How many POVs (points of view) should you have in a story? How “close” should third person narrative be? We’ll be looking at that from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. It’s a great book and will help the beginning writer discover their writing weaknesses and how to correct them. At the end of each chapter is a checklist summary of the main points, plus some exercises to do to incorporate what you’re learning. A friend of mine I just met last September at a conference bought this book as a result of an agent’s recommendation, and she said it opened her eyes. “I’d been doing just everything they said – wrong.”
I just completed a romance mystery-type book that had five POVs – two major, and three minor. The two major characters were the guy and the girl. The minor POVs were put in there I think, to enrich the story and to help bring perspective that neither the two major characters could have had. Interestingly enough, the fifth POV wasn’t brought in until after one of the other minor characters died. I’ll admit I was surprised at the late insertion of another POV, but it turned out OK.
If we writers can get this right, it enriches the experience for the reader. As a voracious reader myself, I know I appreciate it. Let’s look first at how many.
There’s a great cartoon in that book, and I took a picture of it, which I’m sharing with you. They had the greatest cartoons. They commissioned the great cartoonist from New Yorker, George Booth to draw cartoons illustrating their points. I saw this one about too many points of view and had to share it with you. It’s hysterical, but it makes a point. Kind of like what we talked about yesterday, in McMurtry’s writing where he head-hopped into three different POVs in one short passage.
Here’s what the cartoon says: “The Rapid Express man is here with your manuscript. He says you have too many points of views from too many characters. He says all these jumps are distracting, to say the least.”
When I first wrote Meghan’s Choice, I had five POVs. My Craftsman writing mentor, DiAnn Mills, said she thought that was too many, so I cut it down to three. Because Meghan’s Choice has two suitors, I felt both men’s POVs should be included, besides Meghan herself. Now that I’m beginning the second book, I am planning how many POVs to have in that, because there will be a shift in the major characters.
So – how many is too many? I think less is more. It will be easier for the reader, even if it is more challenging to you, the writer. When I had to cut two POVs out, I had to think about what scenes those were, whether or not they were critical to the story, and if it was a critical scene, who else was in it, and were they one of the three POVs I could use. I’ll give an example.
One of the POVs I cut out was Rosie O’Roarke, a dance hall girl. During my tornado section, I had Rosie take charge of her dance hall, instructing people how to be safe. I felt it was a critical scene. The neat thing that happened was that because she’s the main character of my second book, Rose’s Redemption, I could show that scene from the doctor’s POV. Because he’s running around town warning that the tornado was coming. He is impressed with her take-charge attitude. He’d never seen that in her before.
Third person is probably the most popular way to tell a story and to write a novel. In my Apprentice course, I learned about psychic distance – how close, in the narration do we want to tell the story?
One exercise we had to do was write a two-to three-paragraph scene three times from three different levels of intimacy: 1) very distant, 2) mid-range, 3) no distance. The course used a sentence written five ways. See if you can tell the differences. I’ll change all the details so I don’t infringe on copyrights.
- It was the summer of 1942. A large woman stepped out of the doorway.
- Anna K. Smith had never liked the hot sun.
- Anna hated summer.
- How Anna hated the hot summer sun that seemed to melt everything.
- The hot sun. Sweat broke out under her lightweight shift. All over her, it ran down inside her dress, down her legs. The heat was stifling. This must be Hades.
I think the genre in which you’re writing could also have something to do with psychic distance. Of course, for a romance, the closer the better. We want to know how both the guy and the girl feel about meeting each other, interacting, the attraction, beginning to fall in love, fighting falling in love, and finally, succumbing to love, and the getting the nerve to tell the other person. From both sides, it’s the angst.
For historical fiction, some psychic distance is all right, especially in setting the scene, but still you want to tell it from the POV of the main character, using all the senses, or as many as possible to place the reader right there.
Suspense and action, you want to be right there, involved, and close up, unless you’re setting the scene from an observer’s POV. They’ll have their own feelings about what they’ve observed, so in a way, that will be up close and personal.
Point of View is extremely important in characterization and writing scenes. My rule of thumb: not too many, but as close as possible.
Next Week: I’ll be sharing from Donald Maas’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.