Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Few Words of Wisdom on Point of View

I mentioned last week that I recently went to a writing class, which made me feel both stupid and excited to learn at the same time. Ah, to be a student again...

I also promised to share some of what I learned, because it was, all insecurities aside, a really great class. It was called "Picking Your Perspective: How To Make the Best of Narrative Point of View", and it was held by Grub Street. Which, for anyone who lives in the Boston area, as well as for anyone with a computer (they have online classes) is a great organization for writers that's well worth joining, or at least looking into some of their classes. And no, unfortunately, they don't pay me to say these things, so you can believe my non-sponsored enthusiasm.

As I've discussed here on this blog, I'm trying to push the boundaries of my point of view comfort zone: I'm moving away from the comfy, cozy bathrobe of close limited third person, and trying on the maybe-too-tight skinny jeans of first person, and I'm even considering the too-fancy-for-everyday-what-will-I-wear-this-to evening gown of third person omniscient. So, this class was a welcome help.

But enough introductory drabble. Here are some brief notes and thoughts on perspective, straight from the brain of the great teacher, in outline form, 'cause you know that's how I roll:

  • Point of view is all about information, and power. When trying to pick one, consider:
    • Amount and Rate of Information
      • In other words, how much knowledge does the POV you choose give the reader, and at what rate does it give that knowledge? How can you control the release of information, and through whose eyes?
      • As an example, a strict limited third person or a present-tense first person would give the reader a relatively slow rate of information release, since the reader gains knowledge as the character gains it. This is a great choice for a mystery, or a situation where you want to be able to surprise the reader.
      • On the other hand, a first person narrator who is telling a story that has already happened has a lot more power, and can choose to manipulate not only the information, but how to give it to the reader.
      • At the far opposite end of the spectrum from close, limited third, an omniscient third person narrator would have access to all information about everything in your story - including the past and the future - and would also be able to control and manipulate the flow of information as needed. 
    • Language
      • What kind of language do you want narrator to have at his/her disposal? Formal, elevated, immediate, slang, dialect, etc. 
      • As an example, this will be much more limited, but also much more specific, if you have a first person narrator: the voice of the narrator must match that person's background, education, etc., but it's also the only reasonable way to get away with using dialect.
    • Character and Story
      • Given the character you have, what is the best POV choice? If you have a very vivid character - which doesn't necessarily mean a big personality, just a very clear one - first person is a great choice. 
      • Think about the kind of story you'r telling. If you have a sweeping family saga, omniscient third will give you the best access to that long history, and to all of the characters' inner lives.
We also spent some time discussing the different POVs, of course, and then did a common writing exercise, which I do recommend. We took a simple prompt - in this case, "A young woman sits down on the subway, not too crowded of a car, reading a book and frequently looking up at another passenger" - and wrote a brief scene in one perspective. We read and workshopped these, then took a few minutes to rewrite the scene in another perspective. 

Highly informative, to switch things around like that - and because the scene was short, MUCH easier than rewriting oh, I don't know, your entire manuscript, for example. I'm planning on doing the same to some scenes in my WIP, before I write too much, to see if I've chosen the right POV.

I hope this helps! Happy perspective-ing...

61 comments:

  1. I'm still debating whether to write my MG fantasy in 1st or 3rd POV, which is one reason I decided to put it aside and just think about it for awhile while I move on to another story that I KNOW will be in third person.

    Maybe I'll have to check out Grub Street. Don't think there's anything like that in the Detroit area.

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    1. Hey, try a scene in both, and see how it work. Why not? It might help :)

      Yes, do check it out! Their online classes seem great :)

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  2. I'm from the days of mom jeans, so third person limited is my favorite to read and therefore the most comfortable to write. But I am working on a story in first person. The waist pinches a bit, but I am sticking with it :)

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    1. LOL, I love it - the third person mom jeans. Good for you for trying on the skinnies! ;)

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  3. I've always found POV interesting. I'm reading the "His Fair Assassin" books and at first the first-person, present narration bugged me, but I've gotten used to it, and it suits the stories.

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    1. I know what you mean - I sometimes feel that way with first person, that it takes a little while to settle into, but once I do, it's a perfect fit.

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  4. I have written in every single one of those, and I think as a writer you find where you're comfortable, and how you best love telling a story. I'm partial to the first person--whether post story or present--and close third. Omniscient third can be so fun, but I think it puts too much distance between the reader and the story. My personal opinion. I'm a huge fan of mixed perspectives too, where you have a narrator, but then rush into close third person as it fits the story.

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    1. I love those mixed perspectives, too - so much fun, and so hard to do right!

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  5. I write in 1st and very close 3rd. I'm terrible at omniscient. I don't like the distance it creates for a reader, and I can't write with the distance, lol. Clearly I'm character-driven in both areas, totally. ;)

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    1. Being character-driven is a really good thing! I'm right there with you. It DOES create distance, that omniscience, but sometimes it's done so well that I just love it.

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  6. The right point of view can really make the story. I had started mine with a third person point of view, but my critique partners suggested I make it a first person, and it's so much stronger!

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    1. It's so true - good for you for being willing to make that change!

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  7. That's an excellent breakdown. Point of view can make all the difference in the world. Brave of you to consider first person. Not sure I could write that way.

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    1. Thanks, Alex! I'm not sure, either...we'll find out!

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  8. I think it's sooo good to experiment with POV! I did this once with a manuscript, trying to decide between first person and limited third. I eventually went with limited third because I found my narrator confessed way too much with first person. She couldn't stop blabbing. This is a good overview. Thanks for sharing:)

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    1. LOL, that's hilarious. I can totally see that happening with a chatty MC! :)

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  9. I've always been afraid of first person but I've read some great books written in that POV. You're brave enough to give it a go.

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  10. I haven't written in third omniscient. My usual default POV is third-person limited. Unless it's my novellas--those are in first. But I can't seem to do anyone except Cera (protagonist of the novellas) in first person. When I type down "I", it always spurs her voice in my head.

    I'd like to see your scene one of these days.

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    1. Yeah, mine too - it just feels the most comfortable! That's kind of cool, that Cera is insisting on being the only 'I' in your head :) And thanks for wanting to see it, but I'm not sure it's fit for human eyes yet!!

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  11. That's an interesting test. I usually write my longer stuff in 3rd person limited. I started adding in other characters for other POV's, which helps me enrich the story.

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    1. Sounds like my favorite kind of story :)

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  12. Somehow the 1st person POV throws me out of a story. Maybe I'm so used to the 3rd person?

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    1. Do you mean as a reader? If so, when 1st person is done badly, it can be AWFUL. That might be why, too! If you mean as a writer, I found that if I don't know my character well enough, that happens to me, too.

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  13. Thanks for sharing, Liz! I'm hoping to learns lots when I got to a conference next month. Yay, yay, yay! (I'm excited- can you tell?) =D

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    1. Oh, and you won the giveaway of the volcano card! (that is such a weird sentence...) Anyhoo, just shoot me your address and I'll get it in the mail to ya. My email's leandrawallaceatgmaildotcom. Thanks!

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    2. Ooo, I did?? That's great, thanks so much! I'll email soon : And yes, that was a very weird sentence :)

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  14. Great notes! I guess I'm a bit guilty of not thinking of writing in other POV's, though it definitely lends itself to some more interesting ways to tell a story. I'm going to have to try out that short scene idea!

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    1. Thanks! I know, up until this new book I was a one-POV girl, too. But it IS fun to experiment - I recommend it! :)

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  15. Very informative post. :)

    My debut is in 3rd limited, but the dystopian I have in the plotting stage is in first. I don't like reading omniscient and I doubt I'll ever write it, but I can see how it might be good for some works.

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    1. Sometimes I wonder if omniscient has just been done badly too many times... but lord knows it IS hard to write. I hear you :)

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  16. I love these kinds of posts. You take great notes! I do play around with POV, but tend to stick to one from the beginning of a story and haven't tried to rewrite it in another much (except past vs. present tense, which I play around with a lot). Good idea.

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    1. Thanks! It was a great class. I hope it helps!

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  17. I do love writing this particular character I'm working on now in first person. Her personality and experiences are the driving force of the story so it makes sense it be told from her POV. But, yeah, you gotta sometimes experiment to see which is the best fit for revealing information.

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    1. Sounds like the perfect sort of character for first person!!!

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  18. Interesting stuff. I don't think I've written in anything other than close third-person since my much younger writing days. I should probably give some other stuff a try, though I don't know what would work with what I have planned. Hrm.

    ...and the Dresden Files have pretty much shown me that anything I write in first person will never be as awesome as riding along in Harry Dresden's head. Grr. Arg.

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    1. LOL. Well, it's still worth a try, maybe. You never know...

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  19. Great recap, Liz. And perfect timing for your wip.

    I write third person, and don't usually care for first. Just my preference, but I do love Jane Austin's use of first person in Pride and Prejudice and Emma. The first person was so tight that she was able to do great plot reversals based on the prejudices/tight lens she used with those characters.

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    1. Thanks! Did Jane Austin write P&P in first person? Hm, I'm gonna have to reread, because I could have sworn in was in third. But either way, it works beautifully, so I know what you mean!

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  20. Great job. Point of view is super important. It can really change the way we feel about a character.

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  21. I agree. Usually, I just play things by "ear" to decide which perspective to use, but I tend to prefer the close perspectives. Maybe I should spread my wings a little and try the others too. :-)

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    1. Hey, why not? No one has to see our experiments, right? ;)

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  22. POV's can be hard to handle at times. Being a 3rd person narrator, you have to make sure your POV's are with the proper person and separate the paragraphs to show them. My 1st two books are 3rd person, I like writing that way. My new ms is 1st person, the main character owns the story, it's a mystery. My wip is also 1st person, I'm enjoying the transition.

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    1. Yup, you're right. It can be tricky. I always like 1st person for mysteries!

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  23. Favoriting this post! Very helpful, Liz. Thank you for sharing your notes. I'm at the point where I've written quite a bit for my new story, but am tempted to switch POV's. This is going to be very helpful in deciding whether that's as beneficial to story as I think it is. :)

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    1. Oh good, I'm so glad it's helpful! Yeah, give it a try for one little scene, and see what you think :)

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  24. Hey Liz...sorry it's been forever, but life! What can I say? I've barely had time to post, much less visit, and I'm eaten up with guilt. You'd think I was Jewish, but Catholics can go through the same. :)

    Sounds like a GREAT class. I loved everything you said. Hey...do you ever do prompt rooms (weekly shorts via a prompt)? Excellent way to learn scene building and write from various perspectives, push the boundaries, flirt with dialect. I love it and started that way...shorts are just like you said, easy and non-committal. Not like tackling a big novel. You can change up all the time until you feel comfortable in various styles and perspectives.

    Good to see you. Now...gonna go see what your theme is for A-Z. I had to go ahead and pull out this year. It falls amid too much stuff...Sis's surgery is slated for April.

    Oh, I remodeled my workspace. The link is below if you want to see. Take care. :)

    Check out my office remodel!

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    1. No worries, Mike, and definitely no guilt! I miss you when you're not around, but I'm always happy to see you :) And yes, we DO share guilt in our genetic codes, I think!

      Hmm, no, I've never done a prompt room- but it sounds like I should. Thanks for the tip! It sounds like a perfect way to try different things.

      How did I miss the remodel? Going to look now!

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  25. This is a great post Liz! So helpful!! I've tried close third and first person for my novels so far and I still don't know which one "fits" better. I guess it depends on the story, but I find that I'm drawn to close third.

    I love the idea for the writing exercise. I might have to try that one at home just so I can get a feel for the differences between the point of views. So cool! Thanks for the idea!

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    1. Thanks, and thanks for coming by! If both POVs seem like good choices, then I'd say go with the one you're drawn to, because that's definitely important, too.

      My pleasure! So glad it could help!

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  26. POV is a great tool to help writers tell the story in the best way possible. But it's an invisible tool. I've read books where the author put more emphasis into the pov than into the plot. When the POV gets in the way of the story, it's not working well.

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    1. Sure - like anything else, it should be invisible :) That's the strange part about writing; if it works, we shouldn't even notice it at all.

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  27. What a great idea to start out bu rewriting a scene in the different POVs to find out really what works best.

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  28. I prefer 1st present, but I've also done 1st past and also 3rd. It depends on the story, but I love how a story can be told in so many different ways.

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  29. I'm the opposite! I love first person, but I'm struggling to try on third for a new WIP. Hopefully we'll both broaden our horizons! :D

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  30. Good stuff, Liz. I still struggle with head-hopping sometimes, and I see famous authors like King get away with it. My editors never let me.

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    1. I know, sigh. Some day maybe we'll be able to get away with it...

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