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 http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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