Thursday, October 1, 2009

Perspective in Fiction: A Gift, Not a Curse

One of the most challenging (maddening?) techniques for new writers to master is perspective, also known as Point of View. Although POV is a very basic tool in fiction, few new writers (and even some veterans) have a clear sense of how to create it, control it, or use it to the advantage of their stories. As a result many authors throw up their hands at even bothering to think of whose perspective will work best for any particular scene, which character deserves to be in control, and how POV shifts can be most smoothly carried out.

The result of ignoring these questions is often a story that is difficult to follow and feels out of control to the reader, the agent, an editor. When the author has no idea through whose eyes we are viewing a scene, the reader will sense an unnerving detachment in the writing. And this leads to a loss of interest in the characters as well as in the drama being played out before us.

So, how do we establish perspective then keep it consistent throughout a short story or novel?

First, we need a game plan. Will your story best be served by developing it through the experiences of just one character, or do you need more than one character to show the scenes you envision? If one character will do, then all you need to decide upon is will you use first person ("I"), or third person (he/she), as the voice of the storyteller. If you need several characters to adequately tell your story, then you will choose which characters are the best ones for viewing the drama as it unfolds.

An important point to remember is that the more POV's you select, and the more jumping around between heads, the weaker the reader's connection will be with any one character. Therefore, it's to your advantage as the author to keep the number of perspectives limited, which will allow your reader to bond with one central character, to really care about this paper person and want to follow him/her to the end of the story.

Finally, once you've chosen your POV character(s) decide on a plan for timing the shifts in perspective. Although some authors have mastered the omniscient (all knowing) perspective in which we as readers can see everything going on in the story and hear the thoughts and reactions of virtually any character, this can be very tricky for the author…and if omniscient is done badly, the plot will be nearly impossible for the reader to follow.

So for a strong and effective story plan, limit your POV characters, then decide where your POV shifts will fall. If you change perspectives at a scene break, or at a chapter break, your reader will have a much easier time understanding in whose head he's supposed to be.

Does this mean that you should think through your POV for a story before you start writing? Well…uh, yeah. It does. Planning your perspective, just as you outline the basic plot and choose your characters carefully, can mean the difference between a story that feels sharp, reads like the work of a pro, and is easy to follow—and one that unravels at the seams as the reader struggles through chapter after confusing chapter. But the good news is, even if you've already written your story without consciously analyzing your perspective, you can still dive back into revisions and find ways to focus the POV through one or another of your main characters in each scene.

    You'll love what fine tuning that POV focus does for your fiction! Happy writing, Kathryn