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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Demystifying Point of View

Please welcome guest blogger Melissa Mayhue

I thought… you thought… he thought… they thought… Which one is correct? It all depends on your Point of View!

One important facet of writing a story that captures the reader’s imagination involves framing that story within the proper point of view. So, how does a beginning writer discover the proper point of view for a story? There’s no big mystery to it – Simply think like a child and follow the rules.

Think like a child

I like to think of point of view in terms of one very simple question: Who am I now? Remember playing pretend? House? Dolls? Dress-ups? Those games from childhood were limited only by our imaginations. You picked a character to be [the mom, Barbie, a Princess, a spy] and you became that character. It’s the same thing when you’re trying to stay in the proper point of view in your writing. Set your imagination free – BE the character you are writing. Get in that person’s head and view the action through their eyes. Not only is that the key to effectively putting into words what your character is thinking and feeling, it’s also the key to immersing your reader into the action.

How do you choose whose eyes to look through? That depends on what you want your reader to get out of that particular scene. If, for example, you want them to understand why your heroine behaves the way she does, put them inside her head, thinking her thoughts, feeling her feelings.

Follow the Rules

If you plug “rules for writing point of view” into Google, you’ll get approximately 76,100,000 results. Obviously, there are as many rules for how to use point of view effectively in your writing as there are people giving advice on how to write. There’s no way anyone’s writing can meet all those standards so, what this means to you is that you need to decide which rules are important for your writing. I have my own short list and I’ll share those with you, with the reminder that these are simply the ones that work for me. They’re not THE rules, they’re only MY rules.

Rule One: Everything that happens in the context of point of view has to make sense to the reader. It needs to be seamless. Invisible. Why? Because anything else pulls the reader out of the story. If my reader has to stop and re-read a section to determine which character had that thought or to question how that character could have known what happened in the last chapter when they weren’t even in that scene, I’ve broken the rhythm of the story. Rhythm-breaking is bad. My goal as storyteller is to keep my reader immersed, flowing with the rhythm of the words from Page One right up to The End.

Rule Two: Pick a point of view that fits your story and your writing style.

First Person - Story is told from the point of view of the narrator using “I” or “we.” Going back to my Who am I question, I am the one telling the story. Everything is happening to or around me and the story is expressed in terms of what I experience and my perception of that experience. This POV can be limiting to use in that I can only share with the reader what I as the character see, feel, hear, sense, and know.

In spite of its inherent limitations, this particular type of POV can be very effective. It’s more frequently seen in urban fantasy than in romance, but it’s even found a home in such classics as Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

Second Person - Story is told about “you” and your experiences. This is the least often used POV in any type of fiction. Though I did find one example to share with you [Robbin’s Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas], I have not seen it used in the romance genre -- which is not to say it hasn’t been used or that it can’t be used, it’s just that I can’t imagine ever using it in my writing.

Third Person - This is the most commonly utilized POV for fiction and for romance in particular. It uses “he,” “she,” “it,” or “they” to express point of view. Third Person is broken into two sub-categories – omniscient and limited.

Omniscient is written from the view point of an all-knowing, all-seeing narrator and isn’t often used in the romance genre. Limited – the most frequently seen in romance – gives an author the flexibility to be any character at a given time, sharing with the reader whatever that particular character experiences. The biggest danger in using limited third person POV is the tendency to head hop, a situation where the writer slips from one character’s thoughts to another’s and back again.

Rule Three: Once you’ve picked a style and character, stick with it. No head hopping allowed! If the character whose eyes you are looking through can’t see or hear or feel it, your reader can’t either. Are there authors who don’t adhere to this rule? You bet there are and some of them are very successful. But, remember, these are MY rules and since I don’t like head hopping as a reader, I avoid it as a writer.

Rule Four: Don’t be afraid to change which character you are if it will make the story better for your reader. This doesn’t mean you’re free to break Rule Three! This means you either make a clean break within the scene so that it’s clear you’ve taken the reader into a new character’s head or you begin a new scene to switch to another character. Maybe the reader needs to spend a couple of pages in the villain’s head to understand just how evil he really is. Perhaps a secondary character’s point of view could give more clarity to the story. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t limit your story.

Rule Four.One: Every character in your book does NOT need point of view time. Be selective.

Rule Five: No more than one point of view change per chapter. Why? Because it seems confusing to me as a reader so I avoid it as a writer. If I need to change more than once, I probably chose the wrong character’s head to be in to begin with.
How does the process of thinking like a child and following the rules translate into actual writing? For me, it looks like this:

I write in limited third person point of view. Once I choose my character for a scene, as far as I’m concerned, I AM that character. I’m in their head, seeing what they see, hearing what they hear, feeling what they feel. If that character can’t in some way experience something, I can’t write it. As that character, I can’t see myself, so I can’t ever describe my own expressions, just as I can’t describe what another character is feeling.

If I reach a point where I feel it’s absolutely imperative to the progression of a scene to share what another character is thinking or feeling, I have some new choices to make. Is it time for a scene break – to become someone else for the remainder of the scene to view the situation through their eyes? Or maybe I chose the wrong character to begin with and I need to start from the beginning of the scene in a different character’s head.

Point of view is only one piece of the craft of writing. An incredibly important piece, granted, but certainly nothing mysterious or difficult. Simply get into character by using your imagination, follow the rules that fit your writing style and you’ll see how easy it can be!

What about you? Do you have any tips or tricks you’d like to share that help you maintain point of view consistency in your writing?

MELISSA MAYHUE writes award-winning paranormal romance for Pocket Books, all set in an imaginary world of Faeries and Mortals. Her seventh book, HEALING THE HIGHLANDER hits stores on February 22 and her eighth, HIGHLANDER’S CURSE, is available on March 29, 2011.

You can visit her on the web at: www.MelissaMayhue.com or come Twitter with her at www.Twitter.com/MelissaMayhue


Andrew MacAlister longs for a cure to free him from the excruciating pain caused by an old wound, but when he rescues a drowning woman, he has no idea how much his life is about to change. All Drew knows is that this mysterious woman is hiding secrets — and that he’s never felt such a consuming desire before. Yet he cannot deny her request for help, even if it means bringing the detested English army to his Highland clan’s home.

Leah Noble McQuarrie still harbors a deep hatred of the Fae who tortured her eleven years ago, forcing her to escape back in time to the thirteenth century. A descendant of the Fae, Leah denies her heritage and her magical healing abilities. But the English army is holding her beloved adoptive grandfather captive, so Leah must seek help from the Fae — and the captivating man whose touch she craves.

Then Drew discovers Leah’s secrets, and he’s torn between old loyalties and trusting a woman who has the power to give him the future he’s sought — but could destroy his clan forever. . . .


Anonymous said...

Great post. I'm a huge fan of first person POV. It really lets me get into the character on a deeper level. I like limited third person as well. But not too many characters. When there are more than two or three POVs, I start getting confused and distracted.

Loved this post. You explain the POVs very well.

Melissa Mayhue said...

Thanks, Lynn! I always thought it would be fun someday to give first person a try, but it would definitely be moving out of my realm of comfort.

KrisseeV said...

Great post. I love it when writers can hit such a deep 3rd person POV that when the reader is through with it they can't remember if it was written in 1st or 3rd. My only hang up is doing this with multiple people in one book. Impossible right? But hey it's a noble goal worth aiming for.

Melissa Mayhue said...

Not impossible, Krissee...just a whole lot harder! :-) We are writers...we can do anything!! hehehe...

Alexis Morgan said...

One of the best writing tips I've ever gotten was that if the scene wasn't working, I'm in the wrong POV.
So if I'm suddenly finding folding laundry more compelling than writing, it's my subconscious telling me something's wrong.

Almost always if I take the current scene, back out of it, and come back in a different POV, the story starts flowing again. I think it's because it forces me to think about what I want the reader to learn from the scene and who has the most at stake in that particular situation.

Great post!

Melissa Mayhue said...

That's an excellent point, Alexis, and absolutely true. And though I hate tossing out pages written in the wrong POV, sometimes it's the only way to get the story to move ahead.

Thank you so much for adding that!!!

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Wonderful free class on POV. Thanks!

elaine said...

Truly enjoyed the insight,I love when a author writes in 3rd person, then the next chapter is in another characters pov. Little clues and insights with out always seeing the reaction until the pov changes. On a personal note looking forward to Feb 22nd to get my copy of Healing the Highlander. Love your books.

Melissa Mayhue said...

Thanks, Julia. I hope it's helpful. And thank you, Elaine... I really appreciate that! Hope you enjoy the book.