Tag Archives: Point-of-View

One head at a time is enough thank you

I recently read a New York Time bestseller that was all the rage for a time.  It was reviewed by all the best reviewers, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist (starred review), all the major newspapers. Even Oprah got a word in. They made a major motion picture about it, and for awhile, it was a darling of all the book discussion groups–which is where I read it. I must admit it had a great premise, and the first part 50 pages of the book had me riveted. Then the author did something I found well, unforgivable— and I’m a pretty forgiving person. The author started out with one character internally reacting to the other character’s actions. Then in the next paragraph, the other character also reacted internally. Ohhhh… I felt that internally myself, because what this author’s characters’ did was what’s unaffectionately referred to as head-hopping, otherwise known as switching points-of-view in a middle of a scene. And to me that is simply unforgivable.

To some people this is no big deal. They like being in everyone’s head at once. But to me head-hopping is almost as bad as inserting the phrase, Little did Carl know but he was just about to… Yeah, that kind of omniscient stuff. Call me a prose snob. I DON’T CARE. It’s just lazy-writing. It’s much easier to let your readers know at every minute what your characters are thinking, feeling, wanting, desiring, lusting than to actually postpone that understanding by having them deduce subtle reaction cues. Actually I could probably cut a 300 page book down to 150 pages if I do enough hopping. But there’s a certain magic in letting your readers come to their deductions, to allow one character’s time in the spotlight, to hold back some information to let it drop like a bomb later.

Part of the joy of reading–and writing–is the build up of suspense, to have that pay-off after we get to know our characters, get acquainted with their milieu, become invested. If you know everything all the time, every tic, quirk, and innermost feeling, we lesson the thrill of discovery, and in turn, write–and read–a less satisfying story. So it’s okay in writing to hold back, dispense info on a need-to-know basis, maybe even create an unreliable narrator. If the payoff is big enough, your readers will thank you for it later. And your writing rep will remain intact.

The View From Here

1322856746795_1293238The first person Point of View comes easiest to most students, and to most new writers, so it surprised me one day last semester to receive an essay written in the second person point-of-view. Now if you’re unsure or unaware what second POV is, take a gander at the opening line of Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel, Bright Lights, Big City:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.

This slice of hipster lit from the ’80s employs a liberal use of the pronoun you, and that’s what made it such a topic of literary conversations at the time. Writing second POV is uncommon, as it requires the reader not only to step into the head of the protagonist, but into his very character, not an easy to do, and often, it’s done badly. Consequently, it’s not something I come across often, and it’s always a surprise when I do (especially from students!) So, what of other POVs, namely first and third? Is one more popular than the other? Or more difficult? And why?

Hands down, the most common POV is third. Third POV may be omniscient, in which the thoughts of  every character are open to the reader, or limited, in which the reader enters only one character’s mind at a time. Third POV allows the author to lend his or her own voice to the expository passages, enabling more stylistic freedom, as well as getting into the heads of several different characters to access their most intimate thoughts. Still, there can be danger in all this. Too many POVs can dilute the writing, cluttering it with too much information from secondary characters that have no bearing on the plot. A best practice is to keep POVs to the main characters, two or three maximum. Another pitfall is head-hopping, shifting from one character’s POV to the others without a scene or chapter break. Head-hopping can be confusing but even worse, it lowers the tension, and the reader loses that fluttery anticipation of experiencing the plot unfold like a safecracker chipping away at a combination lock. Still, third is the easiest and most popular POV, allowing both the writer and the reader rich and expansive prose.

First person point-of-view, on the other hand, is even a more intimate experience, as a character narrates the story, their thoughts and observations depicted in his or her own dialect, colored by their own worldview. The pitfall in this is that worldview is limited to their own, and they can’t possibly be privy to information outside of their own sphere. And because the reader can only know what the narrator knows, and that worldview may be tainted by perception or prejudice, they run the risk of being taken an unreliable narrator. An example of this is when prose is written in the POV of a child, or someone with diminished mental abilities as William Faulkner did with his character Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. Even so, it’s a POV I’ve written in often and one I always enjoy reading, as it adds a realism and anticipation to the book, when the reader becomes one with the main character.

Whatever POV you choose, it should be one you’re comfortable with, and one you shouldn’t let the market dictate. There are schools of thought that say the first-person point of view is outdated, but two of the last few years most popular books, Water for Elephants and The Help, were both written in first POV, the latter written through the eyes of four women. And then there’s those who say head-hopping is perfectly acceptable. My opinion is it’s just lazy writing. After all is said and done, just write the best book you possibly can, and if it is, it’ll find its way into your readers’ hands.