Friday, 20 June 2008

Coffee Morning: What's Your Point of View?

Hello again!

No, I'm not really here at 7am. I did the posting-in-advance thing again. For all I know I'm having a baby right now, as I'm officially full term (although the due date isn't until 7th July).

As before, I have Fox's Favourites biscuits for you all. But this time I got you some croissants too. Cos I'm nice like that.

This morning's topic was inspired by an email conversation I had with Captain Black, after a brief discussion in the comments box of Zinnia's post about Crystal Tips.

It's all about POV, otherwise known as Point of View - that is, whose eyes do your readers see the story through? Single POV (which could be either first person or third person), where you effectively tell one character's story? Or multiple POV, where you share the experience of several characters? If multiple POV, do you swap around within the prose from one set of eyes to another? Or do you restrict it, for instance having one POV per chapter? How many POVs is too many?

Some people have definite opinions on what works and what doesn't. A lot of fiction-writing how-to books will advise you to stick to one POV at a time. Some genres lend themselves better to one style or another.

For what it's worth, here's what I think. I'd love you all to disagree, and share your own approach to this often quite difficult area.

When I first started writing, my instinct was to have multiple POVs and jump about almost randomly from one character's head to another. I couldn't see how else to do it, as surely the protagonist doesn't know what everyone else is thinking / doing? But then my trusted reader pointed out that it can be confusing and inconsistent. Your reader never gets to invest in anyone - or in the story - for long enough.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with multiple-POV works, and there are plenty of good examples in literature, but (a) they're harder to pull off than single-POV, and (b) most good multiple-POV works will stick with one POV per scene or chapter, and generally to a small number of POVs overall.

I don't know which approach is more common. I suspect that single-POV novels are the norm and multiple POVs the exception, but that's only my gut feeling. And it may well depend on the genre. For instance, I suspect that a lot of crime fiction is written from the POV of either the criminal or, more commonly, the detective. The reader is being taken on a journey, and the journey consists of solving a crime. The detective only ever gets to see things from their own POV, and it makes sense to place the reader behind the detective's eyes, only finding out key info at the same time and in the same way.

That's the key point for single-POV books: You’re taking the reader on a journey, through one person's life. Therefore of course they have to be present in every scene. When other characters do stuff elsewhere, the POV character only knows about it in terms of how it’s revealed to them, and thus so does the reader. It can make a book very powerful, as the reader is wedded to the experiences and emotions of that one person, and feels / discovers everything just as the character does. If you violate that by moving to action the POV character didn't experience, you distance the reader from that experience and therefore dilute the power of the book.

It can be harder to stick to one POV, because you have to think more about how to impart information about what other characters are doing and thinking, without having X-Ray spex or some kind of mind-reading machine. You have to think about subtle signs and signals, and you have to convey the complex reality of human relationships, where people constantly misunderstand one another and no one person ever really knows what's going on.

In fact, my current WIP is the first single-POV book I’ve written. Both my previous (published, but that’s no guarantee of quality) books had two protagonists, and two POVs. But I still restricted myself to one POV per chapter. And I wonder whether even that was excessively complex. One of my flaws is a tendency to over-complicate. Less is more.

I guess it would seem as though I’m arguing that single POV is better than multiple POV. I’m not, but I will make two quite strong statements:

(1) It's harder than it looks to make multiple-POV work. You have to carry the reader along seamlessly, keep their interest, make sure they still care, make the reading experience consistent on some level. This requires a lot more skill if you’re using the multiple-POV model, although it’s a lot easier if you stick to the one-POV-per-chapter rule, and don't have more than two or three POVs throughout the book. But even this is hard, because if you don’t give them very distinctive voices, the reader will lose track of who’s ‘speaking’.

(2) Although multiple-POV is harder, single-POV is also harder than the third alternative, which is lazy multiple-POV. This third option is the one I used when I first started writing. It happens when you, the writer, know exactly what every character is thinking and experiencing, and rather than worry about how to take the reader on an engaging journey, you just tell them what's happening in the quickest way possible. So you jump about between POVs.

So, use multiple-POV at your peril. And make sure you're aware of what you're doing.

That's what I think, anyway. What about you?


Fiona said...

Love this topic Clare, because you describe, so well, the exact drawbacks to using multiple POV.

My little albatross is written in first person present with three POVs. It seemed so easy to begin with:(

I do stick to one POV per chapter but I have found it incredibly hard to make each voice different. I am seriously considering - just into the sixth chapter of second rewrite - if I should make the strongest character the main protagonist and have the other two as secondary characters. I was advised to do this by an editor when she looked at my first three chapters nearly three years ago!
Wonder if you're on the old gas and air by now and if so good luck and push!

SpiralSkies said...

Ooh, I love this topic too Clare! My wip has two 1st person POVs and one 3rd person, with separate chapters to help delineate. But my novel's theme is perception so quite often the same scenes are alluded to from a different perspective. It does turn me into a bit of a psycho at times.

I said in a comment to Kate Harrison yonks ago that, for me, there's somethig somehow 'cleverer' about books writeen in 1st person rather than 3rd. But maybe I just like the whole 'method acting' thing of actually being that character and using their lingo.

Oh, I don't know. What was the question again?

Debs said...

Great post. I've written one novel in the first person then redrafted the entire thing into the third person.

I now keep to the third person from one person's point of view. I have also written from three points of view and agree that although this helps put another point across it's sometimes hard to make sure that each has their own obvious voice.

Looking forward to hearing about baby's arrival soon.

liz fenwick said...

Cureetn work began life with three pov and now in rewrite down to two - making it a stronger book I think. I don't think I could tell the story as effectively with just one because it is ultimatley wabout their relationship and how far apart they are but it is definitely worth looking at....

thought provoking topic - thanks.

Hope if you are not in labour that you have your feet up with a good book :-)

Graeme K Talboys said...

On the whole, I prefer books with a single POV, although when done well, books that have multiple PsOV can be stunning.

I tried it once in a book that had half a dozen distinct groups of people following their own stories (which all, eventually, became a single story). I simply wrote each story from their point of view and then slotted the chapters together chronologically and cut out any obvious repetition. As fiona wrote, the problem was making creating distinctive voices for the characters. Which is why it never got beyond a third draft.

Otherwise I stick to a single POV. I have done this first person (as it seemed the best perspective in spy novels) and my w-i-p is third person, but from a single character's perspective.

What I find difficult in that mode is how far to stray into the heads of other characters without jarring the reader out of the flow. As ordinary mortals, we often watch other people do things and ascribe motives to their actions or create psychological profiles. As writers, I'm not sure we are allowed quite so much freedom (unless, of course, that is what our main character does).

Leatherdykeuk said...

I generally write in third person omniscient, but I have written in single POV and found it incredible hard. Different characters get different chapters.

Good luck with the birthing!

Clare Sudbery said...

Actually I'm watching ER... and not in labour yet, as far as I know!

Great answers. Looking forward to reading more.

Anonymous said...

Warning: Longish comment...

This is one of the most interesting aspects of writing for me at the moment. It's also one of the most difficult and controversial, seemingly. As Clare said, she and I had a very interesting e-mail debate on this a while back - thanks again for that, Clare.

When I first started thinking about this, I was quite opinionated about single POV being difficult, restrictive, or even impossible. This was probably because I was only really thinking of my own projects, which have complex plots that would make single POV an inappropriate choice of technique. Since then, I have had my eyes opened to all kinds of possibilities. I've now realised that some of my work has suffered from "lazy multiple POV". It will therefore need re-working.

After a lot of thought, I've realised that no one particular choice of POV is better or worse than another (with the exception of "lazy" which is confusing and, well, lazy). What I think there is, is a strong coupling between complexity of plot and choice of POV(s). In other words, you don't have to do it a particular way, but some methods work better for complex plots and some work better for more linear plots.

Good examples of this can be found in crime fiction. Single POV can work very well in these cases. In fact for some stories, multiple POV would reduce the effectiveness and quality. I'm thinking of "who-dunnit" style books like Christie's Poirot series. You don't have to always use single POV for crime stories, though. What about things like Patterson's Alex Cross series? These have multiple characters, for detectives, criminals and victims. I don't think single POV would work for these stories - it would be too restrictive. Cross can't be in every scene but the scenes without him are very important to the plot and the story.

I suspect the jury is still out on which methods are most prevalent in published literature. Clare's gut feel is that single POV are the norm and multiple POV are the exceptions. My own book collection would suggest vice-versa. Perhaps genre has more of a bearing on POV techniques than we realise? My collection is mostly thriller, crime, SF, horror and mixes thereof.

For my own projects, what I'm going to do is to mostly stick with multiple POV, but stop head-jumping so frequently and have separate chapters for each. Or at the very least, have a scene change when the POV changes. I do scene changes by separating paragraphs with a centred asterisk.

* (don't know how to center this in a comment)

I'm really enjoying this learning-as-I-go-along aspect of writing. You lot are helping very much, so many thanks!

Kate.Kingsley said...

Hi Clare, hope all is well with you and the little belly-dweller,

Great topic ~ you’ve concrete-ised some bits and bobs I always thought about POV. My current WIP is first person single POV, as I didn’t feel that I had the skill to juggle multiple voices and viewpoints convincingly. Also the theme is a little “stalkery” and obsessive, so I thought the single viewpoint would increase the intensity. But I get what Jen says about the method acting thing ~ sometimes I find it a bit uncomfortable when I’m expressing myself from the perspective of this one very intense protagonist, and I’m also a bit concerned that if/when this is published people are going to think its autobiographical as I share some background with my main character. Anyway, that concern is a long way off as of yet!

Happy writing to all the NR’s ~ have a great weekend!

ChrisH said...

Hmm, I think what I do is one POV per passage, in deep third! However, I do restrict this to key characters only and there is absolutely no switching to anyone else's head during the passage. It works for me!

ChrisH said...

PS Good luck with WIP!

Kate said...

I'm predominantly a first person writer, it just feels more natural to me, but for the latest book (the one published last week), I wanted to get more perspectives so ended up with three first person narrators. I've said before on here that it was quite a logistical challenge, because they were often commenting or observing the same incidents, so I had to choose which might offer the most interesting perspective, and when - if ever - it was worth repeating action and potentially holding it up to get more than one viewpoint on the same incident.

I don't know that I'd do it again, though it depends on the story. I don't mix viewpoint in the same scene, but I have read books (children's books in particular) that manage to pull this off beautifully, so that the action is fast and furious and the 'head hopping' isn't at all disconcerting.

I do think it's a fine balance if you are going for different first person viewpoints to get individual enough voices for them without slipping into cariacature. In an early draft of the book in question, I had one of the characters use the same swear word quite often and it drove my editor and agent mad. When I re-read it, I saw exactly what they meant, but it was almost a trick for me in the first draft to differentiate - by later drafts, I had their voices more clearly distinguished in my head so I could be more subtle in terms of rhythm and personality, rather than just vocab.

Interesting topic, Clare. Hoping the baby makes an appearance soon - my OH's birthday is tomorrow and I think midsummer's night is a lovely day to have a birthday!

Kate x

B.E. Sanderson said...

Excellent topic, Clare. I'm always interested in seeing how other people approach POV.

My first two books are in third omniscient, and I was told I do that POV very well. But since neither of those sold... *shrug* The rest of my finished books and my WIP are in third limited, and I stick to one person for each scene. If there's more than one scene per chapter, I put a # break between switches. I also have a cute mystery series I was working on (that I'll get back to eventually) written in first person. That was a different experience for me, but fun. I think deciding which POV to use depends on the writer and what's necessary for the story. Each one has it's own benefits and drawbacks. For instance, have you ever read a first POV book where the character somehow knew things they shouldn't have known? (Like what's waiting for them on the other side of the hill, or behind a door, when they haven't been there yet.) Like Clare said with regard to multiple-POV, 'make sure you're aware of what you're doing'. This holds true for any POV. They all can be done if they're done right. Once I even read a short-short story done entirely in second person. Of course, it was by Ray Bradbury and he did a very good job, but even he couldn't sustain that POV for more than a couple pages.

Anyway, enough rambling from this end. I'm keeping a positive thought for a speedy delivery for you Clare. Here's hoping next coffee break sees a new little person in your home. =o)

NoviceNovelist said...

My WIP is a 3rd person single POV. I like reading stories that have several POVs if it enhances the narrative to see it from diff angles. Sometimes I read something adn think OH I'df love to hear what character X thinks of that. I'd like to have a crack at a multiple POV story but I don't know if I could suistain multiple voices for a whole novel - might be easier if they were diff genders - not sure. I'll see what future WIP throw at me in terms of characters wanting to be heard!

I love ER Clare - my fav show to unwind to!!! Hope its not to exciting for baby-to-be!!!!!!!

Calistro said...

Both novels 1 and 2 are in 1st person POV for one character. The good thing about this, as you said, is that it's a sort of 'method acting' as you mentally step into your characters shoes and write what they see and do. The tough bit about it is that it can get quite tiring, writing-wise. You're always telling the same character's story and, after 80,000 words you'd like to just into someone else's head for a change.

I'd love to have a go at 1st person POV and two or three characters - Kate Long did it well in TBMH and Nick Hornby created four very distinctive voices in 'A Long Way Down' and that's the thing...the voices. Kate had a teenager, a mother and a grandmother, Nick had (from memory) an 18 year old girl, a 40 year old man, a 60 year old woman and a 25 year old American man. In both cases very different characters from different generations and, in Hornby's case from different genders and countries. My idea for novel #3 involves 3 white middle-class women in their 30s - could I make them different enough from each other to give them distinctive voices? I think that would be very, very hard and, if I were to write that book I think I'd go for 3rd person POV x 3 instead.

A. Writer said...

I love this topic! Book 1 is in 3rd person from 2 POVs, Book 2 is in 3rd person from 1 POV and Book 3 is in 1st person from 1 POV.

With Book 1, I have different chapters for each character, although I can go two or three chapters with one character. It works because, even though you haven't read about one character for a few chapters, you still know what they are up to. It's hard to explain... lol!

Lane said...

My wip is single POV ,3rd person, with a smattering of omniscient. (I learnt last week that 'omniscient' is also known as 'the voice of god').

I tied myself up in knots trying to decide on a POV and had a dabble with 1st person and multiples but couldn't sustain them for this particular story.
Having said that I'm looking forward to using 1st person for something longer than a short story in the future.

Great subject Clare and fascinating responses as usual.
If something happens on the push-push front between now and next week ... good luck!

KeVin K. said...

My two published novels are both multiple POV. They covered a lot of ground -- with converging storylines evolving on different planets -- so I had no choice. My two original novels (now in progress) are a mystery told in first person and a semi-historical romantic suspense told multiple third person.*

My short fiction has been single-third-person, multiple-third-person, and first-person. (I have never been happy -- or adept -- with third-person-omniscient. I tend to devolve into summarizing events.)

I think the needs of the story dictate who's telling it and how. My mystery, for example, requires the reader know only what the protagonist does. Also, it requires an understanding of coastal Carolina culture. Rather than drop in huge blocks of exposition, my POV character has returned to her home town after a decade away. Her observations and interactions reveal the setting as they advance the plot. My suspense novel, on the other hand, is set in a mythical African nation in the 1950s (modeled on aspects of the Gold Coast and the Ivory Coast and their divergent struggle for independence) and today (a blend of features from Ghana, Benin, and Nigeria). There are six key individuals (three then, three now) and an organization that spans the timeline. Not counting incidental characters -- a witness to events here, a victim there -- my current outline has nine major point-of-view characters. Third person throughout, of course, except for an epistolary bit.

*= (How is KeVin writing two novels at once, you ask? He asks himself the same thing frequently. A certain number of hours each week is devoted to writing the mystery novel -- which is set in a small coastal Carolina town very like the one in which his wife grew up and quite similar to a half dozen within an hour's drive. A larger number of hours is devoted to work-for-hire projects -- currently short fiction and articles for Catalyst Game Labs, which generate income, and pitches to Black Library, which haven't, yet. My leisure time is spent researching 1950s Francophone Africa.)
(I won a copy of Meyer's The Host over at Romancing the Blog, but will not read it until the mystery is finished.)

Caroline said...

ha! I am now terrified, as I am using multiple POV for the first time in current novel (due to finish in 4 weeks!). I hoep I can pull it off.

Of course now I am really scared :)


KeVin K. said...

"I hoep I can pull it off."

I'm suer you can, Caroline.

Clare Sudbery said...

Aw Caroline, sorry.

Reading these comments has reminded me how many zillions of ways there are of doing things. There is no right or wrong, and you are a brilliant writer with an innate feel for what works. If it felt like the right way to do it, I bet it's worked out just fine.

And I can't remember who, but somebody above said that there are pitfalls in all approaches, and all of them are potentially hard. After reading everyone's comments I suspect I'm not necessarily right about multiple being harder / more dangerous than single - it just all depends how you use them.

Are you using 1st person, 3rd, or 3rd omniscient?

Oh, and a bit late now... but I've found that when I do 3rd person multiple POV with individual chapters being devoted to individual POVs, I find that the narrative style changes - almost as though the characters were writing about themselves. Anyone else found this? I can't decide whether it's a good thing or not...

Annieye said...

This discussion has got me quite worried. I have just been accepted by an agent for my novel (Judith Murdoch). I spent four-and-a-half hours with her two weeks ago going through the novel page by page, and have just packaged up my edited manuscript ready for her to send out to publishers.

I fear it must have lots of POV flaws in it! I wish I'd read this post before sending it off.

The first part is in the first person present with five points of view. The second part is in the third person past with three points of view. Throughout both parts is one first-person confessional voice (the main character who is dead and in the afterlife, commenting on the story). There are also a few very short scenes she refers to as 'the voice of the author as god' throughout the second part of the novel.

It worries me because the only qualification I have in English is a 1970s O level and I have never, ever attending a creative writing course of any kind. She says it doesn't matter.

I'm glad I didn't know any of this when I was actually writing the novel, because I think it might have made me a tad nervous!

KeVin K. said...

Annieye, if the storytelling is solid, it doesn't matter what rules you follow or break. A good story well told trumps a library full of how-to manuals.

liz fenwick said...

Annieye wtg on getting and agent. Fingers crossed for you!!!!

Clare Sudbery said...

"the only qualification I have in English is a 1970s O level and I have never, ever attending a creative writing course of any kind. She says it doesn't matter."

You don't need qualifications to write a novel. Most novelists don't - it's not a profession like that. I only have an 80s English O level, have also attended no courses, and when my first novel was published I hadn't even read any how-to books. And that novel was the first thing I ever wrote (really - no short stories, no nothing), but still it was published.

There are so many different ways of writing a novel. No way is the right way. If your agent thinks it's good enough to send to publishers, it must be dead good. Trust in that, and good luck!

Annieye said...

I really am still learning all these technical bits!

Clare - thanks for that. You don't know how relieved I am. (I failed my 11 plus too!) Judith Murdoch said it didn't matter.

I found the comments and the post really interesting though, and looking through the first draft of my manuscript (the draft I've just sent off is the fifth) the POV is all over the place - the lazy POV you refer to. I think I sort of sussed it out for myself by about the third or fourth draft - I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what!

wordtryst said...

I'm glad that I was ignorant of so many of the how-to's when I wrote my first novel, which is third person single POV. Now that my head is full of 'shoulds' I agonize over novel #2. This one is mainly third person / single POV but with two other POVs thrown in here and there for (I hope) dramatic effect. My reader said that one of them jolted him. I'm leaving it, though, because my agent hasn't complained about it.

Sometimes, too much information about the 'how tos' can get in the way of the simple telling of the story. That's my POV.

Clare Sudbery said...

"Sometimes, too much information about the 'how tos' can get in the way of the simple telling of the story."

Good point. Certainly I think all such thoughts should be banished from one's head as much as poss at first draft stage. Editing is the time to start worrying about mechanics.