POINT OF VIEW

POINT OF VIEW

This is so basic I'm probably telling you what you already know, but I see so many examples of POV mistakes that it seems worth reiterating this fundamental technique of narrative.

When you begin a scene you are telling your story—and I'll explain in a minute why this is relevant for both fiction and non-fiction—you are of necessity speaking from someone's vantage point. Strictly as a hypothetical, if you start by saying: “Shelly had long considered the house inadequate. Now, speaking to John about why it could not be sold, she must make a different argument.” You have established he scene as being in Shelly's POV. You cannot then tell us what John thinks. You have instead to tell us what he says and/or what Shelly believes he thinks.

When you end that scene and you are no longer reporting that particular conversation you are perhaps free to invoke a different POV. (Unless, of course, you have set up this particular story as being in what's called limited third person. In that case you are telling the story entirely in Shelly's POV, but using third person: “Shelley had long considered.” Rather than, “I had long considered.”)

A really skilled technician can break this rule and tell a particular scene from multiple points of view, but doing so can really mess up your pace. Something you don't want to do.

Or you can elect a different approach and divide your story precisely according to who is doing the telling. In the opening of Gillian Flynn's runaway bestseller GONE GIRL she starts with Nick's POV and says: “When I think of my wife I always think of her head. The shape to begin with.” Later she will switch to Amy's POV and tell the same story from a very different perspective. The point is to make the reader consider which of the two major POV characters is telling the truth. Flynn thus played with what proved to be a game-changer in commercial fiction, the unreliable narrator. (Though to be fair that's a conceit employed by the likes of Paul Scott or E.M. Forster.)

Returning to the question of applying this principle to non-fiction—whether article or book length—you still have the same considerations. In non-fiction you're more likely to have begun by immediately establishing who Shelly is and why we should care what she thinks about a particular house, whereas in a novel you might choose to let those reasons unfold as the drama moves forward. But in terms of POV it comes to the same thing.

Readers want to be—indeed almost always need to be—in the head of one person at a time.

Don't Begin at the Beginning

Don't Begin at the Beginning

Nothing is harder to do than to start writing. And when you look for advice you're quite likely to be told to begin at the beginning. Personally I think the beginning is an awful place to start.

Whatever truth you're about to tell—the opening of a thriller (N.B. no good novel is ever untrue) or the first paragraph of an article for the local paper—your task is to grab the reader's attention. That's never been easy to do. Nowadays there are so many competing demands on what used to be called “reading time” it can be a monumental task.

You need to look for the heart of your story—what makes it alive—and start there. Maybe you're writing a memoir about your life singing with a blues band. Please promise me you won't start by talking about your mom and dad back in Omaha, and how the only music they cared about was produced by the church choir.

Much better to start with perhaps the first time you set foot on stage. How you came on after the guy with the harmonica had been waving you forward for what seemed like forever. And then, when you finally worked up the courage to walk on stage, you were so overwhelmed with the smoke drifting up from the audience you were sure you'd choke as soon as you opened your mouth. And how that's exactly what happened.

As for the folks back home in Omaha and how they got there, you'll get to that. And you won't forget how the family reacted when Grandma married her sixth husband. But this is a story about what happened to you, not them. So begin with something that actually still lingers deep in your gut, Do the head-parts, the stuff you know but don't necessarily feel, in flashback. (And I promise a piece on flashbacks in the not too distant future.)

Writing tips – beginnings

Nothing is harder to do than to start writing. And when you look for advice you're quite likely to be told to begin at the beginning. Personally I think the beginning is an awful place to start.
Whatever truth you're about to tell—the opening of a thriller (and no good novel is ever untrue) or the first paragraph of an article for National Geographic—your task is to grab the reader's attention. That's never been easy to do; nowadays when so there are so many competing demands on what used to be called “reading time,” it can be a monumental task.
That's why you need to look for the peg of your story and start there. Maybe you're writing a memoir about your life singing with a blues band. Please promise me you won't start by talking about your mom and dad back in Omaha, and how the only music they cared about was produced by the church choir. (Or worse, your grandmother's trek west in a covered-wagon.)
Much better to start with perhaps the first time you set foot on stage. How you came on after the guy with the harmonica had been waving you forward for what seemed like forever. And then, when you finally worked up your courage to walk on stage, you were so overwhelmed with the smoke from the audience you were sure you'd choke as soon as you opened your mouth. And how that's exactly what happened.
As for the folks back home in Omaha and how they got there, you'll get to that. And you won't forget how the family reacted when Grandma married her sixth husband, the only black man for miles around. But this is a story about what happened to you, not them and it's your face on the book's cover (okay, your face from thirty years ago). So begin with something that actually still lingers deep in your gut, Do the head-parts, the stuff you know but don't necessarily feel, in flashback.


Outlines are terrific

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