Sunday, March 22, 2009

A POV Curriculum, Part I

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There’s plenty of mistakes you can make when you first start writing, and we should probably go ahead and make them as quickly as possible. That will get the easy, big, dumb mistakes out of the way early, so you can move on to the fun of the gnarlier, subtler, paradox-riddled, suicide-inducing, no-one-can-solve-it-but-you problems that await further down the road.

With luck and application you can get to really nasty stuff soon enough to drop the whole writing thing as a bad idea and still have enough of your youth left to go on and make a useful contribution to society in some other area of endeavor.

(Deep breath.) So. Of the big mistakes newbie writers make, the one that stands out the most to me is poor control of point of view. A chapter is being told in third-person from Bob’s POV, but the writer imagines something so clever for Kathy to think that there is nothing to do but vault into Kathy’s head for just a moment—-just long enough to make that priceless observation, without which literature will remain permanently impoverished—but then we are back to Bob for another ten pages.

It reads like this: Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Kathy Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob.

Is this perhaps akin to the slight imperfection in a Persian carpet added so as not to offend Allah, or the tiny flaw in the Japanese vase that accents the utter mastery of the craftsman?

No. The technical terminology for this is a screw-up; all those Bobs a-bob-bob-bobbin' along become inaudible, like the white noise of a bobbling brook, but in the middle of it all the author screams KATHY and...well, let's just say it slightly undermines what John Gardner called the vivid and continuous dream of good fiction.

Note that I am not condemning switching POV. I am complaining about inept switching of POV. I am complaining about switching POV for the author's self-indulgence, or, worse, out of sloppiness.

Even in first person, some writers will find the pull of a wobbly POV irresistable. It tends to be worst in romance-y writing, where a first-person narrator will tell you 'my eyes flashed with anger' (oh, sorry--that should be 'my emerald-green eyes flashed with anger'), but it can be found in any kind of story.

I once attended a workshop with a young woman who was writing in a candid, seductive first person. All went well until her narrator, clad in panties and a camisole, cigarette in hand, took up a pose on a windowsill that, from across the room, made her look like a Herb Ritts photograph.

Now, that's just wrong, and I don't mean the choice of Herb Ritts. (That's also wrong, but in a different way.) A first-person narrator can't describe herself from the outside. They can imagine that, from across the room, they look like a Herb Ritts photo. They can inform us that, postioning themselves so that they were backlit by the window, they attempted their best imitation of a Herb Ritts lingerie shot. They can tell us of their utter confidence that they must look like a Herb Ritts snap. They can tell us that they slid into their well-practiced Herb-Ritts-photo pose (especially if the narrator is being ironic or naive). But we can't simply have a bald statement of what the narrator looks like from across the room without any hint of the filter of the narrator's consciousness. Do that very often and the reader will become annoyed--perhaps without knowing quite why, but annoyed nonetheless.

If someone were foolish enough to ask me how to learn the various points of view—or if someone even more foolish put me in charge of a Beginning Fiction Workshop—I know how I’d lay out the curriculum for mastering POV.

Since I don't hear a chorus of voices asking me that question, I guess I’ll ask myself; otherwise this will be a pretty short series of posts. Part II soon.

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Creative A said...

Oh yay, I'm the first commenter! Well. All I meant to say was good post; once again I feel like you hit the nail in the head, verbalizing a difficult concept. I'm looking forward to part II.


David Isaak said...

Hi, Creative--Glad to see you're still haunting the blogosphere!

Tim Stretton said...

I'm looking forward to the rest of this.

I've just discovered the highly-regarded historical fiction of Cecelia Holland. Hugely accomplished in many ways, but boy does she hack about with POV, if "Jerusalem" is anything to go by.

Since she's published over 20 novels, this is clearly artistic choice rather than beginner's error--but I find knowing what both characters are thinking during a conversation somewhat jarring.

Anonymous said...

Not precisely what you're talking about, but the late, great John Updike head-hops a lot in "Terrorist" (perhaps he does this in his other books as well, but I've ony read this one bok).

Perhaps when you're that famous, you can get away with it, but to me it wasn't particularly smooth or well done -- it was classic jumping from behind one person's eyes to be behind the other preson's eyes, almot with every paragraph.

In two of my scenes in the current WIP, I've got one perspective transition in each. I can only hope they read more smoothly than "Terrorist" did to me.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

I find that how the transition is modulated is the key to the whole thing with POV switches. I'm with you in that I find it disorienting to be tossed from head to head in the same interaction, but some writers can do it so nicely that I don't even notice it's happening.

I've never read Cecilia Holland, but some very good writers do abrupt POV shifts. In some--but not all--of his fiction, Larry McMurtry does this. He seems to do it as an odd distancing mechanism--uses it sort of the way that Dickens used caricature for secondary characters.

I'm told by friends that some romance writers shift between POVs in love (and sex) scenes. I've never seen such a thing, but that's got to be disconcerting...

David Isaak said...

Hey, SBT--

POV transitioning is a topic I will get around to eventually. Thankfully, that's way down the road in third person.

"Head-hopping" is to "POV switching" as "info dump" is to "exposition." That is, when a reader reacts to it as "head-hopping," that inherently means it didn't work for that reader.

Maggie Dana said...

Re POV switching in sex scenes, David said:

"... I've never seen such a thing, but that's got to be disconcerting ..."

For the reader, too.

David Isaak said...

Mags, you were just about responsible for my spewing hot chocolate all over the keyboard.

I managed to avert that, but I'm still coughing... Web Admin said...

David, you've done it again by upsetting a perfect morning's writing by getting me to think about something other than the work in progress!! Still, what a diversion? Thank you for posting this...

POV is truly a minefield. I've ballsed this up quite a few times before, but have since learned to control those out-of-body urges.

If the desire becomes too much, I use that tried and tested device of splitting the chapter into parts, writing the following section from the POV of another character. Sometimes it works, throwing a curve-ball to the reader when you're writing largely from one person's bias, and then you end the chapter with someone who’s POV has largely been sidelined, to give the reader something to think about. For example: Bob has been trying to seduce Kathy, and we spend most of the chapter believing he has a good chance of getting her into bed, but the last section, from Kathy’s POV - about three paragraphs long - shows he hasn't got a chance in hell, and never had.

It doesn’t always work (can feel too much of a device it’s Kathy’s only POV) but with a little consistency it can work quite well, especially as a counterpoint to a character’s POV if that character is unlikeable… or insane. In that case, taking a break to get inside someone else's head can be a blessed relief...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

As you point out, POV is one of the sharpest weapons a novelist possesses. Wielded with skill, it can produce amazing effects.

Changing POV always makes certain demands of the reader, so it has a cost. But in the example you cite, you are deciding to pay that price to achieve a striking effect. Risky? Sure. But enjoyable writing is always a bit audacious.

What concerns me aren't conscious artistic decisons of the type you're discussing. Through experience (if you're like me, some of it was bitter), you know what you're doing when you decide to put in a break and change POV.

You know it's a risk. You are aware that you are leaving one POV and entering another. And you do this with a break in the text. Like anything we write, it might or might not work out they way you'd like, but you are doing it the same way a general might try an unorthodox tactic.

What really concerns me is when I see writers who seem to change POV briefly almost by accident--either by just suddenly darting into anther POV, or by doing things that make the POV wobble or drift. (These are almost never in published manuscripts, by the way. A lack of basic control over POV is a guaranteed way to put off editors and agents.) In such cases, I think it's because the writers don't yet have the real dynamics of POV in their bones. I don't think they are even aware that it's something that needs to be controlled!

Maggie Dana said...


I emailed you last night. Did you get it???


Jen said...

We talk about POV all the time at my writers group and I think any kind of master class you'd wanna do is one for which I would sign up. (Yeah, yeah, you can do one on dangling prepositions too, while it you are at.) I might add, though, if you have two characters who are sharing a collective mind, you can be a lot more fluid in the whole POV thing. I can't imagine a whole lot of fiction has characters like that, but, uh, mine does.

David Isaak said...

Heya, Jen--

I'm in so position to teach a master class. But I think I can manage a preliminary survey of the field--and keep people from jabbing themselves in the eye with sharp objects.

Your book does indeed sound like a special case. Though I will be talking about first-person plural a little bit...

Tim Stretton said...

"Though I will be talking about first-person plural a little bit..."

The Virgin Suicides?

David Isaak said...

Ah, Tim, you're ahead of me!

Also "The Jane Austen Book Club" and "Anthem." (Though the latter is to some extent a gimmick.)

Know any others?