magical tower in wood

A version of this post was originally published on August 8, 2019.

In the “rulebooks” of writing, a lot of time and attention is given to the subject of Point of View (POV), and rightly so. The perspective from which a story is told can have a significant impact on how it is received by readers. Consider the popularity of first person POVs in current Young Adult fiction. Tightly focused, intense, intimate, first person creates an immediate connection with a character that compels interest in the story, even when then story itself leaves you scratching your head. Third person limited is also a steady favorite, because of its flexibility. It lets an author vary the depth of the perspective, and even switch to another character entirely as the story demands. 

But POV is one of the things that new writers struggle with the most. “Head hopping” — switching between characters’ POVs in the middle of a scene — is easy to spot and call out, even for novice critiquers. Harder to catch are subtle slides of information, like revealing the thoughts or feelings of characters other than the POV character. Information dumps that contain world building knowledge that’s outside the immediate experience or thoughts of the POV character. Narrative commentary that goes beyond what the POV character is thinking about. 

I can’t draw a hard line and say all of this is wrong; in fact, these are all perfectly acceptable techniques when using the omniscient POV. The problem is that the more omniscient your POV, the more skilled you have to be as a wordsmith to pull it off. The omniscient POV isn’t unpopular for its own sake. It’s unpopular because it’s hard to write well, and arguably harder for readers to actually read. In a publishing world where people value character and plot over style and word craft, it just makes sense to use a POV that emphasizes those aspects of a story. 

One POV “error” I see popping up a lot in not-yet-published fiction lately isn’t head hopping from POV to POV. Instead, it’s not having any solid POV at all. In a gross technical sense, I guess it falls under the omniscient category, except it’s nowhere near “all-knowing.” It’s more like “omnipresent.” The narrator is simply a channel, describing events in the narrative as they occur but without any insight into what’s going on under the surface. It’s like watching a movie, and the narrator is nothing more than a camera. 

But what works on film doesn’t always work in prose. It’s too impersonal, too distancing, too straight-forward. There’s no emotional depth to the narrative when we see everything from up above. I know how it happens. I, like many writers I suspect, often play scenes from my WIPs through my head as if I was watching a movie. I try out different lines of dialog, plan actions and expressions, block out where everyone is going to go and what they are going to do — almost as if I was watching a movie in my head. Translating that internal video to the page seems natural, and in fact many of my rough drafts feel more like a movie script than good prose. 

What’s missing, of course, is the actual narrator. Film doesn’t have a narrator (with the exception of the occasional voice-over narrator); it’s just a giant eye that sees whatever it’s pointed out. While there are deliberate artistic techniques for controlling what that eye transmits, it’s not the same as prose. 

I don’t have any great conclusion to this little essay. It’s just something I’ve noticed and want to keep thinking about. Aside from making sure every scene is firmly rooted in a solid POV, I don’t have any recommendations for beating this problem. Does anyone have suggestions? 

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