);

Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: point of view

Let’s step back in time to the days before we all made the decision to become writers. I would guess all of us were readers. We loved books, and books were a large part of what prompted our career choice. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you ever tried to read a book, but eventually had to put it down because it was too confusing? You couldn’t figure out who was doing what, and you needed Dramamine to keep up with the perspectives?
  • Have you ever read a story that was so good you actually felt as if you had taken on the character’s skin? His success was yours, as was his failure. By the final page, you were sad to say good-bye?

P.O.V. used properly can create entire worlds, and breathe life into characters. Used improperly, it can make your reader feel as if she is being held hostage on a Tilt-a-Whirl—not good.  

First, you have to know what P.O.V. is if you hope to use it to your advantage.  “P.O.V. does not stand for ‘Prisoners of Vietnam,’” as author Candy Havens would say. P.O.V. stands for Point of View.

Although this literary device is one of the most vital tools an author possesses, it is probably the number one style problem I encounter as an editor. I cannot count how many new writers (and, sadly, some not-so-new writers) give me a blank stare when I write P.O.V. in big red letters all over their manuscripts (and H.H., but we’ll get to that later).

***Today, I will highlight the basics, but for a really good explication on point of view, I recommend Bob Mayer’s Novel Writers Toolkit.

The best way to describe point of view is to think of your story as viewed through the lens of the video camera. How many people (characters) are going to be permitted to hold that camera? Is your camera going to travel with one main character through the entire story? Or, do others get a turn? Is “God” holding the camera? These are simple questions you can answer to help you select the point of view perfect for your story. There is no wrong point of view, but you do have to pick one.

What are the types of P.O.V.?

A quick overview:

First-Person P.O.V—uses “I” a lot. Only one character (the narrator) has the camera.

  • There are three major disadvantages to this P.O.V.
    • This P.O.V uses a lot of “I” which can become repetitive to the point of distraction.
    • The reader can only see and hear what the narrator knows. This limits the flow of information. Probably good for a mystery, but if you aren’t writing a mystery this may not be the right P.O.V for you.
    • First-Person P.O.V is a bugger when it comes to tense. Why? Because First-Person breaks into two camps.
      • There is the I remember when camp and the Come along with me camp.
        • One is in past tense, a recollection. “I remember the day my father came home from the war….”
        • The other is in present tense, and the reader is along for the ride. “I walk these streets every morning, but today I am just waiting for something to go wrong….”
          •  Note of Caution: It is extremely easy to muddy the two camps together. Tense can be problematic…okay, a nightmare.

First-person, however, also holds some advantages. As stated earlier, it limits flow of information which is great for certain types of stories. First-person also creates an intimacy that no other P.O.V. can. I, frankly, believe that Stephenie Meyer would never have gotten away with Twilight in any other P.O.V. We wouldn’t have permitted page after page of teenage-love-angst. But, because Ms. Stephenie chose to employ first-person, suddenly we, the reader became Bella. We were transported back to our awkward high school years and that first really big crush that made us stupid. I believe if Twilight had been written in third-person, we would have wanted to slap Bella by page ten.

Third-Person P.O.V—is when you, the writer, permit one or more of the characters to lug the camera through your story.

  • Third Person Locked allows only one character access to the camera. The entire story is told through what that particular character can experience through the 5 Senses. So, if your character’s eyes are “shining with love,” then she’d best be holding a mirror, or you are guilty of head-hopping.
  • Third Person Shifting allows more than one character access to the camera. Here’s the rub. Your characters must to play nice and take turns. Only one character with the camera at a time. When the next character wants a turn, there has to be a clear cut. Think of the director’s clapboard ending one scene before shifting to the next.
    • There are advantages to Third-Person Shifting
      • It can add additional depth and insight to your story.
      • It can allow you (the writer) to hold back information and add to suspense.
      • Third-Person Shifting can allow other characters to take over during emotionally volatile points in the story. For instance, if your protagonist walks in on her brother lying dead in a pool of blood, the emotions experienced are realistically too overwhelming to be properly articulated by your protagonist. In this scenario, First-Person P.O.V is probably not a good fit. The scene would be more powerful if told from someone watching your protagonist react to discovering a deceased loved one.
    • There are inherent problems with Third-Person Shifting.
      • Your characters must play nice and take turns. Otherwise, your reader will likely become confused and eventually frustrated.
      • It is best to permit camera access to key characters only. The reader has to stay in one head long enough to feel connected. Too many perspectives can easily become overwhelming and dilute the strength of your characters.

Omniscient P.O.V is when “God” gets to hold the camera. This P.O.V is like placing your camera up high over all of the action. The narrator is omnipresent and omniscient. “If Joe had only known who was waiting for him outside, he would have never left for that pack of cigarettes.” Joe cannot experience anything beyond the 5 Senses (third-person). So, unless Joe is actually Superman and possesses X-Ray vision, it takes an omniscient presence to tell us someone bad is lurking outside waiting to do Joe harm.

  • There are advantages to Omniscient P.O.V.
    • Omniscient can relay information that would be far too overwhelming to describe if limited to the 5 Senses. Battle scenes are a good example.
    • Omniscient can give information critical to the story that the character doesn’t have to personally know. For instance, in Bob Mayer’s Area 51 Series (written as Robert Doherty), he relays a lot of factual and historical information that is critical to understanding the plot. But, it would really seem bizarre to the reader if his characters just started spouting off the history of the pyramids like an Egyptologist. To avoid this jarring scenario, Bob uses an omniscient presence to relay the information so the prose remains nice and smooth.
  • There are disadvantages to Omniscient P.O.V.
    • Third-Person P.O.V. and Omniscient P.O.V. are VERY easy to muddy together.
    • Omniscient P.O.V. and Head-Hopping are not the same, but are easy to confuse. I have edited many writers who believed they were employing Omniscient P.O.V. In reality, they were just letting every character in the book fight over the camera simultaneously, leaving me (the editor) feeling like I was trapped in the Blair Witch Project.

Proper use of P.O.V. takes a lot of practice to master. It is very easy to shift from one type of P.O.V. to another, or what I like to call “P.O.V. Prostitution.”

Key Points to Remember:

  • In First-Person–Come along with me stories can easily turn into I remember when stories (or vice versa). Tense is a big red flag. Do you shift from present to past or past to present? Pay close attention to verbs.
  • In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting)–Characters will only play nice and take turns if you, the writer, force them to. Make sure whatever is happening in a scene is something that could be filtered through ONE character’s 5 Senses.
  • In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting) –“God” is really bad about grabbing your character’s camera, so keep an eye on Him. If there is suddenly information your character has no way of knowing through the 5 Senses, that is a big clue the Big Guy snagged your camera. Just ask Him nicely to give it back.
  • In Omniscient–“God” is in charge. Be careful your wide-lens isn’t zooming in and out and making your reader dizzy in the process.

P.O.V. is one more reason it is critical for writers to read if they hope to become great authors. Read, read, read. Read all kinds of books by all kinds of authors using different P.O.V.s to see how it is done well. Stephenie Meyer did a great job of using first-person in a come along with me style of story in Twilight. Why this kind of P.O.V.? Well, because we would have wanted to choke Bella for being annoying, but I already mentioned that. Additionally, Meyer wanted to maintain suspense. An I remember when story, obviously would have ruined the tension in that we would have known Edward didn’t enjoy a Bella munchie while they were traipsing alone in the woods together.

Stephen King does a great job of using first-person in an I remember when style in The Green Mile. King chose this P.O.V. for a very specific reason, which I will not say so as not to spoil the ending.

Dennis Lehane does an amazing job of employing omniscient in Mystic River. If you think you might want to use omniscient, I’d recommend reading him. James Rollins uses third-person shifting very well in the Doomsday Key. Third-shifting is generally a great P.O.V. for thrillers in that it helps manage/reveal a lot of information that the protag may or may not know.

I would also recommend reading Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo. She actually mixes third-limited and first-person and the effect is impressive. 

P.O.V. when used properly can take a story to a whole new level. Read, experiment and practice. I know I just touched on a handful of suggestions, so feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments :D.

Happy writing! 

Until next time…

 

 

 

DanielLast week we discussed one of the tactics used for creating great characters. The beauty of the Warrior Writer Boot Camp format, though, is that we appreciate that not everyone learns the same way. Not all tools are suited for all people. Thus, I would like to introduce you to another WWBC technique you can employ to not only create amazing characters, but also to craft believable scenes guaranteed to draw in the reader and never let go.

Method acting.

Now this doesn’t mean we have to take up living in a Dumpster for a month if we desire to write about a homeless person (though Daniel Day-Lewis would be proud), but it does mean that we have to use and develop our ability to empathize. Empathy can be defined as the ability to identify and understand somebody else’s feelings and experiences. But, it is also the ability to step into that person’s (character’s) perspective. Unless one is writing in omniscient, it will be critical to keep the POV camera where it belongs in order to gain the most impact from each and every scene.

I’ll give a few examples.

Example #1

PERSPECTIVE PROBLEM

At critique, one of my dear friends and fellow writers brought a selection from his science fiction novel, which happened to be written in first-person. The opening scene is a robbery of sorts and his protagonist, like most sensible folk, dives under a nearby table and hides. The narrative that followed was very clever and engaging, but I happened to notice one HUGE problem. Thus, I raised my hand and asked, “How can your character know all of this detail if he is crouched under a table at the other end of the restaurant? The most he will likely see is legs and shoes.”

The writer had gone to great lengths describing details and events that simply would be impossible to see from the protagonist’s perspective. What my friend should have done (and eventually did do) was to have his character relying on other senses, since his visual sense was handicapped by situation.

It was a simple detail, but one that made all the difference in the eventual quality of the story. The writer, by stepping into an authentic perspective, made the experience visceral and real. Now he was SHOWING and not TELLING. With the right use of description, my friend successfully transported the reader under a table at a Chinese All-You-Can-Eat Buffet. Before we knew it, we were in the head of the protagonist, desperately trying to connect different voices and personalities to their shoes while searching for the nearest escape.

He greeted me the next week, beaming with pride for his reworked scene, bubbling with stories of him lying on his living room floor under a coffee table imagining what his protagonist would likely be able to see—method acting.

Example #2

PHYSIOLOGY PROBLEM

Another author and friend of mine brought a selection from his horror novel. In this scene, the protagonist (who starts out as a misguided petty thief) is with his buddies and they are robbing a convenience store right before a major hurricane hits. The Korean store owner pops out of nowhere, scaring the hell out of this motley group, and they take off toward the front door. Mere steps from freedom, the protagonist slips on rainwater that has spilled inside, and cracks his head on the counter, then floor. All good, but what followed was again a lengthy detailing of events that would be impossible for anyone in this situation to experience in this way.

Physiology would have taken over. That blow. The pain would have taken center stage. Voices would have become indistinct, and thus the sentences should have been shortened to a word or two to give the impression of someone who has been knocked senseless. Perspective would have changed. He (the camera) is now on the floor looking up. This needed to be consistent.

I challenged the author to think back to any time he’d been whacked in the head. Make a list of all things he remembered (or didn’t remember) of the experience. Stars in the peripheral vision. Blackness. Blurriness. Sounds. Were they dull or sharp? Pain. Sharp? Throbbing? Funny smells? What was the first thing he noticed when his head cleared? Voices? Faces? I advised him to then take that list and overlay it with the scene he wished to create.

Example #3

MULTIPLE PROBLEMS

One of the writers on Twitter bravely posted her prologue for public view. Being the nosy editor I am, I just HAD to take a look. This is supposed to be the beginning of a thriller—a young woman running from someone chasing her through a swamp. In this selection, I noted several oopses.

TIME.

There is the weirdest time shift I have ever seen. It goes from being evening at sunset to pitch black in a matter of three sentences. There is no steady progression of losing the light and the desperation that would ensue from that (a missed opportunity to create growing tension).

CONSISTENCY.

The author describes it as pitch black, as in can’t see your hand in front of your face black…but then describes the crescent moon. Any moon (even a crescent moon) would offer some light and negate the pitch black—the author really should have chosen one for consistency. It is supposedly pitch dark yet the protagonist sees/describes quite a few objects and critters that she would need light to see. Which is it? Dim light or no light?

PHYSIOLOGY.

This character fears for her life. Yet, a handful of paragraphs down in this prologue, there is a very lovely description of a sunset. Big problem. How many people running for their lives through an unknown swamp filled with snakes and alligators take time to notice the “pastel sky?” When humans are under stress, the brain takes blood from the cortical brain and diverts it to the mammalian and limbic brain (and the large muscle groups). That is part of the adrenalin response. Fight or flight. Out of self-preservation, the body shuts down higher thinking capabilities while kicking primitive senses into hyper-drive. Thus, if one truly steps into the shoes of this character running for her life, it would be physiologically impossible for her to make such flowery observations. Reptilian brain cannot process information beyond the level of the five senses (and possibly a sixth).

PACING.

The greater problem (and this is a style issue) is that this writer actually did a great job of creating tension. Yet, three sentences of poetic description of a sunset RUIN all that effort by pulling the reader out of the conflict.

Remember. Our goal as the author is to transport the reader into the head of our characters. Method acting is a way that we can create a genuine experience. There was nothing, per se, wrong with this writer’s prologue, but she missed great opportunities to create spine-tingling tension. When we step in the head of a character that has time to notice stars and sunsets and butterflies, we are subconsciously cued to not get too stressed.

Example #4

CHARACTER PROBLEM

Perspective is our greatest tool for creating great characters. We have to feel what they feel, notice what they notice so we can craft the world in which they live. This morning I edited a piece that had me banging my head on my keyboard. This author has a fantastic story, but his failure to truly empathize with his characters is KILLING—no, SLAUGHTERING—a great plot.

His female protagonist has just, hours before, witnessed her mother’s murder at the hands of Yankee renegades. Yet, nothing in her actions tells the story of a woman whose life has just collapsed before her eyes. She has romantic feelings for another male character. She is calm. She never gives the situation another thought. It is as if it is just another day of milking cows and saddling horses while making goo-goo eyes at the boy from town. Not only does this make her utterly unlikeable, but the reader doesn’t care about her losses…because SHE doesn’t care about her losses.

This writer, I know, is just excited to get the story rolling, but he is doing so at great expense to his characters. As authors, we have to think like actors (or profilers). We need to get into the heads of our characters and display the emotions properly. If someone is grieving, then we need to see that character going through the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Death and Dying—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. The event also must fit the character’s psychological profile. Is this character the kind who would stay in denial for years? Is she one to be angry? Would she get through all five stages quickly, or get stuck in depression? The writer needs to understand who this character is in order to slip into the correct head and craft the scene accordingly.

And this applies to the entire spectrum of emotion. Who is your character? I have heard people squeal and scream on the radio because they won free movie rentals from Blockbuster. Other people win ten million in the lottery and barely crack a smile. These are questions that have to be answered in order to craft believable characters and riveting scenes.

Warrior Writer relies heavily on learning from the experts, on drawing from unconventional sources of wisdom. It is a holistic approach that calls on the writer to dig deep inside to the true emotions, into the dark scary places where we are weakest and most vulnerable. Actors, in many ways, do the same. In fact, we could consider them to be the founders of our craft. Actors were the keepers of legends long before the authors. Actors kept stories alive on the stage and passed them on to audiences who would not be literate for centuries. We can learn a lot from their insight into the human condition.

Until next time…

Last week’s blog addressed three Deadly Sins of Writing. Today, I will only cover one. Why? Frankly, I can only write so much about progressive verbs and gerunds before you pass out at your keyboard, and wake up to a new Word document with “sdhyafkjlllllllllllllllllllllnh:?vadsbhgfmc,hvj./” as your first line. But, more importantly, I believe this particular Deadly Sin—P.O.V. Prostitutionis a KILLER.

Let’s step back in time to the days before we all made the decision to become writers. I would guess all of us were readers. We loved books, and books were a large part of what prompted our career choice. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you ever tried to read a book, but eventually had to put it down because it was too confusing? You couldn’t figure out who was doing what, and you needed Dramamine to keep up with the perspectives?
  • Have you ever read a story that was so good you actually felt as if you had taken on the character’s skin? His success was yours, as was his failure. By the final page, you were sad to say good-bye?

P.O.V. used properly can create entire worlds, and breathe life into characters. Used improperly, it can make your reader feel as if she is being held hostage on a Tilt-a-Whirl—not good.  

First, you have to know what P.O.V. is if you hope to use it to your advantage.  “P.O.V. does not stand for ‘Prisoners of Vietnam,’” as author Candy Havens would say. P.O.V. stands for Point of View.

Although this literary device is one of the most vital tools an author possesses, it is probably the number one style problem I encounter as an editor. I cannot count how many new writers (and, sadly, some not-so-new writers) give me a blank stare when I write P.O.V. in big red letters all over their manuscripts (and H.H., but we’ll get to that later).

***Today, I will highlight the basics, but for a really good explication on point of view, I recommend Bob Mayer’s “Novel Writers Toolkit.”

The best way to describe point of view is to think of your story as viewed through the lens of the video camera. How many people (characters) are going to be permitted to hold that camera? Is your camera going to travel with one main character through the entire story? Or, do others get a turn? Is “God” holding the camera? These are simple questions you can answer to help you select the point of view perfect for your story. There is no wrong point of view, but you do have to pick one.

What are the types of P.O.V.?

A quick overview:

First-Person P.O.V—uses “I” a lot. Only one character (the narrator) has the camera.

  • There are three major disadvantages to this P.O.V.
    • This P.O.V uses a lot of “I” which can become repetitive to the point of distraction.
    • The reader can only see and hear what the narrator knows. This limits the flow of information. Probably good for a mystery, but if you aren’t writing a mystery this may not be the right P.O.V for you.
    • First-Person P.O.V is a bugger when it comes to tense. Why? Because First-Person breaks into two camps.
      • There is the I remember when camp and the Come along with me camp.
        • One is in past tense, a recollection. “I remember the day my father came home from the war….”
        • The other is in present tense, and the reader is along for the ride. “I walk these streets every morning, but today I am just waiting for something to go wrong….”
          •  Note of Caution: It is extremely easy to muddy the two camps together. Tense can be problematic…okay, a nightmare.

Third-Person P.O.V—is when you, the writer, permit one or more of the characters to lug the camera through your story.

  • Third Person Locked allows only one character access to the camera. The entire story is told through what that particular character can experience through the 5 Senses. So, if your character’s eyes are “shining with love,” then she’d best be holding a mirror, or you are guilty of head-hopping (a topic for another day).
  • Third Person Shifting allows more than one character access to the camera. Here’s the rub. Your characters must to play nice and take turns. Only one character with the camera at a time. When the next character wants a turn, there has to be a clear cut. Think of the director’s clapboard ending one scene before shifting to the next.
    • There are advantages to Third-Person Shifting
      • It can add additional depth and insight to your story.
      • It can allow you (the writer) to hold back information and add to suspense.
      • Third-Person Shifting can allow other characters to take over during emotionally volatile points in the story. For instance, if your protagonist walks in on her brother lying dead in a pool of blood, the emotions experienced are realistically too overwhelming to be properly articulated by your protagonist. In this scenario, First-Person P.O.V is probably not a good fit. The scene would be more powerful if told from someone watching your protagonist react to discovering a deceased loved one.
    • There are inherent problems with Third-Person Shifting.
      • Your characters must play nice and take turns. Otherwise, your reader will likely become confused and eventually frustrated.
      • It is best to permit camera access to key characters only. The reader has to stay in one head long enough to feel connected. Too many perspectives can easily become overwhelming and dilute the strength of your characters.

Omniscient P.O.V is when “God” gets to hold the camera. This P.O.V is like placing your camera up high over all of the action. The narrator is omnipresent and omniscient. “If Joe had only known who was waiting for him outside, he would have never left for that pack of cigarettes.” Joe cannot experience anything beyond the 5 Senses (third-person). So, unless Joe is actually Superman and possesses X-Ray vision, it takes an omniscient presence to tell us someone bad is lurking outside waiting to do Joe harm.

  • There are advantages to Omniscient P.O.V.
    • Omniscient can relay information that would be far too overwhelming to describe if limited to the 5 Senses. Battle scenes are a good example.
    • Omniscient can give information critical to the story that the character doesn’t have to personally know. For instance, in Bob’s Area 51 Series (written as Robert Doherty), he relays a lot of factual and historical information that is critical to understanding the plot. But, it would really seem bizarre to the reader if his characters just started spouting off the history of the pyramids like an Egyptologist. To avoid this jarring scenario, Bob uses an omniscient presence to relay the information so the prose remains nice and smooth.
  • There are disadvantages to Omniscient P.O.V.
    • Third-Person P.O.V. and Omniscient P.O.V. are VERY easy to muddy together.
    • Omniscient P.O.V. and Head-Hopping are not the same, but are easy to confuse. I have edited many writers who believed they were employing Omniscient P.O.V. In reality, they were just letting every character in the book fight over the camera simultaneously, leaving me (the editor) feeling like I was trapped in the Blair Witch Project.

Proper use of P.O.V. takes a lot of practice to master. It is very easy to shift from one type of P.O.V. to another, or what I like to call “P.O.V. Prostitution.”

Key Points to Remember:

  • In First-Person–Come along with me stories can easily turn into I remember when stories (or vice versa). Tense is a big red flag. Do you shift from present to past or past to present? Pay close attention to verbs.
  • In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting)–Characters will only play nice and take turns if you, the writer, force them to. Make sure whatever is happening in a scene is something that could be filtered through ONE character’s 5 Senses.
  • In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting) –“God” is really bad about grabbing your character’s camera, so keep an eye on Him. If there is suddenly information your character has no way of knowing through the 5 Senses, that is a big clue the Big Guy snagged your camera. Just ask Him nicely to give it back.
  • In Omniscient–“God” is in charge. Be careful your wide-lens isn’t zooming in and out and making your reader dizzy in the process.

Again, I highly recommend “The Novel Writers Toolkit” for more in-depth explanation. Or, if you are like me and learn by seeing and hearing, I recommend Bob Mayer’s Novel Writers Workshop DVD presentation. P.O.V. is a critical part of developing an author’s “voice,” so I also recommend The Warrior Writers’ Workshop, which is more geared to your personal psychology and how it affects your writing.  For Bob’s books, DVDs and workshops go to www.bobmayer.org.  

Until next time…