POV and Style, PART I: Be a Ninja
I’m writing a blog post in first person present tense. For a blog post, first person present is a pretty easy choice. I’m the narrator, I’m the main character, I’m talking directly to a reader. No intervening characters will be jumping into the mix, unless I very quickly develop dissociative identity disorder. (That seems unlikely.) Also, the present tense is a nice way to hand over information. For instance, ‘I think this font is nice.’ Is–perfectly acceptable verb there. ‘I thought this font was nice’ sounds like I have lost faith in my font, and maybe you should too, honestly. ‘This font will be nice’ is right out.
If I hadn’t pointed that out to you, I hope that you would never have noticed. In a similar vein, I hope that in a story I don’t have to notice the point of view (henceforth shortened to POV) or tense either.
The decision of which POV to write from is an important one. There are characters to follow around, there’s an audience that needs to get inside of your character’s head, and there’s a plot that is happening or was happening or had happened earlier. This is important. This is nuts and bolts. Grammar stuff. Pronouns and past perfect verb conjugation.
Unfortunately, these things are not intrinsically interesting. It’s like a painting. The thing might be made of canvas and paint and a frame if you’re lucky, but the interesting part is beyond the material. The paint is boring.
POV and tense are most effective when they build into the story without being noticeable–fundamental but invisible–allowing the plot, characters and world (things that are actually interesting) to be the focus. Thus, the point of the entire exercise of picking a tense and a POV is to hide it carefully from a reader. Every sentence is going to be affected by what you choose, but you don’t want anyone to notice. You want to be a POV ninja: silent, unseen, and always there.
There are some things that will hinder your mission to keep your tense and POV invisible–some things are too bizarre to hide, and some that have hidden pitfalls. (POV ninjas must learn to avoid traps.) For instance, second person in any incarnation is very dangerous, and often bad. Second person past tense (or, terrifyingly, future tense) is worse. Diaries, while a common way to do first person, are hard to do right, and tend to call attention to themselves.
I will mention that third person limited, fancy for “hanging about with a character and knowing all their thoughts and feelings but not really anybody else’s,” is usually considered the place where you start. If you want to do something else, I suggest having a reason.
There are some places you might want to go for specific reasons. There’s a lot of options to explore, with omniscient POV, first person narration, and multiple, alternating POV characters. Sometimes POV gymnastics can be key to controlling the information given to the reader, essential to sneaky reveals and twists. Don’t be afraid to try something a bit different if you have a reason–that’s why the choices are there.
After choosing an appropriate combination, there is one ever-present huge bomb of badness that can explode on you. Stick to your chosen POV and tense. Be careful that your first person narrator does not notice the color of his own eyes. Do not suddenly become a mind-reader and break out of third-person limited to describe what Sidekick No. 2 is thinking. Double-check your verbs for moments of stupid. Breaks in consistency are astoundingly irritating, and they make everyone notice the POV, which, as mentioned before, is not the goal. The workings of POV are a bit dull, so it would be nice if your reader was paying attention to your riveting plot, instead of complaining to themselves that the main character probably shouldn’t have called it the Surprise Box of Snakes before looking inside and seeing the surprise snakes. Consistent POV is invisible POV.
Fixing big mistakes in tense is easy. If you write the story and later realize you did it wrong–you just chase down all your verbs and fix them. Minimal thought required. Fixing broken POV is harder; changing it usually means entering the land of the full rewrite, so it’s advisable to have put some thought into it ahead of time.
Consequently, it’s important to be deliberate in picking your POV character. You can’t swap halfway through or sidle into another character’s head for a moment just because you feel like it. This character, out of the entire cast, owns the story. The story will recount her emotions, her observations, her actions. By default, she is the top candidate for main character, and should be a character that does things. If your POV character does nothing–if she just walks around and watches events going on around her, it can feel like she is just a useless portal, a cardboard cutout for the audience to stand behind while they let the story go by. Much more compelling is following the character who is affected by the things going on and who, in turn, affects the events around her. Give that character the story. Put the cardboard cutout somewhere else.
What it boils down to is two rules: keep POV and tense deliberate and consistent. Have a reason for deciding on anything crazy, and once you’ve decided, don’t change your mind halfway through. And that’s it.
January 3, 2011 @ 5:11 pm
Great post. The “have a reason for deciding on anything crazy” rule isn’t just for the sake of the reader but for your sanity as a writer. I once wrote a story in first person plural (POV of “we”). Huuuuuge headache. I had a good reason for it, but man, that story would have been so much easier to write if I’d kept to a basic third.
Though I might argue with your idea that third person limited is the best default POV. I think that first is equally valid, and your default should be whichever of those two comes naturally to you as a writer. (Third omniscient is hella hard to write, and second pretty much always draws attention to itself, as you mentioned.)