Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Wrong Point of View

The right point of view is essential to any novel, but it's easy to get confused. Do you go with first person - ie, the narrator tells the story? It means the reader can get inside the head of the MC, but the writer is limited to the MC's experiences. Third person POV gives you the option of telling the story from the POV of more than one character.

However, a lot of writers seem to commit the cardinal sin of "head hopping" when operating in third-person POV, and this is not limited to inexperienced writers. I've picked up many published novels - released by otherwise reputable publishers - that also commit this sin. As well as making me throw the book across the room, I wonder about the editors that this publishing house has employed when this happens.

Let's just clarify what I mean by "Head-hopping", just so we all know what we're talking about. Take the following paragraph:

"Mary sensed John's gaze on her as she entered the room, and it made her uncomfortable. John wondered if Mary had forgiven him yet for last night."

The first sentence establishes we're in Mary's POV. But in the second sentence we jump to John's POV - how does Mary know what John is thinking?

This is just a bad example from the top of my head, but I have actually read published novels that are almost as bad as this. There's nothing wrong with multiple POV characters, but there should be a clear break before switching from one character POV to another.

I think part of the problem with POV shifts is a lack of understanding of how they work. Being in third person POV does not mean that you can be in every character's head simultaneously, but I think some writers - and editors - suffer from this basic misapprehension.

I lay the blame for this partly on the fact that the education system does not teach people how to write correctly. I remember being taught POV in my English lessons at high school. What I was taught was: first person means the narrator is telling the story directly, and so the pronoun "I" is used. Third person is when the narrator is outside the story, looking in, and the pronoun "he" or "she" is used. Second person is when the story is told by someone who is not the main character, such as Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

I remember this lesson very clearly, and I knew at the time it was wrong. The Sherlock Holmes stories are written from a first person POV - Watson's. Second person is when the story is told from the point of view of someone directing the main character, and the pronoun "you" is used. It's pretty unusual to find a novel told in second person, but it was used for all the "choose your own adventure" books I used to love reading as a kid.

"Head-hopping" is an easy mistake to make - there were a couple of examples of it in early drafts of SUFFER THE CHILDREN. Fortunately for me, my editor picked up the ones that had slipped through my own editing process and berated me for it.

But other publishers do not seem to have such diligent editors, and I get tired of reading published novels that would not pass one of my writing group's critique sessions.

It emphasises my belief that one does not learn how to write at any educational centre. The only way to learn how to write is through the experience of writing.

Sadly, some editors need to go through the same process. Perhaps there should be an 'editor school'. POV should be one of the first lessons.

1 comment:

Nerine Dorman said...

Okay, putting on my editor hat: There's a very big difference between head-hopping and an author who's got a strong handle on third-person omniscient PoV. What makes it jarring when an author is head-hopping is when there's not enough of a transition between characters' points of view.

I always cite Terry Pratchett as an example of how to get away with 3rd-person omni, but advise all new authors to stick to deep 3rd-person PoV until such time that they're comfortable flexing their literary muscles.

With that in mind, I can say that current trends in commercial fiction show a preference for a limited, deep 3rd-person PoV.

I don't care if Nora Roberts does omni. Personally I don't hold her up as a paragon of being the best example of writing since sliced bread, no matter what her sales figures say.