Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Point of view

How many points of view do you tell your stories in?

Okay, so the grammar police might want to get me on the construction of that question, so let me rephrase: when you write your stories, how many points of view do you use?

I was taught short stories could only reflect one person's point of view. That made sense to me. They're short. There isn't time enough in a story that short to have more than one point of view. As far as I'm concerned, that rule still stands.

But what about longer works? How many points of view are you allowed? Well, that depends. J.R.R. Tolkien has nearly 30 major characters in The Lord of the Rings and, at some point or another, almost all of them get a chance at telling at least a piece of the story. Romances are written from the points of view of both the male and female protagonists; modern murder-mysteries often have not only the detective's point of view, but the murder's as well.

The trick is balancing them all.

Some authors use the chapter break as a point of view shift. Some go so far as to put the character's name as the chapter heading and then further's the plot through only what that character sees at that particular moment. Still others will tell the same event twice, first from one point of view, then, in the next chapter, from the antagonist's side of the story.

Other authors will use spaces within a chapter to denote a change of point of view. I see this a lot in romances (and am guilty of the technique as well). The first half of the chapter will be presented through her eyes, the second half through his (or vice-versa). This works well only if you have two protagonists of equal strength. Favoring one over the other tends to lead to unbalanced storytelling.

What you want to avoid is the malady known as "head-hopping." This is where the point of view constantly changes between and among the characters in a scene. Worse than watching a ping-pong match* the continual back and forth, in and out of character's heads can be dizzying for readers trying to figure out what's going on.

The key with any point of view shift is to make is clear so the reader can follow. It should also move the plot forward, not simply rehash action the reader already knows (my personal pet peeve). Katherine Kurtz published an entire book of short stories culled from the "extras" in her Deryni series. Whenever she had to remove a section because it slowed down the plot, she saved it, then later wrote it as a companion piece to the main story. By the time she was finished with the series (some 12 books in all), she had enough of these cut scenes to make an entire book of short companion stories.

Write scenes from other's points of view, especially if it helps you figure out a plot point or character motivation. In fact, I encourage it. You can find out some really cool stuff about your stories, your style and your characters that way.

But don't become married to those scenes. They might, or might not, belong as part of the larger story you're telling. Be prepared to cut and slash if necessary.

But keep them. Off to the side. tucked in a folder. And later, after the big story is published, pull them out, dust them off and fix them up. Then release them as their own short stories, with links, of course, to the larger work. Companion pieces or enticements, they will not go to waste.


Keeping point of view as your focus, examine your current work in progress. What character's pov are you in? Are you consistently using that point of view throughout the story? Should you be? You decide then write a reflection in your journal justifying your choices (remember, taking time to reflect on what we do is a part of the craft of writing. It's how we get better!).

Choose one scene from that same work and write it from a different character's point of view. Could be a minor character or the antagonist. Again, your choice. Once you're done, what did you learn? Again, take time to reflect and record your observations.

Enjoy and leave a tip on the way out :)


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