Keith MacKenzie 26 letters. A million and more words. No limit to stories.

The art of the point-of-view

One topic that seems to come up regularly in my writers’ group is – and I’m just as guilty of it as anyone – the shift of point-of-view in telling in a story.

Example?

Joe looked at Sarah and thought she looked absolutely dynamite. His heart felt like it was being squeezed in a vice as he considered asking her out.

To Joe’s dismay, every time he thought he came close to eye contact with Sarah’s icy grey eyes, she would away. It was too obvious to Sarah what Joe was thinking, and she didn’t want to be asked out by this creep.

Joe took a deep breath, thought of a clever pick-up line he’d seen Joey deliver on the TV show Friends, and approached Sarah.

On the surface, that looks pretty clear. Joe’s harbouring a secret crush on Sarah and in the meantime Sarah thinks he’s some bizarre nut who’s creeping her out.

But there’s a problem here. The shift in point-of-view – or POV – is pretty stark here. First, we’re in Joe’s head, hearing his thoughts, and then suddenly, we’re in Sarah’s head – in the same paragraph, no less – and then we end up back in Joe’s head in the final paragraph. That can break the flow of prose.

Readers are only going to get emotionally involved in your story if they care about the character. And one of the best ways to get them to care is to put them in the head of the character and hear his thoughts. If you write a chapter where the POV shifts between three or four characters over the span of ten pages, your readers are going to get the feeling they’re at a shallow cocktail party where they’re unable to get to know anyone because they’re talking to a different person every three minutes. I know what that’s like, and you probably do, too.

If you want your readers to care about your character, you give them the opportunity to curl up on the couch or in bed with your book and your character, getting to know them inside and out. That means keeping the POV consistent throughout an entire chapter, if not the entire story.

Let’s try it again:

Joe looked at Sarah and thought she looked absolutely dynamite. His heart felt like it was being squeezed in a vice as he considered asking her out.

To Joe’s dismay, every time he thought he came close to eye contact with Sarah’s icy grey eyes, she would away. He wondered if she even knew he existed. And if she did, he hoped she was just being shy, and didn’t think he was just some creep.

Joe took a deep breath, thought of a clever pick-up line he’d seen Joey deliver on the TV show Friends, and approached Sarah.

Now, we’re just in Joe’s head. We’re rooting for Joe. We want him to get laid, or at least, go on a hot date with this dynamite woman. We don’t know what Sarah’s thinking, because we’re with Joe here. We’re in his shoes and we know how he feels. We’re hoping everything will turn out for him.

All other POV arguments aside, this is the best one: You can build suspense much more readily if you stay with one character throughout the entire chapter. We see the world through his eyes, and only his eyes.

And if you wanted to, you could do what Martin Amis did in Success. In it, there were two or three different characters, and he shifted the POV back and forth between them, even retelling the same situation from another character’s point of view. It was fascinating to see how differently the story played out through another person’s eyes.

Try it. Tell a story through only one character’s eyes. And then write it again from another character’s POV. And then, again, the exact same story, from the dog’s point of view. It’s great practice for writing, but it’s also good sense to give the reader a chance to latch onto one character and go with him for a ride.

 

Copyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Keith MacKenzie

About

Four books in the fire. Dozens of short stories fluttering about. Mission: To get the word out.

Your email is never shared.
Required fields are marked *