Friday, January 20, 2006


Every story is told from someone's point of view.

Through the eyes of the dashing hero, the resilient heroine, the
manipulative villain, or the wacky lady next door, which narrator
should tell the tale? Your story will change, in both subtle and
more astounding ways, according to the point of view you choose.

Readers depend on the writer's choice of narrator to bring the action
into focus. From whose perspective is the action taking place? Whose
eyes are we looking through? Whose thoughts do we hear?

Luckily, unlike the more elusive concepts of voice and flow, point
of view is relatively mechanical. In other words, it is easily noticed
and, most of the time, easily manipulated. Though many great narratives
are told from first person (I) point of view and occasional novels
use the second person (you) point of view, most romances are written
in third person, sometimes described as the omniscient point of view.

In omniscient, the author knows everyone's secrets and can visit
the minds of every character in the story. But to make the story
work, a writer must focus on an individual character's point of
view. With that, you must take care to reveal only what is or can
be known to the individual whose point of view you are in.

And just because you know everyone's take doesn't mean you should
allow every character to tell his or her version of the story. Try
to limit your narration to main characters and a few major secondary
characters; choosing one narrator for a specific scene allows you
to reveal secrets — or keep them hidden.

The tips below will point the way to improving your use of perspective.

Who said that?

The very last thing any writer wants is to lose their reader to
distraction, whether that reader is an acquiring editor or a potential
fan. Moving too quickly from one character to another, also known
as head-hopping, puts your story in serious danger of losing the
audience. If the reader can't figure out who's feeling lonely, who's
thinking about settling down, or who's watching that good-looking
guy walk away, she must reread the paragraph or even the page. This
loss of momentum can drastically slow the pace of your story. You
want readers turning pages and craving more, not stuck on page 15
trying to figure out who said what to whom.

From he said to she said

Transitions, taking the narrative from one point of view to another
without "hopping," are not as difficult as you might presume. The
easiest and most common method is to pick one character's point
of view and stick with it for an entire scene or chapter. The close
of a chapter is a natural resting point for readers, and they will
have no trouble following the story if your next chapter opens with a point of view shift.

But if both your hero and your heroine must have their say, then
keep the switches to a minimum — one or two per scene. The most
effective method for a midscene transition is to begin with one
character's perspective, the heroine for example, and stick with
her through the first half of the scene. Allow an action to occur
that involves both the hero and heroine — the phone rings, they
are involved in conversation, an explosion startles them — and take
that opportunity to shift into the hero's point of view; then allow
the scene to finish out in his perspective.

Decisions, decisions

So now the question becomes, how do you decide which character should
be telling the story? Which character should begin this chapter
or end that one? The best answer: the character with the most at
risk in that scene. Who has the highest stakes? Who has the most
to lose? That is the character most likely to need the point of view.

But perhaps you don't want the reader to know a character's thoughts,
or just what his stakes were, until the next scene or chapter. Saving
the effect of the devastation for after the action can be useful,
especially in a romance. Feel free to show the initial action from
the other character's perspective, the heroine for example. The
reader will only be able to guess that the hero's heart is breaking,
but her curiosity will not be appeased until the next scene, from
the hero's point of view, when his devastation is given full voice.

If you're unsure about who should have the stage, write the same
scene from two or more viewpoints before making a decision. Which
one resonates for you? Which one gets across everything you hoped to say?

Speaking for themselves

The most overlooked use for point of view is the opportunity to
let your characters develop their own voices, mannerisms, and storytelling
habits. Each scene, told from a particular character's viewpoint,
is a prime opportunity for that old adage about showing instead of telling.

If you're writing from the heroine's point of view, it won't only
be her feelings and thoughts on display, but also her habits, body
language, and pet phrases. Stay true to your characters and your
hero and heroine will sound like the two different and well-developed characters they are.

If your hero is a cowboy, for example, he might compare the people
and events around him to aspects of the land or animals. Or, if
your heroine is a designer, she may be particularly aware of measurements,
colors, or the way the hero dresses. Be cautious, however, about
your characters' abilities to describe themselves. They won't know
what they look like at a particular moment unless they are looking
in a mirror. And make sure they don't read the minds of other characters
or describe what happens behind them, unless of course they are
psychic and have eyes in the back of their head.

Mastering point of view takes practice, but having such a versatile
tool in your writer's cache is worth the struggle. A story with
well-done points of view will stand out above the rest.


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