I want to begin by sharing what may seem to be a rather startling observation: whereas some 95% of mainstream, commercially published novels demonstrate strong Single Character Point of View (POV) disciplines, at least 75% of the many fiction manuscripts from unpublished or self-published writers do not. (I’d actually suggest that the proportion of third-person narratives is rather higher than 75%, with inherently more robust first-person narratives faring somewhat better.) Most writers have either no awareness at all of the concept or have a very limited grasp of its application and disciplines. I can only assume this to be something that is either not dealt with at all or is explained badly in creative writing courses or by fiction writing coaches.
Whatever the reason for this, there are clearly significant implications arising for writers submitting their manuscripts for consideration by publishing editors or literary agents: first, that thousands of imaginative and original stories from otherwise talented writers with a fluent command of English are effectively damned for want of a simple discipline that is easy to learn and acquire; second, that writers who have had the opportunity to do so and incorporate it into their writing – or rewriting – make perhaps a fourfold increase in the prospects of having their work taken on by publishers and agents.
POV disciplines are important not only for their own sake but because they lie at the foundation of so many other critical aspects of writing: using flow and pace to inject a genuine page-turning quality to the story; avoiding overwriting and explaining; to creating a vivid cinematic and sensual quality to scenes; strong characterisation and enabling readers to fully engage with protagonists. So, what is it all about?
For the sake of simplicity, there are two distinct approaches to dealing with POV and our choice and the disciplines we follow that go with that choice are critically important. The first of these is often called Omniscient POV. This is because the narrator is essentially unfettered and almost hovers over his creation: like God, they can go where they like and as often as they like – inside the minds of a variety of characters simultaneously, revealing their thoughts and feelings, seeing what they see – without formally announcing it to us. This form used to be more common than it is today (Chaucer, Boccaccio, the writers of the Bible, of Beowulf and the Thousand Nights and One Night didn’t worry over much about POV). Now, it is exceptionally rare – and those few modern novels with an Omniscient POV tend to be deliberately styled to impart an antique, fairy-tale-like quality. For quite some time now, British and North American writers have been urged to turn away from the Omniscient perspective and adopt a Single Character POV discipline. Agents and editors have come to expect it and quite a few of them refer to anything else as ‘head-hopping’ – and they don’t like it at all.
With the single POV approach they expect and are accustomed to, we no longer allow ourselves the freedom to hover and see almost simultaneously into the minds of all our characters. Now we must choose where to put our ‘camera’. This goes behind the eyes and into the mind of only one of our characters at a time – either for the whole book, one or more chapters or, at least a sub-chapter or scene; we only see, hear smell and feel what they do; we are only privy to their thoughts – the thoughts of the other characters can only be surmised as only our chosen character could surmise them based only on what he or she sees and hears. Conversely, we don’t tend to deal with the physical attributes of our POV character – we cannot: the camera is pointing out, not in. It’s superfluous anyway: we don’t need to rely on expressions, gestures or spoken words for our POV character because we are privy to all their thoughts and emotions – we are inside their head.
Single POV fiction writing means being fully conscious as we write (or re-write) of whose POV this is at all times and making sure we stick to the rules. Though this is more restricting than the Omniscient form, it brings a very vivid and personal dimension akin to first person writing. In its purest manifestation it sticks with one character throughout (eg the Harry Potter stories – after a short prologue, nothing happens without Harry being there and the ‘camera’ stays with him from beginning to end).
Now, if we have a more complex plot, either involving more than one principal character or a landscape with things happening in different places simultaneously, we can transfer our camera from one character to another if we wish, provided we signal to the reader that we’ve done so.
The simplest and most robust means of adopting this second approach is exemplified by George RR Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire books, televised as Game of Thrones. What he does is head up each chapter with the name of a character. The reader knows, not so much that the character is the subject of the chapter, but that they will be spending the duration of the chapter inside that character’s head. If the chapter is headed Tyrion, they will be privy to everything that Tyrion knows, feels or thinks without constraint. But they will only see, hear, smell or taste what Tyrion sees etc; they will only encounter the world that he encounters and only be able to understand it in terms of what he shows us of it. The device imparts a visual, sensual and cinematic quality to the writing and to our experience. For the writer, it forces a show-don’t-tell approach, it squeezes out the telling and any contrived adverbs and anything that is overcooked, and it imparts a degree of vivid and dramatic clarity that we could only improve upon if we were present ourselves. It is a very powerful way of writing, but it involves careful choices.
Issues of POV tend to vary for each manuscript. Some come from writers who are aware of the discipline and follow it consciously, but who slip a gear every once in a while. These tend to be easy fixes. A few come from writers who are less unfamiliar with POV disciplines and consequently have written in an unconsciously omniscient style. This invariably leads to ‘head-hopping’, which typically requires much more time and effort – often the significant rewriting of chapters or scenes – at the revision stages.
We cannot slip unceremoniously between the heads of characters. We must decide. Our camera must stay in one character’s head throughout the scene. We only see and hear what they see and hear, we are privy to their thoughts and emotions and no one else’s. We must choose. Yes, some detail will be gained or lost whatever our choice and we should make it carefully.
For each chapter or scene, we should determine in advance who will carry the ‘camera’. Who is best placed to carry this scene from beginning to end? Who is in the best position to portray the specific observables – the externals – of the other characters? Whose thoughts and emotions are most important to convey. Whose, if any, do we need to keep secret? Considering these things, we choose one character and ensure the scene is presented exclusively through their POV. In extremis, if we really can’t tell our story in this scene through a single character (and JK Rowling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and thousands of others can do it for a whole book) then we fall back, if necessary, on splitting the scene with a line break and asterisk that tells the reader that the POV has shifted, that the camera has been moved. We do this sparingly, since we pay the price of a more fragmented scene and story.
Once we have made our decision, we must stick with it – preserve the discipline. We must avoid slipping into an Omniscient perspective by letting that camera drift out of our designated POV character’s head and up towards the ceiling – much less into the head of another character. The camera is rather like Tolkien’s great ring of power: it wants to return to its creator and master – it wants to leave the head of the POV character and tempt the author to indulge in things that have nothing to do with the story or abandon its sensual, cinematic qualities, to overwrite or over-explain, to sap the pace or the dramatic tension, to weaken the reader’s connection with the character. In a real sense, our principal task is now to keep the camera chained up in the designated character’s head and not let it escape unless and until we decide to move it to another.
We must be utterly ruthless; every word and sentence must be filtered through our POV character’s mind and senses. This needs concentration as well as imagination. It is not always easy and it may throw up practical problems that seem, at first, difficult to solve. But solve them we must – we cannot retreat from the discipline when the going gets tough and fall back on an omnipresent POV. By solving them, we enhance our writing considerably, make our story much more vivid and dramatic and enhance greatly the depth of our characters.
There will be much more about Single Character POV in one of a short series of videos to be released shortly. Visit www.borderscripts in the coming weeks for further announcements – or you can join our mailing list using the link below.
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