No Soliciting–The Evils of POV Prostitution

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😀.

Happy writing! 

Until next time…

 

 

 

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  1. #1 by Bob Mayer on September 6, 2010 - 3:43 pm

    POV is voice. It is what distinguishes you as a writer. I suggest you consider your favorite books and examine the POV they are written in. What did you like about those voices? Perhaps that is the voice you should be writing in.

  2. #2 by Melissa on September 6, 2010 - 3:59 pm

    Great post on POV. I would like your permission to add this as a guest post on our blog. We have lots of authors that struggle with what perspective to write from daily

    thanks

    Melissa

    • #3 by Kristen Lamb on September 6, 2010 - 4:12 pm

      Oh sure, Melissa. I am here to help😀.

  3. #4 by Piper Bayard on September 6, 2010 - 6:24 pm

    Hi Kristen. Thanks so much for your post. I’ve been writing for years, but I don’t think I’ve paid attention to the P.O.V. distinctions in decades. It’s good to be reminded so clearly, as no one is too good to commit basic mistakes. And by the way, I would want to smack Bella in any P.O.V.

  4. #5 by Christian Yorke on September 6, 2010 - 7:29 pm

    Thanks for putting together this excellent post.

    Consistent POV takes a lot of hard work and a lot of reading as you say. For good examples of first-person POV I recommend that your readers try Less Than Zero or Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis.

  5. #6 by Donna on September 7, 2010 - 1:28 pm

    Kristen, I know you have personally told me this before but I love reading this post. It forces me to focus if I feel I’m straying a little. You make it very simple and easy to understand. xx

  6. #7 by dsoares08 on September 16, 2010 - 5:36 am

    Really great post.

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