Monday, April 26, 2010

Seeing is believing

Once upon a time there was a circlet of islands that rose high and rugged from the great ocean. The islands were greener than the greenest grass and offered sanctuary for sea-faring birds and furred creatures who spent their days fishing.
The Netters came to scale the cliffs and pick sweet buttercups and clover. A Netter never saw a flower that she didn't want to consume, because everyone knew flowers held the secrets of the gods.

Squalls hit the islands, sending waves thundering on the shores and gushing up the underground caves where the Netters huddled until calm returned.
They didn't mind suffering a smidgen for the chance to unlock mysteries too long denied them.
So have you ever made up stories as you walk, when you encounter something intriguing? I do.
These are tide pool rocks in San Clemente. Sometimes the water covers them and other times it sucks away to leave them on damp sand. The first time I saw them I thought they looked like a miniature, fairytale Ireland. So I made up a mini-story or two.
Even as these photos are shot from high above the "islands," fairy tales are often told from an omniscient point of view. The author is god-like and knows the past, present and future, as well as the thoughts and desires of all the characters.
This viewpoint was popular in early novels, but today many books stick with limited third person or first person, so that the reader knows only what one character is thinking. The advantage to this is the author can create mystery. It mimics real life where we only know what other people tell us or indicate by body language and deeds. Sometimes, of course, the viewpoint character gets it wrong, and that can add depth to a plot.
Some modern novels alternate POV between a few major characters by chapter or hiatus breaks. This still keeps the viewpoint close to each character, but the reader is clued in to more information.
And some writers mix up many characters' thoughts throughout. The danger of multiple head-hopping within a scene is you can confuse your readers so they come out of the magic of the story to figure out who was just having that observation or opinion.
There is plenty of debate and discussion about this topic. Check out Shelley at the Storyqueen's Castle, and Livia Blackburne. The Literary Lab has several, in-depth essays on the subject.
I've come to the conclusion that the choice of which POV to use is connected to the type of story. If it's a fable-type yarn, omniscient gives that delicious gods-are-watching effect. If it's a particular character's journey, quest, coming-of-age, emotional awakening, whatever, I think it's best told in tight POV because it really is about the evolution of that character. But that's my opinion. What's yours?


Karen Jones Gowen said...

I'm a fan of the single POV. I like really getting inside the mc's head, and not being jerked around. Although changing POV's are okay if they are done right.

* said...

Just returned from a writing conference last week where POV was discussed at length. I'm sticking with 1st person for my YA novel, and agree with your points, completely!!

Dip your toes into the tide pools there for me, would ya? Oh, how I miss the SoCal coast...

Jemi Fraser said...

I agree - the story dictates the pov. I tend to have an element of romance in my stories and so far I like telling them from both MCs point of views.

Unknown said...

I love your tide pool story! And it DOES look like a mini Ireland.

I write most of my stories from 1st POV, but my next on I might try in 3rd and see how it goes.

Te story will let me know if it is or isn't working.

Paul C said...

Yes, POV is a crucial consideration. Interesting that fairy tales are often from the omniscient point of view. It makes for an interesting student assignment to vary the point of view at times to first person to draw out more of a character's perspectives. (I love these rocks all covered in algae.)

Liza said...

I'm still learning about POV and you just helped me learn more. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I agree that the story dictates the POV to a degree. Of course if your story dictates first person and you can't write in first person, you might have to rethink something. ;)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Karen: I write almost entirely in single POV unless it's fairytale. I've been pulled out of several books by head-hopping, which especially is a problem when minor character's thoughts are tossed in.

Terresa: It sounds like a great conference, and first person is hugely popular for YA.
I'll be glad to stick in a toe for you!

Jemi: I think it helps to read your genre, too, in picking POV. And I don't mind multiple as long as there is hiatus or strong transition to let me know I'm switiching viewpoint.

Karen: Oh, I'm glad someone else sees the little Ireland! I always seek out these rocks when I'm down there.

storyqueen said...

I like the view of the gods bit...I've also noticed that Eva Ibottson and Lemony Snicket types of storytellers jump from 3rd omni to 2nd from time to time...talking directly to the reader, which I think works because of the distance from the characters an author has in 3rd person omni. It wouldn't resonate as well in a close 3rd person I think.

Some much to consider with each word you write....


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Paul: Aren't those neat rocks? They draw me in every time I see them.
I do think it's a good exercise to try telling a story using different POVs, to see how it changes perspective.

Liza: Thanks and you're quite welcome.

Stina: I would think if someone can't write in first person, either the story doesn't want to be told in that voice or the person should try to figure out what the problem is. I prefer third but I've written a few in first because it felt natural. I'm not sure what that is, but it would be interesting to try to sort out, wouldn't it?

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Shelley: Second is rarely used and to jump to it occasionally would require being omni and great skill, I think. It seems an old-fashioned approach to novel writing, in which the author/narrator inserts their own voice into the characters' lives. It is a form of storytelling that has proven itself over time and entrances people when done well, though.

Claire Dawn said...

Your writing is so poetic. I always feel like I've been frolicking with fairies or swimming with dolphins when I read your blog.

Donna said...

Your netters' story would make a fine fantasy flash fiction.

Someone suggested first person for a novel I was sharing in group. As an experiment, I switched from third to first in one chapter but realized very quickly that my character did not know herself well enough to tell her own story.

My current novel has a very different protagonist who thinks about what she does and how she feels, so first person works well for her.

I agree, Tricia, that omniscient works fine in fables and fairy tales. And, an experienced writer who knows what he/she is doing can switch voices and not lose me.

Bish Denham said...

I don't might what the POV is, as long as the story is well written. The Lord of the Rings is first person might not have worked....

Love those rocks and the story you wrote for them.

Phoenix said...

I would agree. When it's a personal story we appreciate it being told from the person or people close to them - sort of like a photograph. If you take a photograph of a person, you don't want that person standing way in the background with three million other things to distract from the story - you want them up close and center, to focus and zero in on the tale.

The POV in "Fight Club" was pretty amazing because the reader follows along with one story and trusts the narrator, only to have the twist be huge - not only to the reader, but to the character himself. This couldn't have been accomplished using a simple 3rd person omniscient narrator.

If you've read "The Time Traveler's Wife," the POV works quite well because it's always first person, just switching to not only Henry or Claire's point of view but also their respective time line. Very well done.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I absolutely love your story and pictures - love them! And like Karen G, I prefer the single POV. :-)

Faith Pray said...

I enjoyed your pictures and the mini story behind them. It would be fun to read more about the Netters.
I'm in the midst of multi-POV right now, and I like a variety when I read. Interesting insight about styles of story reflecting the POV.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Claire: Yay! You can come frolick and swim here anytime. :D

Donna: That's an interesting idea that if the character doesn't know herself you can't write it well in first person. I really think each story has to find its voice.

Bish: Thank you! And I sure do agree that I wouldn't want Lord of the Rings in first person. No, sir. It's an epic so it needs a wider lens, I believe.

Phoenix: I'm so glad you returned to comment. I love that analogy of a photograph.
I do think a writer can be much more mysterious in tight POV. It bothers me when a story is multiple POV and the author withholds information some character would know. For me, that doesn't work at all.
And you are so right about The Time Traveler's Wife. The author makes the two first-person viewpoints and differing timeframes work by the simple technique of putting each name and date before the scene.

Shannon: Ah, shucks. Thank you!

Faith: I have tossed those Netters in before, just made them up as sort of drabbles for photos. They may have to grow into something more some day. And thank you!

L.T. Elliot said...

I totally believe that POV is dictated by the story. Sometimes you need something as close and personal (and almost voyeristic) as 1st person present tense. Other times, you need a little distance to see a greater picture.

Alyson said...

I definitely agree. I love books that alternate POV between characters and can't wait to write a book with it someday.

dolorah said...

I stick mostly to third limited. Just a little first. I haven't tried Omni yet, but I think that's because I'm just not good at keeping so many voices in my head. It feels like so much clutter.

I've read a few books in that POV, and know it can be done effectively, but don't think I'll try it.

Loved your little Ireland pictures. I can see how the tide pool could inspire many different stories.


VR Barkowski said...

Stunning photographs, Tricia!

My first book has two protags, the woman is in 1st, the man is in close 3rd - only one POV per chapter. I write primarily psychological suspense. In order to get deep into someone's psyche, head hoping isn't an option.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

LT: Voyeuristic sure does describe how close some stories get to the character. And, you're right, part of the writer's job is to find how the particular story will best be told.

Alyson: Altering POV is a juggling act, for sure--knowing each voice so each sounds unique, knowing what each character should reveal of the storyline. A challenge. It's wonderful that you are eager for it.

Donna: Thank you--I love the little Ireland, too. :D Unfortunately, too many POV voices can be clutter if not done with skill. But in the hands of a master, it can be some fine storytelling.

VR: Wow, I'm intrigued by writing both first and third in one book. I've never written psychological suspense, but I've read your snippets, and they're marvelous.

Julie Dao said...

What beautiful and mysterious photographs... I can see a story swirling in the waters and in your magical fairy tale words. I agree that the POV of a story must fit the type of story. Mine is a coming-of-age type of novel and it's told from first-person POV, but a more fable-like or epic adventure story would probably fare better from omniscient or third-person. Great post!

Sarah Laurence said...

Those rocks deserve a story. How fun! I agree that POV should match the narrative.

Many YA novels take the first person because personal connection helps teens to relate to the narrative and connect with the MC. I went that way too with my YA.

For my adult novel, I chose the third person from multiple perspectives so that I could show the many sides of a controversial topic. To avoid confusion, it is anchored in one MC for most of the narrative.

Natalie said...

Those rocks are SO COOL! I've tried to write a in different POV's, but I always come back to first person. It's just easier for me to write a story like I'd write a journal. I read a great omniscient story lately though. It made me wonder if I should try it someday.

PJ Hoover said...

Awesome rocks!
now with yours and Shelley's posts, I'm wondering on what my next POV will be :)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Julie: Thank you! I've really enjoyed this discussion, and it's making me think a lot more about how we choose the voice of our stories.

Sarah: Don't they? I always go looking for those rocks when I'm at that beach. That's interesting to hear how you made your decision of POV.

Natalie: I have no doubt you will try mulitple POV someday, but you're smart to stick with what feels right for the stories you're telling now.

PJ: I'll be excited to hear what you do next! And, yes, those rocks=awesome.

cleemckenzie said...

That single pov is a challenge and yet fascinating. I'm always working on how to reveal that other character through my pov character.

I love how effective that single pov can become in a story. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas will never leave my head and that's mostly because of the pov the author chose.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Lee: I haven't read the Boy in Striped Pajamas but I did read an excerpt. It looks intense and I can see what you mean about the POV. A tale of that enormity told from a child's perspective is a daunting task.