my mentor wrote once more and offered a nugget that flipped that lightswitch in my brain.

My mighty mentor brought up an element of POV I never hear my fellow romance authors consider and had only unconsciously acknowledged to myself. POV isn't just about who's talking. It's about perspective. And by perspective, I don't just mean that the POV character can't possibly see the serial killer sneaking up behind her.

My mentor pointed out a perspective of time. When is the POV character telling this story? Is it tells-as-she-goes? Is she telling the story right after the events have occurred? Or is she an old woman reminiscing on those events, with all of the insight generated after years of mellowing memories? That time perspective has a very subtle impact on the narrative, verb tense, and word choice. For example:

1. I hear a twig snap, and my skin goes cold as I realize he's right behind me.
2. I heard a twig snap, and a wave of cold fear washed over me. He was right behind me. I knew it.
3. I never considered my mortality until I heard a twig snap behind me. Instead of running or screaming, I froze like a fool. For a long, arctic moment, I let fear win. I would live to regret it.

Same moment in time, same character, same point of view, yes? Not quite. That internal perspective changes the point of view. The time it's taken for that character to consider the events changes the perspective and the way the story is told. Is any one of these perspectives more effective than another? It depends on your goal as the storyteller. How do you want to convey the story? Which option frames the story in the most effective manner?

Maybe this is obvious stuff for most, but I've never stopped to consider that impact before. The lightbulb moment has been so intense for me, it's actually singing my hair.

Point of view is often nothing more than a check box on a critique partner's list of slip-ups to look for. But more goes into point of view than just what the character can see or know. Many decisions you make about how you write the story will nuance the point of view. Besides verb tense, time perspective, and storyteller point of view, what do you think plays a role in the greater point of view of a story?

And...since I have a feeling nobody's really paying attention, here's a contest for those of you who have read this far and are brave enough to play along. The one who makes me squee or laugh the loudest will receive a $10 gift card to your online bookstore of choice (B&N, Amazon, etc.). If there's a tie, I'll toss a random number generator at the responses and pick a winner that way. So here's how you enter: answer my question from the previous paragraph and/or post a few of your own examples (horrible, awful, terrible, no good, very bad obviously works...after all, I posted mine for your consumption) of variances in POV. Ready, steady, go!


Julie Rowe said...

I usually write in third person POV and generally stick to my two main characters (I write category length romance). One of the things I constantly consider in regards to POV is the importance of the events in the story. Who has the most to lose? The hero or the heroine? Whoever has the most to lose in a particular scene is the person whose POV I'm going to be in.

Cheers, Julie

Grace Bridges said...

Wow...I'd say the EYES have it, followed closely by the other senses plus the character's thoughts and emotions. But the eyes are that person's main intake of events.

Donnell said...

KL, I don't want the $10 gift card, just popped in to say my hair is singing right along with you. POV is one of those things that you learn as part of craft, and you learn to keep it tight. But I absolutely love how you explained it in the same character's perspective. Here's something I'll ask you about and maybe you can tell me if they address this at school. Slipping into multiple POVs. This was something I read by Eloisa James, Sandra Brown, Catherine Coulter when these authors hit the bookstores. Thus, when I started writing, it never bothered me to tell the story in multiple POVs, e.g. head hopping.

As I got nailed and started seeing what they meant, I tightened my rein on POV. But what are you learning about multiple POVs when it comes to telling the story.

FYI, sometimes I love knowing how someone else besides the protag/antag are feeling. Why is it simply not done?

Leslie Ann said...

Hi KL, singed hair, huh? I think it was worth it.

As film is my media, I play the scene in my head, and sometimes the pov character is watching the reaction of the main character during a given situation. I choose the pov for the impact/character growth or crisis point I'm trying to achieve. Example: Why does the girl a jaded rock star meets, seem to entrance him even though she naive, and fresh? We need to see that through his eyes. Then we get his perspective and when the story moves on it makes sense and can be followed without a lot of dialogue or expository imformation.

It gives maximum impact that way.

My 2 cents.

Teresa Reasor said...

I think voice has a great deal to add to the first person POV. When you're so deep inside the character's head, her voice ought to be so consistent and so entertaining that it drives that character deep into your psyche.
Like if you wrote a southern romantic character the vernacular would be completely different and the perspective than someone from the North.
I believe you would really have to know your character very well to pull first person off too, because the character's background, religious affiliation, education, everything would come into play in the way they thought.
I'm not saying that wouldn't come into third person too, but with first person, the writer uses so many little observational asides, it leaves more opportunities to use them.

Write on,
Teresa Reasor

KL Grady said...

Thanks for the participation, y'all!

Donnell - as for your question, we have an entire 3-hr module on POV, and it's incredibly dense. What it boils down to is this: do whatever works, just do it well. Know the nuances of the POV and execute in whatever way is most effective to your story.

I really think the reigns of POV in romance are unnecessarily tight. We're "raised up" in this genre generally to be POV purists, but it's not necessary. Head-hopping can be distracting, but if you write it well enough, the reader won't even notice what you've done.

I'm with you, though. I love being in the head of the antagonist. I think it's a great way to show how dangerous s/he is to the protag, as well as the motivations that drive him/her to be so harmful to the hero/heroine.

Donnell said...

Thanks, KL. Wow, Seton Hill sounds like such an amazing program. If I ever get my kids out of college, I just might consider it. I remember reading a funeral scene once where the author went into the head of every person there, as to how they felt about the deceased. It was so powerful. And, yes, going into the head of the antagonist makes the story that much richer. Thoughtful post, KL. Thanks!

jwhit said...

I have to get in on this one. I'm reading a book that most POV purists would consider a POV mess. Get this: 1 first person POV, 2 3rd person POVs for the detectives, and 2 3rd person POVs for teenage criminals. I said it was a mess, didn't I? Then throw in some paras that add an additional small character thinking something and reacted to by one of the MCs. Talk about head-hopping through singed hair!

But you know what? It's a great story! It's an English translation of a Norwegian book called When the Devil Holds the Candle, by Karin Fossum. And the key to it *IS* the switch in POV from that 1st person older woman who is part victim, part not, to those other 3rd person perspectives.

So bring on the 'unpure'. I think I like it. :-)

Kendall said...

A welcome reminder. My 2¢ is to let the story determine your POV selection. Because I'm trying to write a mystery, I chose 1st person for the practical reason I don't have to tell the reader about critical evidence until the main character discovers it.


Judy said...

Wonderful blog. It really got me to thinking. I almost always write in 1st person because it works for me. But you've added a dimension to it that's interesting. Thanks!

Donnell said...

Jan, the book you're talking about sounds fascinating, and I think KL explained that other genres aren't as hung up about POV as romance. I read a book once called Cold Heart. It was the author's first book, got a nice six figure advance, and he literally when into the POV of a wounded grizzly. As I read that, that sort of yanked me out of an otherwise compelling story.

Nancy said...

KL, I hadn't thought about POV with the twist your mentor presented, but I have read that principle applied. I can't tell you exactly which books and authors, but the tickle of memory is there.

I generally write in first person, but have written scenes in third person when my main POV character is not on scene. In now reading of your experience, the Eureka moment has hit me, too. I'll be more mindful of the nuances of POV.

Nancy Haddock

Misty Evans said...

Hi KL. I'll play. This is taken from my story Witches Anonymous and I tried your tactic of using first POV in different time frames.

Lucifer chuckles low in his throat, as if he hears my pleading mental cries to God for help. His heat rushes over me through the wooden door and it's all I can do to form a coherent thought. Unable to resist him, I reach to untwist the lock but Emilia’s voice pops into my head, stopping me. “You’re pathetic.”

Lucifer chuckled low in his throat, as if he were listening to my pleading cries for help. His heat rushed over me, even through the thick wooden door. Coherent thought vanished. Unable to resist him, I was almost ready to untwist the lock, when I heard Emilia’s voice in my head. “You’re pathetic.”

Lucifer chuckled low in his throat, always able to read my mind, even when I begged God for help. His heat rushed over me, disabling my thoughts and making me want him. Fortunately, God took pity on me at that moment and sent Emilia to interrupt. Her voice snapped me back to eality. “You’re pathetic,” she said. While I realized later she was talking to Luc, I was just as pathetic as he was.

KL Grady said...

Misty - thanks for playing! That's excellent. Woot!

Jwhit - In my most humble opinion, literary novels tend to play more with the elements of fiction. For whatever reason, popular fiction genres tend to maintain particular conventions. However, I've been told that trends in literary fiction tend to bleed into pop fiction a year or two later. A year ago, I heard the new "thing" in literary was present tense. Sure enough, we're starting to see present tense in pop fiction now.

Kendall, Judy, and Nancy - thanks for adding your voices here.

Sandi said...

I think POV should be determined by the overall feel of the novel. Are you looking for something lighthearted that connects to the reader through humor and self-deprecation? Or are you hoping to connect through suspense and action? Through setting and circumstance? Is the overall tone of the novel one of poignancy or one of dark foreboding? Third person POV is great for when you want to share the villain's persepective and add that extra creepiness. However, first person perspective endears the protag to the reader when you see yourself in their shoes.

Another great way to show perspective is by threading in the character's experiences and background. For example, how would the character react in the situation given the fact that he'd grown up in an urban setting and is now in a small country town. Or how would the heroine react to the handsome hero offering her a ride in his car if she'd once been assaulted by a stranger. Her hesitation at his offer would pull you deeper into her character since you know her background.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

My lightbulb moment is when I realized you could put the reader into the situation, put her into the head of the character and make her feel like it is happening at that moment. For someone who had no idea there was even such a thing as POV, that was staggering.

Vince said...

I don’t see anything philosophically objectionable with multiple POVs. It’s like juggling. The more POVs you ‘put into the air’ , the harder it will be to not make a mistake. At least with juggling, you control the whole operation. With writing that’s not the case.

With writing the reader is creating the ‘reading experience’ from your copy. Your novel only really exists, in a meaningful sense, as someone’s ‘reading experience’. Readers vary in their reading skills. Some will daydream. Some are just not very smart and can’t handle multiple POVs even when done well. I think this is a major reason for keeping things simple. By the way, it is only head-hopping if you get it wrong.

I had not considered the time element in using First Person POV. I would expect this would present even more problems if the narrator is talking about a flashback that happened in the past.

BTW, I would like to see a book written in the Second person. How do you think that would work out?


Donnell said...

Curious, KL. Did you choose a winner?


KL Grady said...

Gah! Thanks for the reminder! I got caught up in a school deadline and dropped my brain on the way. :)