Thursday, 28 April 2016

Ink Tips: Different Depths of Point of View

There was an excellent article circulating a few weeks ago about how write in deep point of view.  It's become a popular choice for novels over the last ten years and certainly provides a more intensive and immersive experience for a reader.  But is it necessarily the right choice all the time?

When an author chooses to write a story, he or she has several choices.  There are generally accepted to be four points of view used by writers:

Objective point of view: This is the perspective of the movie camera.  The writer never dips into the characters' heads or internal experiences.  Everything must be interpreted by facial expression, dialogue and actions.  (Eg: She lifted the cup to her lips and sipped lightly.  "You've travelled a long way for what can only be a disappointment.")

Third and First Person points of view: Both of these require a narrator.  In first person (an "I" story), the narrator is the main character.  (Eg: My heart was pounding as I ran, the paper-dry leaves clinging to my bare feet.)  In third person (he/she stories), the narrator is outside the character but is able to present what is happening internally.  (Eg: She worried that her children would never forgive her for what she was about to do.)

Limited Omniscient: The story or scene is told from the perspective and experience of a single character.  We don't find out what all the characters in the scene are thinking or sensing.  We cannot find out information which that character does not know or cannot observe.  (Eg: He stared at her, at the beads of sweat collecting at her temples and the trembling of her hands.  He bit back a curse.  He hadn't meant to frighten her.)

Omniscient: The story or scene is told from multiple perspectives, often called "head-hopping".  (Eg: He drew her hand to his lips, savoring the sweetness of her skin against his lips.  She could feel her heartbeat pounding through every vein, high on the adrenaline rush of having fooled them all.)

Most stories use a combination of the different approaches, although one will tend to predominate.  A scene which focuses on a single character might include an offhand reference to another.  For example, the scene might be in Celina's perspective, but she observes someone whose "lips clenched in determination" during an interaction.  Technically, Celina can't know why the other person's lips have clenched.  She can only guess or interpret, not know. 

This is where deep point of view comes in.  In deep point of view, we only experience the story through one character (or at least, one character at a time).  This can be a very intimate experience, letting the reader effectively live in the character's head, but it does have some limitations. 

The author cannot bring attention to something the character is unaware of (Eg, "he'd forgotten that he was supposed to pick up milk" or knowing that a trick or deception is occurring.)  This can make it more difficult to maintain tension.  If the reader doesn't know that a character is walking into a trap, there is no build up of anticipation before the trap shuts.

Deep point of view can also cause trouble during scenes with intense action.  A character in the midst of a fight or riot or other chaos cannot be aware of all that is happening around him or her.  It can also get quite confusing and frustrating for a reader to figure out what is happening.  A little chaotic perspective can be good in setting mood or emotional reactions, but too much becomes a jumbled page-skipping muddle.

A final challenge for deep point of view is clumsy narration.  Sometimes there are plot points which require additional information which the point of view character could not plausibly know.  Often writers solve this by adding scenes from a different point of view character, which can slow the pacing of a story.  Another issue is describing other characters, such as the example above where Celina cannot know that her companion is clenching their lips in determination.  Substituting "Celina guessed the woman was determined from the clenching of her lips" can also slow pacing and feel artificial.

There are solutions to all these challenges and when deep point of view is done correctly, it is a very intense experience.  Even if a writer chooses not to use deep point of view consistently, I would recommend it for scenes of strong emotional impact.  It will enhance the emotional depth and draw the reader in.

The key to a great story is not to always do A, B and C, but to know and understand what writing tools will create the effect an author is looking for.

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