Fiction is different than non-fiction. In non-fiction, a point gets exposited. We talk about things. We analyze. We present an overt argument. In fiction, we want to avoid talking about things and create the experience of them. We demonstrate. We present a portrait of the case instead of discussing it.
Good storytelling is about otherness. It’s about borrowing off an imaginary person’s life in order to find out what the living of it is like. Talking about it won’t suffice, any more than talking about reconnecting with an old friend is the same as going and doing it.
We don’t get through life by talking about it. We get there by doing it. And fiction is a mirror of life. So in order to get the reader’s imagination doing it, we must use the magic of writing craft to create the character’s experience, and get ourselves and our narration out of the way.
We are not here to present our experience of the character and plot, but to let the reader have their own. The author must be an invisible magician; the fictional character must be a vessel of experience. As the reader gets to know the character and begins to empathize with the journey, the imagination recreates the fiction, similar to the way memory recreates real life. In a sense, the reader lives a passing, separate life through the character.
The reader does not live through the writer’s life, but the character’s. In fact, most readers would find a writer’s life kind of boring and weird. In spite of this irony, it’s not our job to save our writerly egos–only to work the magic. The storyworld is not the writer’s stage. It’s the character’s. That’s because fiction is a moral proving ground, and a moral proving ground requires character.
That’s where point-of-view comes in.
Meet Readers Where They’re At
Point-of-view or POV is a writing craft point that has changed over time. Thirty years ago, you might have seen a novel in omniscient POV, where you get in on everything that everyone’s thinking or doing in a scene. And you were almost guaranteed to see more narrative summary (Tolkien was a master of it), which has become unfashionable as multimedia has changed people’s expectations of entertainment experiences.
Many old-school established authors get by with continuing to write that way because they established their reader base in a different time period. But the truly famous have always provided an outstanding level of immediacy, and that skill has become de rigeur. Nowadays we are movie-goers, first-person shooters, and also raving hedonists. We are sheltered, starved for the doing of life, having lost much of the previous generations’ knowledge of how to adventure forth. We expect things to be conveniently available without having to do much work for them. We are vicarious beings thirsting for a taste of raw existence. We are disconnected, longing for meaningful intersections.
You’ll have to work with readers as they are now, and establish your own reader base according to the conventions of your own time. In order to treat your readers right, you must let them get into the driver’s seat–even though the remote control of this fantastic gizmo called Story remains in your hands.
The Duckling Rule
Readers are kind of like ducklings. In spite of their raving hedonism, they are cute, fluffy, and wonderful to nurture. (I know this because I’m a reader. You probably know this because you’re a reader too.)
In the search for meaningful intersections, story is a rare realm of trust. When they open a book’s pages, the Ducklings bond to the first thing they see. So, we have to open our stories with the main character, and open each scene by clearly showing whose POV is at work.
- The first name in any scene should be that of the POV character.
- It should occur within the first few lines.
- Even better, if that character has a unique vocabulary, the very word choices by which you construct the scene can help to signal whose POV is in play.
Readers’ ability to bond effectively can be destroyed by shunting them around between constant changes in POV characters. Humanity is made up of existentially lonely, fragile beings. We read for the human connection—to identify with human struggle, both internal and external, to live a different life than our own…and to find out it’s the same as our own in spite of its differences. At a visceral level, fiction staves off the brute hostility of a corrupt, broken world.
The writer has the ability to make this happen. But remember, with awesome power comes awesome responsibility. That means no messing around “for the sake of art,” or worse yet, laziness.
Creating the Experience
How does POV work? The point of view you choose to portray is limited by that character’s knowledge, experience, goals and desires. It happens from inside the character’s head and through the lens of their eyes.
- It’s limited to what the POV character can experience using his own five senses.
- It’s limited to what he knows, or thinks he knows.
- It’s limited to how he reacts to the specific motivators you throw in his path.
- And it’s limited to his own internal thoughts and feelings–remember, unless you’re writing about a telepath, he can’t perceive the thoughts or feelings of other characters.
Point-of-view has meaning. POV is not just for the fun of getting to meet new characters (hear me, character-oriented writers), and it’s not just a tool for expositing the next plot point (hear me, plot-oriented writers). Each POV is a character and a plot unto itself. Outside of your main character, introduce extra POVs wisely, sparingly, and with an eye to how crucial they really are. Don’t ask the Ducklings to bond with someone new unless it’s truly the best–and dare I say, only–way to provide the story’s experience.
Continuous flow is faster, switching POVs is slower. It’s counterintuitive, but rapidly changing between POVs actually slows the action, rather than communicating bustle and urgency, because the Ducklings have to stop and reorient themselves to a new set of experiences in order to follow what’s happening. It hits the Bonding Reset Button in their brains. It can also create a certain level of confusion, just trying to track details and events across multiple experiences.
Is it better to live one lifetime deeply, or many of them in a haze of distraction? When you want to speed up the story, stay right where you are instead of switching POVs. Pacing is a separate tool from POV. Don’t confuse the two.
POV is a fabulous tool for creating conflict. Because the POV character can’t tell why another character gets a certain look on their face (and therefore, neither should you tell it), he/she must interpret the look. And may get it wrong. The human limitations of the POV character are opportunities for a savvy writer to exploit. What fun! This allows the Ducklings to cry huzzah! for the character’s successes and bemoan the character’s stumbling. Strong POV makes friends of the reader and the character.
POV is a fabulous tool for withholding information realistically. When we start intruding on the story, editorializing or expressing things from our omniscient godlike writerly viewpoint, it can become difficult to hide and reveal key information. But when the Ducklings are stuck like glue to a character’s experience, this becomes easy. They’re confined to the same path the character must take to arrive at the needed info.
POV is a fabulous tool for focusing your story. Confining yourself to the main character’s POV removes a lot of extraneous clutter. One of the biggest problems that newer writers have (been there, done that) is figuring out what’s truly important to the storyline. The answer lies in the characters. Let the POV character channel the story through his/her sense of what matters. And if the POV character turns out to be wrong, it’s okay. Just make sure the mistake almost kills him.
How to give your readers the best POV experience? The number one starting place is to learn more about showing versus telling. Telling is us, the writers, talking about our stories. It’s faster and easier, but it’s not the best reader experience in fiction. Showing is when we provide the experiential information without intrusive analysis. We demonstrate the proposition that drives the tale. We do this by using description, thoughts, motivators and reactions, and the character’s unique vocabulary and way of looking at the world, among other things.
What does this look like? A great example is this story excerpt by Scienda client Diane Graham.
Image credit: Aristocrats-hat on Flickr (CC BY 2)
Categories: From the Editor's Desk