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.]

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Six Sentence Sunday #12

Welcome to this week’s Six Sentence Sunday post! (Visit the other fab writers here.) I continue to post from Blowing Embers, the second chapter in The Embers Series, a paranormal romance/epic fantasy, which will be released in July.

Today’s snip starts a smidge after where we left off last time. (If you’d like to refresh your memory, the prior six is posted here.

He had to feel helpless. Did she have the heart to deny him the only way he could think of to try to feel safe? And a way that might well help him survive when the attack came?

His eyes watched her face, trying to follow the trickle her thoughts made.
“Let me think about it, Alex,” she finally said, and rose from the couch. “Go and have your dinner, and tell Laszlo that I’ll be down as soon as I change.”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Food Stamps, Newt Gingrich, and Street Chairs

Food stamps. Recession. Job loss.

In 2008 alone, 2.6 million Americans lost their jobs (see here) – the highest level in more than six decades -  because big business made a series of very bad business decisions, fundamentally including lending decisions, then lied about it, tried to hide it, sold those loans to others, who, in turn, tried to push them off onto unsuspecting others as soon as they discovered how bad they were. It’s so unethical, so insane, that it’s almost funny, really, when you think about it.

Well, it’s funny until you remember how many people lost their jobs, which means, of course, that they also lost their health insurance, and many then went on to lose their cars, and some lost their homes.  

And um – this isn't small time. Millions lost their jobs.

In fact, this has been the worst financial period in US history since the great Depression of the 1920s. (See this and this.)

Big business has made great strides to recover, and many made record profits over the last year or so.

Oh – wait. “Recover” is probably the wrong word here. “Recover” implies a rising from a lower place. A pulling onself up by the proverbial bootstraps. But that – um – isn’t where big business was. Not ever. No; instead, when it perched atop a precipice, when it had no more toys to throw over the edge, it squalled like a little behbeh. And Mama – er – the US government – came running, picked it up, and held it tight to her teat until the crisis was over. (Translation: paid all its debts.)

But still they cried. They cried because their portfolios shrunk and their credit ratings slipped. They squalled as the words "oversight" and "regulation" were spoken. I don't know if they cried when they laid off hundreds of thousands, then millions, who undoubtedly cried -- cried when they lost their health insurance, their cars, their homes. Oh – and their ability to buy food.

In case I’ve moved too fast here, or jumped ahead too quickly, let me slow down and lay it out a tad more simply:

Food is that stuff you get at the store. That stuff you eat. 

It costs money.

Money comes from that plastic card (and if you don’t use it, they won’t put your chips and beer in the bag and let you leave), but you have to recharge that card (think batteries here) or else it stops working. Instead of plugging it in, the way to recharge it is to have your employer deposit your paycheck into your bank account.

Whoops! No job? Well, Houston, we do have a problem.

What one in seven people (see this) -- the ones without jobs -- have had to go ask for government assistance for food. That's the "food stamps" thing. (They call them "food stamps" because they used to be sort of like giant coupons, but I digress.) It’s like – go get food stamps or go without. Get government assistance or starve. Make sense? And food is like – um – not like, I mean – the Wii. You really :do: have to have it, or you get sick and stuff. And die.

Right. Okay.

So I’ve digressed again. Sorry. Let me get back to big business and their record profits. Let me add to that that they have not spent any of that money on the US – not on workers, not on taxes to help those they put out of work – nor have they hired workers back.

They’re pocketing that money.

And millions are still out of work.

Okay. So we’ve got like all these people not working, and needing food, and so the government is helping them, because that’s what civilized countries do. They bail out big companies, and that costs like kazillions, and then it helps the victims – er – unemployed – eat, and that costs like millions. (Which, like, helps explain the big debt right now.)

And so the food is going to to the people big business fired. So - it's like a lot of food stamps because there's like a lot of unemployed people.

And the businesses still don't pay taxes, and no one forces (or evens ASKS!) them to rehire the people they fired, and they don't do jack diddly shit to repair any part of the big mess they've made. Nada. [And if you think raising taxes drives business out, that's propaganda I hope you'll explore the truth of on your own. Or hit me up if you're non-net savvy.]

And so I have to say this. I mean – I HAVE to.

Have you heard what Newt Gingrich said? That President Obama is like the Food Stamp President? Um – yeah, sure. It may well be racist.
But let's put that part aside for now.

HELLO! Is Newt Gingrich really that stupid!?! Is what I have said here really that deep, or difficult to ascertain, or understand? How can anyone cast disparaging remarks about food stamps at a time like this?

I am shaking my head. Sure – half of this is sarcastic, and half is sort of a horrified amusement. But really – really! REALLY?!?

Hey – some of my best friends are Republicans. But you know what? I would be ashamed –appalled – if a spokesperson for my party made comments like this at a time like this.

Someone – please – get that man a chair. And then push it outside.

Chairs. Streets. Screeching brakes.

Or not.