Help me! > BookMarc by Peter Abresch

Point of View -- Part 4


Bob Mueller:
 Date:         Saturday, May 29, 1999 12:42 PM

BookMarc #28
Point of View--POV--part 4

Ah, the dangers of using multiple POVs.

I think most of us read to experience another life, one that is more exciting, less lonely, more romantic. Remember Oself, our other self? We make the journey more rewarding for our readers by giving them an Oself character. Someone the readers can call their own, to be that character for the story journey. The danger in diluting multiple POVs, if we don't do it well, is to spread it so thin that we lose reader identification. In TOTAL CONTROL by David Baldacci, I never could figure out the protagonist, which made difficult read for me. Yet others handle multiple POV's, even making an action or the weather or a war part of the mix, and still are able to hold the reader. Cyndy Mobley's RITES OF WAR comes to mind. Still, as mentioned in BookMarc #27, try to keep your POV characters to a minimum. I'm pointing out what I think will give us the best shot at keeping agents and editors from putting down our stories, not the only way. Anything done well and with finesse can break any rule and still work.

When a reader opens a book and reads the first few lines, this is a contract between writer and reader of what the book is about. Our readers will assume the first POV is that of the protagonist, our Oself character. I suggest, unless there is an overriding reason, we make the protagonist the first POV. There's ways around this. Open with a prologue or strictly narration. This will prevent confusion on the reader's part when the protagonist steps on stage. Again, not hard and fast, but one way to tie in the reader from the beginning.

The main reason for shifting POVs is to let the reader in on part of the story that a single POV could not know. If Oself is a CIA agent tracking down plutonium, and we want to show our readers a woman KGB agent is assigned the same task, we can use either omniscient or multiple POVs. This, done well, can bring about tension, for the reader knows the trouble that Oself is walking into. A great example of this is DAY OF THE JACKAL by Frederick Forsyth. It's close to what we are used to seeing in film, the camera jumping everywhere to pick up the action.

The caution here is that a book is not the movies. In a book we get inside Oself's head, and if we reveal things to our readers that should be obvious Oself, and Oself doesn't get it, we end up making him/her look stupid. In the above TOTAL CONTROL, the main woman character made so many dumb mistakes I began to wish the killer would get her. It's hard to identify with a dolt. The caution should always be, is Oself's lack of awareness logical, or just because it's better for the plot.

For instance, if Oself is looking for a murder weapon, and in a POV shift the villain hides a chef's knife behind some books in the library, there is no way Oself could know that. But if Villain sets it in the middle of the desk and Oself doesn't notice, we begin to wonder how swift he/she is. It might work for plot, but not for logic. Even worse is if Oself picks up the knife while glancing around the room. This elbow- in-the-ribs joke is so obvious we lose credibility. But what if the weapon is a steel ruler? This might work because the ruler belongs on a desk and it's not an obvious weapon. Oself might even pick it up, but we need finesse now because we're on the edge between a serious scene and a cliche guffaw. Of course, if the guffaw is what we want, then cliche works.

One final bit of advice of multiple POVs. Somewhere before the second and the final draft, break each POV character out of the story and read it consecutively as if each were a separate novel. Does the POV maintain consistency in his/her narrative voice, internal monologue, actions, and set goals? If not, better resolve it. And does each POV sound different than the other POVs? If not, better resolve that as well. This also works for dialogue, something I'll bring up later.

That's all I have to say about POV. In BookMarc #29 we'll be moving on to Beware of Naysayers before we take up something that has become a writing cliche, but is still a major part of weaving a story together--SHOW, not TELL.

Copyright Peter E. Abresch BookMarc February 13, 1998


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