Point of View - Seeing Your Book Through a Telescope
Saturday, November 12, 2016 at 11:13AM
Biff Barnes in The Author’s Craft

Most writers have been admonished to show and not tell. Far fewer understand how to manage their narrative’s point of view while showing what happened. Handling point of view well is essential, because your choice of a point of view character or characters establishes several things you must do in telling your story, as well as creating a list of things you shouldn’t do.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It is possible to examine many technical details of point of view. Will you use a first or third person POV? Will your protagonist or a minor character be your POV character? Will you employ multiple POV characters? To what degree will you employ omniscience? We’ll try to keep things simpler. Let’s just say that at each point in your story the action must viewed from the perspective of a single character. What does that mean? Think of your POV character as a telescope. You can only see what happens through the lens of that telescope.

First, most of what your reader will learn in the book comes from your point of view character(s). If you obey the admonition to show rather than tell what happens, you will need to show it through the eyes of your POV character. How does the character experience the scene? What are the sensory details – sights, sounds, smells, feels, or tastes – he experiences at that place in that time? In most cases his viewpoint is limited. He won’t experience every detail of the setting, but will instead note a few sights or sounds that seem most important to the scene. As the scene progresses, your POV character may notice things of which he took no note earlier. What is critical for a writer to understand is that although other characters may be able to see or hear things that your POV character cannot, what your reader will learn in that scene is limited to what the POV character experiences. The second character may say something to the POV character about what he sees, or the POV character may see him react to a sound he hears that the POV character did not, but the reader’s knowledge of these things comes through the dialogue the POV character hears or the action he sees.

You may describe the thoughts or feelings of your POV character, but your POV can’t can’t know what the other characters in the scene are thinking or feeling. He may speculate upon those things. Observations of the way another character looks, or something that character says may cause the POV character to draw some conclusions. Action may reveal character, but what your reader knows about what other characters are thinking or feeling can only be understood second hand, through the lens of the POV character. And the POV character may misinterpret what he sees or experiences, and draw incorrect conclusions. You can’t step in as the author and disabuse him of his errors.

The POV character knows about the things he experiences directly, but he can’t know about what happened sometime or somewhere that he wasn’t present. The POV character must learn about those things through the story’s action. Another character may tell him about it in a conversation. He may go to where an event happened and discover something. He might get a letter or phone call about it. A writer must always be cognizant of what his POV character knows and how he knows it.

A good writer can make effective use of narrative summary, if he does it sparingly. Introducing a scene, as a transition, or to show the passage of time, narrative summary can work well, but the bulk of the book, indeed all its action, must take place when the POV character is present and be interpreted by that character.

Article originally appeared on Stories To Tell Books (http://sixstepbooks.squarespace.com/).
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