Discussion on Point of View

10 Dec

Today, I answered a friend’s instant message containing questions from another friend regarding the use of third-person omniscient point of view:

Moving between different people’s thoughts (“head hopping” is the pejorative term for it) is the norm for 3rd person omniscient. More modern style calls for staying close to one character for a solid block of time. I guess there are two problems that can come up: 1) Abrupt, incoherent changes, like in the middle of a sentence. 2) Excessive switching, even when it is clear who is thinking.

I’m pretty sure the book doesn’t commit sin #1. Every change of character gets a new paragraph. I try to put any words, actions and thoughts for that character in the same paragraph. Thoughts are treated just like dialog, but internal.

The question is, do the places where it switches minds cause the narrative to lose effectiveness? Is it harder to read? Does it lose emotion?

Maybe the issue is that true omniscient viewpoint pulls further back from the characters so you can see all of the more equally. Maybe the modern reader doesn’t want that cold isolation. Maybe they want to embrace one character very closely and go through the story with her.

…(A)ny thoughts about whether or not “head-hopping” is not canon, loses emotion, is even a modern writing thing?

My response below was written ad lib, and so may be missing elements, but I hope it is of use:

Third-person omniscient is, for the most part, eschewed in modern writing, although we all know it was quite prevalent in the work of past generations of writers and in the classics.

However, it is rarely handled well, and often marks the writer as an amateur, and as lazy or old-fashioned. Old-fashioned isn’t bad by any means, but the writer had better handle that POV well in order to make it effective in the story.

Third-person omniscient (hereafter TPO) can bleed away the tension and the suspense in a story if the writer clumsily inserts “meanwhile” statements, or “if he only knew” statements, etc.

If may be better for the reader to NOT know what a particular character is thinking, saying, or doing in a scene, and yet — if writing in TPO — the writer may feel compelled to reveal that information anyway.

TPO does create distance with the characters, making them seem like puppets or action figures the author is making dance to his tune, to serve the purpose of the plot at his whim without any real connection to the reader or to reality. TPO can pull back so far that the reader never really gets to know the characters beyond one or two dimensions, and therefore — in the reader’s mind — the flat, unknowable characters can become interchangeable and forgettable.

This distance/shallowness can also lead to confusion, perhaps because the reader isn’t allowed to really care about the characters or what happens to them, and so he may be reading along but not truly differentiating between one character or another. People are doing something somewhere and it matters to someone, but, eh, the reader shrugs it off because he’s not emotionally invested in the story. Not enough to realize that Frankie’s dead because Tim forgot to pack a gun. Not enough to fear for Sally’s safety or to remember which of the villains is pursuing Mehitabel.

Used well, however, TPO can become like a movie camera, pulling out the zoom for a panoramic view of the story or pushing in for closeup with a particular character or group of characters. It can reveal a background character’s suspicious expression, or pan across a room, or cut away at just the right moment to conceal who’s standing behind the door. When and how this is done requires thought and skill.

Most of the modern TPO I’ve seen as an editor and a reader is so awkward, thoughtless, and haphazard in its application that it is easy to see why the accusation of amateur or lazy writing is (rightly) applied.

On the other hand, I have read a few modern novels written in TPO that actually grabbed my interest and weren’t jerky and mishandled.

That said, a well-written book can be excused many things, even the flouting of convention. Some readers refuse to read first-person POV, second-person POV, present tense, anything with flashbacks, anything told in a non-linear fashion, but I like a good story well told. I may have to settle in to the unusual manner in which it is told, but that manner should enhance the story, not intrude upon it.

For example, in Dragon’s Rook, a book written in third-person limited point of view, there is one chapter written in first-person present tense. It’s a long section of one character speaking, and all those quotation marks made it look awkward, and it was clumsy to have to include actions, pauses, reactions from the listener, etc. Therefore, I ditched convention and gave the monologue its own chapter. The passage suddenly gained interest and became compelling, and the tension ratcheted up, too. Many readers have stated that’s one of their favorite chapters because it’s unexpected and it reveals much about the speaker, the circumstances, and the person he’s addressing. The chapters that bookend it on either side also enhance the effectiveness of that one odd chapter.

Don’t be afraid to “mix it up” and play with how a story is told. The Unmakers is a mix of chapters written in first-person present tense, and chapters in third-person limited past tense. One character — the lead — gets all the first-person material. Everyone else is in the other POV/tense. I didn’t set out to do that, but it happened while writing, and it felt natural to the way the story flows.

If you have questions, suggestions, a different response, please do join the conversation.


Posted by on December 10, 2014 in Books, Characters, Classics, Creativity, Editing, Reading, Stories, Writing


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3 responses to “Discussion on Point of View

  1. Loriendil

    December 13, 2014 at 8:40 am

    I agree with everything you said – with a “but”: so many writers (and I have done and do deal with lots of neophytes, so this is my angle on it) think they have the chops to pull off something out of the norm, when they don’t. I know you emphasize this in your post, but I want to underscore your underscore, so to speak. 🙂

  2. Loriendil

    December 13, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Reblogged this on Writer's Cramps and commented:
    My friend and fellow writer, Keanan Brand, has shared some excellent thoughts on POV. Well worth stealing!

    • Keanan

      December 13, 2014 at 8:58 am

      Thanks, Lee!

      The person to whom the advice was addressed is a new writer with a good story, but he’s received feedback that’s causing him to question certain choices. Unfortunately, the book is already published; fortunately, it’s an e-book, so he can revise. However, revising an entire book for POV issues at this stage in the game? Not recommended.

      Still, some us have to learn in roundabout fashion, and we tend to take the longest, hardest road. 🙂


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