Brad wonders about POV

From whose mind do we see?

Brad and I had an email exchange which might interest other readers here. It involves point of view (pov) when writing a novel.  Here is Brad’s question (edited), followed by my answer (also edited):

I have a writing question for you regarding POV. As I understand it, POV shifts are generally frowned upon unless
it’s denoted by a chapter or scene break.  Is this the “prevalent” view amongst agents and editors?  If so, why do you think that is the case?

I can understand how a reader might be confused with excessive shifting, but people are generally able to follow conversations with
three or four people, each interjecting their opinion and thoughts
mid-stream.  Is it really different for literature?

I ask because I have a small number of POV shifts that occur in my
book and they don’t occur at chapter or scene breaks.  They occur to
heighten an aspect of a character’s emotionality that in turns
heightens something else and they happen generally on paragraph
breaks.  These shifts, in my opinion, also serve to illustrate a
protean or even a decaying sense of self, which is one of the
underlying themes.  What I’m wondering is if my opinion is wrong,
mis-informed, or naive perhaps?  I suppose a famous writer can do
whatever the hell he wants, but I’m not a famous writer and if the
market were more open, I wouldn’t worry about it as much, but I do. I
worry that agents and editors are primarily educated through the
university and have it drilled into them that POV shifts are signs of
a lazy or unskilled writer.  I’m neither, but without a reputation,
I’m wondering if such things might be too much of a risk.

What do you think?  None of these shifts come at the expense of
clarity.  The couple of people that have read portions of the
manuscript remarked that there were POV shifts that didn’t occur at
established breaks.  I asked if they were confused or if clarity
suffered anywhere at all and they said no, but you’re not supposed to
do that.


From a professional perspective, what do you think?

You ask a question that cannot be answered.  Anything you do when telling a story is the right thing to do when it works, that is, when it isn’t noticed by the reader.  Mistakes are what readers notice.  That is really the only rule to apply.  There is, or ought to be, an instinct at work in good story-telling, and that is the voice guiding the writer — his own.

You supposing that POV is something like conversations during which a few people exchange and interject opinions and thoughts is not accurate.  POV in that case would be as if each person in the exchange, as well as others observing the exchange, were able to move ably between and among each person, literally, not simply listen or observe independently.  POV in story-telling means that you are seeing, thinking, understanding, knowing everything in the “field of vision” of that particular person or character.  This is not done all that often in story-telling because, first, it is really hard to pull off, and second, although if one pulls it off then the second disappears, readers have a much more difficult time believing in or trusting a shifting field of vision.  Maybe there is just a first.  Dialogue flows naturally between he said, she said, but how would you differentiate he thought, then, she thought?  There is only one way I know of:  having a truly omniscient narrator, one who is then the ultimate, singular POV, who knows what everyone thinks, what everyone observes, and reports accordingly.  What is referred to as limited omniscience in a narrative voice is the one that alternates POV, but in definable scenes.  God-like omniscient narrators appear frequently in fiction, so if you’ve got one of those, then reporting all POVs ought to come naturally.  But in my experience, such narrators are themselves the dominating voice, the dominating character in the story, and are, indeed, a character at work.

I find this hard enough to do that I almost never do it, and when I do, it is a slip-up more often than not.  In Possessed, there were two distinct POVs, Tom’s and Molly’s, and I gave them distinct and separate alternating chapters.  In Only Love, everything we see is only what Tom sees, and everything we know is only what Tom knows (or does not know); Danika’s presence is only seen and understood reflected back from what Tom sees and knows about her.  If we know the sky is blue, it is because Tom says it is; if we know that something hurts, it is because Tom feels it, etc.  My narrative voice in this story is far from omniscient; the narrator seems just as clueless as Tom about what will happen next, what other characters may do or say.  This is because the narrative voice is Tom’s voice, even though he will be dead at the end.  If I have ever mixed POV, it would have been between the brother and sister in My Sister’s Keeper, but I really don’t remember much about that book; maybe I did, but probably not.

I have been trying to think of a good example where mixing POVs worked.  So far, but with limited time given to it, I cannot come up with one.  But, for example, in Salter’s Sport and Pastime, there is a shifting POV, even on the same page, between the narrator, who is virtually a character, and certainly the principal observer, of the story, and the protagonist, Dean, who is actually already dead when we read his 1st person observations.  I cannot now recall any place where we have Anne-Marie’s, or any other passing character’s, POV.  But Salter gets away with astonishing things in this book, when if you stop and make yourself think about it, he tramples all over the rule book.  How he does it remains one of life’s mysteries.  My favorite Salter mystery is in this novel: the narrator, who is never named, tells the story in the first person, frequently from the standpoint of a character in the story, yet this narrator is also able to report scenes he could not not have actually been privy to, dialogue between characters he did not hear, character backgrounds he does not establish his access to … because the narrator is a character in the story, not simply the “writer voice” narrating.  I think Maugham did this sometimes, Greene, as well.  But Salter shoves it to the edge.

Let’s cut to the chase here:  You are the only person who can answer this question.  You need to stop looking for justification from random readers.  You need to start believing in yourself as a good story-teller who trusts and follows the best advice — his own.  What you are going through here I avoid because nobody reads my work until I already know it’s at least the best I can do.  I have satisfied my own instincts.  If those instincts are telling me there’s a problem, then I am the only one who can find and fix it.  Your outside readers were disingenuous in their reaction by saying that confusion or issues of clarity did not occur, yet, regardless, they noticed the shift.  Real Readers only notice mistakes … not mistakes of rules, but mistakes of story-telling.  I think the reason it is so difficult for me to come up with distinctive examples of omni-POV or multiple-POV is because if it worked seamlessly in the story, I never noticed it; if I noticed it, the fault is larger than breaking some POV rule.

Beware of fretting.  One can fret a story right into the grave.

What do you guys think?


4 replies »

  1. Do the characters have certain traits, a way of saying or doing something which is particular to them alone and would leave the reader in no doubt regarding POV whether mid scene or otherwise?

    As for worrying about the rule book, I wouldn’t and I’m with Don regarding instinct and definitely not showing your work to anyone else until you are completely happy. I do sympathise though as I’ve practised what Stephen King would call the open door draft far too soon with some work when that door should have remained well and truly closed until I was completely satisfied.

  2. I should clarify this point, from my point of view.

    Fundamentally, I think that writers, like people, are not cookie cutters. Even the similarities we share are nuanced. I can speak only for me in this regard, describe my opinion, what I think, how I work, and what works for me.

    Because I am the instinctual kind of writer (and person in other ways, as well), I trust myself first and foremost, and therefore do not need any potential distractions to my work from readers I trust far less than myself. This is simply one aspect of my essential personality that is not notably social. I don’t do groups, for example. (Even Facebook freaked me out when I started getting “Friend” requests everyday.)

    Which is to say, because this is how I work and live has nothing at all to do with how anyone else may need to work and live.

    I think one needs rules, but in my case, they are my rules.

  3. I just re-read Carver’s story The Student’s Wife because it was mentioned in his biography (a good recommendation by the way!)that he employs POV shifts in that. And he does, rather nimbly. Most of the story occurs between a couple in bed. When the man falls asleep, the POV shifts to the woman and it’s the evocation of his disdain juxtaposed to her sense of terror that gives the story its power. Having only a singular POV in that story would weaken it tremendously.

    And that story, more than anything, reminds me that my POV shifts were done for much of the same reasons. Each shift heightens the emotionality of the scene, or grounds something that might otherwise be considered melodramatic, by providing contrast.

    So thanks, Don, for the book recommendation. I betcha you never figured it would help me solve this sort of self-inflicted predicament. Funny as well to me, that my answer arrives from a book sitting on a stack near my desk.

    • Carver’s biography is more than anything else for people who make their lives as writers a cautionary tale.

      Instincts, Brad, instincts. And trust (yourself).