Monday, May 30, 2011

Writing POV - or Please Avoid Writing Like I'm a Movie-Goer

Most everyone loves movies. A great many of us love books. A smaller, but still significant, number of us love writing books. Not surprisingly, there is considerable overlap in the three categories. Many who read like movies, too, and I’d bet that the majority of those who write like both books and films.

Both books and movies offer different things, and each do certain things better. While I’m not going to list all of the examples, I think it’s important, for this discussion anyway, to note that movies do third person point of view very well, and books do first person point of view very well.

That’s because in movies, vision constitutes your primary source for the intake of sensory data (with hearing a close second). In other words, you’re meant to feel like you’re watching real things happen, like you do in real life. You witness interactions, other people’s lives, all the time, and movies mimic that experience to capture your attention, and your emotions.

Books, on the other hand, most often place readers in actors’ heads. Instead of actually seeing, or hearing, the action, the reader has to imagine it. It takes more work in that way than a movie does, but it also offers, I’d argue, a bigger reward. In any book, the reader gets to live the life, and not just witness it. They get to see inside – learn what the character learns as they learn it – and feel what they feel. And that means that, in a well-written book, the connection to the point-of-view ("POV") characters is more than intimate: it’s deep and lasting, and very similar to the way you feel about your own experiences.

Think about your favorite book. And now your favorite movie. You have profound feelings of attachment for both, but the experience you’ve had with them is very different, and thus so are those feelings. You don’t imagine you’re Captain Picard, right? No – of course not. And you never did. But you did, I’ll wager, imagine yourself as Laura Ingalls, or Jo March when you lay awake with Little Women propped open over your head.

Okay. Great, you say. Thanks so much for sharing your insight. But what, you wonder, does all this have to do with writing?

Well, a lot.

Lately, at least in the books and manuscripts I’ve been reading, a great many writers are getting these two styles mixed up. In their stories, often within the same scene, they switch from what I am going to call "first-person POV" (a point of view in which the reader discerns nothing the POV character doesn't) to what I am going to term "third person" (and which I will further delineate “movie goer” point of view, a POV in which the reader is positioned in a bystanding, outside position and forced to view the character from the outside), and sometimes they even switch back and forth. 

(Note: I do understand that these titles are a bit arbitrary, but bear with me here. And if you're a stickler for titles, find the real names for various POVs here.)

Before I give you some examples, let me explain why this matters.

A writer’s primary goal, in my experience, is to connect with readers. You do that differently in each genre. In movies, overall anyway, you simply can’t get inside a character’s head. You can’t live the life of a POV character. And so movies don’t tend to try. Instead, they lure viewers in by leaving an open seat at the table, both metaphorically and literally, and then the producer inserts the camera in there. Ta da! The viewer is now a member of the senior staff, or the character's friend, a member of the in-group, or whatever. The viewer then connects – attaches – as an intimate - as a group member. Loyalty and other emotions flow from that connection, and then a fan is born.

In books, a skilled writer shoves the reader into the POV character’s head from page one and then drags both character and reader through an emotional obstacle course via various means, including action, loss, fear, and so on. Through living through the emotional quagmire, the reader then connects to the character, often quite deeply. (How many nights have you stayed up just to finish a book?)

Okay. Point made, I think. The problem with third person, movie-goer POV is that when the scene leaves the POV character’s head, it leaves the reader’s, too. That means the connection is broken. It’s hard to reestablish, too, because the authenticity of the experience is lost. After being forced out of someone’s head, even when I’m later let back in, a film of distrust coats my fingers. I no longer “buy” it. Any real connection I had is lost. I can look inside a head, but I no longer believe, much less live it.

And that means that when – if – I finish this book, I’m done. I won’t think about it anymore, and when the next one comes out, I’ll skip it.

If you’re a writer who’s done this, and you aren’t in red alert right now, you need to stop right here, go back to the top, and read this entire post again.

And now let me give you some examples:

First, and for clarification, this is third person (“movie goer”) point of view:
The sky rumbled. Wisps of granite slid gauzed fingers over the horizon. Cait lifted her head and glared back, as if warning the recalcitrant storm that she was ready to be reckoned with.

That paints a picture – yes – but you have utterly no emotional connection to Cait, and likely very little desire to read further. (Again: this works in movies, but is less effective in writing.*)

And this is first person point of view:

It hurt. Maybe I breathed in too much air. A hand lifted, her hand, almost of its own accord, and pressed numbed fingers into the hollow between her breasts.

This also paints a picture, but it’s from inside. Did you feel it, or start to? Do you wonder? If so, that’s because first person works for writing.

Now, if we combine the two:
Her fingers stroked the cat, back and forth, as she stared at the document tacked to the table. Fingers in fur so that Buck wouldn’t see her fingers shake. She took a deep breath and lifted her chin, but couldn’t make her eyes leave the paper.

Her shoulders lifted, too, creasing the jacket as it wrapped her back. One lip curled defiantly as she prepared to speak, and the men passed a glance over her head. 

Now read that again. If it isn’t obvious, I’ll tell you. The entire first paragraph is in first person, and the second paragraph (although arguably just the last sentence) is in third person. The POV character can’t see what happens over her head – above her eyes. You know that – it’s a dissonance – and a part of you disconnected at the moment your brain understood.

(If you want more examples, please let me know. I created these myself, and will be pleased to create more.)

But here’s the deal: if you’re a writer who's doing this - slipping into movie-goer POV from time to time - and you like the idea of having return readers, you need to stop. Please. For your sake, for their sake, and for mine. Go to the movies or spend a Sunday enjoying your TNG seasons, or read your books, or write. Don’t mix them up though. K?

Okay. Point made. I’m done.

[*Allow me to add that I do know that third person POV is an accepted, authentic tool, and that in the right hands it is sometimes the best one for painting scenes {see, e.g., Kate Elliott}. It requires a great deal of skill to wield effectively, however, and it’s sometimes {often} used by lazy writers who can’t bother to lay what they want seen out through POV characters. If you use it, use it all the way through your scene. Don’t switch POVs in a scene. Don’t do it. Write this 100 times before using this 3rd person, movie-goer POV: I will not change POVs inside a scene. Changing POVs in a scene kills your connection to the reader every single time.]



  2. I'd say that in the combo example there at the end, your first paragraph is in third-person tight and the second paragraph is in third-person omnicient. I agree that folks should avoid third-person omnicient, which I think is what you're calling movie-goer POV. However, I hate reading true first-person ("I" all over the bleeding place) almost as much as I hate reading poorly done omnicient. Noobs like me just need to work on our craft a bit more, I think, instead of resorting to first-person, which seems like the easy way out.

  3. Thanks for pointing out that I failed to clarify the titles I chose. You're right, and I have fixed that.

    I can't agree that writing in first person is easier than what you're calling "3rd P tight," however. It depends. The tug, I think, is that the author wants the reader to see the same scene as they are seeing, and not the scene as the POV character sees it. Whether you use true 1st person or 3rd P tight, you can't see everything, and that's why this happens. It's a lazy, annoying way to write, and in my experience is just doesn't work.

    I am not saying there aren't problems with any style, or potential pitfalls. This is just my latest gripe. ;-p

  4. As someone guilty of 'movie goer POV' (I love that 'title')I think the main sin is not sticking to it if you choose to use it(although I think perhaps at the start you shouldn't use it at all and avoid the whole problem). My tendency is to start an opening scene with it and then slide into my character's head, and I'm trying hard not to do it any more! Also the switching of POV within a 'scene' - again, something I'm working hard on resisting. Maybe I should be writing film scripts instead?
    Speaking as a new writer, I think it is difficult to be aware of some of the 'rules' on writing and it takes flaws that like being pointed out to realise you're doing it. I wish I'd learned about POV earlier in my writing because it's hell to fix it afterwards.
    Thanks for your post. :)

  5. I agree completely with your discussion of mixing up the description and the first-person insight. I also agree it's a *huge* no-no to skip from one person's POV to another's, even if the other's POV is the third-person omniscient. Always stick with one POV per scene and frame everything from their perspective, preferably in their words and with a spin unique to them.

  6. Pip, I agree with you, but please don't think any part of this was directed at you. I just finished a book - a published book!!! - where the author did this back and forth thing. Repeatedly. It made me insane!

    I'm a new writer, too, at least of fiction, and I make my share of mistakes. This is one, however, that annoys the heck out of me because when I'm reading, I WANT to connect to the character. Third person (3d person omniscient) doesn't do it - well, almost never. I think it takes a very great skill to wield this POV well. I've read a lot of books where it was clumsily used, and it makes me grimace every time.

    Thanks, Les, and agreed. It's important to personalize every POV.

  7. Oh, I never took it personally, but I KNOW that I do it. :)

  8. Your mistakes are tiny, Pip. Tinier than mine. lol.

  9. Hi Lauri, just discovered your blog and love this post. Seems to be the thread of the day for me as another blog was talking about POV and connection with the reader. I think Intimacy Between Character and Reader and Urgency of Need to Act and Change need to be plastered in front of my screen so I don't forget.