by Jodie Renner, editor and author, www.JodieRenner.com
The issue of point of view (POV) or viewpoint can be a difficult one for new novelists to get a handle on, but it simply refers to the character through whose perspective the story events are told. We see, hear, smell, feel and experience events as that character would—with no additional information provided “from above” by the author.
In other words, if you’re writing a romance, and you’re in the heroine’s point of view (which you should be most of the time, as it’s her story) you’re not going to mention her blue eyes or long, blond hair unless she’s looking at herself in a mirror – and that one’s been overdone. (Besides, how many of us consciously think about our eye or hair color when we’re looking in the mirror?) At this point in the story, you’re seeing the world through the heroine’s eyes, so you see and hear only what she would see and hear. If she’s talking to someone else, you’re probably not going to mention her freckles or her tousled hair, unless she’s wondering if she looks okay. (Or you could have her sister, bff or the hero mention them.)
Need to tell what your hero is thinking in the middle of a scene that’s in the POV of your heroine? Tell your readers this by what the heroine is perceiving: his facial expressions, movements, attitude, body language, tone of voice and what he says—or leaves out.
As Jack M. Bickham says, “You’ll never have problems with the technique of viewpoint again if you simply follow this advice: “Figure out whose story it is. Get inside that character—and stay there.” Of course, you don’t have to stay in your protagonist’s point of view for the whole story, but well over half the story should be from the main character’s POV, so that the reader can identify with him/her and begin to care what happens to him/her.
As Bickham explains, “I’m sure you realize why fiction is told from a viewpoint, a character inside the story. It’s because each of us lives our real life from a single viewpoint – our own – and none other, ever. The fiction writer wants her story to be as convincing and lifelike as possible. So she sets things up so that readers will experience the story just like they experience real life: from one viewpoint inside the action.”
If your fiction is to be effective and your lead character is to come alive and matter to the reader, you’ll need to accomplish this by showing all the action from inside the head and heart – the thoughts, senses and emotions – of the person you have chosen as the viewpoint character.
To quote Bickham again, “In a novel, there may be several viewpoints, but one must clearly dominate… It’s a fatal error to let your viewpoint jump around from character to character, with no viewpoint clearly dominating…. To put this in other words: even in a novel of 100,000 words, well over 50 percent – probably closer to 70 percent – should be clearly and rigidly in the viewpoint of the main character. That character’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions and intentions should unmistakably dominate the action.”
So, in order to draw the reader in and grab him emotionally, every story must have a clearly dominant viewpoint character. When we see the story through his eyes, reacting as he does, it’s like we’re in the story.
But how do we as authors go about this? Let’s suppose you’re writing a story about Jason, and you have decided that he is the viewpoint character. How do you make sure that your handling of his viewpoint is as powerful as it can possibly be?
The first thing you need to do is imagine the setting, people and events as they would be perceived by Jason, and only by him. As you write the story, you the writer must become Jason. You see what he sees, and nothing more. You know what he knows, and nothing more. When Jason walks into a room, for example, you do not imagine how the room looks from some god-like authorial stance high above the room, or as a movie camera might see it; you see it only as Jason sees it, walking in.
And of course include his reactions to the other people in the room. Show Jason’s feelings (and only his) about what and who he’s seeing, and his reactions to the situation. Instead of saying “the room was stuffy,” say “Jason felt the stuffy heat of the room close around him.” By using words like “Jason felt” and “he knew,” you’re helping the reader get inside Jason’s head and identify with him, which is vital if you want your reader to care about your protagonist and get engaged in your story.
But you need to go even further – you need to describe what he’s seeing and feeling by using words and expressions that he would normally use. If your character is a blue-collar worker and high-school dropout, you’re not going to describe the scene or his reactions in highly educated, articulate, flowery terms.
It’s also important to be vigilant that your viewpoint doesn’t slip, so you’re suddenly giving someone else’s opinion about Jason, or telling about something that’s happening in the kitchen, when Jason is in the living room. You can let the reader know other people’s reactions to Jason by what Jason perceives – he sees their looks and body language, hears their words and tone of voice, etc.
If you’re writing a romance, and you’re in the heroine’s point of view, and the hero is angry, you will show his thoughts and reactions, not from inside him (“That jerk! he thought, I’ll show him!”) but by what the heroine is seeing and perceiving – his tense posture, hunched shoulders, clenched fists, furrowed brows, set mouth, clipped tone of voice, angry words, etc.
The general rule of thumb is “one scene, one viewpoint.” Or even better, wait for a new chapter to change the point of view to someone else’s. If you change the viewpoint within a scene, it’s best to do it only once, and leave a blank space before you start the next person’s point of view. Ping-ponging back and forth can be jarring and confusing to the reader. This is what’s referred to as “head-hopping.”
So why is it so important to avoid switching viewpoints (head-hopping) within scenes?
According to Cynthia VanRooy, “When a reader becomes emotionally engaged in a book, he or she enters into the story. The writer has hypnotized the reader into participating in the illusion of the fictional world. The reader understands the book world isn’t real, but in order to fully enjoy the story, he or she chooses to temporarily pretend otherwise, or to suspend their disbelief. […]
“Every time you shift the reader from one character to another, they are jarred out of their suspension of disbelief and reminded they aren’t actually living in the fictional world you’ve created, they’re only reading a story. Do that often enough and they’ll stop reading your story. Scene changes or new chapters are the best and least disruptive places to change POV.
“…Deep POV gives the reader a chance to really identify with a character, something you aim for as an author. Even Nora Roberts, famous for her frequent changes in POV, lets the reader stay in one character long enough to become thoroughly hooked.”
Self-editing tip to avoid head-hopping or a meandering viewpoint:
A quick way to check whose POV you’re in is to get out the markers and choose a different color for each of your main characters. Pick your protagonist’s color, then start highlighting sentences that describe scenes, people and perceptions strictly from his POV. Do the same for other characters, with their color. When you’re done, you should have paragraphs, and preferably scenes, of only one color. If you have another color creeping into that scene, see if you can rewrite those sentences from the dominating character’s POV. If you have a number of colors within one scene, you’ve got some revisions to do. And as Stephen King says, “Writing is rewriting.” Keep on writing!
Resources: The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham; “POV or: Whose Head Am I in, Anyway?” by Cynthia VanRooy http://www.cynthiavanrooy.com/.