Tuesday, March 28, 2006

POV: Whose story is it, anyway?

March Madness was so “mad” that Peter didn’t think of a post for Monday, as you’ve no doubt already figured out because you are all so bright. All he can say is, “Go UCLA.” Now, I think this is interesting given who he was pulling for in football, but I’m not going to bring that up. I’ve already given Mike a wide opening to hijack this blog if he weren’t so busy writing his book. But since he’s occupied, I’m safe.

I think.

Point of View. We talk about it a lot in writing, generally in relationship to two things: head hopping and what a POV character can know. So if you stay in one head per scene and don’t have your character do something like thinking about raking her hand through her glorious auburn curls and blinking her emerald green eyes (unless she’s a self-absorbed ego maniac), you’re good.


I’ve read two books recently that deepened my understanding of POV as a storytelling technique. The first was The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. If you haven’t read it, it’s the story of a man who takes his family to be missionaries in the Congo on the eve of its independence from Belgium in the late 50s. The story is told through his four daughters ranging in age from five to fifteen. A couple of section intros are told from the mother’s POV after she’s in America looking back. But that’s it. Essentially, The Poisonwood Bible is four stories, one for each of the POV girls. It’s not really about the mother or the father, so their POVs are unnecessary, though on the face of it, you would think it would be natural to include their POVs. Through over 500 pages, you grow emotionally attached to these girls as they grow and live their lives. It’s their story, and you want to know what happens.

In contrast, I read a book (it shall remain nameless) that, while it kept the traditional POV rules, didn’t seem to know whose story it was telling. It starts out with the heroine and the hero. For about the first 30 pages. Then the heroine disappears and we have three other characters’ POVs. The heroine doesn’t reappear until around page 160. For one scene in her POV. There’s another later on toward the end. That’s it. And the book is supposed to be about her. The story felt disconnected and the characters felt distant.

When I sat down and tried to figure out what was wrong with this book, I realized the author didn’t really seem to know whose story she was telling. Every time we switch POV we start in on someone else’s story. The beginning was the heroine’s. Then it became about another woman. Then the heroine again. If we have five POVs in only 300 pages, and three of them don’t seem to add to the main storyline, then the reader isn’t going to know who to get behind, who to identify with.

This is why I think doing POV well is more than just refraining from head-hopping. It’s knowing whose story you’re telling.

So, what are your thoughts on POV? What do you consider when thinking about adding another POV? What do you notice about the POV in books you read?

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to toss my auburn curls (which I don't have) and pierce someone with my emerald eyes (don't have those either) while I think about it.


michael snyder said...

As much as I'd love to hijack this blog--I'm feeling a little under the weather and am supposed to be packing for a short trip--I'm going to refrain, except to temporarily hop into Peter's head and scream, "Go George Mason!"

Okay, for the record, I'm not really going crazy for any of the final four teams yet. But I will once the action picks up.

Great thoughts on POV, btw (since that is the whole point anyway). I really need to read Poisonwood, but haven't gotten around to it.

I do love switching between POV's in a novel. But it seems everything I've written lately is in first person...it's all about me, me, ME! (Except that really, it's not about me...really...I swear...)

michael snyder said...

Nail polish anyone?

Malia Spencer said...

Nail polish definitely! I got my nails and toes done on Friday. I was tempted to see if they had Chick Flick Cherry or whatever it was called, but it wouldn't have gone with my outfit. Instead I went with opalescent pink and french tip pedicure. I know, boring but safe. Not to mention the same combo I used for conference.

If I can figure out how to post a picture to my blog I'll do it. As soon as I get the pictures from my friend that is. :)

Sabrina L. Fox said...

Oh, oh, waving my hand here...I know what book you're talking about. You're right, it was disconnected. It was almost as if the story could have been about a different family member.

It's funny how once you get POV you become obsessed with it. I read a book last year that was maybe book 12 or something in a continuing series. All the sudden I'm going "who's POV is this" I realize this author writes totally different than the norm. Almost omniscient POV, which we don't see too often.

Either way, you need to know who your story is about and who stands to win/lose the most from each scene. Then be consistent. And that's my expert opinion!!! =)

Jennifer Tiszai said...

Sabrina, I knew you'd know which book I was talking about. I almost put in a warning to you ;) Did you find it instructive as a writer, though, to see what she did wrong? I keep thinking of how I want to restructure that book to make it work. It would be hard.

Malia, OPI makes a pink pearlescent called Aphrodite's Nightie. I have it. Used it last week. Do you have Sephora's in Hawaii? There was one in OC and now they've opened one in Scottsdale. It's a beauty product heaven. Samples of everything!

Mike (can you see I'm working backwards here?), if you want to read Poisonwood, I can bring it to Mt. Hermon. I don't think I'm going to read it again anytime soon. Of course, if your TBR pile is anything like mine, you might not want to add to it.

Anyhow, first person POV has its own challenges as well, which, btw everyone, Mike handles quite well. I don't think Russell's story would be as powerful in third.

And no, Mike, it's not all about you. It's all about me. I thought you knew that. Geez. Though, I have to say, since you brought up nail polish, we must be converting you to our way of thinking. Or that virus you've got is affecting your brain.

Malia Spencer said...

I think I remember seeing a Sephora store here. Yep, just checked on the web, there's one in Ala Moana. That mall is a trip. I don't know if it still holds true but at one time it was the world's largest open air shopping center.

I think I feel the need to shop coming on. I have some gift certificates that expire at the end of the month. You all know how I'll be spending my Friday! :)

Dineen A. Miller said...

Good post! I think POV should be determined by the purpose of the scene. Who has the most to lose, etc, etc. Interesting to think about whether or not a POV is necessary. I would think that would take an examination of the entire plotline of the book. You just have to feel it out. I keep hearing about the Poisonwood Bible. I may have to pick it up...after I work through my huge stack!

Jennifer Tiszai said...

Yeah, reading those books close together made me realize how much POV can be a structure issue too.

Jenny said...

I read a couple books this last weekend and with the second, the head hopping nearly gave me whiplash. I have to admit, though, until I really started to take this writing thing seriously, I wouldn't have minded the head-hopping. I love reading the older classics, like Jane Austin, and head hopping wasn't considered a problem then.

But you raised a question, Jen, that I really hadn't thought of before--the whole whose story is it and I think Dineen hit the nail on the head. Whoever has the most to lose GENERALLY should be the POV character--sometimes watching the reaction of the one with the most to lose and knowing the thought processes of the POV character can allow for eye-opeing experience or lovely red herrings, especially if the one with the most to lose is not the h/h and the POV character is.
Okay, I'm tire and that probably sounds a bit convoluted but, hey, I made it over to see ya ☺
Later, 'gator!
Abundant blessings!