Point of View: Whiplash!

Service of the Dead KD2b REVI’ve neglected my blog while caught up in completing Kate Clifford #2 and promoting Kate Clifford #1 (The Service of the Dead) at independent bookstores. The manuscript of #2 is now with my agent and a few careful readers, so I’m distracting myself from the nail biting wait for feedback by dusting off this post, begun months ago, and sharing with you some shop talk.

In my essay, “Embodying Medieval Women,” I began with a discussion of point of view. It was on my mind, having had cause to write some notes about the ins and outs of point of view just days before. I wrote in the essay:

I write my novels in the third person subjective point-of-view, which means that I present the narrative from within the minds of several chosen characters, telling the story from their perspectives. I embody them. I become my point-of-view characters as thoroughly as an actor becomes the character she’s portraying.

9780393300505_198I believe it was a literary agent I worked with for a brief time before I was published who urged me to get William Sloane’s The Craft of Writing Fiction and read what he had to say in the chapter “Fiction and the Means of Perception.” Essentially, Sloane says that a reader needs to identify with a character in order to enter the world of the book, and the easiest way for a writer to make this happen is through first person narration—but that’s limiting. He suggests that third person can be just as effective as long as the writer remembers this rule: 1 point of view per book or chapter or scene. “The question one must always ask is, who is the reader being as he reads?…The reader must always understand on any page in any sentence at any word…the nature of his relationship to the story.” That is, from what point of view she is viewing the action. He expands on this point: “With rare and tricky exceptions, there is in successful fiction one and only one means of perception to a scene. This singleness is tremendously important in dialogue, especially when a number of characters are on stage. It is a temptation for the writer to hop into one mind after another as his characters talk. To write successful dialogue the author must have access to the mind of all his characters, but the reader must not perceive any more than he would in real life.” Again, the reader must experience the conversation from the perspective of the point of view character in that scene.

I have found this of tremendous help in my writing, and in helping others polish theirs. It surprises me when I reread some of my earliest books and discover that every now and then I shifted into another point of view at the end of a scene. But maybe that’s all right. I’ve noticed other authors doing that, a bit of a fade out to check another perspective. Rules are helpful, but rigidity can kill creativity.

Being so aware of consistent point of view does cause problems for me when I’m reading for pleasure. The moment a writer begins bouncing around in the heads of the various characters as a scene develops—whiplash!—I’m no longer in the world of the book but wondering whether there’s a reason for inflicting such pain. And once I begin analyzing the writing, the author has lost me. An occupational hazard.

By the way, I highly recommend Sloane’s book.

5 Comments on “Point of View: Whiplash!

  1. Thanks for this, Candace. POV matters are always interesting to narrative theorists! Jane Austen, of course, put us miles ahead with what we now call “free indirect discourse.” Cheers & hope you’re enjoying summer out there, Jo Ellyn


    • Thank you for reminding me of Austen’s free indirect discourse, JoEllyn!


  2. Well, let know I connect with Owen Archer and see the book through his eye. With this insight I need to read Kate #1 again and try to see the story through her eyes.


    • Oh, yes. Except for Griselde’s chapter and a late scene from Eleanor Clifford’s point of view, it’s all Kate in book 1!


  3. Oops! “let” should be “I”. Darn these spelling incorrectors.


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