If you’re ever at a party with other writers and have a lull in the conversation, there is one topic you can count on to get things going and spike more than the punch:
Point-of-view, or POV, for short.
POV is an incredibly powerful tool in the writer’s tool chest—particularly in the novelist’s trade—and it can summon a great deal of passionate opinion amongst the professionals who ply it with varying measures of understanding, interpretation, and skill. This is one of those topics where most of us at least secretly (or not so secretly) believe our methodology and philosophy regarding POV is superior to those who come from a different school of thought, which can be substantially affected by early training—or the lack thereof.
For anyone out there who is wondering just what exactlypoint-of-view is, in simplest terms it is the perspective from which a reader will experience a scene; it is the internal thought of a character that allows us to see, hear, and think inside the pages rather than be a distant observer just looking at words.
Right now, as you’re reading this, you are in my point-of-view. I’m Olivia Rupprecht, and these are my opening thoughts. I have a lot more thoughts on this subject, many rooted in my own early lessons as a novelist, but I am far more curious about Lou’s perspective regarding POV as both an editor and a novelist, and what his earliest experiences were to affect the views he holds today. Lou?
The scent of smoke was still bad in the kitchen. It had taken the contractors only a couple of days to make the repairs, and they had done what they could to air it out. But it was still there.
Right now what Mickey really wanted was a BLT, but he settled for a ham sandwich. Mickey didn’t want to be afraid of the stove. He didn’t want to believe that he was going to have a hard time even boiling water without wondering if he was going to do something wrong and kill himself. It had just been a stupid thing that morning. He’d been tossing and turning in bed all night and he was still tired and he’d fallen asleep on the couch. It was an isolated incident, even if his kids were making a really big deal about it. Still, a ham sandwich would do just fine.
Mickey was slicing a tomato when his head pricked up at the sound of someone approaching the front door. The hearing’s still as good as ever. As the bell rang, he wondered who might be there. He wasn’t expecting any deliveries. Maybe Laura had sent another one of her CARE packages. He was pretty sure that Theresa wasn’t supposed to come over today.
He was very surprised when he opened the door and found Jesse there. Not that it was odd for him to come over, just that he usually called first. Jess seemed to be coming around more often since Dorothy died. He was a good kid. Mickey liked telling his friends that he had a son who was younger than some of their grandchildren. It made him feel younger himself.
“Hey, Jess. I didn’t expect you. I was just making myself a sandwich. You want one?”
Jesse shook his head as he walked in the door and kissed his father on the cheek. “It’s a little early for lunch,” he said.
“Is it? I was feeling pretty hungry. Want some coffee or something?”
“Yeah, thanks. Coffee sounds good.”
“Good,” Mickey said as he worked his way back toward the kitchen. “Why don’t you make it while I finish cutting this tomato?”
Jesse went over to the refrigerator, pulled out a can, and shook it.
“You’re pretty low on coffee here, Dad.”
Mickey looked up from the cutting board and nodded.
“Yeah, I gotta go shopping. They closed the A&P. That’s where your mother used to go for groceries. All of the other places seem pretty annoying.”
Jesse spooned the coffee out into the coffeemaker and then returned the can to the refrigerator.
“It looks like you could use a lot of stuff here. You want me to take you shopping? We could go out to lunch afterward.”
Mickey thought he wouldn’t mind a little help with the shopping. There were things that Dorothy always used to buy that he couldn’t remember. He wasn’t too sure about spending all of that time in a restaurant, though.
“Yeah, if you could take me to a store, that would be great. Let me just finish my sandwich first.”
They didn’t say much while Mickey ate. It seemed to him that Jesse had something on his mind, but if he did, he wasn’t talking about it. That pretty much described Jesse in Mickey’s opinion. He knew the kid was smart – all of his kids were smart – and he was at least moderately successful as a writer, so he had to be good at expressing himself. But when Mickey was with Jesse, he could never tell if his thoughts were occupied elsewhere or if he just didn’t have much going on in his head. He wondered how any child of his could have turned out that way. But things had always been so different with Jesse than they had been with the others.
I know what I’m thinking from a reader’s perspective: what is going on in Jesse’s head? And something tells me it’s a lot more complex than Mickey suspects his son’s thoughts might be. The thing is though, I can’t find out until you let me into Jesse’s POV, and I’ll have to keep turning pages if I want to know. Very clever of you, Lou, not to mention being a prime example of why intimate third is the preferred POV for most novelists. Not that remaining in one selected character’s POV per scene is always the easiest thing to do. In fact, it takes discipline to train yourself not to venture into multiple POVs in a scene, but by honing this skill you can achieve more than just a higher level of craftsmanship, although that is certainly worthy in itself. If I step away as a reader and look at this scene technically, what I see is how cleanly and clearly you’ve laid this out for us. There is a natural flow of your words to our brains, and a lot of that has to do with your ability to minimize attribution tags of thought and dialog. And why can you do this? Because you immediately establish which character owns the scene, no guesswork about it or intrusion with another POV to create the burden of constantly reminding us who is saying or thinking what.
Which brings us to the nitty-gritty of POV abuse: Head-hopping. This rudimentary literary technique is like watching one actor on stage racing around to play all the characters in a scene and revealing each of their thoughts to the audience in sotto voce.
Exactly. And that is why head hopping, in my opinion, is the clearest hallmark of either a writer who is inexperienced and simply doesn’t know better, or is undisciplined and unwilling to do the necessary mental work of determining which character’s perspective they can best use to their advantage in a particular scene and let the reader settle into that character’s skin for the duration rather than be yanked around like that actor on the stage.
(No kidding!) Readers may not understand the intricacies and discipline involved in maintaining restraint rather than flitting from head-to-head, but publishing professionals most definitely should. Agreed?
Now I don’t know about you, but I have to confess that whenever I run into a story problem I can’t quite nail down, it seems that nine times out of ten the problem turns out to be (you got it) point-of-view. And yet, even after twenty-five years of working with books, POV is almost always the last thing I think to consider as the solution! I’m thinking, is it plot, pacing, something not right with the dialog? And it’s inevitably nope, nope, nope, and on down the line until—hey, let’s try switching point-of-view. And just like that: bingo!
Here’s an example. In an early draft of Unbreakable, co-authored with my writing partner John Hart, one of our early professional readers said, Wait. This first chapter isn’t working. Which character do we most identify with in the novel? Izzy. So why aren’t you opening the book in Izzy’s POV? Good question. And so, Izzy was leapfrogged from page 20, where he innocuously shows up for morning rounds at the 99KO (front line psychiatric unit) to page 2, where we first meet him and experience our own introduction to the Vietnam War, in May, 1969, through his eyes:
It was shortly after dawn, a brilliant clear day, and yet Israel Moskowitz could only wonder what he had done to land in the hot stinking bowels of a dead animal. Sure, the charter TWA flight from the states to the Tan Son Nhut Air Base had been pleasant enough, but from there he had been shuttled onto a no-frills military transport and disgorged here. A tarmac within spitting distance of the South China Sea where he stood sucker-punched by what had to be one hundred and fifteen degrees of scorch and simmer heat spiked with ninety-nine percent humidity.
Something had gone terribly wrong.
For twenty-nine years, the cosmic planes of destiny had been in perfect alignment with the whole summa cum laude package of what had been Israel Moskowitz’s preordained right to a glorious, successful life. Sweaty, steaming stench and rot and rice paddies had not been part of the deal.
Yes, the war was escalating. But what country in its right mind would draft a child psychiatrist fresh out of his residency from Columbia University Med School and send him to Vietnam? He’d been told not to worry, the situation was a screw up and would get fixed. His father had contacts in high places and favors to cash in, namely with New York’s 2nd congressional district’s highest elected official. Israel could still hear Congressman Atkinson’s assurances: At worst, you will be serving your obligation to your country at an army hospital child guidance clinic in Washington, D.C. You’ll love being in the nation’s capital, in the heart of the action, so to speak.
Oh, he was in the heart of the action all right. Only it was in the war ravaged armpit of Southeast Asia, a mere 8,761 miles from D.C.
Now Israel Moskowitz, with his brilliant MD in child psychiatry, was in some very deep shit. Heat radiated up through the soles of his boots and beat down on his head, doing its best to turn him into a melted puddle of nothing but a fifty pound duffel bag and the fogged up horn-rimmed glasses that kept sliding down his distinctively Jewish nose.
Some fellow psych officer was supposed to meet him here but hadn’t shown up yet. So Israel shuffled forward, wondering if he could make it to the nearest building before he passed out—or, threw up. Ever since opening the mailbox to find a REPORT FOR DUTY notice instead of brochures for a honeymoon in Spain, he had battled the threat of nausea. Even worse was the slight but deeply troubling tremor he had recently developed in his once steady hands.
Israel sucked in a breath that felt like swallowing a soaked pillow, shoved up his horn rims, and was re-hoisting his duffel, when a jeep rounded the corner and came to a rubber-burning halt a few feet away.
The sandaled feet that swung out belonged to a male about his own age and pinch above average height, but their similarities stopped there. No way had this guy spent a Saturday studying the Torah or living in the shadow of skyscrapers. Dressed in surfer shorts and a faded USC Trojans Tennis Dept. tee, a booney hat topped off sun bleached hair. Athletic build; all-American good looks. He should have been selling ad copy for Coppertone.
“Captain Moskowitz? Israel Moskowitz?” A lazy good vibrations smile and a tip of the hat to Israel’s nod. “I’m Gregg. Captain Gregg Kelly, clinical psychologist at the 99KO.”
Notice how everything is filtered through the eyes and mind of this main character who will become known as Izzy. Rather than abruptly switch to Gregg’s POV, however, the scene goes on for several more pages in Izzy’s POV. This way he doesn’t have to suddenly be competing with Gregg for reader attention, and readers aren’t forced to suddenly switch their mental focus from one character they’ve just met to another. As it turns out, Izzy is about to meet yet another major player in the novel and his true identity is not revealed for several more chapters. This restrictive access to other POVs allows me to selectively distribute information and skew impressions, in much the same way that Lou manages the scene between Mickey and Jesse in The Forever Year.
“You guys were so great. Like I said, it’s legend,” Rick concluded, having told the story that for the most part lined up with Gregg’s remembrance of it. A remembrance that had Gregg happy to accept the shared bottle Rick offered as he added the best part of all. “And, you know after you evaced him, Jennings got home, even got back with his old lady. He’s a training NCO now at Special Forces Fort Bragg. Not sure if you knew that, but I hear he wrote you, Gregg.”
Gregg winced at the sting to the back of his throat, but it went down smooth and he had to smile. “Oh yeah, he wrote me all right. Don’t know how he did it, but he had a case of Jack delivered—tasted just as good as this, maybe even better since there was a Cubs cap inside, a real one.” Not wanting the night to end too soon, thanks to a little too much Jack, Gregg grabbed enough beers to pass around their little group with a shared history, worthy of a toast:
“Here’s to another cold one and to good friends, old and new.” Gregg pointed his bottle to Izzy, then raised it high. “But most of all, here’s to Jennings, that lucky man back in the world.”
“I’ll drink to that!”
Izzy picked up his guitar and went to work on “Classical Gas,” proving himself amazingly dexterous, despite an impressive consumption of beer, Jack, and weed. And as the music played on, as the moon floated paper white above the crystal blue sea, for that moment they were all back in the world in that someplace called home.
Peck watched from the Ironwood tree shadows, a safe distance and yet not too far away to discern the comings and goings of those he had a particular interest in watching.
This in particular would be Nikki and the retard on ethanol overdoses of testosterone.
Retard reminded him of his cousin, the poor relation who liked to say “boats, planes and women, why own ’em when you can rent a new one?”
Nikki, he would own. Or at least he would convince her she wanted to belong to him and if he didn’t tire of the game she didn’t know they were playing, then he might actually make good on the offering he planned to tempt her with tonight.
The entire set up was an elaborate ruse he had thoroughly enjoyed constructing.
He had the arrangements all made with a local character on this island, a self-aggrandizing little gook with a taste for American goods and a gold front tooth who called himself “Uncle Sam.” Now, Uncle Sam apparently had an inordinate number of nieces who specialized in more than the usual, and while that wasn’t what this paying customer was in the market for—at least not tonight—there was something else Uncle Sam had that Peck wanted.
Ah yes, the trusty scene break. Basically this was a situation where two scenes were happening in tandem and to keep the story on track we needed multiple POVs—Gregg’s and Peck’s. By having them physically separated, with Gregg hanging with his pals and Peck watching from the shadows, it’s easier to transition—like cutting from one setting to another in a movie, only with an asterisk visually cueing a switch. What gets trickier is when you have two characters sharing the same space and both their thoughts or perspectives are important to moving the story along. This occurred in several other scenes and there are two ways to go about dealing with this challenge without sounding the head-hopping alarm:
*You can be really sneaky and so smoothly transition from one POV to another that it goes unnoticed (there are some tricks with signals and segues, but it’s difficult to pull off).
*Or, you can still get caught despite your best efforts and have your editor break the scene for you.
None of us should willingly give up our power as authors; readers trust us to be the ones helming the ship we’ve invited them onto. They come on board realizing that a good part of the entertainment factor is gamesmanship and skilled authors are ruthless at the POV game.
Never doubt that POV is the power, the smoke-and-mirrors stealth factor, behind the storyteller’s throne.
And when it comes to bridging plot to character, it’s The Yellow Brick Road.
Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, became the 1939 classic film which is told through Dorothy’s point-of-view. When Gregory McGuire turned Oz on its head with Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, he created an entirely different kind of masterpiece simply by changing Point-of-View. Now pick a scene—preferably a scene you have written that has given you some problems or just doesn’t seem to be clicking—and examine the use of POV. If there are multiple POVs, rewrite it to contain only one and see how the scene is affected. If there is already just one POV in the scene, try an alternate POV. Does it lead the story in a more complex or interesting direction, or at least spark some useful ideas?
Come up with a scenario where switching perspectives is essential. Write the action in two scenes, employing a scene break. Now, be honest with yourself. Could you have written this scene from one perspective? If not, what did you gain – and more importantly what did the reader gain – from your making the shift?