Point of view. It seems simple: either it’s first-person (the narrator is an “I”), second-person (the narrator is a “you”), or third-person (the narrator is either looking down on the scene like a god [omniscient], or is a “he” or a “she” [tight]).
Which one do you choose?
When you’re studying POV–or studying how to build characters–what do you even look at, beyond going, “Yup, that’s a third person tight, all right”?
And what if the POV character has an accent? Should you be droppin’ all the gs, and if so, should you add an apostrophe?
What about head-hopping? Why aren’t you supposed to do it, if you see it in bestsellers all the time?
When should you use POV to view a scene moment-by-moment, and when should you sum up?
When should you add backstory? If you’re writing a tight POV, how do you handle backstory–sum up or scene it? How do you do that without making huge backstory scenes or long blocks of exposition?
Speaking of exposition, why do people say not to do it (i.e., an info dump), but I see it all the time in novels?
Why the hell can’t I do a prologue?!?
I can’t sort out the answers to all those yet, not clearly. But this morning I realized I at least have a clue about what to look at when you’re studying POV:
- Who is the POV character at the start of the scene? That is, from whose perspective are you seeing the situation? It could be a character from within the scene or a narrator–and the narrator could be someone not completely defined within the story (as in the narrator in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or someone defined within the story (as in Hastings, who often narrates the events in Christie’s Poirot novels). You might even have a temporary narrator–when one character relates a bit of story to other characters.
- What is the time period of the scene? Is it before, after, or concurrent with the main action of the story? And what verb tense is therefore being used? (For example, a story told in present tense might use past tense to tell past events, or flashbacks told in present tense; a story told in past tense might use past-perfect [“she had gone”], past-perfect that fades into past [the first few sentences are past-perfect, but then past tense takes over], past tense flashbacks, past tense not in an actual flashback, or even present tense. For a good example of some of the variations, see below.)
- Is the scene in full-scene mode, with events being spelled out in nearly real time, or is it in summary mode, with a few sentences that flash over a longer period of time?
- How distant is the POV character? This is mostly found in third person stories: there isn’t just third-person omniscient and third-person tight; there is an infinite range of possibilities of focusing in or out on your character. A distant POV character can be seen from the outside–sometimes from the outside looking in, if you can read their thoughts. A tighter POV character is seen more from the inside. If you have a narrator in a third-person omniscient story who is very empathetic, then it can almost feel like, for a moment, that you’re inside the POV character’s head when you’re really not. Stephen King does this a lot. See below.
- When any of these elements change, throughout the scene–note it.
So here’s a section of Doctor Sleep that I’m working on (near the very beginning). Granted, any given aspect that you choose to study on King is going to be more complex than pretty much any other hundred authors you care to pick. King isn’t necessarily where you want to start studying, because it’s hard to sort out everything he’s doing. But, if you’re looking for an example of how complex POV can be beyond the basics of first/second/third person, it’s fabulous:
[POV: 3rd Om, tightly empathizing with Wendy. Summary. These opening scenes are backstory–honestly, they’re a prologue!–for the main body of the story, and this story is concurrent with the backstory scene action. Past tense.]
Wendy nagged her son out of bed at noon. She managed to get a little soup and half a peanut butter sandwich into him, but then he went back to bed. He still wouldn’t speak. Halloran arrived shortly after five in the afternoon,
[Change: shift into full-scene mode.]
behind the wheel of his now ancient (but still perfectly maintained and blindingly polished) red Cadillac.
[Change: shift into past-perfect tense; this is a very slight backstory. Shift into summary mode to show that she did this many times.]
Wendy had been standing at the window, waiting and watching as she had once waited and watched for her husband, hoping Jack would come home in a good mood. And sober.
[Change: past-tense, back into full-scene mode.]
She rushed down the stairs and opened the door
[Just a note here–her behavior, although not requiring the shine, is almost precognitive here, opening the door just as someone else is about to open it.]
just as Dick was about to ring the bell marked TORRANCE 2A. He held out his arms and she rushed into them at once, wishing she could be enfolded there for at least an hour. Maybe two.
He let her go and held her at arm’s length by her shoulders. “You’re lookin fine, Wendy. How’s the little man? He talkin again?”[Note–Wendy’s accent isn’t stressed, but Dick’s is; she can’t hear her own accent, but she can hear his.]
“No, but he’ll talk to you. Even if he won’t do it out loud to start with, you can–” instead of finishing, she made a finger-gun and pointed it at his forehead.
“Not necessarily,” Dick said. His smile revealed a bright new pair of false teeth.
[Note–no paragraph break, just me. Shift in tense to past-perfect that fades into past tense after the first sentence. Shift from full-scene to summary. Shift into backstory.]
The Overlook had taken most of the last set on the night the boiler blew. Jack Torrance swung the mallet that took Dick’s dentures and Wendy’s ability to walk without a hitch in her stride,
[Shift from backstory into the present moment. Midsentence.]
but they both understood it had really been the Overlook. “He’s very powerful, Wendy. If he wants to block me out, he will. I know from my own experience. Besides, it’d be better if we talk with our mouths. Better for him. Now tell me everything that happened.”
[Shift into summary mode.]
After she did that,
[Note that she didn’t bother to retell the story at all, despite the fact that she has to retell herself the story about Jack hitting her with the hammer. Shift into past-perfect backstory.]
Wendy took him into the bathroom. She had left the stains for him to see, like a beat cop preserving the scene of a crime for the forensic team. And there had been a crime. One against her boy.
[Shift into past tense and full scene, in the present.]
Dick looked for a long time, not touching, then nodded. “Let’s see if Danny’s up and in the doins.”
[Shift into summary mode.]
[Shift into full-scene mode.]
but Wendy’s heart was lightened by the look of gladness that came into her son’s face when he saw who was sitting beside him on the bed and shaking his shoulder.
[Completely break focus on Wendy and hop into Danny’s and Dick’s heads.]
(hey Danny I brought you a present)
(it’s not my birthday)
[Shift back into Wendy’s head.]
Wendy watched them, knowing they were speaking but not knowing what it was about.
Dick said, “Get on up, honey. We’re gonna take a wakl to the beach.”
[Shift into Dick’s and Danny’s heads.]
(Dick she came back Mrs. Massey from Room 217 came back)
[Shift into Wendy’s head, but very distantly.]
Dick gave his shoulder another shake. “Talk out loud, Dan. You’re scarin your ma.”
Danny said, “What’s my present?”
Dick smiled. “That’s better. I like ot hear you, and Wendy does, too.”
[Shift closer into Wendy’s head; we can hear her thoughts now. Still much more distant through the rest of the scene than in the beginning of the scene.]
“Yes.” It was all she dared say. Otherwise they’d hear the tremble in her voice and be concerned. She didn’t want that.
“While we’re gone, you might want to give the bathroom a cleaning,” Dick said to her. “Have you got kitchen gloves?”
“Good. Wear them.”
Most stories aren’t going to be this complex, but there are still some lessons that non-Stephen-King-level writers might extract from it:
- POV can be fluid when the story calls for it (like telepathy).
- Tense can be fluid to help clarify when you’re using backstory.
- You can shift between full scenes and summing up without making a huge deal out of it–especially if you have a character who dwells on the past.
At any rate, POV is more complex than just first/second/third 🙂