On Writing: Solving Writing Problems with Point of View

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I have written about point of view many times before.  A couple of years ago I did a whole series of posts on it, and one of my “Creative Intersections” posts earlier this year dealt with POV as it related to worldbuilding.

But here I am again writing about POV, and there is a reason for this. During the course of the summer, I attended several conventions, and I also taught a writers’ workshop up in Calgary.  And it seemed that at every turn I would bring one writing issue or another back to POV.  It happened so often, that I began to rethink one of my own foundational beliefs about writing.  I have said for years that I believe character to be the single most important element of successful storytelling.  I realize now that this is not quite true.  To my mind, the most important element of storytelling is point of view.

In many ways, that is not such a dramatic change.  Obviously, character and POV are inextricably bound.  As I have said before, point of view is the nexus of character and narrative; it is the place where our character arcs and our story arcs come together.  It is how we inject emotion and meaning into our plot points.  But what struck me so forcefully at this summer’s conventions and writing workshop, is that POV is also the answer to so many problems that we run into as writers when working on a novel.  Seriously.  Let’s test this out, and you can see what I mean.

We’ll start with one of the more obvious examples:  data dumps.  We at MW have discussed at length the challenges of conveying character background and worldbuilding information without resorting to data dumps.  How do we know what background to give and when to give it?  How do we know when we’re telling our readers the right amount, and when we’re telling them too much?  The answer is point of view.  Remember, we’re not supposed to be telling our readers anything: our POV characters are conveying their stories, which is really quite different.  And so the test of what to tell and what to hold back becomes instead a set of point of view questions:  What would our POV characters be thinking about?  What information would be crucial to them at any given moment?  How would those characters convey the relevant background?  When we think about our own lives and the world in which we live, we don’t consider these things in data-dumpy ways.  We filter out the basic stuff that we take as givens, and instead focus on those points that matter to us at any particular moment. Our POV characters should do the same. If we offer the information in ways that would feel natural to our narrating characters, there should be no problem with data dumps or awkward digressions.

We’ve also had discussions here about writing action scenes and about how to make the action both compelling and “realistic.”  Again, POV can help us here.  Put yourself in the character’s position and keep in mind that person’s background.  If your character is a seasoned warrior, then she is going to have a very different take on the action than would someone who has never been in a fight before.  The experienced character might be able to break down the fight into its component parts and plan her tactics, while the inexperienced fighter is far more likely to fight from instinct, to be in panic mode, and to perceive the fight as a blur of pain, danger, and narrow escapes.  Experienced or not, your POV character is going to notice certain details and care not at all about others.  The kind of weapon used against her?  Yeah, that’s a detail she’s going to notice.  The color of her opponent’s hair?  Probably not, unless there is a VERY compelling reason why that hair color would be important.  In a similar way, details about her surroundings should be limited to those she NEEDS to notice in order to survive the fight.  Let POV be your guide.

For a couple of years now, I have been working as an outside mentor for students in a university Master’s program in writing.  One of the things I have noticed again and again in reading my students’ fiction is a lack of feeling, a flatness to the writing.  Many of them get so caught up in writing plot that they neglect the meaning of their plot points — there is no emotional content to the narrative.  They tend to forget that their narrating character needs to be reacting to the events and conversations they describe.  Point of view makes your plot points more than just, well, plot points.  It infuses them with emotion and makes them more powerful, more dynamic.

We have often said that if you find your narrative going off the rails or stalling, chances are you have made a mistake somewhere in the preceding pages and all you need to do is go back, find it, and correct it, and everything will fall back into place.  Well, that’s true, but sometimes finding that point where everything began to go wrong can be difficult.  Point of view helps here, too.  How?  By allowing us to see where our POV character’s narration remains true to her character, and thus allowing us to identify the point where the narration no longer feels natural or real.  That doesn’t always work, but I have found it to be a good indicator most of the time.  If I can identify the point where my narrative voice becomes strained or forced, I can usually solve that “going-off-the-rails” problem.

I could go on  — POV can help us smooth out dialogue attribution, it can make romantic encounters between characters (ie. sex scenes) work better; I know that it has helped me convey historical information in the Thieftaker books by allowing me to apply a test similar to the one I mentioned in discussing worldbuilding.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a panacea.  I’m sure that there are writing issues that have nothing to do with POV.  I just can’t think of any right now.  The bottom line is this:  By establishing strong POV voices, and remaining true to them throughout the writing of our stories and novels, we can minimize the impact of those common pitfalls we face every day.

Can you think of other issues that POV can solve?  Can you think of any on which POV has no impact at all? (Be prepared for me to argue with you on those in the comments section.)

David B. Coe
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
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16 comments to On Writing: Solving Writing Problems with Point of View

  • Vyton

    David, I learn a lot from your posts, and POV posts in particular. I’m writing in first person POV with the narrator in the role of Watson as sidekick. I have been filling in information that is known by the characters, but not necessarily by the reader. Usually as a couple of sentences after a line of dialog. Is this what you’re talking about as awkward asides? No, I can’t think of any issues that would not (should not) be impacted by POV. Thank you.

  • Vyton, thanks. No, I don’t think that what you’re describing is necessarily an awkward aside. We HAVE to convey information to readers somehow, right? And so if the information is immediately relevant, and if it’s given in a way that is consistent with the POV character’s narrative voice, you’re probably fine.

    Here’s an example from Thieves’ Quarry — the aside in the middle is in Ethan’s voice and gives context to the conversation. I’m giving information, but not in a way that detracts from the narrative. Hope this helps:

    “Do you think that Mariz here is the one who killed those soldiers?” Sephira asked. She laughed as well. “Is that what all this is about? Is that why you’ve been following him and listening to our conversations?”
    The only thing worse than being intimidated and beaten by Sephira and her men was being ridiculed by her. Ethan knew this, because she ridiculed him a lot.
    “There aren’t many conjurers in Boston capable of casting a spell that powerful,” Ethan said. “And since Mariz is new to the city, I thought it a possibility.”

  • [...] I’m back at Magical Words today with the latest Blog Tour installment.  This one is a post about using Point of View to solve problems that crop up with our writing.  The post can be found here. [...]

  • sagablessed

    I think every thing revolves around POV. I can’t arghue with you on that. Even a sunrise is different depending on who is viewing it and what has happened.
    As to others, like connecting the reader with the character, POV is essential.
    The dialogue is tricky. It has to feel right without seeming contrived or ‘set=up’.
    Good post, David. :)

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for a very nice post. It meshes well with something else I’ve been thinking about lately related to info dumps. I used to have a problem (I *hope* I’ve been getting better) that I’ve noticed cropping up in a book I’m reading right now. It’s a problem of getting too carried away with a character’s thoughts, which in some ways is infodumping and in other ways can actually be repetitive infodumping. It can happen when the writer (me) is focused *too* much on how a character is reacting to circumstances, usually in a general context. I find it’s important to remember that a) even if a character thinks a lot, they’re still moving through a physical world and that world is where the story is taking place (i.e., is an important part of what the character is *experiencing*), and b) thinking is usually *fast*, and when it’s not, when it’s a good hour of brooding, that does *not* equal moving the story forward in any way the reader want to know about. Any tips on avoiding infodumps via the brooding character (aside from the obvious, ‘Don’t’)?

  • Ken

    Great post David. I agree that POV is one of the most important things a writer needs to stay true to since it impacts darn near everything in the way the story is filtered through to the reader.

  • Vyton

    David,

    Very helpful. Thank you for the example.

  • As another writing teacher, I totally agree with what you’ve said.

    Another improvement good POV gives is that your writing is always showing instead of telling. Also, it prevents passive sentence structure.

  • Saga, thanks. Dialog can be tricky, and yet it’s also my favorite thing to write. I might have to post about that in a couple of weeks. Thanks for the idea!

    Hep, I know exactly what you mean. And I think you are right on target with what you say in both a) and b). Interspersing thoughts with action, even if that action is not ACTION, if you know what I mean. Our characters sometimes have to see to mundane stuff, just so that we maintain that level of realism that makes novels work. In my Forelands series, I had my characters traveling a lot, and so I could mix in deep thinking with landscape descriptions and occasional encounters with people. And while much thought is quick, there are times when characters need to slow down and go to their Thoughtful Spot (yes, Pooh fan here), and there are also times when our readers need that so that they can catch up. Again, the key is to mix in thought with actions and description so that the narrative doesn’t stall. Is that helpful at all?

    Ken, thank you.

    Vyton, good glad to help.

    Marilynn, those are both terrific points, particularly re. showing v. telling. I hadn’t thought of active writing as another benefit of remaining true to POV, but it makes sense to me. Thanks so much for the comment.

  • No argument here. I agree that POV can solve most problems–I also discovered that choosing the wrong POV can cause many problems. Once I finally realized that my current WIP would work better as first person, many of the plot and conflict issues I was struggling with disappeared. Well, maybe they didn’t disappear, but they got easier to resolve.

    Changing the POV of a mostly written story really hits home how integral POV is to every aspect of the book. Revising POV doesn’t just mean going back and changing “she” to “I.” I’m having to do major rewrites, but it is making the story better. And if not better, at least it’s closer to the story I want to tell.

  • David, I love this. It puts character and info in proper perspective. Isn’t it amazing what we learn when we teach?

  • quillet

    I agree with everything you’ve said! POV can really bring a story to life. It guides which details you put in and which you leave out, it brings flavour and emotion to the story… And for myself, I find it makes the writing a lot of fun. When a character’s voice is really strong, they kind of take over and tell the story themselves. Everything starts to feel vivid and first-hand, even in third-person POV.

    But you can’t let characters blather on unchecked. I think I’ve read the kind of thing Hepseba mentioned. I read a book once where everything that happened was then relived in the thoughts of one of the characters. They thought about what just happened, what didn’t happen, what could have happened, what it all meant… And not just with important events. They did this All. The. Time. Got very repetitive and very dull. In another book, all the characters ever seemed to do was think and think. Almost nothing happened, apart from a lot of brooding. (These were both fantasies, by the way.)

    I think the danger comes when you stay too much inside the character’s head and forget that the story has to move. Show the character’s thoughts and feelings, sure, but don’t dwell on them, maybe? And/or be selective about which ones to show. I’ve had to be careful about this, because I tend to be very cerebral myself, so I have to watch that my characters don’t get too think-y.

  • Sisi, you are so right. I’ve done that too — gone back through a book to change it from first person to third (or third person to first — I can’t remember now). And it changes EVERYTHING. The tone, the voice, the way one conveys information. As you say, it is so much more than just changing pronouns.

    Faith, thanks. Yes, teaching does wonderful things for our writing.

    Quillet, that can be a danger — the over-thinkiness of a character. Then again, more often I see the opposite — lots of stuff happening, but no emotional or intellectual context for any of it. There is a balance there — it’s not always easy to find, but we know it when we see it. Thanks for the comment.

  • Razziecat

    David, this is a great post! And very relevant to a new thing I’ve been kicking around. Both of the main characters have strong, vivid voices. I’ve been experimenting with first person POV for both of them, but I may switch to third. This is the first thing I’ve written where I’ve been so intensely aware of the way each character’s personality and background influences what they notice and react to; and it’s having a profound effect on plotting and worldbuilding, too. It feels as though something I didn’t realize was missing has fallen into place. :D

  • POV definitely helped me figure out the voices of my two characters in my most current YA project. I have two main characters, so my first assumption was to write the story in third-person. But then when I tried first person for *both* characters, I realized how much more I could connect with them (both teenage girls, both with very different voices considering they’re on different worlds). So I’m writing a dual first-person and it feels right. And what they notice, even in their opening scenes, what they find to be important, is so different. It comes out much clearer by telling it in the first-person POV. I can get into their heads more.

    I did have a few moments like quillet mentioned with the unchecked blathering. I let them get it out of their systems. Because they’re teenage girls. Then I picked out what mattered, kept things moving, and put the other stuff into a scraps file. ;)

  • Razz, thanks. It sounds like you’re doing great work with your new project — when you can get your various pov characters to sound truly distinctive, that’s a great indication that the book is coming together. Best of luck with it.

    Laura, that sounds like a very cool approach. I’ve never tried dual first-person, but I’m intrigued by the idea and would love to try it at some point. I also like your solution to the “blathering” issue. Thanks for the comment.