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Jan's New Writing Lessons--POV

Posted: Mon Aug 05, 2013 7:04 am
by glorybee
Choosing the best POV

[This lesson is mostly for writers of fiction or of creative nonfiction (CNF). As the weeks go on, I’ll try to eventually include lessons for writers of all genres.]

There are many different literary POVs (Points Of View), but since this lesson is of necessity just an overview, the first thing I’ll mention is that if this topic is of interest to you, you’ll want to take what I teach here and do some more research on your own. I’m going to keep it fairly simple here.

1st person POV is that in which the story (or novel, or CNF) is narrated by a character telling her own narrative. The pronouns I, me, my, mine will be used throughout. During the telling of a 1st person POV story, the narrator can only tell about things that she has perceived, experienced, remembered. Anything attributed to another character has to be what the POV character has observed or deduced about the second character.

Probably the most familiar novel written in first person POV is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. The second paragraph of that book follows:

Now the way that the book [Tom Sawyer]winds up is this: Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand dollars apiece -- all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round -- more than a body could tell what to do with. The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.

Advantages of writing in 1st person POV:
1. The reader gets to know your main character intimately
2. It’s easy to keep your voice consistent

Disadvantages of writing in 1st person POV:
1. You can’t describe anything that your narrator hasn’t experienced or deduced. Things that happen “off stage” have to be worked into the narrative in some other way.
2. Secondary characters are sometimes not given adequate motivations

In writing very short fiction or CNF, like the Writing Challenge, 1st person works very well. I especially like 1st person for stories with only one or two characters, moody stories that explore the narrator’s emotions, and stories that take place in a very short period of time.

[A note about writing 1st person fiction: once a year or so, a writer will post here on the forums that they feel bad about a commenter who has mistaken their fictional entry for a true story, because it was written with the narrator saying “I did this…” The writer feels as if she has ‘lied’ to the reader, because it did not actually happen to her. Please don’t worry about this. It’s not a lie; it is fiction. And apparently you have done it quite well, if you have convinced the reader that the story actually happened. If 1st person is a lie, then any fiction might be considered a lie—but writers need not have that on their conscience. That’s what writing is all about.]

2nd Person POV is rare in fiction; in this POV the narrator addresses the reader as “you”, or the “you” is implied. It’s far more common to use this POV in devotionals and instructional material:

You can count on God to do what He has promised He will do.

[You] Connect tab A to slot B.

If you were around in the 1980s, you may have read one of the very popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. These were written in 2nd person, and on every page the reader was asked to choose a path as if they were the protagonist of their own book. This is an example from Your Very Own Robot, by R. A. Montgomery:

Everybody wants a robot. Only a few people get to have one. That’s because robots are hard to make—and they also cost a lot of money.

You are one of the lucky ones who gets to own a robot. Here is how it happens.

Your mom and dad are scientists. They work with robots every day. Sometimes they even build them.

One day, they build a robot that seems to do everything wrong. “I’ve tried to fix it and I can’t,” your father says. So he tosses the robot into the trash.

Turn to page 2.

It’s very, very rare to have a 2nd person piece of fiction or CNF in the Writing Challenge, as it is difficult to write this way. 2nd person literary pieces tend to be avant garde and quite unusual. A very good writer can pull it off, and can write in such a way that the reader feels that they have become the main character. It would be fine to experiment with this POV if you have a unique piece with one strong character—but I don’t recommend using 2nd person often.

3rd person POV is that in which the characters are referred to by their names, or by the pronouns he, she, him, her, his, hers, etc. The narrator of a 3rd person narrative is most often not a character in the story itself, or is an uninvolved observer.

There are two kinds of 3rd person POV, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.
In 3rd person limited, the narrator is “inside the head” of one main character, and as in 1st person, this narrator only can know and describe things that that one character has experienced or perceived. This is a very common way to write fiction, and is the one that many publishers prefer. It’s a great mode for storytelling, and it’s the one that most of your readers will be familiar with.

Here are a few paragraphs from The Old Man and the Sea:

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.

“Santiago,” the boy said to him as they climbed the bank from where the skiff was hauled up. “I could go with you again. We’ve made some money.” The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.

“No,” the old man said. “You’re with a lucky boat. Stay with them.”

If you write a challenge entry in 3rd person limited POV, be very careful not to slip into the head of a secondary character; it will leave your reader feeling slightly disoriented.

Finally, 3rd person omniscient POV is writing in which the narrator is in the thoughts and feelings of all characters equally. This used to be far more common in novels than it is now, and in a short story for the writing challenge, 3rd person limited is more effective (750 words is barely enough for one character’s POV!).

If you write in 3rd person omniscient POV, you’ll want to help your readers deal with the confusion of switching from one character’s head to another by—at the very least—starting a new paragraph when you move to another character. Mention the new character right away, so the reader knows that there has been a switch. Some writers, because of the complex nature of their narrative, will switch POV characters with each chapter, so that events can be examined from each character’s perspective.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Teatime for the Traditionally Built, by Alexander McCall Smith, showing a switch in POV (from Mma Ramotswe to Mma Makutsi):

Mma Ramotswe could not let this pass. Mma Makutsi was too hard on the two apprentices, particularly on the older one, Charlie. Words had passed between them more than once, including on the occasion when Charlie had called Mma Makutsi a warthog and made disparaging references to her large glasses. It had been quite wrong of him, and Mma Ramotswe had made that plain, but she had also acknowledged that he had been provoked. …

…Mma Makutsi had to agree with this, even if reluctantly. She and Mma Ramotswe were fortunate, with their reasonably straightforward names of Grace and Precious, respectively; she had contemporaries who were not so fortunate and had been saddled by their parents with names that were frankly ridiculous.

And that’s just about enough, for a lesson that’s just an overview of POV.

1. Ask me a question about POV. OR…
2. Add your own knowledge; what have I left out that you think is important? OR…
3. Write 1-2 sentences in one (or more) of these POVs, and tell why you think that POV is the right choice for the passage you wrote.

Homework may be done privately, for your own benefit, or posted on this forum. If you post here, I promise to reply.

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--POV

Posted: Tue Aug 06, 2013 10:28 am
by GeraldShuler
This example is from a writing challenge several years ago. I think it does a better job of describing the main character than if a more traditional POV gave a long, word filled description of the character. The hard part in this piece was making the other characters come across with more understanding of salvation and still have that understanding voiced by someone without understanding.

Okay, so my woman, Susan, (who says she ain’t my woman, but you know how that goes) says I need to get saved. She won’t hitch to an unsaved sinner ‘cause of unequal yolks. Don’t ask me... I think I must have mis-understood somethin’. But anyways, ya know? She’s so fine a woman I’d get saved just so’s she would finally agree that she’s my woman. I told her that. Ya know what she said?

“Billy,” she says, “It just doesn’t work that way."

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--POV

Posted: Tue Aug 06, 2013 10:38 am
by glorybee
Jay, I really like this. Writing in first person allows you to use your character's voice in the narrative, not just in the dialogue, and that's really effective.

Excellent example of first person POV--thanks for sharing this!

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--POV

Posted: Tue Aug 06, 2013 9:13 pm
by choosingjoy
I'm reading a book titled Full Disclosure by Dee Henderson. She switches the POV from the guy MC to the girl MC very deliberately, by titling the parts of the book using their names. For her, it works, and is very interesting. In a short story, especially as short as the Challenge entries are, I discovered what you said, Jan--it is almost impossible to do that. I tried it once, early on, and it was a disaster (I'm not about to give the title, because I don't want anyone to read it.) :mrgreen:

POV is so important. I like to write in first person, but don't like to talk about really personal issues, :oops: and I do feel guilty about the first person fiction thing. I will try to get over that.

Thanks again for your help, Jan.

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--POV

Posted: Wed Aug 07, 2013 2:46 am
by glorybee
Genia, when I was writing for the challenge, 1st person was my favorite POV, too. I think it's easier for me, the writer, to get to know my own protagonist that way. And there were times when my protagonist -- the "I" of my story -- got to express feelings that the real me feels. But by writing it as fiction, I could give the character experiences that I haven't had, or resolution that I haven't experienced. In that way, it's safe for me to write it, and therefore liberating.

As far as the issue of feeling as if writing in first person is being less than truthful -- a moment's thought should make it clear that ALL fiction is made up, regardless of the POV. Even Jesus used fiction, when he told his parables. The POV isn't even really an issue--it's realizing that there's a difference between fiction and deceit.

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--POV

Posted: Thu Sep 19, 2013 8:52 pm
by choosingjoy
Hi Jan,
Just a note to let you know I've been busy with trying out some of your good counsel. I tried my hand at a first person fiction on the "Exhale" challenge topic. It was based on some definite real people and circumstances, but fictionalized. It ranked #24 overall (which is pretty good for me. :wink: )

However, on the "Extra" topic, I went for broke. I did a total off-the-top-of-my-head fiction entry, and it was fun! Not only that, but it won an EC. Thanks for helping me get over my reservations. :lol:

Also, I tried a free verse entry for "Expose" and it ranked #24 overall. Maybe an old dog can learn new tricks--and enjoy it.

:thankssign again for all your help

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--POV

Posted: Thu Sep 19, 2013 9:15 pm
by glorybee
Wonderful, Genia!

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--POV

Posted: Thu Sep 19, 2013 10:16 pm
by Come forth
Hi Jan, I wrote a story called "More Than A Name" for the challenge 'thump' (for those interested it is here ... p?id=45982)

This was NOT a true story, pure fiction, and yet a few readers felt and wanted to know if it was true. I didn't feel as if I had deceived folk because it was written for the purpose of giving a message not a testimony. Your points in this regard are well founded.

1st point of view tends to be my favorite. 2nd point of view tends to sometimes sound preachy, which I find hard to avoid; it seems to point a finger (you need to...). 3rd point of view seems disconnected to me; she, he... but it is difficult to build relationship.

So my question is this, when wanting to talk about us, we, those of us gathered here (i.e. both reader and writer), where does this fit in to POV and what's the best way to maximize the unity and agreement you are trying to create?

Blessings, Graham.

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--POV

Posted: Thu Sep 19, 2013 11:02 pm
by glorybee
Come forth wrote: So my question is this, when wanting to talk about us, we, those of us gathered here (i.e. both reader and writer), where does this fit in to POV and what's the best way to maximize the unity and agreement you are trying to create?
Hmmmm. I'm not sure I entirely get your question, but I'll give it a shot.

There's a kind of plural 1st person POV that uses we and us instead of I. It's a POV that's far more common in non-fiction than in fiction. So you might read a devotional, for example, or hear a sermon with sentences like this:

We are all in need of God's abundant grace.

This is actually a quite good voice for devotionals and sermons, because it's less preachy. The writer isn't saying that you need grace, but that we all do.

It's far less common in fiction, because it's difficult for "us" or "we" to all share the POV. I did it in The Rocks Still Wait--a story written from the POV of the rocks on the ground on the way to Jerusalem. I can't say that I ever recall seeing that plural 1st person voice used elsewhere in fiction.

Is that what you were asking? If not, let me know and I'll try again.

Oh--I loved your "Thump" story. I'm sure that if I'd read it that week, I'd have recognized it as fiction; it has something unidentifiable that makes it feel more like fiction than memoir. Something in your voice, but I don't know how to explain it better than that. Also, I appreciate it on another level--like one of your commenters, I too have a child with a physical disability who has had to overcome bitterness.