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Sunday, June 29, 2014

THE ABC'S OF HOW 'NOT' to WRITE SPECULATIVE FICTION: P is for POINT of VIEW and POINT of VIEW SHIFTS

UNDERSTANDING POINT OF VIEW IS A CRUCIAL PART of delivering a solid, well-told story. When we speak of point of view, we talk about the vehicle of narration chosen to present the plot. Stories can be told from the first, second, or third person points of view; these can also have additional nuances (as in a third person limited or omniscient points of view).

Generally, point of view (POV) is established within in the first paragraph (if not the first sentence) of a story. Faults occur when the writer disregards the premises inherent in the style of narration chosen. And although not so much a fault as a guideline, some POV styles work better for short stories than for longer work.

In first person POV, the narrator is ‘I’ (in some instances, it can also be ‘We’. Everything I say about ‘I’, also applies to ‘We’, because 'we' is treated as a single unit of one voice as it pertains to the narration). ‘I’ is the protagonist telling his story, or an important secondary character who relays events. The premise inherent in ‘I’ is that only ‘I’ has insight into 'I's' thoughts or feelings. If the writer slips in another character’s point of view after the ‘I’ narration has been set, the consistency of the ‘I’ POV is broken – the ‘I’ narrator is no longer exclusively telling his story. A fault like this is jarring because the reader has become accommodated to the ‘I’ narration. Instead of one narrator, a secondary character has entered, offering her thoughts about what is going on. The flow is broken. This kind of error a called a point of view shift.

In second person POV, the narrator tells ‘You’ the story. The narrator is usually the protagonist relaying the plot, so his thoughts, as they apply to ‘You’ are still his ideas, opinions, and insights. Therefore, like first person POV, second person POV is also a limited narrative style. Second Person POV has an imperative tone that can create a sense of aggression or urgency. Although second person POV isn’t often used, I’ve seen it handled very effectively in some horror stories, especially when the work has been told in the present tense. POV shifts in second person stories are less likely, because a second character isn’t likely to intrude upon the narrator’s ‘in-your-face’ narration. POV aside, in order to handle second person POV effectively, a writer must know how to write well. If he can’t manage the reigns, second person POV can sound too pushy, accusatory, or feel manipulative.

In third person POV, the narrator tells the story from a ‘He’, ‘She’, ‘It’, or ‘They’ point of view. Third Person Omniscient, which offers an overall insight into the minds and hearts of every character, works better for novels or novellas, but even then, it can be tricky. Unless handled extremely well,  a purely omniscient narration has a tendency to feel like it's keeping the reader at an emotional distance, whereas third person limited is more involving. In an alternating POV, you will often find that the writer slips back and forth between omniscient and third person limited, but she does it so well, the reader hardly notices. A word of caution - unless you really know what you are doing with POV, it's probably better to learn your narrative ropes by sticking with third person limited. Otherwise you may commit POV shifts, as I show below.

As in first person POV, point of view shift errors occur in third person limited if the writer slips in a second (or third) character point of view. When this occurs, the POV is no longer limited because the writer has allowed another to intrude rather than let the main character tell the story from his narrower scope. For example:
Have I managed to convince her? Eric wondered, carefully watching Emily’s face. He’s lying, Emily thought, as she left him on the corner, but he’ll have no choice but to come clean soon. There’s a full moon tonight. And then we'll see what we shall see.
If a writer must slip in additional points of view, one way to do this is to set each new shift in POV by using a line with an asterisk centered within it, below the initial POV section. There is an underlying assumption that this also suggests a shift in time and/or place. For example:
Have I managed to convince her? Eric wondered, carefully watching Emily’s face. He left her then, with plans to meet much later.
                                                 *
 He’s lying, Emily thought, as she left him on the corner, but he’ll have no choice but to come clean soon. There’s a full moon tonight. And then we'll see what we shall see.
You'll notice in the first paragraph, Eric voices his thought in third person limited. Within the same paragraph, the POV then alternates: the omniscient narrator provides a sentence relating to Eric's plans, although it could be argued, this is still in third person limited. (We're splitting hairs, here. It doesn't really matter.) This is followed by the asterisk, then a new paragraph alerting the reader that the POV has changed again, now from Emily's viewpoint. If the scene were to shift again, another asterisk would be needed to indicate it.

Personally, I've always found it helpful to decide ahead of time, who's POV will run each scene, whether I'm writing a short story or a novel. Then, even if I'm penning a crowd scene, or if the POV isn't apparent from the onset due to description, many people talking, or whatever, eventually, one character will claim a limited point of view, usually through inner dialogue about what is going on. This alerts the reader that the scene is actually from that character's POV, seen through his eyes, with all actions performed by the rest of the characters under his interpretation. The trick for the writer then, is to decide who's POV contributes most to the story, and why she should tell it from that particular point of view.

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