The Red Pen: POed at POVs

red penHappy Monday, my Monkey friends! I’m putting my editor hat back on today to comment on an issue that’s plagued me a lot as of late: POV. I ranted on this topic a while back in my post “POV for Vendetta,” when I feared a colleague and I were nearing impasse, ironically because we shared different points of view on point of view. As I eventually related in my follow-up post, “The POVerdict,” we did find compromise, and, in retrospect after gaining more experience, I do think the book is better for it. At the crux of it, though, was when sharing multiple POVs is head-hopping or not. The reading and editing community at large has become increasingly intolerant toward shifting between characters’ thoughts and prefers the nice-n-tidy confines of limited POV. But even when multiple POVs are limited versus omniscient, when can such perspectives alternate without having to denote the shifts between them with an obvious section or chapter break?

Now, I’ll be honest that I do personally prefer when a scene or chapter is kept to one character’s perspective. It’s simply easier to understand and allows me more intimacy with that character, provides me more insight. Even JK Rowling’s expert use of third-person omniscient in The Casual Vacancy drove me a bit nuts at times, purely because I don’t care for those shifts occurring on a sentence or paragraph level. For me, it always comes down to the story and the writing, whether the alchemy of the two produces an effect that works for my brain or not. It can be a very personal choice and difficult thing to articulate.

What perplexes me at the moment, though, is a novel I just finished: the NY Times and international bestseller The Expats, by Chris Pavone. No doubt the writing is good (better than mine fo’ sho’), and the story well crafted (though arguably a bit underwhelming and in need of a wee bit of tightening), yet I can’t reconcile the straying POVs within it. The story is 99.5% told through the protagonist’s point of view, but every now and then, we jump inside another character’s head. It’s an easy mistake but a just-as-easily fixed one, leaving me to wonder how these shifts got through—via oversight or justification? If the latter, I’d love to know what that was. Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong.

But allow me to share a challenging POV predicament that recently came my way—something I could and did do something about. Unlike The Expats, this manuscript tried for third-person omniscient narration, not limited, so shifting between perspectives was acceptable. But unlike the omnisciently narrated The Casual Vacancy, these shifts were intolerable. Rather than recreate the wheel, I’ve pasted an excerpt of my actual notes (with specific story information removed for sake of anonymity):

The aim here is evidently third-person omniscient, in which an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator is observing from the outside yet still able to know characters’ thoughts. Consistent with that, we do get to follow everyone around […]. The dilemma, however, is that it treads a fine line between omniscience and head-hopping that our acquisitions and editorial teams found dizzying.

Head-hopping and third-person omniscient narration are not the same thing, so I’m not going to claim that a story can’t reveal different characters’ thoughts in the same scene or even same paragraph. Omniscient narration is common in classic literature, after all; it’s just less common these days for assorted reasons. For some, it sounds old-fashioned; for others, they prefer the intimacy they can have with characters under a limited POV. Those are largely personal preferences—for readers, it’s a choice of which POV they like to read, and for writers, it can also be what they like to write, but first and foremost POV has to suit the story. Regardless, many writers shy from third-person omniscient because it’s very difficult to pull off without lapsing into head-hopping.

The strength of your narration is that it does maintain a consistent sense of voice. Even if it dwells with one character a while, it doesn’t assume that character’s voice instead. That’s vital for omniscience. There are also times when ducking in and out characters’ minds lends comic relief and a colorful storytelling quality to that narrative voice. But the main thing you have to ask yourself when approaching any story is whose story is it? Who is the hero? Whose perspective matters most?

As one of your first readers, if I were to answer these questions for [your manuscript], I’d say [A] is the story’s heroine with [B] as her leading man. Next in the hierarchy are [C] (the heroine of her own subplot, which triggers [A]’s main plot) and [D] (the villain of the story). These four are very tightly intertwined, though, and drive the story collectively, so I like your choice to use multiple points of view. Each of them is worthwhile to follow around, and their individual POVs can take us places where the others don’t go to provide us important information to be gleaned from different locales at once.

But note that I didn’t list anyone beyond those four characters. [P]resenting bits of the story through secondary characters’ POVs is more difficult to justify. There’s the comic relief, yes, but that’s embedded in the narrative voice itself and certainly shines through the four main characters. This quality of your storytelling wouldn’t be lost even if we don’t get to hear every minor character’s internal quipping (like I said before about killing your darlings, if it means editing out a good joke or clever wordplay, use it another story that shares similar dynamics. Maybe write a sequel with the same cast of characters but different leading roles, etc.). And even if their thoughts have important bearing on the plot, most likely we can acquire that information ourselves through their body language and dialogue.

[Example from the text.]

The other factor at play here is not just that [A]’s, [B]’s, [C]’s, and [D]’s POVs should be the main ones but that they already are. We spend more time in their heads than anyone else’s, so the story seems to already want to limit itself to their perspectives. And I think that’s where the overall POV has an identity crisis of sorts between omniscient and limited that lends to the head-hopping quality. When we’re in one perspective for most of a scene, it’s jarring to shift out and then back into it during that scene. On the other end of the spectrum is when we’re not oriented in any one POV at length but, rather, shifting around frequently among several people. Even between a couple of characters, shifting on such a sentence/paragraph level is really disorienting.

Very long story short, I’m generally not inclined toward using a third-person omniscient POV for this story because it:

–   detracts from the main characters, whose perspectives matter most
–   can easily slip into head-hopping or produce a similar whiplash effect when shifting POVs across too many characters too many times in a scene

So based on my own observations and those across our acquisitions and editorial teams, I highly recommend switching to third-person limited POV. You could (and should) still use multiple points of view […], but try to keep scenes within a single character’s POV and use a section/chapter break whenever there’s a shift.

The idea is to keep readers oriented and not jar them by shifting without warning. If POV does shift at all within a scene, it needs to be very, very carefully controlled on an absolutely as-needed basis. And weed out the strays if one character’s POV clearly dominates a section—e.g., say you have five paragraphs in a single POV except for a few sentences of an alternative POV interspersed within them. The best solution is to delete or rewrite those few sentences into the dominant POV.

When your main characters separate, it’s easy to choose which one’s POV to follow for that scene. But remember also that they’re often in the same room with each other, so even having to choose one POV among them doesn’t mean we can’t still see and hear the other characters and draw conclusions based on their spoken/body language (and whoever’s head we’re in at the time can form those conclusions for us in their thoughts, too). And if you’re dealing with one scene but really, really want to show it through more than one perspective, look for shifts that naturally lend themselves to a section break. If we see a situation in [A]’s POV for several paragraphs but then [B]’s POV kicks in with his viewpoint of the same time and place for the next couple pages, those are sizable chunks that can be divided with a section break marker but, together, still constitute a single scene. Section/chapter breaks aren’t the end-all, be-all way to handle shifts, but they’re the safest when in doubt.

So there’s my two pence on that topic. And in case you’re wondering, yes, the author was on board with shifting POV from omniscient to limited multiple. Very enthusiastically so, actually. And yes, my editorial plans can be long-winded. 🙂 Especially when they go to the author for a preliminary rewrite rather than straight to the editor, as I try to be as specific as possible in my guidance for newer writers.

As a reader and/or writer, what are your thoughts on omniscient vs. limited point of view? Limited vs. limited multiple POV? And how do you define the difference between true omniscience and head-hopping?

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About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

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