POV – a doggy-paddler’s guide

june12 031

Do you see what I see?

Orwell’s nuts and bolts advice having received some attention, I offer here a second piece about writing, a brief and basic introduction to POV, or Point Of View.

POV is unavoidable, like water for a swimmer. Whatever you write, you’re adopting a point of view. For ages, though, I didn’t think about it – I just jumped in and thrashed around and was happy enough to stay afloat (just about). Then I watched other people, read about technique, and thought, hey, I could move my arms differently, breathe a bit better, maybe even go from breast stroke to crawl.

Basically, POV is who sees what and how. As a writer, you’re free to play around with it as you choose. First person or third? Let’s go for third (first doesn’t need much explaining). You’ve got a story with two characters, Alf and Ben, who fight over a girl. Alf punches Ben on the nose. How are you going to describe this?

We’ve got the what (the punch), now we have to decide who. We have three choices: Alf, Ben or neither. The last is because someone has to be telling the story – a narrator. Could be an anonymous person, standing back from the scene, watching. Not getting involved, not taking sides, remaining objective. Alf punched Ben on the nose. Ben staggered back, clutching his face.

That’s objective POV, which can be very effective – think Hemingway (a lot of the time, but with deft subjective touches). But you might want to bring the reader closer. Alf flung his fist at Ben’s face. There came a satisfying crunch. Ben reeled back, clutching his nose. Here we’re with Alf: he does the flinging, and the crunch satisfies him, not (one presumes) Ben.

Or from Ben’s POV: Out of the blue, Alf’s fist came at him, hard and fast. He tried to dodge, but too late. A jolt of pain shot out from his nose. He staggered back, clasping his hands to his face. Warm blood trickled over his lips.

Those are examples of 3rd person limited POV – we’re with one character at a time. But you might say we have a fourth possibility: both. Theoretically, yes, but within a single action, it won’t work. There came a satisfying crunch as a jolt of pain shot out from Ben’s nose. Kind of strange, isn’t it? Combining two or more POVs can work, but not within a single sentence, and generally not within the same paragraph.

I think of subjective POV as putting myself in the character’s place, imagining not just what she sees, but why she sees it the way she does. Because two people watch the same show, but don’t see the same thing. They’ve come with different expectations and moods; the show evokes different memories. Why is Alf the sort of person who throws a punch? Why did Ben get into that situation in the first place? POV draws us to character – to be convincing, we need to know the who inside out. But that’s a different topic.

So now, after much practice, I swim a little bit better. But the summary here is for the paddling pool – if you want to dive in the deep end, Emma Darwin’s explanation says it all.

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