Sunday, December 18, 2011

The One in Which I Talk About POV

Let me warn you--I'm about to put on my lit professor hat. It's not one that I wear all that often, but today, I'm going all out.

I want to talk a little about POV today and how understanding what we're really talking about can help you become a better writer.

Since beginning to write and joining RWA, I've heard a lot of talk about POV that makes my poor little academically trained brain twitch. I've heard people confuse POV with voice, confuse shifts in perspective with shifts in POV, and then critique others based on those misunderstandings.

Now, I want to be clear. To some extent, knowing the fancy-schmancy literary terms for these concepts isn't necessary to write. It may not even really be necessary when you critique someone''s work. I think it's perfectly possible to know that something is wrong, even if you call it by the wrong name. But, calling it by the wrong name often obscures what we're trying to say and doesn't help the writer make improvements.

Plus, I don't think it hurts to know what you're talking about, when you start talking. So, here goes.

Point of view can be divided into two camps- First person (me, me, me!) and Third person (him and her). That's pretty basic, I know. But it pays to be clear.

First person, in a lot of ways, is the easiest to get your head around. You have a single character narrating. It can be the protagonist (hello, Bella Swan) or it can be someone close to the protagonist (a la Nick Carraway in the Great Gatsby) or it can be someone not really related to the action of the story (the way Death narrates The Book Thief.) Anyway you look at it, the first person narrator is defined by and imited to that particular character's consciousness. They can't use vocabulary that the character wouldn't use or description that the character wouldn't come up with. The language of the text has to be appropriate.

Easy enough, right?  Okay, then, stick with me.

It's third person that gets tricky.

So here's the deal- third person narrators can either be completely or partially omniscient. They can know everything about everyone, some things about some people, or particular things about only one person. Most are only partially omniscient. Most are limited to one or two main characters.

Most Romance is written in third person, limited omniscient POV. We are usually limited to only the hero and/or heroine's perspective (although, occasionally, we'll get something from another secondary character). The thing to remember, though, is that the narrator is still separate from the author. Even though s/he isn't named like Nick Carraway is, every single 3rd person narrator is a fiction, just like Nick.

And there's only ONE narrator in a third person narrative. Period. The narrator is an over-voice. If you have multiple narrators, you're dealing with a bunch of 1st person narrators.

So what about all this head-hopping I keep hearing about? Wouldn't that be multiple narrators? Wouldn't that be multiple POVs?

In a word--no.

I think that a lot of writers confuse the shift in voice or discourse with a shift in point of view.

Let's take one of the most notorious head-hoppers of all, the unparallelled Nora Roberts for an example:

"This, he thought as he took her face in his hands. Just this, so worth the wait. Soft, sweet, a yielding tremor, and her arms came up to wrap around his waist, to draw him into her.
The next flash of lightning didn't make her jolt. She rolled with the thunder, sinking into that lovely flood of pleasure."

Some might see the above passage as a shift in POV--we're "hopping" from Beckett's point of view to Clare's in the space of a single sentence. But that's not really what's happening.

If you look closely, the POV stays the same--it's still an outside narrator, third person, with some measure of omniscience. What's changing is the way that particular point of view is using free indirect discourse.

Here's what I mean:
Direct discourse is quoted speech/thought. He said, "I'm going to kiss you."
Indirect discourse is reported speech/thought: As he kissed her, she thought, what a lovely flood of pleasure it is to sink into a kiss.

Free Indirect discourse is a way of using the language/consciousness of the character through which you are focalizing* the narrative, which is what we have in the example above. There is no quoting, no reporting of Clare or Beckett's thoughts. Instead, the narrator uses the language of the characters to evoke the immediacy of first person narration without using first person narration.

Get that? It's the same narrator. The same POV. Nothing has changed except the language the narrator is using.

On one hand, the narrator does head-hop. But the narrator never breaks out of the third person omniscient narrative. The narrator does not change from Beckett to Clare.

Let me repeat that--it's worth repeating--the narrator DOES NOT CHANGE.

So why do you care?

Who, knows. Maybe you don't. I think the better question is what can we learn from this?

First- we can learn to speak more precisely about the craft that we're undertaking. That, at the very least will reduce the amount of twitching my poor little brain experiences.

More importantly, though, I think by understanding what we're really talking about when we talk about POV shifts, means that we'll be making better, more conscious choices about our craft.

EVERYONE uses free indirect discourse in Romance. It's a convention of the genre. Usually we wait for a scene break or a chapter break to switch, say between hero and heroine, but getting into the head of the characters is what makes romances so compelling. It's not just "he did this" and then "she thought that." We get into their heads, because authors use their language to narrate from an outside perspective--it gives the stories an immediacy that they otherwise wouldn't have.

I've most often heard this described as shifts in POV. All together now--IT'S NOT!

 So, when we talk about shifts in POV, we're not really talking about shifts in POV. We're talking aout shifts in free indirect discourse. This is absolutely essential to understand because it means that the narrative voice matters--just as much as our heroine or our hero's voice.

Look at it this way--to head hop successfully (and I'd argue that Nora's been pretty darn successful), you have to have an overriding narrator that holds it all together. That 3rd person narrator has to have a strong, authentic, and powerful voice. Hers always do. Pick up any Nora Roberts book and it feels like, sounds like a Nora Roberts book. Same goes for Sherrilyn Kenyon (who also is a master at effortless shifts in free indirect discourse). I'm not saying that it sounds like Nora Roberts, herself, though. I'm saying that she uses a strong narrative presence that has a certain consistency to it.

So what does that mean for us as writers?

It means that we have to understand that we are not the narrators of our books and (unless you're writing a 1st person) our characters are not the narrators of our books.

If you've discovered your writerly voice, you know what I'm talking about. We don't write books that sound like we sound when we talk. We write books that are narrated by our fictional, authorial selves.

To my mind, that's better. (I'm nowhere near as interesting as any of the stories I want to tell.)

But when we critique others by saying that their are POV shifts and there are really only shifts in discourse, we do the person we're critiquing a disservice. I think it pays to be precise. It helps others to be precise.

Okay, class dismissed. Now get out there and make sure you're critiquing things accurately and effectively. 

*Focalizing is another fancy-schmancy term taken from narratology. Basically, think of a camera. When we look through the viewfinder of a camera, we never see the whole picture--we're limited. Third person narratives usually focalize through a specific perspective--through one or more characters or through their limitations in omniscience.


JoAnn said...

I just have one question -- is this going to be on the final?

Just kidding! Wow, thanks so much for clearing that up. I'm one of the guilty ones.

Cari Hislop said...

Fantastic post! I would have flunked that test. I'll have to come back and re-read it and hope it sticks in my brain. When I write I try to keep each chapter restrained to one character's indirect dialogue. I find this allows me to spend more time getting to know the main characters which helps as I'm a pantser and my plots are always character driven. Occasionally though the story demands the indirect dialogue of both hero and heroine in the same chapter. At the end of the day, I'm just a glorified secretary taking dictation. I don't know who my narrator is, but hopefully I'll never meet her. Now I'm going to wonder what she looks like and where she comes from...dang it...I can smell a story coming on. I better go away and pretend to do some work.

Lisa Dunick said...

JoAnn- LOL I do love giving finals. *sigh*

Cari- I love that-- a secretary taking dictation. :O)