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Monday, March 15, 2021

4 Ways a Strong Point of View Strengthens a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Point of view is one the most valuable tools a writer has.

I think at some point in their writing journey, every writer goes looking for the “secret” to writing. Is it the perfect writing template? A members-only plot generator? The ultimate list of words to cut from our manuscripts?

Nah.

It’s point of view.

I’m a huge believer that mastering point of view (POV) will solve 99% of common writing problems. If a writer understands POV, then showing comes naturally, description is easier to write, character goals are clear, the stakes are personal, and thus stories feel more organic.

POV is all about being inside the character. To be inside a character you have to understand that character, and once you understand them, writing them becomes easier.

1. POV Encourages Showing, Not Telling


When we tell, we’re explaining what’s going on from an author’s perspective. We describe what we see as if we’re describing a movie to a friend. We’re not inside the head of our character looking out, we’re standing behind her explaining her thoughts and actions. A solid POV keeps us from telling what’s there and focuses on what matters to the character (and thus the plot).

Let’s look at an example that’s heavy on the telling:
Jane knew it was a long jump to the roof of the ambulance, but she had no other way to escape the zombies banging against the locked door of the hospital office she was hiding in. She’d planned on using a makeshift rope from the curtains, but nine more zombies in varying stages of decay moaned from the parking lot below, reaching toward her as she tried to figure out what to do next. Missing the ambulance meant certain death, but she had no other option since Bob was depending on her and the med supplies she’d found.

Do you feel there? Probably not, because it’s nothing but explanation, all telling, no showing, and certainly not how Jane would describe this scene.

Now let’s get inside Jane’s head and show this same scene:
Jane peeked out the window and stared at the ambulance, ten, maybe fifteen feet away. And all of it down. She’d need more than a leap of faith to hit that mark. Screw that.

She glanced at the door. Another zombie slammed against it, and a crack spiderwebbed through the glass. She swallowed and gripped the backpack full of antibiotics tighter. Hospitals used safety glass, right? Even in the offices?

“Hold it together, girl,” she muttered, yanking the curtains down. Someone else had broken this window ages ago. Had that been safety glass, too? Maybe she didn’t have as much time as she hoped.

The curtains tore easily, even if the strips were uneven. She braided them, tying the braids together and knotting one end around the radiator bolted to the floor. The rope stretched halfway to the ground, but that last drop should could handle.

She slipped the backpack over her shoulders and stepped onto the window ledge, one hand on the rope, and–

A zombie pack staggered out of the hospital directly below her. One jerked and stuck its nose in the air. Jane sucked in a breath. Holy crap, sniffers. It moaned, turned, then looked right at her. The rest followed her scent, filling the space between her and the ambulance.

Glass shattered behind her.

She gauged the distance again. Still far. Still deadly.

Still better than the alternative.

Jane took a deep breath and leapt.

Are you more engaged now? More there? Apply a solid POV and the telling problem goes away. Forget what you as the author know. What does the character see? How does that fit into her life and her problem at that moment? How does it make her feel?

(Here’s more with What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell)

2. POV Helps You Know What Needs Describing


POV lets us know what details in a scene are important, because the character is only going to notice and remark upon things that matter to them. After all, when someone is running for their lives, they don’t bother to notice what the drapes look like (unless they plan to use those drapes as a rope).

Let’s look at a “what’s in the room” description:
Jane slipped into the chief of staff’s office and locked the heavy wooden door. Frosted glass covered the top half, with the doctor’s name stenciled in gold letters across the middle: Dr. Harriet Indira. The room was fifteen-foot square, tan walls, and rich leather furniture in dark brown with gold rivets along the seams. Diplomas from Oxford and Johns Hopkins hung on the far wall, opposite the only window.

Knowing that Jane is currently running for her life, do you really think this is how she’d see the room?

It’s more likely she’d see:
Jane slipped into an office. Thick door, thinner glass, but at least the zombies hot on her butt couldn’t see through it. She locked the door and forced a calming breath, then took a shaky one and examined her options. Not great. No other doors, just pretentious rich-doctor furniture and a single, broken window. Second-story windows were very bad exits. Unless it had a fire escape?

Readers aren’t likely to care who the office belongs to, or what the furniture exactly looks like. Jane certainly doesn’t. She’s more concerned with finding an exit and escaping the zombies behind her.

(Here’s more with 4 Steps for Choosing What Details to Describe in a Scene)



3. POV Makes Identifying Goals and Motivations Easier


POV is all about motivations, because it shows how a character sees and feels about the world. Understanding where they’re at emotionally in a scene will determine how they act in the situation. If a character is just following the plot, their actions feel staged, not like they’re living, breathing characters inside a story. Get inside their head and think about what they’d do and why. Don’t let them wander around doing things without any sense of direction.

Here’s a “laundry list of what the character does” perspective:
The pharmacy door was busted open, the drawers ransacked and empty. Jane swore and moved on to the nurses’ stations, checking every cart and drawer she passed. At a broken vending machine, she paused to fish out a candy bar stuck in the back, then continued her search for antibiotics. They had to be there somewhere. Bob didn’t have much time left.

Suddenly, a moan echoed in the hallway.

We can see Jane is looking for antibiotics for Bob, but does this feel at all urgent? Does it make you care as a reader or even want to know if she finds the medicine? Probably not. It’s just a basic description of the scene: Jane searches the hospital for antibiotics and runs into zombies. It doesn’t feel like she has a goal here that matters to her.

Now let’s give Jane a goal and motivations and see what happens:
The pharmacy door hung open. No. No, no, no no! Jane darted inside. Drawers yanked out, empty. Refrigerators lay on their sides, also empty. She dropped to her knees and picked up a box with Amoxicillin printed on the label.

Empty.

The box crumpled in her hands.

There had to be more. In patient rooms, nurses’ stations, hell, even lockers. She’d settle for a bottle of Advil if it brought Bob’s fever down.

Jane rose and moved into the hall. Hospitals had a lot of floors and looters couldn’t have emptied them all. She’d find it somewhere, even if it–

A zombie moaned up ahead, just around the corner.

She backed away. I don’t have time for this, Bob needs me.

The zombie lurched into view.

We don’t need to see a long, protracted search of the hospital to know Jane will search every inch of this place. We can clearly see she’s there to find antibiotics for Bob, and nothing is going to stop her. Not even zombies.

(Here’s more with Two Questions to Ask for Stronger Character Goals and Motivations)

4. POV Creates Higher Stakes


A solid POV forces us to become the character, if only for a little while, and lets us ask why they’re risking their life or family, or whatever it is that fits the plot. Most of what we ask our characters to do, no sane person would comply with. So why is this person willing to act? What about them is making them choose this path? If you can’t find a reason for them to care, then you know where to start looking to raise those stakes. Get inside their head and uncover what they do care about.

Let’s look at a paragraph that just states the stakes.
Jane crept into the abandoned emergency room, eyes alert for zombies. She avoided the broken glass and splatters of dried blood and made her way to the pharmacy. It was a long shot, but Bob’s fever was getting worse and if she couldn’t find him some antibiotics he’d probably die. Her chest tightened. She couldn’t let that happen. No way. They had things to talk about. Things to finally admit to each other.

So Bob’s in bad shape and will die without antibiotics. So what? Do we feel Jane’s fear or worry here? Sure, she says it’s bad and she doesn’t want it to happen, but there’s no real emotion backing it up. This doesn’t strike me as a woman who’d risk being eaten by zombies to save a man who hasn’t even told her he loves her yet.

Let’s try hearing from her POV and how she really feels.
Jane crept into the emergency room, pausing in the shadows just past the reception desk. She sniffed. No corpse stench. No faint shuffling sounds either. Hospitals were never safe, but this one didn’t look ready to kill her. At least not yet.

A photo taped to the desk caught her eye. Average guy, toothy smile, short on hair. He was smiling down at a cute woman in bright scrubs like he’d just won the lottery.

Bob smiles at me that way when he thinks I’m not looking.

Her chest tightened. Not right now he didn’t. He just thrashed in his own fever sweat, barely conscious, slipping away with every labored breath.

She pulled the photo down and stuck it in her pocket. Now, where the hell did these people keep the antibiotics?

There’s more revealed here by what isn’t said, and the subtext raises the stakes far higher than stating them outright with little emotion. The hospital isn’t safe, but she’s going in anyway, expecting something to try to kill her. Bob is smiling at her when she’s not looking, so we know he’s hiding his feelings. She keeps a photo of a total stranger because it reminds her of Bob, who might not survive and she has no photo of him and can’t get one (it is the zombie apocalypse after all). Is there any doubt that she has similar feelings and will do whatever she has to do to save Bob?

(Here’s more with The One-Two Punch: Creating Conflict and Raising the Stakes)

Next time you’re having trouble with a scene, put yourself in the point of view character’s head. Look out through their eyes and see the scene as they would. Think about the feelings and emotions they’d have and how those emotions would manifest themselves. Determine what matters to them and why, and how they’d reveal those things.

Then go back to the scene and experience it, don't just write it.

Point of view has its fingers in pretty much every aspect of writing. If all you’re doing is relating facts about a scene or story, it can sound flat, even empty. But if the scene is described how the character sees it and feels about it, it comes to life. There’s a soul behind the words. A personality. A point of view coloring every word.

(Here’s more on Point of View Basics: Through My Eyes. Or Your Eyes. Or Somebody's Eyes.)

Understanding point of view will solve 99% of your writing problems.


It’s just that powerful a tool. Stories are about characters solving problems, and when you’re inside the heads of those characters, the story just naturally comes to life. It puts you in the story, not just sitting on the sidelines watching it unfold.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine any scene in your current manuscript. Look for ways to strengthen the point of view using the four tools above.

Do you have a favorite point of view style to write? What about to read?

*Originally published October 2013 at Jami Gold’s blog. Last updated March 2021.

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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13 comments:

  1. Excellent post with really good point. Thanks.

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  2. As always, thank you Janice for a helpful article.🤗

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    1. You're quite welcome. Glad you enjoyed it.

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  3. Spot on. POV really shapes up writing. I love getting into different characters' heads and exploring the possibilities with them. I also like putting existing characters in new emotional moments, showing emotions I haven't shown from them before. It really helps with character development, too. Great post all the way through!

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    1. You covered so many great reasons for a solid POV :) Love it!

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  4. Sasha Anderson3/16/2021 8:44 AM

    Remind me, where's Sally at this point in the story? Did they just abandon her to the zombies? :P

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    1. LOL, hmmm...I can't really say. One of these days I REALLY have to write this novel. The hard part will be making all the snippets I used (and made up every post) fit!

      I suspect she's off doing something dangerous that will keep them all alive.

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  5. I one hundred percent agree, PoV is the bang all. But? What do you do when you've done all of your second examples and your editor/publishers come back with a concern over word count? First examples (telling) are generally far less wordy than the detailed PoV.
    I like to think of story as built from a recipe, If telling is the cholesterol it should be trimmed but it is impossible to remove it all.

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    1. Sasha Anderson3/16/2021 12:21 PM

      I'm a big fan of telling done right, so feel free to take everything I say with a pinch of salt, but here's my question. When your editor/publishers are concerned over word count, are they saying everything is well written but the book as a whole is far too long for the expectations of the genre, or are they saying that your style is too wordy for their liking and they think the same story could be told in fewer words?

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    2. Sam,

      I don’t think anyone should write badly to fit a word count. If you need to tell a few things here and there, that’s fine if it works. Telling does have its uses. But if you’re taking strong scenes and ripping out the heart of them to cut out words, you’re probably doing your novel a disservice.

      There's no rule here, and it depends heavily on the novel itself and what the issue is. For example, if the editor says "We won't publish anything over 65,000 words," and your novel is 123,000 words, showing isn't the problem. There’s just too much plot for the size novel they publish. (Unless you really overwrote it, and again, showing isn’t the issue—the overwriting is).

      You'd probably be better off just cutting out things that aren't serving the story. You can also trim out a lot and not hurt anything in a novel. If you cut just ten words per page from a 400 page novel, that's 4000 words. Ten words is one sentence. Cut 20 and you save 8000 words. Anybody can cut two sentences per page. Some pages you’ll be able to cut more, others less, but it balances out.

      Just eliminating "just" "only" and "that" (which are almost always unnecessary) you can cut out a lot of words. Looking for adverbs and using a single word can trim out more. Description is another good spot to look for extra words. Repetition is another. We often tell what we then show, and cutting the told parts tightens the novel. Transitions can often go—just break the scene and cut out the “we get from one location to another” text.

      Hope this answers your question😊 I’d need specifics on the word count to be more helpful.

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  6. Janice, I really like the before and after novels. Doing what you suggested is the next step for me in revising my just completed first draft. I look forward to trying out what you suggested.

    I have similar concerns to Sam over word count - the first draft is already 120,000 words and I'm worried that doing more showing is going to make that balloon. So the suggestion to cut a sentence or two per page is very helpful. As a first draft I'm sure there will be a lot to cut out, I just hope it's enough.

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    1. Showing actually lets you cut down your word count, because it enables you to characterize, describe, show action, and convey vital information all at the same time. So you'll be able to cut other things and strengthen the entire novel. Some areas might grow in word count, but others will shrink.

      This question is deserving of much more discussion, so I'm going to do a post on it Wednesday. I can only do so much in a comment, and I think more examples will help show the difference :)

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