Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Many Faces of POV

Still sick and currently coughing quite a bit, so I'm building on one of my recent attempts at comments on another blog that got eaten somewhere and didn't post. (Which happens fairly often.) And this issue is something I see often as an editor, too.

Mike Duran's blog is kind of like mine—or, more accurately, mine's kinda like his, because his predates mine. Three or so times a week, he posts about everything from random thoughts about writing, news about his publications, and thoughts on theology. He's a Christian speculative fiction author, on the horror end of things.

Now that I've introduced him, he just wrote a post mentioning shallow vs. deep POV. Evidently, he'd been taught that deep POV (a.k.a. close narrative distance) was the right way, and he'd just now learned that shallow POV (a.k.a. far narrative distance) was okay, too.

He's terming it having to "unlearn" what he learned early on as a writer.

But in doing so, he's missing the point of why he was taught to write in "deep" POV to begin with:

Deep POV is the easiest to get right.

It's common for new writers to struggle with POV. Shallow POV, much like omniscient POV, is easy to screw up, and if I had a dollar for every writer I've encountered who was convinced that they were writing proper POV when they weren't… Well. I think you get my gist. ^_^

Fact is, shallow and deep POV are both tools, like showing vs. telling. Some situations and stories need more of one or the other. For example, "deep" POV still needs enough "shallow" observations of the world outside the narrator for it to make sense (although a person doesn't necessarily have those transitions when they look at reality), and "shallow" POV needs enough "deep" character motivation and thought in there for the reader to make sense (although the POV theoretically just skims the surface of the POV's perceptions).

But it can take a strong familiarity with words and how they work to identify the differences between shallow third person, omniscient POV, and head-hopping. New writers usually lack that. So they get told to write the "right" way (because it's right for them until they comprehend what they're doing)…which is where the misconception that other ways are wrong comes in. Because some folks forget to put those qualifiers on there, and then writers get to thinking that other POVs and styles are actually wrong.

No, not wrong. Just a lot more difficult to pull off than they look.

My mother is a cake decorator. I've dabbled just enough to know I don't enjoy it, myself, but I understand how it works. Rolled fondant makes cakes look so smooth and simple, and gum paste flowers are the cleanest, with the best lines. But you can't use fondant without first knowing how to use frosting, and it's best to know how to work with fondant before you start playing with gum paste.

I can look at a cake photo and guess how it was done, how difficult it was, etc. Some of the simplest-looking cakes are the most time-consuming and tedious, if not downright difficult. And some of the most difficult-looking cakes are the easiest. (And it's kinda sad when I can look at a professional bakery's cake photo and can immediately say what they did wrong. Granted, my mother does sometimes show me a pic and ask "What do you see?", so she has trained me to notice…)

But to continue the cake analogy, beginner (frosting) —> intermediate (fondant) —> advanced —> (gum paste, airbrushing, etc.).

POV is the same way. Beginner ("deep" POV) —> intermediate ("shallow" POV) —> advanced (omniscient).

Might someone jump around on the steps? Sure. But most newer writers find themselves failing miserably when they try…and some readers are trained just enough at writing to crow "Head-hopping! She doesn't know how to write!" And when folks think that, they tend to crow loudly.

It's completely possible to mix POV distance in a book—even in a scene. It's also possible (and I'd say likely) for the author to do that by "feel" or by "ear" rather than intentionally setting out to make a particular line or paragraph or scene a particular distance.

"Head-hopping" is when you mess up POV.

Unfortunately, as with the other rules of thumb that are taught to new writers as "rules" without the qualifier, any change in POV can be mistakenly seen as a head-hop, just as some people think every "to be" verb (is, are, was, were, etc.) indicates passive voice*.

*Hint: It doesn't. There are two sentence styles and a few verb tenses that require "to be" verbs, in English, and only one of those styles is passive voice. For example, the "is" in the previous sentence? Not passive voice. It's a linking verb.

The key is to understand how different POV and narrative distance affect a story. That understanding will likely be subconscious long before a writer is aware of it consciously, and I personally believe that it works better when a writer lets it flow naturally, by "ear".

Example: A Fistful of Fire is fairly distant, because the narrator is emotionally distant. But I first wrote it before I even knew what narrative distance was.

Outside of narrative distance and narrator omniscience or lack thereof, POV can be third person, first person, second person—any of it. (Though second person admittedly isn't very popular in English, except for directions and recipes. I have a second person short story in my "PRIMpriety" bundle, though.)

The person used affects the way a story comes across. The verb tense used affects the way the story comes across. And the narrative distance affects the way the story comes across.

As an experiment, I've dabbled at converting A Fistful of Fire to third person, past tense. It's fascinating to see how just the change in person and tense can completely change the tone.

Some people—readers, writers—refuse to believe that POV choices affect how a story comes across. That's one reason I suspect I'll someday convert the entire Chronicles of Marsdenfel to third person, past tense, so I can be a case in point. Because I'm stubborn like that.

POV has many faces, many forms, and not one of them is necessarily wrong. They can just be used wrongly or badly.

And that distinction is where some writers and writing instructors get confused.

Do you have any thoughts to share on POV, narrative distance, verb tense, or preferences in or implications of any of the bove?


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