I’m close to wrapping up my series on novel writing. It’s been fun, and I’ve covered a lot of ground. That said, there’s always something else I could add. For now I’m going to dig into a topic I missed along the way, but it’s something quite a few of my writing students have asked me about, and it’s something I should have covered at the beginning. It’s called point of view. Or, more interestingly, point of view shifts.
POV shifts are not a big deal and generally aren’t too hard to fix, but those new to the craft need to be aware of them. In most of the popular fiction produced these days, writers use either first or third person limited viewpoint. First person, of course, is “I.” Third person is “he,” “she,” or “it.” So in a first person story, everything the reader learns is filtered through the character known as “I” or “me.” So: I saw this, or I tasted that, or I grew tired and took a nap. Everything happens to me!
If third person is employed, everything is experienced via someone else. Suzie saw this, or she tasted that, or she got thirsty and had a great, big martini (with olives the size of cantaloupes). You go, girl!
The word “limited” in the viewpoint description is the important one. It describes the number of potential heads the writer intends to use–per scene–to convey information. There are only two options: one (“limited”), and more than one (“omniscient”). The writer will either stay in one wad of gray matter, or he’s decided to wander the world, popping willy-nilly into any (and potentially “every”) such wad he encounters.
Here’s an example of limited viewpoint. Everything readers learn is filtered through a single character:
Young Jamie stumbled into a dark alley to relieve himself. He’d just been told his girlfriend had dumped him. He reached the back of the alley, but before he could unburden himself, he heard a noise from the street and turned to see what it was. Silhouetted against a streetlamp, stood a huge man. Jamie tried to swallow, but all the fluids in his body had collected in his bladder. When the brute began to run toward him, Jamie’s bladder gave way. Jamie dug in his pocket to retrieve the off-brand stun gun he’d bought for protection. He aimed it at the approaching hulk and pressed the button.
Now, let’s try this same scene without restricting the viewpoint. I’ll mark the shifts by using a darker color type for the darker character.
Jamie stood at the back of the alley, fumbling with his zipper, when he heard a noise from the street. He turned to look. Biff strained to see into the darkness at the end of the alley. He knew he’d seen someone scuttle back there. This was Biff’s alley, by Gawd. Nobody mucked around in there without his permission. He had to investigate. And fast! Jamie tried to swallow, but his throat had gone dry. The brute at the end of the alley was coming toward him at a gallop. Jamie ignored his zipper; it was too late for that anyway, and concentrated on extracting his discount store stun gun from his pocket. As Biff’s eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see a scrawny punk pulling something from his pants pocket. A gun? Probably. Biff raced forward, intending to take the runt by surprise. Jamie pressed the button on the stun thingie, hoping he had it aimed in the right direction. It made a tiny fizzy sound, and an instant later, a man-shaped building landed on top of him.
The second scenario might actually work if the POV shifts were given separate micro-scenes with a suitable visual device–either an extra blank line or some sort of marker (I like flying splats: ~*~) to warn the reader a shift might occur. If left lumped together, however, there’s just too much back and forth. Keep that up for page after page and your reader will feel like they’ve been watching a ping-pong match from one end of the net. Whiplash, anyone?
Do yourself and your readers a favor. Stick to one point of view per scene. There are probably a dozen reasons for not following this advice, the biggest being what to do when your point of view character dies. Somebody’s got to pick up the slack, right? So, I’ll give you a free pass on those. But the others?
Nope. Play by the rules!