Monday, September 24, 2012

Point of View – Rules and Breaking the Rules by Karen Albright Lin


Point of View is a tricky thing. The popularity of each approach varies over time. First person (especially in Young Adult books) and deep 3rd person have the benefits of connecting directly to the reader and drawing on empathy early to maintain that sense of personal-stakes-in-the-conflict (when done well with a fascinating character). In the current reading climate I vote for a novel limited to one POV in a scene, if not chapter, if not entire book.

In my own books, I've mixed it up. I've used a single 3rd person POV in an entire book, 3rd person alternating (every other chapter) between two characters, and a more complicated method of three POVs - two of them 3rd person protagonists and one 1st person serial killer.

I tend to have a personal theme running through my books that is essentially: "The bad guy is a misunderstood good guy." That requires that I paint skin-crawling, dangerous bad guys that have motivations that can be understood and even sympathetic to the good guy and reader by the end. This is particularly tough to pull off with a character that kills, but being deep inside the antagonist and slowly revealing the cause of his/her behavior is easier to pull off using very deep 3rd person or 1st person. It is a challenge, for sure, the reason I didn't attempt it until my fourth book.

If we decide to change Points of View within a scene, each change in POV needs to be handled so deftly that it is a huge challenge (or more simply handled with a drop down as a signal). Rarely can a writer pull off abrupt changes in POV with no signal.

Omniscient is still used, as is 2nd person and present and future tense, but they often fall into the experimental category now rather than popular fiction. I frequently catch slips of POV in popular fiction, but in the context of deep 3rd person POV it is often ignored, forgiven, or missed by readers (unless they are also writers or editors who are trained to flag the slips - you should see me putting sticky notes into novels - sometimes it is a curse to be an editor). It isn't a cardinal sin, just head-bouncing if done frequently. And editors give less leeway to new writers - thus my seeming obsession over it.

In the spirit of "exceptions proving rules," if you'd like to see every writing guideline broken in an amazing, magnetic and shocking way, capturing even the Pulitzer Prize, take a luxury dip into TINKERS by Paul Harding. If I tried my entire life, I couldn't do what he did. I believe devoted writers, on the other hand, could do something off the beaten track after 100% mastering the more accessible POVs. A strong writing voice would carry the reader over the waves of atypical craft - not because it is easy to read, but because it is poetry to the heart. TINKERS may have still worked and had a wider readership if Harding had stayed within today's expectations. We can't know for sure.

Do you have any favorite books that break POV "rules" successfully?

I'd love to hear about them.

(Originally posted at the Sisters of the Quill blog on July 6, 2011)

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at www.karenalbrightlin.com.

14 comments:

  1. Hmm...I agree that POV is indeed a tricky thing to master. Ever since I started to write my first book I had trouble dealing with POV.

    www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

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    1. It's so easy to switch POV in the midst of writing without really realizing it; definitely tricky. Thank you for stopping by!

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  2. Now I know why my editor hates me. Omniscient. :)
    I am working to change, but first person is the hardest of all, at least for me.

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    1. A lot of people have trouble with first person. Good luck as you work on it, and thank you for stopping by.

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  3. Great post. Good insights into the process. Books that break POV? SHORT by Cort McMeel, anything by Terry Brooks

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    1. Haven't heard of Short before. Do both authors do it well? Terry Brooks must. Thanks for stopping by.

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  4. Sol Stein's "The Magician" is a masterpiece in handling multiple POVs.

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    1. Interesting. "The Magician" pops up a lot of places in learning voice and plotting, too. Thank you for stopping by.

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  5. Karen, I recently reread an old favorite, On the Beach by Nevil Shute. He head hopped all over the place, but I didn't even notice back in the 50s when it first came out. I guess he did a good enough job on his transitions for the times. Even so, during the reread I found it distracting and choppy. Good books just aren't written that way anymore.

    And a note to this blog's moderators -- you have the captcha thingie turned on and it's almost impossible to decipher these codes in one try -- I think you'd get more comments if you removed it and also deactivated the anonymous comment option as most of that is spam.

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    1. Hi Patricia, we agree on the captcha, and it will be changing soon, at least for a trial basis. Thank you for your visit and your feedback.

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  6. Hi Karen
    I believe POV is one of the most difficult writing lessons for people to learn. Good post.
    Nancy

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    1. POV can definitely be a hard skill to get down. Thank you for stopping by.

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  7. I loved how the POV shifted around rapidly in the novel "Bel Canto." Wouldn't work in most books, but it seemed perfect for the situation the characters were in--crowded together with little privacy.

    My favorite example of "The bad guy is a misunderstood good guy," or at least something like that, is the movie "Monster."

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    1. That sounds like an interesting book. Definitely worth checking out. Thank you for stopping by.

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