What’s your point?

Point of view.

The Narrative.

X touched on it back in December. It’s talked about a lot among writers, but for me, I still don’t freaking get it.

Okay, I get it mostly. But here’s where my head’s at today: we’ve got 1st person – everyone knows it, pretty tough to screw it up unless you’re writing a story that just shouldn’t be told in 1st person. But even then, you can’t really muck up the POV.

But this frocking 3rd person. We’ve got 3rd person omniscient, 3rd person limited, 3rd person objective, 3rd person subjective, 3rd person limited-omniscient, 3rd person limited-objective, and blah, bla-freaking blah.

WTF?

Does anyone really know the differences between these? Other than the obvious Wikipedia defs. I mean, how do we know when a book is 3rd person omniscient as opposed to poorly executed 3rd person objective? Or vise-versa?

Now, one of the problems I’ve had in going from screenwriting to prose is POV. At times I thought I was writing 3rd person omniscient, but it was pointed out to me that what I was really doing was a poor job of 3rd person limited. Or subjective. Or vise-versa.

Which leads me to…

Rules. We always hear about the rules of writing, and how it’s okay to break them ONLY if you understand them (which I believe), or you’re a very good (or successful) writer. But I gotta tell you, lately I’ve been reading some books where the rules of POV are being bent and broken, and it bugs the gerunds out of me. It takes me out of the story.

The latest book by a writer who I think is brilliant, one of the best out there, is a 3rd person story.
Now, I’m pretty sure the book is what would be called 3rd person subjective. And for me, I’m okay with the writer switching character POV’s within the 3rd person telling, so long as it’s done by chapter, or by paragraph. That’s pretty basic, right? Don’t most of us feel that way?

And this bestselling book does that. But it also jumps subjective POV within paragraphs. Not throughout the book, just in three or four spots. And when I hit these spots, it jumps out at me. It bugs me. But is it just me? The writer of this book knows a helluva lot more about writing than I do.

And then there’s my favorite book of all-time, LONESOME DOVE. This book is brilliant. Amazing. Stunning. Entertaining as all heck. It’s got about six thousand characters and though it’s 3rd person, we’re in each character’s head at different times. Sometimes sentence to sentence we’re switching POV’s. Freaking Larry McMurtry, writing the best freaking book I’ve ever read. Does anyone know more about sentence structure and language than old Lawrence? Is this 3rd omniscient? If so, where’s the narrator’s perspective?

And does any of it matter? Or does it, and we give free passes to big names? I recently got some feedback on my prose and one of the issues was that I jumped POV within my 3rd person narrative – at the wrong time. I did what McMurtry and this other great writer did.

Oh, before your eyes begin to roll, let me point out that I am in no way comparing myself to these folks. When my reader pointed out my issue, my reaction was, "Oh, God, they’re right. I screwed up." Because to me, it’s wrong. I wasn’t trying to do it, or being lazy – not intentionally – I just… screwed up.

In another book I recently read – one of those where the narrative shifts from 1st person to 3rd person via chapters – there is a 3rd person chapter happening. And in one scene the protagonist walks into the room, and suddenly we go into 1st person. But we didn’t start a new chapter. We were literally in 3rd person, inside a supporting character’s subjective POV, and in walked the character whose POV we’re in 1st person in other chapters… but suddenly we go inside the protag’s head – in 1st person.

Isn’t this wrong? It felt wrong. But again, this is a very skilled writer doing this. One with many books on the shelves, and many awards and much critical praise. So what do I know? Not much. At least not about this.

So, help me out. Throw me a bone. All of you who are smarter than me, please help me out… and that means, uh, one, two, three, the guy in his underwear sipping coffee, the chick on the phone, sixteen, seventeen, yeah… that means every one of you. Help me out.

Clarify all this POV shite for me. Explain the difference with all these 3rd persons – and I don’t mean the basic dictionary defs, I mean explain it. Help my pea brain understand it.

What’s right, what’s wrong, when can you switch, when can’t you? Why, if you’re looking at a manuscript – or even your own work – a sudden, out of place POV shift bothers you, but if you’re reading a NYTBS author’s latest smash hit, you look the other way? Or do you?

Or maybe you feel the same I do about all this – you just don’t get it – but have been afraid to admit it. I admit it. I’m an idiot.

So, help me.

Guyot

This week’s If I Picked Character’s Watches:

Phil Hawley’s fabulous Luke McKenna would wear an IWC Big Pilot Watch.

Iwc1_1

By the way, STIGMA goes on sale today. BUY THIS BOOK. I am offering a money-back guarantee… if you read this book and don’t like it, email me and I will GIVE YOU YOUR MONEY BACK. Yes, it’s true. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. BUY THIS BOOK.

 

64 thoughts on “What’s your point?

  1. Alex Sokoloff

    I’m still struggling, too, so I’ll leave it to someone else to explain it in the detail you’re craving.

    But just a couple of points. I’m not sure it EVER works to jump subjective POV within a paragraph. I have the same reaction you do – hate it, it takes me out of the story. Just seems like bad romance writing (no offense…).

    And this is just a not very educated guess, but think McMurtry is able to do the kind of constant shifting he does in LONESOME DOVE, (which I just read at your rec) because he’s writing from a pretty distant third person. We’re not really inside the skins of the characters; we’re watching. Even when we hear their thoughts, we’re removed. If you want to put the reader fully inside a character’s skin and head, you PROBABLY have to at least give a whole chapter to that POV, if not the whole book.

    But another example you might want to look at for shifting but closer POV is THE SHINING. King shifts POV within chapters, and gets very close, but it never feels choppy or distracting.

    This is going to be one of these days that I never get off line, isn’t it?

    Reply
  2. Bill Cameron

    POV is like pornography, hard to define but dammit I know it when I see it!

    I’m not sure I can explain POV, but I think the answer to your meta-question is what’s right is when you never feel the author has lost control. McMurty is a great example, because he’s someone you always feel has control. He’s taking you where he intends to and he knows exactly what he’s doing.

    If you notice POV, or more specifically if you notice it in a way that’s disrupting your reading, then it’s not right.

    That prolly helps not at all.

    Reply
  3. Guyot

    You know, I created this post a couple of days ago, and after seeing it live here, I went and opened my LONESOME DOVE, and I guess I’d say it is the classic example of 3rd person omniscient, right?

    But again, I’m lost at defining all these different levels.

    Reply
  4. Pari Noskin Taichert

    I’ll be online most of the day, too. Thanks for nothing, Paul.

    I’ve just wrangled some major plot points into a “map” for my new series and am writing it in 3rd person. This POV still intimidates me. I don’t know how to make a strong, distinctive voice without being in the character’s head and expressing it in terms of “I,” like I do with Sasha.

    So, PLEASE!!!!!!

    Answer Paul’s questions; it’ll help many of us who dare to comment — and many who’ll be lurking today.

    Reply
  5. Lisa

    Have a look at Ian McEwan’s ATONEMENT, which is 3rd person I-think-limited, but changes narrators every two or three chapters, and does it so smoothly that I’d read the book twice and didn’t notice until someone pointed it out to me… of course, this could reflect some serious limitations on my part.

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  6. Naomi

    I love to write in third-person limited. It must be some old-school influences (Dickens–or did he write in third-person omniscent? I guess it just depended on what work). Because I write about outsiders, it’s helpful for me to have the added support of the narrator to help create the tone and serve as interpreter at times. The narrator can inject humor even though the main protagonist may not view himself as having humor. For my mystery series, this narrator can only go into the head of my protagonist, but otherwise hovers above, watching with interest.

    I did more of a third-person limited omniscent in a recent short story. Here the narrator was very detached, reflecting the tone of the story. The narrator just reported the facts at hand, little interpretation (more journalistic). I went into the head of the protagonist and also a couple of the minor characters. The minor characters here compensated for the role of the narrator, because they contributed their interpretations of the protagonist, who was getting herself in more and more trouble. (Both minor characters notably cared for the protagonist, adding to the poignancy of her situation.)

    I loved LONESOME DOVE, too. I think McMurtry was trying to convey all the voices of his community and how they all were knitted together without injecting much interpretation; he wanted us to connect our own dots (basically what Alex said). I think his approach matched the setting and the tone he was trying to create–you can see and taste that bleak and wild country.

    I’m not smart enough to really answer your questin, guyot, because I write (and perhaps even read) intuitively and not analytically.

    Reply
  7. Guyot

    “”because I write (and perhaps even read) intuitively and not analytically.””

    Oh, sure… if that were really true, Naomi, you’d be, like, nominated for an Edgar or something.

    wait.

    Reply
  8. JT Ellison

    I’m not nearly smart enough, or experienced enough, to answer your question, G. But it’s an issue that gets raised in my critique group quite a bit. So let me muddle for a moment, and see if I make any sense.

    I write in what Gayle Lynds identified for me as close third. I didn’t know what that was, but it makes sense to me. It’s a 3rd subjective, where the reader gets exactly what the character is thinking, feeling, plotting, and what they know. He and she could be replaced with I.

    The struggle with the onmiscient pov, in my mind, is keeping the writer out of the story. There’s a difference between the story unfolding in narrative, and me telling you the story. If you’re trying to be the storyteller, then you need to be consistently divorced from the action, and reporting without bias.That is hard to do.

    But to be honest, if I notice a pov shift, the author is doing something wrong. They can be seamless and easy. Basic rules I try to follow are never switch POV mid scene, stick with one protag’s mind regardless. I have issues with the stories that meld the two main characters and have their pov’s co-mingle. It’s clumsy, and drags me out.

    All I can say is write in the pov that’s is comfortable and natural. For me, the close third is vital for novels, so I can drop whatever clues need to be dropped wherever. Shorts, where the action is limited, I like first person.

    Alas, I’m afraid I’ve simply muddled. POV sucks. I can’t explain it. I just do what feels right.

    Reply
  9. billie

    Oh, gosh, this is why I have not yet written a novel in third person. Well, I’ve started them that way and completed drafts that way, but so far have ended up translating them into first, because I’ve developed a comfort zone with that. But don’t ask me what kind of third person it was I started out in, please!

    I think though that it’s fine to do whatever you want to (even if you don’t know the name of it) if you maintain what John Gardner called “the vivid continuous dream.”

    If it doesn’t pull readers out of the story, it’s fine.

    Some of the big award-winning writers shift around all the time and do it well. I notice on a sort of subconscious level but I am perfectly willing to go with the flow of any good book that has me swept up in it – I don’t care if it breaks the rules or not!

    Reply
  10. Brett Battles

    I had POV drilled into me by the late Bill Relling when I was learning how to write. Now I’m not saying that the way I see it is the absolute, or that I haven’t found many exceptions, but I believe in a pretty tight use.

    Changing POV within the same paragraph will automatically cause me to throw the book across the room. Changing POV from paragraph to paragraph without space breaks, will – more times than not – make me throw the book onto the pile gathering at the other side of the room. Changing POV either from chapter to chapter, or with space breaks will cause me to continue reading (well…if the stories good.)

    Lesson here for me? If I notice POV as a “heavy” element, I’m taken out of the story and can not get into it and enjoy it.

    I know, kind of old school. I fully realize there are books out there that break these rules…but I think like you mentioned, Paul, you can’t break the rules until you know what they are and how they are used.

    I’ll also go on record saying that I have a very hard time with books that switch from 3rd person to 1st person, even chapter to chapter. (The example of switch from 3rd to 1st in the same scene without any breaks would cause not to throw the book, but to rip it in half and burn it in the middle of the street.) But, again, I’ve read several books that do this that I’ve enjoyed. Ultimately it comes down to the skill of the author.

    I would say if you are reading my stuff, you should never have an issue knowing what the POV is. And if you do, let me know because it is probably a mistake!

    Reply
  11. Louise Ure

    If McMurtry’s LONSESOME DOVE is the shining example of third person omniscient (and I think it is), then Barbara Kingsolver’s POISONWOOD BIBLE is the corollary for first person POV. Multiple first person POV, in her case. And like McMurtry’s work, when any of her characters begin to think/act/speak, you know exactly who it is.

    Like JT, I think you can use any combination of POV that works for you, as long as they’re separated by at least paragraphs (if not scenes). And the farther away you are from an omniscient POV, the more control you have on when the telling details of a story are revealed.Not that I’m any good in that style of writing; I prefer first person.

    Louise Penny broke those rules in STILL LIFE. She jumped POV more than once in the same paragraph. Only a couple of times, but it was enough to take me out of the story. My reaction? Why didn’t she catch this? But she’d done such a good job in the rest of the book that I forgave her.

    Reply
  12. Naomi

    But J.T.–don’t you think that there’s a difference between the narrator and the writer in third person? I think that the writer should always be invisible. The narrator is almost a character unto itself. It’s the voice of the work.

    Reply
  13. Elaine Flinn

    Move over, Guyot – after four books – I’m still as befuddled as you with all the POV labels. I ‘think’ I write third-person omniscent – but I occasionally have two character POV’s – but ALWAYS with either scene or chapter breaks.

    I can’t write in first person and make it work – but I applaud those who can. I think I was spoiled years and years ago by Sidney Sheldon and his great book – The Other Side of Midnight – where ALL the main characters – and there were several if I remember correctly – had their own chapters. James Clavell – another favorite – used the mega POV as well and let’s face it – he did sell a few books. 🙂

    Reply
  14. Guyot

    Re: LONESOME DOVE. Can someone please explain to me the difference between 3rd person omniscient, and 3rd person subjective? Because we go inside the characters’ heads with both, right?

    So, isn’t the difference that omniscient brings in the narrator’s personal perspective and subjective does not? And if so, does LD do that?

    Reply
  15. JT Ellison

    Naomi,That’s what I was trying to say, yet obviously failed. : )The issue we ran into in group was the writer telling the story, not the narrator. BIG difference. Thanks for making it so much more eloquent.

    Reply
  16. JT Ellison

    Stolen from http://216.239.51.104/search?q=cache:826rfe5fmiEJ:www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml%3Fxml%3D/arts/2006/11/04/bonovel04.xml+third+person+limited+subjective&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=5&gl=us&client=firefox-a

    Third-person subjective narratives are often quite close in tone to the first person. You write “he” or “she” instead of “I” but you still focus through the eyes of that individual.

    It is easier to use multiple narrators and chop and change between different points of view, but you have to be careful not to do it too frequently or your reader will get irritated.

    You may know your characters intimately but your reader is not so familiar. Each time you change point of view, you need to re-engage the reader in whoever is speaking, when they may have already emotionally invested in another character.

    The omniscient third-person narrator is a whole different bunch of bananas. Novelists in the 19th century used them a lot – those voices who told you the story, God-like from on high, knowing everything.

    Using an omniscient narrator gives you the advantage of moving seamlessly from one point of view to another – “And now, let us return to Maurice, who has been waiting for Helena for two hours, unaware that while he waits…” – but, as you can see, the tone of an omniscient narrator is often somewhat arch.

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  17. Keith

    I have almost no time (I’m in Manhattan, doing a high-pressure graphics gig), so I’ll be second-person imperative.

    Stop thinking in those terms, and start thinking about what you’re doing. What’s the absolute minimum POV change you can do and tell your story? Start there: That’s your POV.

    Who’s talking to the reader? Anybody? If somebody, be consistent about it and don’t do things that don’t make sense.

    If nobody, or “a narrator,” be consistent about it and don’t do things that feel like you’re cheating. You know that sense you have, when you tell a story at the bar, of when you’re off the rails? Same sense.

    Point of view is not as readily broken down into simple categories as we want to claim in writing class. It’s a spectrum. Third lets you slide the camera around without breaking rules: You can track into somebody’s head, get their thoughts, and then track back out and see the room. The key isn’t to know the rules: It’s to know why you’re moving the camera and whether it’ll work.

    “Camera” here is figurative. I’m not talking about visuals. I’m talking about closer to a mind, farther from a mind.

    Now I have to go scan.

    Reply
  18. Naomi

    According to the definitions given in that Telegraph article, LONESOME DOVE is written in third-person subjective, I think. I don’t know. It’s kind of confusing. I think that the narrator’s voice represents the collective voice of the characters. Because that novel’s storylines are anchored in a geographic place, there’s a common voice that emerges. Like the diction/vocabulary used in the narrative–it’s both low and high at the same time. The low, representing the working class status of his characters, and the high–very vivid and sparkling, the amazing setting.

    Frankly, I can’t get into all these literary terms. And I think it differs widely from one work to another. This is why I wasn’t an English major.

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  19. Keith

    Oh, also:

    I think you can get away with just about anything, including mid-paragraph POV changes, if you set it up right. Which means really deciding what kind of book you’re writing, and making sure it’s that kind of book on page 1, page 37, page 68, page 94, page 212…

    I don’t mean genre (though I suppose it’s true for that too); I mean what kind of book are you writing? The kind where the camera zooms around from mind to mind? If so, do you have a story that suits that technique?

    Form and function follow each other. Are they suited to each other? If not, what do you need to alter so they are?

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  20. JLW

    (1) POV is a matter of technique. Technique has no innate value. Its only value is in service to the story. This is why when you call attention to your fabulous technique, it bugs. Theodore Sturgeon said that when you smack your shin on a table in the dark, you don’t care that it’s an exquisite examplar of the Louis Quinze style. Samuel Johnson reminds us to strike out any passages we regard as particularly fine. Changing POV is a technique, but if it calls attention to itself, then it hasn’t worked. This is true of ALL techniques, not just POV.

    (2) It is strictly a modern fallacy that theory precedes practise. In most human endeavors, people perform first and then explain it later. Baseball pitchers knew how to throw a slider before it was explained to them how the rotation of the ball around its axis influences its trajectory. Counterpoint in music did not come into being through a text book. POV is the same way. Writers were using these various 3rd person techniques first, and then later, observant critics decided to explain what they were by appending highfalutin adjectives. While it is certainly possible to make distinctions between “3rd person omniscient, 3rd person limited, 3rd person objective, 3rd person subjective, 3rd person limited-omniscient, 3rd person limited-objective” and so forth, as far as creative activity is concerned, this is fixating on the trees and ignoring the forest. If you are writing in the 3rd person, simply adopt the variant point of view that best expresses what you’re trying to put across to the reader and don’t worry about what the hell it’s called.

    (3) Determining point of view is an analytic activity. Analysis is useful in showing you what you’ve done wrong, but it is useless in telling you what you’re doing right. Creative writing is a synthetic activity, and synthesis is the opposite of analysis.

    This whole discussion reminds me of your earlier post about voice. In the end, it is all subjective, simply a matter of picking the right words to say what you have to say.

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  21. Laura

    I don’t want to add to the confusion, but — some writing teachers have identified two types of omniscience, internal and external.

    There also is the concept of “central intelligence,” as defined by Henry James, and explained in Madison Smartt Bell’s “Narrative Design” as “a method for shifting the point of view from one character to another within a narrative . . . on a curve which usually passed through an omniscient phase at its height.” Just three weeks ago, I admitted to my students that, after five years of teaching fiction, I wasn’t sure I understood what this meant. But, in hindsight, I kinda do. Unfortunately, the only ready example I have is my last book and I’m not that self-referential/big of an asshole.

    Denise Mina, however, uses a modified version of it in FIELD OF BLOOD, which I dubbed “telescoping” when I stumbled on it, but now think might exemplify central intelligence. No spoiler tag necessary, I think: The main character, Paddy, is in a bad way, being officially shunned by her family. Her sister silently but deliberately finds a way to break the shunning directive and there is a beautiful shimmering moment, maybe not even a full sentence — I don’t have a copy near to hand — in which Mina writes that this memory will be vital to both sisters in years to come.

    Now, FIELD OF BLOOD, IIRC, is written in what I would call third person limited, which is probably synonymous with Gayle Lynds’ (by way of J.T.) “close third person.” (Another term, my own — the gargoyle on the shoulder, but one has to grant the gargoyle the ability to read the mind of its host.) Paddy is not telling her story; she’s living it, and we are being allowed to follow it. So the standard definition of third person limited/close third person doesn’t really fit this one passage. Who is telling us about the years to come, the future? Although Mina does not, beyond the prologue, actively shift POV away from Paddy (again IIRC), she is, to my mind, clearly using the technique of central intelligence, allowing this moment of omniscience, which, although not essential to the larger story, is in many ways the heart of the novel.

    Of course, in the end, when it comes to any rule in writing, I always cite Orwell, who had a list of several sound rules for writing, but concluded (paraphrasing): Break any of these rather than do something barbarous.

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  22. Elaine Flinn

    Thank you – JLW & Laura. All I can say now is…WAAA!

    I think I’ll just stick to what I’m doing – whateverthehell it is – and not worry about what it might be termed. It seems like it’s worked so far… :)!

    Reply
  23. Keith

    I re-read parts of NARRATIVE DESIGN, the Madison Smartt Bell book that Laura mentioned, on a long train ride recently. Paul, you may be at a good point for it.

    Reply
  24. Stephen Blackmoore

    Shifting POV is so easy to do and so hard to pin down. When is it okay? When does it work? When doesn’t it?

    I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules. I think it maybe depends on pattern and consistency. If it happens often enough, and skillfully enough, it’s a style. If it happens too much or not enough, it’s a glitch.

    When it happens too much and done badly it’s head hopping, which just leaves everyone confused. When it happens only once in a while, its presence jumps out at the reader.

    I think the reason it works for McMurtry, or any writer who does it well, is that they go into it clean and come out of it clean. There’s a tag that makes it clear whose head you’re in, and there’s a tag that lets the reader know when they’ve left.

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  25. Lee Child

    I’m a completely instinctive writer, and I have the academic IQ of a small goldfish, so I stay away from rules and theories and explanations, and I replace them with a visual image simple enough for even me to understand. When I’m reading a book, I’m sitting in an armchair, knee-to-knee with a guy telling me a story. (And bear in mind that storytelling was live and oral and real-time for almost all of its history – this printed stuff for the masses is incredibly new, comparatively.) The guy in the other chair might be the person the story happened to, or he might be a close confidant of that person, or he might be someone who has heard the story from his brother, or from his brother’s friend’s friend … it doesn’t really matter, as long as the person STAYS THE SAME PERSON … it’s really weird if he morphs from one person to another, right in front of my eyes. That makes me seasick. So to me, it’s about what level of connection and intimate information the narrator claims on page one being held consistent throughout. Of course, he would be entitled to say, Paul didn’t know it at the time, but Dave was really doing this at the time … anything that would work verbally face to face works for me. I kind of got over the same-book split 1st/3rd thing – James Lee Burke, Robert Crais, Harlan Coben all do it, and I like ’em all – by changing the guy in the armchair to a duo on a love seat … one leans forward and talks, and then leans back and the other takes over, and says, yeah, well, he didn’t know this until afterward, but what was really happening was x, y, and z …

    As long as I can picture the narrative as a plausible real-time event, it works.

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  26. Tom, T.O.

    Okay. Allow me to clarify all of this once and for all for all concerned. I am an English major with a graduate degree; I was an English teacher at the university level. I AM NOT A WRITER–I wrote in high school and it sounded like a high schooler; I wrote in college and it sounded like a high schooler. I AM A READER ONLY NOW. I once knew perfectly the answers to all your questions, but have long since forgotten most of which I knew. The ‘first person’ is either the first character to appear in the story or the main character also known, I think, as ‘the proctologist.’AS A READER ONLY: All I want is a good story. My willing suspension of disbelief is quite liberal–if everything works, I’m happy; if I’m jolted out of the story, I’m forgiving, AS LONG AS IT’S A GOOD STORY. Damn the rules! Strong post follows.

    You’ve all made sense here: Louise, Lee, Alex, Paul, Naomi–all of you. Shakespeare put a clock in “Julius Caesar” and has Othello convinced of an adultery that couldn’t have happened because the ‘perpetrators’ were on separate ships. But those things are usually missed unless someone points them out.

    I think our ‘problem’ lies in the fact that we each have our little pet peeves and so are jarred by different things. I’m can remember when telephone exchanges were “BUtterfield 8,” and whenever a number begins “555…” I freak out–it jars the heck out of me. I can forgive, but it’s annoying. I can’t remember ever being jarred by voice changes.

    FINALLY: maybe I’ve not been bothered by any of this because I read only the very best–you guys and the classics. Keep up the great work. Even if you screw up now and then, I’ll still buy your books. . ., and even read them.

    Reply
  27. Guyot

    Tom T.O., these folks ARE the classics.

    Um, I hope this isn’t Tom Landry and Terrell Owens commenting together.

    That would freak me out.

    Where’s Walter Mosley when you need him? (you suck DJM)

    Reply
  28. David J. Montgomery

    When you read a story written in the first person, do you ever stop and ask yourself, “Why is this person telling me this story? How did it come to be written down?” I do.

    You’re reading a book about an assassin and he’s telling you about all the people he’s killed. Where’s the logic in that?

    (I can still enjoy books like that, but I wonder about the rationale involved.)

    I do notice when authors use POV poorly and it does bother me, mostly because it takes me out of the story and makes me notice the writing. (And not notice the writing in a good way.)

    Awkward POV shifts, within chapters, within sections, within paragraphs even, are a fast way to spoil a story because they make you notice the writer.

    But, as with all things, it really just depends on how gifted the writer is. If you can handle it smoothly and it facilitates the story, that’s one thing. If you’re doing it because you don’t know any better… well, that might be a problem.

    My other pet peeve regarding POV is when an author uses it as a gimmick to get themselves out of a tight spot. You’ll see this usually in books that are written in the first person, or in a very limited third person, and then the author will suddenly switch POV to a different character, simply in order to convey some crucial piece of information to the reader that they wouldn’t otherwise know. Then the narrative will shift back to the original POV and things will continue as before. It’s a clumsy trick.

    I think writers are usually best served when they keep things as simple as possible and just focus on telling the best story they can. The more the reader notices the writing (and the writer), the less likely, I think, the story is to work. And for me anyway, messing around with the POV always makes me notice the writing.

    Reply
  29. Duane

    I write instinctively, too–one of my Prime Directives is “Avoid confusing the reader.”

    I recommend checking out Hammett’s MALTESE FALCON and Joe Gores’s INTERFACE to see third person when you never dip into a character’s head. The storyteller is like a camera; Sam Spade never “thinks” anything. You just watch him operate, and take your emotional cues from body language and such. I think this is incredibly hard to do, but impressive as hell when it works.

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  30. Keith

    David Montgomery said:

    “You’re reading a book about an assassin and he’s telling you about all the people he’s killed. Where’s the logic in that?”

    I know! I keep waiting for the moment where it’s revealed that he’s writing this in prison or something, but it never happens.

    I don’t think instinct and education are mutually exclusive. (That was a shot at you, Duane–I just happened to have the thought around the same time you posted.) I mean, my instincts certainly aren’t the same as they were when I wrote my first book, and I wouldn’t want them to be.

    Although why I’m still commenting after Lee Child summed it up so well, I have no idea.

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  31. Brett Battles

    Once again, Guyot, you’ve got us all jumping in on a great conversation.

    Ultimately it comes down to the skill of the author to keep the reader in the story. The less you remind the reader they are actually reading, the better.

    Lee, love the armchair analogy. That’s perfect.

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  32. Laura

    I came here, clicked on the comment box and — promptly forgot what I had to say. An ITA, I think, for David and wondering about why certain books exist.

    (I’ve been dealing with the city of Baltimore’s tax department today. Makes Kafka look like an amateur.)

    ITA that instinct and education are not mutually exclusive. I’m an intuitive writer, but I’ve had several good teachers and continue to study on my own, in part because I’m terrified that my students are going to realize how little formal training I’ve had.

    ITA that almost no one can do what Hammett did in THE MALTESE FALCON.

    Do _not_ ITA that Lee Child has anything in common with a goldfish. Unless it’s possible to win him at a county fair by tossing a pingpong ball in a jar, which I think would make a lot of Lee’s readers very, very happy.

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  33. Sarah

    This has little to do with the topic but…why are so many of you quick to say stuff along the lines of “I’m not as smart as some people” or “I’m not smart enough to understand this topic, but..”? Is all this self-deprecation really necessary? If you contribute something to the larger conversation, cool. If you don’t, also cool. But qualifying it seems counter-intuitive.

    Having said that, I am a fervent believer in the “smarter than you” category, where you sit back and resign yourself to another person’s innate intelligence.

    Reply
  34. Elaine Flinn

    Oh, hell, Sarah – we’re just having fun here. Of course we’re all brilliant and fully understand every POV aspect – but if we admitted that, then Guyot wouldn’t have anybody to talk to. 🙂

    Reply
  35. Karen Olson

    I’m coming late to this party, but if you want a complete mind-fuck, read Dennis Lehane’s Until Gwen, which is written completely in the second person, something I had no idea anyone could ever do successfully until I read this story. Amazing.

    Anything is possible. Try anything. If it works, great. If not, put it in a dark drawer and never tell anyone.

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  36. Dave White

    It’s funny, I have a certain type of taste and most of it agrees with Paul. I think POV is best when it’s in someone’s head and doesn’t jump around as much or at least it’s clearly marked when POV switches. I like that better, it doesn’t mess with my ADD mind too much.

    Reply
  37. Daniel Hatadi

    To me, POV in writing is exactly the same as in film: it’s where the camera is.

    1st person’s the easy one as the camera is looking through the MC’s eyes.

    3rd person means the camera’s outside the eyes, and that can range from smack up against the MC’s cheek or panned all the way out to a bird’s eye view. All those 3rd person qualifier labels are about the distance. Distant camera = omniscient, objective; near camera = subjective, limited, close.

    If you do multiple POVs, you need to give the reader enough immediate and distinctive cues as to whose eyes they are seeing through.

    The reason for all the confusion with these labels is because there’s no standard. But what do you do, qualify 3rd person by a distance in feet and inches? Oh, I’m writing my novel in 3rd person 1 foot, with alternate chapters panning out to 10 feet and then one inch.

    Clearest explanation of POV I’ve read has been in Orson Scott Card’s CHARACTERS AND VIEWPOINT. Personally, I’d like to see his terminology used as the standard. He uses only omniscient and limited, with limited being qualified by how much penetration there is (very exciting terminology, that). It’s all about how deeply do we penetrate into the viewpoint character’s mind. Definitely worth a read.

    What to use for a particular story? Whatever works, and whatever doesn’t jar the reader. This usually means consistency. If you’re going to change person or have multiple POVs, do it the same way each time. Chapter by chapter’s the least confusing and you can make that even clearer by putting the character’s name at the top of the chapter. That’s just being lazy, though. You’re better off making sure the writing is distinctive enough in each POV. Establish in the first sentence or paragraph exactly where the reader is.

    Hmm, wonder if anyone’ll read this. Damned hemispheres…

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  38. Keith

    You say synecdoche,And I say metonymy.

    You say not even close!I say synonymy!

    Synecdoche!Metonymy!Synecdoche!Metonymy!Let’s call a part standing for the whole thing off.

    Reply
  39. Alex Sokoloff

    Daniel, thanks for the referral to Card’s CHARACTERS AND VIEWPOINT. I now have such hope that this is the Holy Grail of POV that I probably will never read it, in fear that it will not give me the answers I so desperately need.

    That came out totally wrong. I will read it. In hope.

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  40. patti abbott

    Another wonderful book written in the 2nd person is Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying. The elegiac tone of this short work, the sort of communical mourning going on during an outbreak of disease, really adds to it.

    Reply
  41. Fran

    All I know about POV, aside from the clinical definitions is – if it works, it’s right. If it doesn’t, fix it.

    That being said, this whole discussion just gave me a wonderful way to correct one of the biggest issues I’ve had with one of my stories, so THANK YOU!!

    Reply
  42. Rob Gregory Browne

    As usual, I’m late to the party. But I’m the one person in the room, Paul, who isn’t smarter than you. Prettier maybe.

    As for the POV thing, I just pick a character and stay inside his head for awhile, like a method actor playing a part. Then when the time feels right, I switch to another character. Of course that time never feels right in the middle of a scene or a paragraph or a sentence. At least not for me.

    I like to give the reader a bit of warning before I change POV. Which means a scene break or a new chapter.

    But I’m like Naomi. I rely on my instincts. So far they haven’t let me down. They may have let others down, but not me.

    Reply
  43. Neil

    Late to the party, too, but I just thought I’d add an editor’s POV on POV, though what I have to say is similar to what several of the posts have already discussed. Believe me, most of us don’t go around the office contemplating the intricacies of third-person this and first-person that. All we want is a book that works. So pick the POV that serves your story, your characters, your voice, best. Don’t get over-complicated or over-cute. Don’t pull readers out of the narrative by jarring, unnecessary shifts. Just do what works. That’s it. All the rest is just noise.

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  44. Lorrii

    I came across this page while googling ‘how to get away with pov changes’.

    Interesting.

    I have a question I wonder if anyone can answer. I have a character going through an empty house, everything is in M’s pov. Then he hears two more characters come in the house and he gets out. I then need to switch to the pov of the other two, or at least one of these characters, and it’s right at the end of the chapter. My question is, can I get away with this?

    Any advice welcome.

    Thanks

    Reply

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