Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Whose View Is It Anyway?!

Have you ever started reading a book and find you feel like you’re in chapter five and you swore you were reading chapter three?  Suddenly the room changes and you’re not sure if you got lost somewhere or if your eyes are playing tricks on you.  Maybe the author and publisher have some pages out of sequence and you scramble back a few pages to see what happened.  This is generally due to an unexpected point of view shift in the characters in the story.

What is point of view?  It’s the thoughts and ideas of (usually) the main character (hero).  How many should there be in a story?  That depends on the length of the story.  If it’s a short story, I recommend one viewpoint.  If it’s a novel, I recommend one viewpoint, too.   It seems to be all the rage now to have many different POV’s these days, but it tends to shipwreck the reader, in my opinion.
We go to movies to be entertained and there’s sort of an omniscient feel to a movie.  You're overhead, you’re on the side, you’re peeking around the corner with the camera lens.  You’ve devoted two hours to this and you hope it will be good and you can take something decent home with you afterwards, not just popcorn crumbs.
But reading a novel is a longer commitment.  How many times have you picked up a book and put it down again because it wasn’t what you were expecting?  Sadly, this has happened to me recently, several times; I feel overworked when I wanted to be entertained.  But what's making the work?
When we read a book we want to connect with the main character, if we’re going to put a few days of our time into it, right?  If there are a ton of characters peopling the streets of the story, we have to pick one and hang on.  If there’s only one main character, the author has chosen for us and we can then decide if we want to spend our time in this character's head before we even start to read. 
When you write, it’s tempting to play God, because you, as author, know EVERYTHING… but the reader does not want to be you.  The reader wants to be strung along and have the story unfold.  There’s nothing better than a mystery that has clues all over the place and in the final chapters the author pulls it together.  Whether you’ve guessed it or not, you remember the clues, and the red herrings and you say “Aha!  I saw that!”
Don’t ruin the mystique of your novel by having more than one hero and/or one heroine.  Professionally, I’d say one POV is enough, two is ok and three is pushing it.  After that, you’ll lose your reader.  It’s not so much they may throw your book away, but it will become forgettable.  Of all the most requested authors at the library, Elizabeth Peters continues to be on the list after decades of dazzling her readers with her stories.  People actually steal her books from the library!  I had the pleasure of reading one of her novels recently and it was fabulous.  At the end I realized there was only one POV throughout the entire 200 pages. 
Yes, as writers we can let the reader in on what everyone is thinking but why not follow your high school creative writing teacher’s advice; one POV per story or as close as you can get, if you must add more.  I think you’ll find your writing is more enjoyable to others.  You won’t hear from readers saying, “Wow, love that one POV throughout your book!” but you will hear things like “The story was easy to follow.”  “I fell in love with the main character.”  “I can’t wait to find out what this author will write next.” 
Please feel free to email me for tips on how to pare back from multiple POV's to one or two.  It's not hard and actually a bit easy just by changing a word here and there. 
Karen McGrath is the author of Primordial Sun, The Heart of the Amazon, from MuseItUp Publishing in April 2011, as well as Love in the Time of Mortals (August 2011) and The Vagabond Prince (December 2011).  Please email her at karenmcgrathauthor(at)gmail(dot)com and visit her blog and website at http://karenmcgrathauthor.blogspot.com and www.karenmcgrathauthor.com

photos courtesy of morguefile.com and museituppublishing.com


Charlie said...

I couldn't agree more! I've read one book by a very popular author and there was about 8 different POVs. Was very frustrating and I almost stopped reading.

C.K. Volnek

Karen McGrath said...

I give you credit for patience - I have tossed books like that in the trash! Mainly because I didn't want my teens reading them and thinking that was good writing!