Monday, January 25, 2010

Darlings and Killings

Nicola Morgan has a good post today about points of view in fiction.

I'm terrible for what Nicola calls POV-slippage. In my first drafts, I constantly do things like this:

Rosie couldn't believe he could be so misguided.
'Well, I think you're wrong, Billy.' said Rosie. She sipped her tea. 'I think you're dead wrong, actually.'
Billy watched her. 'Why?' he asked, and waited.

We're in Rosie's head here, so how do we know that Billy is watching her, or waiting? She can know that he's looking at her, and that he's stopped talking, but can she really know he's watching (which is a much more passive verb than looking)? How does she know he's waiting and not just pausing like he was in a Harold Pinter play?

Rosie can disclose a certain amount of this - she could notice him watching. The problem is that the alternative is clunky and easy to over-use.

'Well, I think you're wrong, Billy.' Rosie said. She sipped her tea. 'I think you're dead wrong, actually.'
She felt Billy watching her. 'Why?' he asked. She felt sure he was waiting for her to say more.

Also not good. The logical conclusion of that strategy is something like this:

Rosie thought Billy was probably enjoying his tea. She imagined he must be reflecting on how delicate the cups were compared to his work-calloused fingers, and she supposed he might feel awkward, out of place. Was he the kind of man whose inner-monologue would include details about how she looked, how she smelled? She wondered if he was noticing the clarity of her blue eyes, the sheen on her hair. Would he mention the faint whiff of perfume she was sure he had caught as she sat down?

At which point the reader would like to choke Rosie. And probably me. Who's world-view is that self-absorbed? If you know the answer, don't tell me.

Sometimes it's very tempting to shoehorn in contrasting viewpoints. Especially, I find, when writing about a single character for a long time. As a writer (but not as a reader), after a few chapters in a character's head, I would like to know if the people around her think she's an unholy pain in the neck. Rosie goes for tea, and I want the person across the table to get a chance to speak - if nothing else, to let me play with a new perspective on Rosie.

But that leads to POV-slippage. Billy watching and waiting, one or two lines here or there that are in the wrong voice. A big no-no, very jarring to read.

The alternative - forcing the POV character to carry all the exposition and contemplate things that no sane person would contemplate, just to get those things in there - is potentially even uglier.

So what's the answer?

Faulkner was right. Kill your darlings.

There is a line in my WIP that I really didn't want to cut. My POV character is crying and the person who is holding her notices she smells of rainwater and fresh sweat. But I was in the wrong head, so it had to go.

The worst thing about choosing a point of view, whatever one it happens to be, is that you have to sacrifice bits of writing - sometimes bits you really like - just to keep within it.

Painful. But less painful to read than POV-slippage.


  1. Hi

    Oh the first ever, ever, ever "rule" that has helped my writing is to keep to one POV (so throughly agree with you and Nicola Morgan about POV). I cannot begin to tell you just how keeping to one POV has improved my stories no end, seriously, seriously, seriously! It gives a character a four dimensionality, a depth to their fictionality even if you want to strangle and choke them! Rosie jumps out of the page like she's there with me as I read your last re-write here.

    Yes painful to kill but most certainly effective in the long run!

    Take care


  2. I am guilty of POV slippage and sometimes don't even notice it until a re-read. Trying to fix it at this point is so very hard. I need lessons!

  3. I have so much POV slippage in my first drafts - most of the edit I'm doing now is just getting rid of that!

    I do sometimes cheat, though. I will have three or four chapters from different points of view, but most of the book stays in one head. It gets easier with time as well, as you get to know that character better.

  4. I call POV slippage, "Head Hopping" and I was dead guilty of it in the first MS. Very guilty. But I fixed it in the second one. I still "slip" a bit and my Critique partners will catch the minor ones. And then that brings me to another problem: author intrusion.

    Perhaps a post for another day.

    Writing ain't easy but she thinks they might like it :)

  5. Ah, this is an awesome blog...I followed from Christine's blog! So glad I did!

    I'm adding a link to you on my blog...I hope you don't mind!


  6. Hi Hawk, it's always nice to have a new reader. I've added you to my follow list, your blog looks interesting. I'll work my way through the archives now!

    I would love if you added a link, thanks :)

    'Head hopping' is a good phrase, Christine, I like it :) Author intrustion is an good one too.

  7. I identify with all your thoughts on POV, and also authorial intrusion. I'm guilty of both those things, and as Ann mentioned, sometimes don't notice until it's pointed out to me. Argh. I hate the restrictions!

    Great Blog!

  8. Thanks Antonia :) I hope the course is going well.


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