POV — persistence of vision

by Toni

We often discuss point of view (POV) when it comes to writing–both the specific point of view chosen for the work (first, third, etc.) as well as the point of view or voice of the author.  However, whenever I hear the term POV, I also think of the psychological phenomenon of persistence of vision.

Persistence of vision is a phenomenon described back in 1824 by a physician, Peter Mark Roget, who was trying to figure out the mechanism whereby we perceived motion when we saw images in a quick succession. His research was the precursor to years of follow-up study which was seized upon by film theorists as a way to explain why we see motion, or how the still images create the perception of movement. As Joseph and Barbara Anderson point out, Roget and his successors were trying to find the answers to the questions:

Why is the image continuous, and why does it move?   In other words, why do the separate frames appear continuous rather than as the intermittent flashes of light which we know them to be?  And why do the figures on the screen appear to move about in smooth motion when we know they are in fact still pictures?

The Andersons spend a lot of time (and have in the past in other prominent essays) trying to debunk the "myth of persistence of vision" because biologically, the mechanism Roget used (and was expanded upon by later researchers and theorists) was flawed. As researchers, the Andersons are focused on refuting the prevailing myth of persistence of vision and look to several other explanations of why we see movement, but in the long run, I think they miss why people cling to the myth: we see because the images create the opportunity to see. We connect the images–whether it’s because of speed or flow or distance or some combination, we see the images and interpret "motion" because that makes sense from our experience of things-in-motion.

We recognize motion.

Even if it’s something in motion that we haven’t ever seen personally, like a specific person walking across a specific room.

What holds our attention, though… for any length of time… is how we see the images. The angle of the images, the lighting, the mood, the way they’re framed, the context, the tone (coloring), etc., can all work to create what I like to call (and I think I am totally making this up), "recognition dissonance" — where what we see is both familiar (we can tell what it is that we’re looking at) and unfamiliar (we’re looking at it in a slightly different way/angle, etc., or with something that intrigues our visual comprehension or the composition is unsettling enough to make us work to figure out what we’re seeing)… so that we keep looking. Give the same script to two different directors and you’re going to end up with two different films. Give one of those scripts to a great director, and you’ll be riveted.

Okay, so what does that have to do with writing?

When we’re writing, we’re creating the mythology of a world. As the author, we (hope we) have a persistence of vision, a way of seeing the world and communicating that imagery to the reader to help them hook into the images and the characters and stories. We have to bring recognizable things to the reader (sights, sounds, etc.) but with an angle of vision that is uniquely appropriate to that world. It’s a step beyond just creating setting; it’s translating the dream.

If we think about it, there’s no clear reason why we should see motion in film. There’s also no reason why people should "see" the world we create with these discrete words on a page. Words are strung together in such a way that maybe they make grammatical sense, and surely they hold meaning, but for this sentence to create an image that leads into the next sentence which enhances that image and keeps the image alive in the mind… continuous… is a sort of deliberate magic.

One of the things I think about as I write is not only "what is the right detail for the image here?" but "will it keep the image flowing, will it keep the forward motion of the story, will it break or keep the mood?" The last thing a writer wants to do is to have a moment where the flow stops, like a broken film strip, flapping in the projector (or, to update, a scratch on a DVD). The reader stops, the continuous image is broken, and it’s easier for them to put the book down.

I think writers tend to do (or want to do) the above naturally–it’s a part of creating that unbreaking story. We’re mythmakers, and everything we write goes to the creation and sustaining of that myth, and we learn it by trial and error. But we can’t forget that part of the reason why the reader connects to the story through these bits of alphabet is because they want to see the world. We’re creating an opportunity and they are supplying the faith. It’s our job to give them something unique to look at, to hold their attention, to both recognize and intrigue their curiosity. If the world I create (the setting, the people) could be plunked down into someone else’s setting, then I’ve failed at creating that dream, that worldview that is unique.

Some writers out there are so damned good at creating those worlds, that the imagery last for years and can be recalled as clearly as if the reader had actually, physcially been in the location of the story, witnessing it unfold. I have a long list of writers who’ve done this, but I’m curious about you… who have you read who creates this sort of vision, this sort of world? Who are the mythmakers you admire?

— a side note… I am omitting about a zillion points on the psychology and physiology of recognition and how that relates to film. I can geek out, but I’d like more than two people to finish reading this.

–second side note… In addition to Pari’s novel THE SOCORRO BLAST being out right now, don’t forget Louise Ure’s THE FAULT TREE and, coming out TUESDAY, THE 29TH, friend of the ‘Rati’s Allison Brennan’s first in her new trilogy, KILLING FEAR. Three unique worldviews, three unique visions, all fantastic. Seriously.

7 thoughts on “POV — persistence of vision

  1. pari noskin taichert

    Holy cow, Toni,What a marvelous subject . . . what a great angle.

    I read quite a bit of science fiction and fantasy. The world-building that goes on in those genres just blows me away: Lois McMaster Bujold and Orson Scott Card are among my favorites in that group.

    A writer I admire tremendously is Alice Hoffman. She manages to write about the current world, but to infuse it with so much wonder and infused, believable magic, that her books stay with me for a long, long time.

    BTW: Thank you so much for mentioning Allison’s, Louise’s and my new books. This is an exciting time for all of us.

    Yours is coming out soon too, a couple months? Right?

  2. toni mcgee causey

    Thanks Pari — and great examples. I think so many in the SF world do well in creating those myths. I also like the myth building / world building in the crime fiction world. Laura Lippman, Robert Crais, Michael Connolly… long long list.

    (You’re welcome on the mentions. Mine isn’t out ’til end of May.)

  3. Fiona

    Toni, I can see what makes you such a vivid writer. you have given me so much to think about with my WIP.

    Pari, I LOVE Bujold’s worlds. She brought me back to reading SF/F. In particular, I love how her characters are influenced/motivated by their social conditioning, and the choices they make because of/in spite of their backgrounds.

    All of these great books to read! I’ll hope for more snow and cold weather to justify it.

  4. Louise Ure

    Okay,Toni, you’ve convinced me. I adore the notion of POV as “persistence of vision.” (Althought sometimes I must admit it’s “pretentions of vision.”)

    And thanks for the shout out. I’ve been traveling on this book tour for The Fault Tree, and haven’t been able to check in on our ‘Rati conversations as often as I’d like. Rest assured, I’m using your names liberally all over the west.

  5. Allison Brennan

    Toni, your posts are always enlightening and interesting and I learn so much. I hadn’t thought of POV in that way before, but it makes complete sense.

    Thanks so much for the mention, especially with such brilliant ‘Rati writers.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oooh, scary technology. (And here I thought POV was a Todd Rundgren album…)

    I almost get it.

    It’s a good analogy for what we have to do as authors. I always think of it as “keeping the reader in the dream” or “keeping them in the movie”, but that’s really what you’re saying.

    Stephen King is the obvious… well, king. Ayn Rand had the same addictively readable quality – you literally can’t put the books down. Early Anne Rice, Daphne Du Maurier, the Bronte sisters, all do it for me. And Bram Stoker.


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