Friday, April 13, 2012

Wicked Good POV Can Get Your Freak On

By Jordan Dane
In honor of Friday the 13th, my version of head hopping.

Okay, I’ll admit that when I first started writing, I had no idea what Point of View (POV) was. I head hopped in a big way. I thought that’s what writers did to show the reader what was in everyone’s head, what they were thinking. I justified my lack of skill by saying that as long as a reader understood the story and didn’t flip out with my POV gymnastics, that my poor technique would be acceptable. Wrong!
Years ago, after I read a blog post from an acquiring New York City editor (who was a believer in one character’s POV per scene), I tried it and it completely opened my eyes to a new way to look at author craft. One POV per scene forced me to focus on one character and tell a mini-story within that scene, to move the plot or character insights forward. It can be a way of hiding plot twists or planting misdirection clues (red herrings) too. I tend to pick whose POV to write in by focusing on which character has the most to lose in that scene, but there are certainly other reasons to pick other characters too. Now I’ve broken perceived “rules” plenty of times, for different reasons, but I think it’s important to understand a method and try it to see how it can work for you before you simply dismiss it as “not your thing.”

Understanding how POV can add depth and color to a character’s voice can distinguish your work from countless others who submit to publishing houses every day. Every author makes decisions about POV in their books. If an author likes challenges, he or she may test their skill level and try different ways to convey a character’s story as in the classic examples below.

In THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, the book is about a 14 year old girl who lives during the time of the Holocaust and steals books to read. The narrator of the story is Death. This was one of my favorite young adult reads. The author took a risk to distance the reader from the 14 year old girl in the story. I thought it might have been a mistake when I started reading it, but with the gut wrenching subject matter, I later came to believe the reader needed that distance. And with Death as an outside observer, that brought a beautiful narrative voice (with a literary quality) to the story. In the end, I cried like a baby, despite the distance.

In THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher, this story is about a girl who commits suicide, but leaves 13 audio tapes for the people who helped her make the decision to take her life. Great hook, right? The story is told through the eyes of one boy, but the structure is complicated by the ever present recorded voice of the dead girl, flashbacks to the past they shared, with jumps into the present while he spends one night without sleep, visiting all the places she put on a map. The intimacy of her voice often appears in one simple line or short spurts, mixed with the boy’s POV. As a reader, I got sucked into this story and totally forgot I’m an author. That’s when I know the book is really good—and the author is amazing.

If Zusak and Asher had done the standard POV thing, their critically acclaimed books wouldn’t be the same. I think it’s important for authors to push the envelope on their craft, but it takes understanding craft in order to know how to effectively “break the rules” with good result.

Okay, so here are my random thoughts on POV (from my POV):

1.)    The POV Tango Gets my Freak On - Writing is a creative process and rigid rules don’t always work, but after trying one POV per scene, I’ve learned when to utilize this technique and when NOT TO. In general, I’m a POV purest, but on the rare occasion that I shift POV in a scene, I usually transition it by an action where the reader’s attention is diverted to the new player, such as with a handshake or a meaningful glare that shifts the focus over to the other character where the reader sees their reaction. Keep the break in POV simple by doing it the one time, not back and forth like a tennis match. I may also “break the POV rule” with one sentence, but I smile when I do that. Breaking the POV rule makes me feel frisky, but you can’t fully appreciate a side trip down Freakalishess Boulevard unless you know what being “good” is, right?

2.)    Get into Heads like a Frontal Lobotomy - Developing a full character “voice” is part of what I consider “deep POV.” I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating here. Average writers describe a setting as if they are detailing an inventory. Sure they touched on all the basics to trigger a reader’s senses, but if they allow their minds to fully “free associate” the character’s POV, the technique allows that character to have an opinion of his/her setting. That opinion adds color, depth to the scene, and reflects not only on his or her inner thoughts and nature, but it also sheds light on other characters too.

3.)    Crack the Whip, Dominatrix! - Determining whose POV will dominate the scene can help direct your plot or give a different kind of insight into your main character. For example, red herrings (false clues) can be doled out through the POV of a character who doesn’t know anything, or has reason to lie. Or you can hide the guilt of someone by staying out of their “head.” If you’re stuck in one POV for the entire book—as in first person POV—you have limited options.

4.)    Boingee Boingee…Whatever - Head hopping bounces from character to character, removing the reader from building any great affinity or insight into any one character. This is reason enough to pick a POV per scene. Readers need to get emotionally involved and having a universal narrator describing the scene in omniscient fashion from afar can distance the reader from making any meaningful connection. This worked beautifully in THE BOOK THIEF as I mentioned, because the author told an emotionally charged story, but for the average author, an omniscient POV can sever any hope of a reader connecting with your character(s).

5.)    Dogs are Better than People - Picking the right POV can affect your research. If you don’t feel comfortable writing a police procedural, establish the POV in a character at a crime scene who isn’t a cop. They can be clueless for a reason and you can stay clear of research you don’t feel is “your thing.” Tell a dystopian, post apocalyptic story from the POV of a dog. It could happen.

6.)    Eenie Meenie Mynee Mo, Pick a Loser by the Toe - Selecting the right POV can shove the reader right into the middle of the action or put them in the backseat. For example, in a scene where a guy is undercover and on stake out, he could witness the abduction of a girl. An author could decide to stay in his POV or shift into the girl’s head. Putting the reader into the victim’s head could be scary and more emotional. You can always spring back into Mr. Action’s POV and watch him come to her rescue, but I tend to pick POV by the character with the most to lose. In every scene, I make a choice for a reason. POV doesn’t have to stay with the main character. Be open to new ways to tell a story.

7.)    Name Your Poison - Combining first person with third person POV is tricky but can be done effectively if the transitions are clear. I first tried this in my YA debut book – IN THE ARMS OF STONE ANGELS (Harlequin Teen). I wanted to have the intimacy of a first person narrator through my central character, Brenna Nash, but I also wanted to bring my mystery/thriller techniques to YA and write third person POVs for other characters. The reason I chose to do this was to give the reader insight into some pretty nasty people, so the reader would fear more for my central boy and girl. I also wanted to hide clues to the mystery of who killed Heather. I combined first and third POV in another of my YAs, ON A DARK WING (Harlequin Teen), but after reading other YAs that mixed POVs, I added a tag to the start of every scene in first person. By doing this, I made the transitions easier for the reader to follow.

I'd like to hear from readers who have discovered a great book with an unusual point of view story teller. And from you authors, I'd love to hear any tips you have to share on POV.


Paula Millhouse said...

Wow - great post Jordan!

I like shifting POV, when it's done
PER scene, like you've pointed out here.

I want to know what's going on in the other character's heads - it makes for a more interesting story, IMHO.

Some people don't, and that's OK. When it's done right, the story zings for me.


Jordan Dane said...

Good morning, sunshine. Love to see you here, Paula. I always want to keep up with your writing projects & your comments.

I stopped reading Janet Evanovich's books after a few because I got tired not knowing what was in Ranger's head. Yum. I haven't seen the movie. Love Jason Meara in anything, but it looked like they miscast Ranger imo.

Write on, girl!

Jordan Dane said...

Hey Paula--Are you going to any writing conferences this year?

Paula Millhouse said...

I joined RWA last month - YAAY! You were so right!

Currently, I don't have plans for a conference this year (although I'd LOVE to do Thrillerfest in NYC) (and RWA in Anaheim). I'm looking ahead to next year for physical conferences -
I have found several online classes sponsored by RWA I'll be attending this year. Smile.

The POV thing is handled well by author Steven James in his Patrick Bowers series.

I wrote Careful... that way and I just can't see it happening any other way.

I had to stop reading Sherrilyn Kennyon because sometimes her characters share paragraphs, and that seriously drives me crazy.

In Twilight, I wanted to know what Edward was thinking, not what Bella thought Edward was thinking.

Jordan Dane said...

Good for you, Paula. You should look into the Kiss of Death online chapter. It specializes in suspense in all its subgenres. They have the Clues-n-News email loop that can be informative. They also do some great pre-conference field trips for research during nationals conference week. One of my favorite events was visiting the FBI, CIA, State Dept, & National Postal Service when the RWA conf was in DC. Amazing!

I'll be in Anaheim. I'll also be going to Bouchercon in Cleveland OH in Oct. That's a reader based conf but it's well-attended by authors. And of course, ITW in NYC is like hitting the lotto to see all your favorite authors.

Anita Grace Howard said...

JD, you ROCKED this post! Great tips. When I first wrote SPLINTERED, Jeb (the heroine’s best friend and secret crush) had chapters that were his. I did hers in FP and his in TP. After getting a few Rs from agents, I ended up cutting Jeb's out because it upped the tension w/the reader never knowing what the guy was thinking (plus, cutting out his POV ended up shaving the book by almost 20K words).

But I saved those chapters so I have some cool extras for readers later. If nothing else, it deepened Jeb’s characterization and gave him subtle dimensions he’d otherwise not have had. ;)

Jordan Dane said...

Hey Anita--You might think about using those deleted scenes in promo after the book comes out and makes a splash. You could do a short anthology. You'll probably need permission from your house. Anthologies are usually mentioned in your contract, but a promo piece might be a good thing after the book is enjoyed the way it was intended first.

Very cool.

Carol Tanzman said...

I am so a "one character, first person" POV writer. But in Circle of Silence, I am using a "journal" to create the POV voice of a second, mysterious character. It will be interesting to see what readers think when it pubs in August.

Jordan Dane said...

Hey Carol. Thanks for your comment. I love that idea of presenting a character by a journal. Very interesting.

I'm writing an adult suspense book where the first chapter is written in the first person POV of the killer as he or she kills. I didn't want the reader to know the gender of the killer. The rest is all close third.

POV manipulation can be VERY cool.