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Sunday, 6 February 2011

On Writing: Shifting Points of View (POV)

The most frequent comment I got from professionals reviewing my books before publication was that there were too many points of view (POV), writers' shorthand for the 'heads' readers get to see through when reading a novel. The 'classic' novel has one point of view, the protagonist, and everything is learned through that POV, even if it is not the main character in the book (read the Great Gatsby, for example).

The official rules (aside from the real rule that every rule can be broken in writing) are not to use too many POVs, and using multiple POVs in a single chapter is generally frowned upon, even when the writer signals to the reader the change of 'camera-view' by using a line break or three asterisks in a line break, etc.

So, I've recently read two best sellers: The girl with the dragon tattoo (Millennium series by Stieg Larsson) and 61 hours (Lee Child). They both use different POVs (especially Larsson), although they have definite central characters (Blomkvist & Salander for Larsson, and Reacher for Child). Where they succeed is in building complex plots, which it would be hard to unravel from a single character's point of view. Then, in key chapters where suddenly things happen and the plot accelerates, they use switching between these different 'heads' to show how it is coming together, allowing the reader to join the dots. In Larsson's book, for example, there is a key chapter in the middle of the book, where there are no less than eight POVs in a single chapter, and it's gripping.

One of my reviewers likened my second book to the TV Series 'Heroes', warning that books are not TV (and also warning that Heroes ultimately failed due to the sprawling POVs and lack of any 'centre'). But it does make me wonder if readers' tastes or tolerance for more 'fragmented'' writing styles are evolving. We live in a very complex world these days, where life itself is 'multi-media', and it is hard to keep on top of anything. Perhaps contemporary writing is showing us the current truth about our lives as it has always aimed to. After all,  could a single person these days really stumble onto, for example, an inter-governmental conspiracy, and unravel it? Even Larsson and Child, to maintain their central characters as the focus, and their readers' interests, rely a little heavily on Salander's hacking skills and Reacher's intuition to help work things out. So, fiction points out the truth, but stays true to its nature of being good story-telling. [As a reader I wouldn't want it any other way, LOL].

As a writer, what have I learned from all of this?
1. POV shifting is okay, if it is needed, e.g. a complex plot involving many people in different locations or times.
2. POV shifting still has to be carefully signaled to the reader.
3. Too much at the start of the novel will disorientate the reader, and ultimately disinterest her - there will be no 'centre' to the novel, no one to root for.
4. POV shifting can be used to great effect to accelerate the plot and increase tension, because the reader sees it coming together, possibly before the central characters do.
5. To bring it off as well as Larsson did and Child does, is not so easy...

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