May. 17th, 2010

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Closeup of eye

Point of view refers to the character or characters from whose vantage point we witness the events that take place in a novel or other work of fiction. Sounds simple enough, right? But choosing which p.o.v. to use can impact  your storytelling more than almost any other authorial decision you make.

This tends to be an unconscious decision for me; I’m a character-driven writer, so in almost every case I’ve had the main character tell me which point of view she wants her story told from. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way to choose p.o.v. — you may have seen people stating on blogs that they hate first-person point of view or don’t want to read something that doesn’t include the hero’s p.o.v. along with the heroine’s. That’s their choice, but you shouldn’t let it influence yours.

I actually happen to love first person point of view, probably because I grew up reading Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels and Victoria Holt’s gothics, and the vast majority of these books are written in first person. Done well, this p.o.v. really connects the reader with the protagonist — you feel as if you’re taking a journey along with the character and often get a greater sense of the lead’s growth during the story. Done poorly, it can be riddled with info dumps or tangents that have little to do with a novel’s narrative direction. However, first person also can be a good choice when you have a hero who is somewhat enigmatic; in Fringe Benefits, my contemporary romance for Pink Petal Books, I wanted Pieter Van Rijn to be a mysterious character, and so first person seemed the best p.o.v. for the story I wanted to tell (never mind that Katherine, the heroine, started talking about herself in first person pretty much from the first moment she popped into my head).

The majority of romance novels (and novels of most genres except Chick Lit) tend to be written in third person. In some cases, you still maintain a tight focus on the main character and do not switch viewpoints, but more and more romances have begun to trade perspective between the two leads. Sometimes you can also get the point of view of secondary characters (such as the villain in a romantic suspense novel); opinions vary as to whether this adds extra tension or tends to dilute the dynamic between the hero and heroine. In grand, sweeping epics, there can be literally dozens of viewpoint characters; the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin is an example of this. All those viewpoints are necessary because of the scope of the story being told, but in romance you’re probably safer sticking with no more than two or three.

The term “head-hopping” gets thrown around a lot, and I have to say it’s one of my pet peeves and the one thing that almost always prevents me from finishing a book. I sometimes make exceptions if the rest of the story is compelling enough, but those tend to be pretty rare. Head-hopping occurs when you’re in the point of view of the heroine in one paragraph (or even sentence, if you really want to get mental whiplash) and then in the hero’s head in the next paragraph or sentence. For example:

“Melinda stared up into Byron’s eyes and wondered if he had any idea how much he had just hurt her.

Byron looked at Melinda and thought she had never appeared as fetching as she did now, with tears tangled in her sooty lashes.”

Okay, besides the deliberately purple prose, you can see at once that we’re getting Melinda’s thoughts in the first paragraph and Byron’s in the second. Effectively, we’ve hopped from her head into his. This weakens the writing because you’re not in one character’s perspective long enough to get caught up in his or her emotions. If it were written this way:

“Melinda stared up into Byron’s eyes and wondered if he had any idea how much he had just hurt her. Why he was just standing there and looking down at her without saying anything? She blinked at the sudden tears that started in her eyes and knew she’d never be able to explain.”

In this paragraph, we’re staying with Melinda. All we’re getting is her feelings of hurt and confusion. Because we’ve remained firmly in her head, we have a better idea of how much pain she’s in at the moment.

Head-hopping shouldn’t be confused with omniscient point of view, which is an entirely different concept. This p.o.v. was popular in the writing of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and can still be used effectively when a detached, godlike narrator suits the purposes of the story (the Lemony Snicket books and Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are good examples of this style). In omniscient point of view, the narrator stands outside the action and often comments on it; we can be inside more than one character’s head at once, but the effect isn’t as jarring as head-hopping because there’s still an over-arching narrator describing the events of the novel.

Most editors these days tend to frown on head-hopping, so writers who find they have difficulties with staying in one character’s point of view during a scene might want to try a little exercise: rewrite the scene in first person. By focusing on that one character and describing events through their eyes, it’s much more difficult to inadvertently “hop” into the head of the other character or characters in that scene. While having more than one point of view in a novel is perfectly acceptable (and almost expected by some readers), most editors agree you should not have more than one character’s p.o.v. per scene.

I usually know from almost the moment I get an idea for a story how I’m going to tell it — first person; tight third (as with a steampunk romance I’m in the process of writing now); or alternating third, which is what I chose for a paranormal novella I have coming out in August 2010 from Pink Petal Books.

I believe the story should dictate the p.o.v. you choose, not necessarily what you think is most popular with readers or editors. You can never please all of the people all of the time, but if you’re not happy with your writing — or the point of view you’re writing it from — then probably no one else will be, either.

—Originally posted on the Avoid Writer’s Hell blog

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