Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Ask O: Who's Head Am I In? How do I Avoid Point of View Catastrophes?


Happy Wednesday my writing friends,

Have you ever been reading a novel and suddenly have no clue who's feeling you're supposed to be feeling? Or who you're supposed to be caring about? This happens to me sometimes, and I've found it's often because of sloppy point of view. “Argh!” I mutter. “I’m so confused. Why didn’t this author’s critique group point out this point-of-view catastrophe?”

Point of view (or viewpoint) is the way we unfold our stories to readers. Done erratically, it leads to those frustrating “argh!” moments when readers must work too hard and lose track of the story. Consistent point of view, on the other hand, draws readers in, making them feel like they are in our characters’ skin.

One way to think about viewpoint is to ask, “Where’s the camera?” I picture my character with a movie camera anchored to her shoulder. I describe only what she can see (smell, touch, taste, hear) through that camera. Simple, but essential.

Take a look at this example and see if you can find the POV mistakes.

Shelly Sandborn sank into the lounge chair on her oceanfront veranda. It was almost time to get ready for dinner. Shelly had curly blond hair. Maybe she’d sweep it into a French twist.

A noise behind her made her turn. “Phillip!” She peered through her yellow-tinted sunglasses and smiled at her husband. He was wearing a bright blue Hawaiian shirt he’d picked up at the airport. It made his blue eyes look even more handsome.

His surprise worked, and his heart beat faster. “I couldn’t let you come to Maui without me.” Sinking into the seat next to her, he noticed her red cheeks. She never wore enough sunscreen.

Behind them, a yacht bobbed lazily in the harbor. The handsome, European yachtsman was watching the same sunset as he barbecued the mahi mahi he’d just caught.

Mistake #1: Shelly had curly blond hair. How is this a mistake? Well, Shelly’s holding the camera, remember? She can’t see her hair, so we can’t describe her this way. Perhaps we could say, A gush of ocean wind blew a lock of Shelly’s curly blond hair into her eyes (where she could see it, and we are free to describe it).

Mistake #2: His surprise worked, and his heart beat faster. We’re in Shelly’s POV, so unless she has a stethoscope, she can’t know Phillip’s heart rate. His excitement, must be shown in a way that Shelly understands—she sees his ears redden and watches that goofy grin explode over his face. Then she knows.

Mistake #3: Sinking into the seat next to her, he noticed her red cheeks. She never wears enough sunscreen. Did you catch the mind hop? Even worse is the next sentence, She never wore sunscreen. Are these Phillip’s thoughts, or the narrator bursting in with an FYI? We shouldn’t have to work this hard.

Mistake #4: He was wearing a bright blue Hawaiian shirt he’d picked up at the airport. It made his blue eyes look even more handsome. This is a more subtle problem, but one I see all the time. Shelly is wearing yellow-tinted sunglasses, so Phillip’s blue shirt would appear … green! Everything must be experienced through our character’s lens.

Mistake #5: Behind them, a yacht bobbed lazily in the harbor. The handsome, European yachtsman barbecued. The yacht is behind her! She can’t see it. And even if she turned around, unless she was looking through binoculars, it would be too far away for us to describe the handsome, European yachtsman or his mahi mahi.

Mistake #6: …the mahi mahi he’d just caught. We saw this earlier when Shelly knew her husband picked up the shirt at the airport. How did she know he bought it at the airport? And here, how could she know this Euro man had just caught the fish? We must be careful not to give them information they couldn’t possibly know.

Tune in next week for more on point of view.

Happy writing!

And remember to send me your questions in the comments or at ocieanna.com.

4 comments:

  1. Ocieanna, Head-hopping is one of the things I absolutely cannot stand in a novel. I've used the "camera on the shoulder" technique since hearing it from Randy Ingermanson, and it's served me well.
    I'll be speaking to a couple of creative writing classes later this week, and I plan to use your examples of "what's wrong with this scene?" at that time. Thanks for the post.

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  2. You're very welcome, Richard! I think I got the camera idea from an old writing book by Stephen King! The idea's has been around. Have fun teaching your workshop.

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  3. Great article and wonderful examples. I think examples bring home the lesson and make it easier to remember. It's timely to post this with "NaNoEdMo" (National Novel Editing Month) coming up in March for those who wrote novels for NaNoWriMo in November.

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