Written by: D.A. Bale
Have you ever read those books where you feel as if you’re watching a movie where this happens to the character, that happens to the character, so on and so forth? The overall plot is good, the descriptions nice, but you sense a distance from the characters and never feel as if you’re living and seeing through their eyes.
Have you ever read those books where you’re reading along in one character’s head only to discover somewhere along the way you’ve ended up in another head entirely? Or maybe the shift is more direct when you’re slammed out of one character’s point-of-view and thrown into another. You wonder if you missed something. It pulls you out of the story and back to reality.
Now have you ever read those books where you’re so deeply into the story and one character’s point-of-vew you almost feel like you are that character? Your pulse speeds up with theirs. Grit your teeth in frustration. Cry at the same time. It gets to the point as if you’ve crawled under the character’s skin – like you’ve actually become said character.
That’s when you know you’re reading good point-of-view (POV). The last reference above is good POV usage, when a scene is written from one specific character’s view. One mind. One internal thought pattern. One event perspective.
The first reference is an example of omniscient POV. Such viewpoint isn’t wrong per se. It works for cinema, but for novels it’s always going to keep the reader at a distance, as if the author has given the stiff arm and won’t let you any closer to the scene or character. Readers are left standing behind the yellow police tape. Personally, I don’t like reading omniscient POV. It’s distracting and you can never get into the characters with such a turn – and thus, never get into the story.
Poor POV usage is shown in the second reference, when we jump from character to character within a single scene, seeing scattered thought patterns because so many different character thoughts and experiences are crammed into one scene. It’s jarring. It’s confusing.
I’m not saying you have to write an entire book from only one POV. What I’m saying is to choose a single character’s POV per scene. When changing to another viewpoint, properly delineate with a scene break or a new chapter. A scene break is usually categorized as either extra spacing or my personal favorite ***. It doesn’t matter if you use ### or @&%@&%@&%. Find one way to establish a scene break and consistently use it.
Think of a bank robbery. There are employees and customers inside the building. There are people in the parking lot who’ve either just left the building or are preparing to enter. Each person sees what happens based upon their location and proximity to the robber. So let’s consider this scenario.
Scene opens with Character A. As he’s walking out the door, a large man bumps into him. He catches a glimpse of a gun as a mask is pulled. With hands shaking, he digs out a cell phone to call the police, even though all he wants is to drive home to his wife and leave on their retirement cruise. But he’s also concerned for the kind staff.
The next scene opens inside the building with the crack of gunshot. An average man yells for everyone to get on the ground. The branch manager, or Character B, is afraid for her employees, the customers, and whether she’ll live to see her unborn child. She glances at the man’s hands for identifying marks and sees a small tattooed word across the knuckles. Hands touch the counter, possibly leaving fingerprints. Time feels as if it stands still.
Notice a couple of differing perspectives here? Character A saw the man as large. Character B saw the robber as average. ‘A’ took initiative and called the police, but he’s fearful for the staff because he can’t see what’s happening inside the building. ‘B’ is trained how to handle such situations, but that doesn’t ease the danger to her unborn baby. The robber showed he wasn’t afraid to use his weapon when he walked into the branch. If ‘B’ triggers the silent alarms, the police could show up too quickly and then they’d have a hostage situation, but you as the reader already know someone has called the police. Ratchets up additional tension.
Each character has a different vantage point. Character A doesn’t know what’s taking place in the building, but maybe he heard the gunshot. Character B doesn’t know if the guy has an accomplice outside in a getaway car. Every witness story is recorded then compared to determine the sequence of events and find corroborating puzzle pieces. Investigators might discover one tiny detail from a single person that all others missed – like the tattoo on the knuckles.
If the scene starts from Character A’s POV, then it would jar the reader to carry said POV from the parking lot inside to the branch manager without a scene break. Readers will get confused, even if only for a few seconds, because they’ll think ‘A’ went back inside the building – and who in their right mind would run into a bank during a robbery?
If you’re still confused about this POV talk, I recommend watching a great movie called Vantage Point. This movie plays out a specific event from one character’s perspective. Then the scene rewinds and the exact scene plays out from a separate character’s perspective. Then again. And again. Yes, it gets repetitive, but Vantage Point is a fabulous study of the nuances in character viewpoints during one situation. The important factor is that each time the scene rewinds and plays out, we are firmly in one character’s POV, seeing the events as they see them, experiencing the action in which they are a witness. Seeing how they may or may not have perpetrated said events. It’s like sitting in on a witness statement as they repeat it to an investigator.
Now if you’re like me and enjoy the classics, you’re probably ready to give me a sniff of derision. Classic literature in the past like Pride and Prejudice did not follow such a pattern of one character POV per scene. The key word here is past. Novel strictures and structures have evolved, as have word definitions, comma usage, etc. If you’re going to write novels in the present you need to understand what current acceptable parameters are – and use them wisely.
Yes, all rules are made be broken. But remember – just because you have the right to break the rules, doesn’t make it the right thing to do.
About the Author:
In her previous career, D.A. Bale traveled the United States as a Government Relations Liaison, working closely with Congressional offices and various government agencies. This experience afforded her a glimpse into the sometimes "not so pretty" reality of the political sphere. Much of this reality and various locations throughout her travels make it into her writing.
She dreams of the day she can return to visit Alaska.