Thursday, March 3, 2011

Breaking PoV Rules

One of the things that gets drummed into writers very early (usually through critique groups) is the need to keep point of view (PoV) tightly controlled. This helps to build the link between the writer and the reader and allows the reader to get 'into the skin' of the characters.

I am a big advocate of this. However after years of mercilessly going through my manuscripts looking for PoV quibbles, it is interesting to see how very experienced writers sometimes break the rules with PoV.

There is a real temptation to do this. It is certainly a lot easier to simply write from a character's PoV then to stylishly convey the same thoughts or reactions from another characters PoV.

There is also the issue of economy. Sometimes breaking PoV - in a brief aside - helps to keep the pace and maintain the flow. The trick is flagging to the reader that this is coming so they do not get 'jolted'. One of the easiest ways to do this is to simply insert a break between the paragraphs with a '#' or something similar so that the reader knows that this is a new scene. The other thing that I have seen work very effectively is to switch the PoV at natural points in the narrative where the pace changes - for example at the end of the chapter. The main PoV character may leave the scene before the end of the action, so the last few paragraphs can be from another character's PoV.

There still needs to be some sort of signal. If not after a deliberate break, then the first line should clearly signal the change i.e. 'Darius watched Kelly walk away, his eyes narrowing. The cut on his forearm burned as though he had been splashed with acid.'

I have noticed that many of the older genre classics almost tend toward omniscient, describing the action as though from a distance and only dropping the occaisional paragraph that is clearly from one characters PoV. I recently read 'Duke Elric' by Moorcock. It was hard to say at any given time whose PoV I was really in. I was clearly following Elric's actions, but it was almost as though I was listening through a intermediate narrator (no problems drawing me through the story though:)).

Do you ever break the PoV 'rule'? If so when?

12 comments:

John Lambshead said...

Chris
It is noticable that some of the greatest writers are cavalier with POV - Christie for one. It does seem that stories with switchable POVs make good television.

I am always amused by book reviewers who apply the 'creative rules of writing' to a story as their review. Creativity and rules tend to be somewhat mutually exclusive. :)
John

MataPam said...

Clearly marking the swaps of POV always reads better to me. I notice even when an expert flashes to another head for a brief responce, then back to the original.

Usually when I do it, it's because I meant to swap POVs for the whole scene and missed some. :/

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, John. Writing sure is a strange beast. Sometimes I wonder whether the impact of a piece has more to do with the emotion that is put into it - the 'state' of the writer - rather than anything to do with the form. Yet it is the form that people seem to obsess over.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. The occasional swap for a short period - a few paragraphs - does not bother me. It's when it happens with no apparent logic and too frequently to too many heads that it starts to impact on my enjoyment of the read.

I really enjoyed the Ranger's Apprentice books - one of the series my son Aedan was into and I read as well. But John Flannagan has a bad habit of head-hopping that dilutes the action. I suspect his background as a scriptwriter may have something to do with it.

Lucius said...

I tend to like third-person with limited omniscience, so zooming in for a bit of internal dialogue isn't all that difficult. (Well, except for the fact that it's dialogue.) I think the key is moderation, more than anything else.

I do have to watch it when I'm writing a first-person piece, though. It's much harder to go the other way, and it's a constant temptation for me to ditch the Unreliable Narrator and show a clear-eyed view of what's really going on. (And perhaps an amusing--to me, anyway--aside or two.)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

My favourite POV is deep third person, so that it feels like first person. It is the way we experience the world as we try to make sense of it.

It can lead to the character (and the reader) misunderstanding another character's motivation. It can lead to an unreliable narrator. I haven't used this ploy. I do occasionally have a character state something as a fact, that later proves to be wrong, but this is because the character was led astray.

It's the intimacy of deep third person, that I like. And it is because of this intimacy, that I have to be really careful switching POVs.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Lucius. You sound like you go in for a similiar balance to me. I like to keep a pretty tight pov with only 3-4 PoV characters in a book, but I also like the omnicient for little snippets every now and then - particularly coming into a chapter or scene. It's far easier to be poetic in omnicient.

Good luck with the first person!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I haven't really tried the unreliable narrator either. Maybe we aren't just devious enough, eh?:)

Kate Paulk said...

I usually find that the piece I'm writing demands its own approach to POV. Impaler simply refused to happen until I went to first person.

I do think what's acceptable and publishable has shifted a lot - Tolkien, for instance, is largely loose third or omniscient, without much time inside anyone's head. Older books tend more to omniscient, too, unless they're first person, and even those tend to focus more on what happens than on how it affects the narrator (and the less said about the Victorian "Dear Reader" conceit the better, in my opinion - but someone else might actually like it).

I think the rules as they stand evolved as mostly guidelines that mostly work better than not doing what they say. If you're good enough, you can break them all and it will be amazingly good. If you're not, you can break them all and it will be amazingly bad. I aspire to the former, and achieve the latter.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. That's an interesting perspective looking at it as an evolution from the older approaches. It really helps to put the whole thing into context really - after all those former approaches are simply what worked for those guys - and fitted generally into the expection at the time.

Where to next?

Lucius said...

Chris, out of curiosity, do quite a few of your critiques come back with a comment along the lines of "seems British"?

Being able to do first-person well is definitely high on the list of things I'm working on. I like to think I'm making progress. [grin] But I don't think luck plays too much of a role.

Kate, what you said about Tolkien could apply just as easily to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. I'm sure not going to claim I have insight into the minds of publishers, but a loose/omniscient third seems acceptable to readers. It has certainly diminished in market share, but I'm hesitant to assign the causation of that observation. (That I'm a grognard who doesn't see this change as an unalloyed good, can safely be assumed. I just had the horrible vision of Robert E. Howard's stories being re-written in first person. I think I need to go curl up on a dark corner.)

Synova said...

I've messed with POV on purpose (as opposed to by accident) at the beginning paragraph, generally starting with a less close mode and then sort of draw closer until snapping in to a close 3rd. I've played with tense the same way for beginnings, starting with present and going to the normal past tense. I think it's reasonably effective, sort of like a movie intro that starts out in space and comes closer and closer until it snaps down to a backyard BBQ and an individual person.

It would be lame to do that on *every* movie, of course.

As for the "rule" about avoiding head-hopping 3rd person... I think it's generally a fashion. It's another one of those things that I think that most readers don't notice at all and that drive writer/readers up the wall and down the other side.