What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure
– Samuel Johnson
We writers often get into a kerfuffle about the point(s) of view in our story – short or novel. Maybe it’s because we get so caught up in the plot and characters we do a version of not seeing the forest for the trees. So in one paragraph Suzie and Bert may be talking but Suzie’s thoughts are incorporated with her dialogue and in the next Bert’s thoughts are included with his dialogue. Oops. That’s two points of view in one scene. I call it “jumping heads” (but it’s not nasty like lice).
The reader can definitely get confused with this setup (Picture the reader jumping back and forth from Suzie to Bert; hence the term “jumping heads”).
Often this problem has its roots in the author not being clear just whose story it is?
Let’s look at a brief excerpt from my short story “Gone Missing” from my mystery collection Beyond the Tripping Point. This story features the fraternal twin private investigators, Dana Bowman and Bast Overture. In the beginning, they are in their office talking to a new client.
“The police can’t find her, Ms Bowman,” Robin Morgrave says to me.
Rosemary Morgrave’s gone missing and I’m putting on the brave smile for her twin brother. Robin sits on the other side of the desk in the third floor office of The Attic Agency. Only my twin brother, Bast, nodding, stops me from losing it. Ever since David my seven-year-old son was abducted last August I’ve been living in Panicville. Sure, we got David back, but how much of him returned? He follows Bast around like an investigator-in-training. His brown eyes stare right through my soul. I wish he’d just say how he feels. But since his return, David hasn’t opened his mouth except to swallow liquids and food. He doesn’t even cry. (Copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford.Excerpted from “Gone Missing” from Beyond the Tripping Point 2012 Blue Denim Press)
This sets the point of view for this story. Although it might appear to be Robin Morgrave’s story from the beginning dialogue, the second paragraph clearly lets us know that it is Dana’s story – because behind dealing with Robin’s case, Dana is still dealing with the fallout from her own son’s kidnapping and how that affects finding Rosemary. That will be following throughout the story. So, the Point of View is with Dana. You can also see that you don’t necessarily have to start the story with something said about, some narrative about, or something said by the POV character. You can weave it in – as long as it stays in that character’s POV and comes across as such.
So, how do you decide whose point of view to tell your story from? You ask yourself “whose story is it?” which can help… somewhat. There are exceptions, such as Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which is not told from The Great Gatsby’s point of view but from his friend. However, the story is basically about Gatsby. It can get tricky.
There is a way to get around this “whose story is it” when the novel is really more than one character’s story or the story is about something such as catching a serial killer. The latter may involve a couple of police officers, the victim or victims, and even the serial killer. Here you are allowed to use multiple points of view. But there are guidelines. The rule of thumb is each chapter or each scene (if you have more than one scene in a chapter) must be from the point of view of one character only. When you start another chapter you can change the point of view. You just leave a double space to show scene changes.
Short stories are usually told from one point of view, but again there are exceptions. However, it is best to keep it to two points of view maximum as a short story has limited space in which to tell your story. Again, you can use the scene change set-up to go from one character’s point of view to another character’s. You can also segue from one character to another – once – in a scene, not a constant flipping back and forth. This latter is more difficult to do.
My short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point keep to one character’s point of view – sometimes in first person and sometimes in third person. We’ll cover that aspect in a future post. Now, in the rewrite of a prequel novel (to “Gone Missing,” “Saving Grace” and the other two linked stories in Beyond the Tripping Point) I use multiple points of view. You can probably guess from the beginning of “Gone Missing” above what the novel is about. But because it’s a novel with police officers, two private investigators, a little boy and others, I’m focusing on the bigger picture of the story line and how it affects not only Dana, but other key players. My technique here is to put the character’s name at the top of the scene/chapter for point of view – mainly because I put Dana in the first person and everyone else in third person. And yes, I use the scene change technique.
In another post we will also look at some tricks to “get inside” the non POV characters without jumping heads and staying with the POV character.
What is my story now? I’m busy doing pre-book launch PR for Beyond the Tripping Point. That includes an interview appearance on a podcast TV show. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in front of a video camera (or behind one) so we’ll see how it goes. I’ll report in the next blog.
For information on my book launch (it’s November 4, 2012) go to http://www.bluedenimpress.com and click on “Toronto.”
Sharon A. Crawford