Monday, July 5, 2010

Avoiding point of view mistakes

When an author maintains a consistent point of view (POV), readers follow the story more easily. But it's easy for authors to slip out of POV; you'll find POV mistakes even in books by experienced writers.

A general guideline, one that I follow, is that each scene should have only one POV. That is, each scene should show the thoughts, emotions, and sensations of one character only, and those thoughts, emotions, and sensations should be reasonable for that character.

Following are some common types of POV mistakes, followed by an explanation of each. Christine is the POV character in each sentence.

1. Before climbing into the convertible, Christine put her luxurious, silky black hair into a ponytail.

Christine already knows what her hair looks like, so there's no reason for her to think about its color or beauty at this moment. The author needs to find a more natural way to reveal Christine's hair color.

2. Christine heard a click on the other end of the phone. How dare her father hang up on her! Her face reddened.

Christine can't view herself unless she's looking in a mirror. She may feel her face getting hot, but she can't see it. The fix here is easy; the author should reveal what Christine feels like rather than what she looks like.

3. Christine slipped on the black patent leather stilettos and teetered over to the shoe store's mirror. She looked fantastic, and the shoes were a great bargain. She pulled at the beads in her her bracelet. Was looking fantastic worth the risk of falling and breaking her ankle? John looked at his watch and wondered how much longer she would take to decide.

Christine can't know John's thoughts, only her own. The author can reveal John's impatience without shifting into his POV. He can look at his watch, frown, shift around on the shoe store bench, or speak brusquely, for example.

4. Later, Christine would be glad she had missed the bus. But now, as she watched the #22 South Broad rumble away, she thought only of how long she would have to stand in the rain before the next one arrived.

Christine can know only her present and past. The comment about her future is the author's thought, not Christine's. I would find this example less objectionable if it occurred in a story in first person. First person POV gives the feel of someone telling the reader about events that have already happened. The narrator can more easily jump forward in the narrative without leaving the past. Still, I think "if only she (or I) had known that..." sentences are better avoided. They don't advance the plot, and they pull the reader out of the story.

5. Christine turned the pages of the photo album. In every picture, her two-year-old self gazed somberly at the camera, while her soon-to-be-dead mother smiled broadly, giving no hint that just a few minutes earlier, when they had been alone in the nursery, she had soaked Christine's dress with her tears.

Christine was too young to remember this event. Either other people need to have been in the nursery and told Christine about it later, or the author must leave Christine to wonder about the spots on her dress and her mother's glistening eyes.

Have I missed any of your pet peeve POV problems? Feel free to provide an example in the comments.

The Novel Spaces blog now has permanent spots for its writers. Starting with this post, my posts will routinely appear on the 5th and 21st of each month. Thanks for visiting, and please come back on 21 July.

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

Great examples. I hadn't thought of some of these because the POV shifts are very subtle. I'm almost afraid to look at my stories again now.

Terence Taylor said...

Sweet! A great reminder for even the most experienced of writers. It's easy to lose track of what you're saying and who is saying it in the heat of writing, and this is a great filter to apply in the editing process.

I prefer for the most part to write in a subjective POV, will sometimes slip from omniscient third to subjective, but usually have to slap my wrist and lose a fun or precious turn of phrase -- occasionally one must murder one's darlings, as a noted author one said... ;)

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, some of these are really tricky. One could imagine situations in which they wouldn't be POV shifts: "Camille shoved her mousy brown hair behind her ear. Why, oh why, couldn't she have inherited Mom's copper red curls?"

TERENCE, I'm glad you found something of use here.

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, an even more subtle POV shift from a sentence I wrote this afternoon:

"Melpomene {a cat] accepted some cheese from my hand and then wandered off to forage for something better."

The narrator cannot possibly know the cat's motivation for wandering off, so this is a brief shift to the cat's POV.