Point of View in Fiction

Another companion post to the Ten Home Truths of Starting in Self-publishing, this one on point 3: Make sure you can write.

I see a lot of self-published fiction or unpublished fiction as submissions in the slush. When looking at first chapters, there are a number of problems which stand out as needing attention, before I’ll consider downloading the rest of the book. I want to say a few things about Point of View (POV), because one of the things that mark a book that’s not ready for publication is a poor handle on the point of view.

Why is this important? In the past, a lot of fiction was written in omniscient style, where the book was told through the eyes of a god-like narrator. Even today, you will occasionally find an established author who “hops heads”, in other words, the POV is not tightly attached to one particular character.

Why can this be a problem?

The most important reason is that it’s confusing. Because most novels these days don’t use god-like narrators, readers are used to seeing each scene (or even the entire book) through the eyes of a character. They become used to that character’s quirks and personality. Moreover, they want to see the book through a character’s eyes, because character is considered to be an important element of the story. The character is more than a narrator or a pair of eyes. The character interacts with the story.

When you’re in a character’s head, you don’t know what the other characters are thinking. They may be doing things your character doesn’t understand, but the moment you move out of your character’s head, you break the reader’s intimate connnection with your character.

Maybe, too, there is a third person in the scene, and you’d like to explain what they’re thinking, too.

After you’ve head-hopped a few times, the reader gets confused. Not so much about the content of the story, but about whose story you’re telling. See, while you’re in a character’s head, the story belongs to this character. The character has something at stake or wants something. The character has backstory. We feel sympathy or interest for the character. When you break the POV, the story no longer belongs to the character.

There are a few other issues with head-hopping:

The story runs the risk of becoming too explain-y and exposition-heavy if there are three characters in the scene and you have to explain what they’re all thinking.

Covering what the other person thinks reduces tension. The tension is upheld because we don’t know what the bad guy wants. Your protagist can guess, but not look into the bad guy’s head. So, when the two have a discussion, you’re going to spoil the tension by telling the reader what the bad guy thinks. That’s poor storyteling technique.

“Don’t hop heads within a scene” is not a rule to follow off a cliff. It is a principle to understand, and if you understand it, you won’t hop heads, because your storytelling skills will be better. You will also understand that there are situations (mainly in old-style narration or fairytales) that hopping heads is the convention, but that the audience for these is very limited.

2 comments on “Point of View in Fiction

  1. Pingback: Friday Features #30 - yesenia vargas

  2. Expositionb-heavy omniscient narration is my one true way to go, and I will not be deterred from writing in precisely this way by any of your manipulative commandments.

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