Have you ever watched a professional, Olympic-level ping pong tournament? The ball moves so fast that following it with your head could land you in the emergency room seeking treatment for whiplash. The only way to actually enjoy the game, is to focus your vision on the net, watch the ball move back and forth and take in the players via your peripheral vision. The table “grounds” you – and also keeps you out of the chiropractor’s office.
I belong to several different writers groups, which has given me the opportunity to edit a variety of fictional pieces. At times, the author’s treatment of Point of View (POV) makes me feel like I’m in an arena, trying to watch a ping pong game. The POV shifts from character to character in a rather random manner. The result: I can’t emotionally connect with any of the characters. Without this connection, I can’t root for any of them. I need to care about the main character so I’ll continue on this journey, which is a substantial investment of time on my part. In other words, I need grounding.
If you are fairly new to writing, tell your story from one character’s POV! Seeing through that character’s eyes will ground the reader in the action and emotion of your story. This can be done effectively in either first person (I said, I saw, I felt) or third person (he said, she saw, he felt). Remain in that viewpoint throughout the entire story and you’ll draw the reader in effectively. Here are three basic tips to help keep your POV on track:
1) Only describe what your main character can physically see. If the doorbell rings, don’t tell us the cops are at the door until he opens it and discovers them. Don’t tell us a tornado is bearing down on your MC until she sees it. Don’t tell us who is on the other end of the phone line, until that person identifies themselves or your MC recognizes the voice. Then we can live in the moment with your MC and react along with him.
2) If you need to describe what another character is feeling, only describe it through the eyes of your main character. Don’t write Jane was nervous. Your main character, John, can’t know how Jane is feeling. Instead, he can observe Jane’s behavior and come to that conclusion. Jane’s eyes flitted around the room and her breathing came in short, shallow bursts. I had never seen her acting so nervous.
3) Stay in the moment with your main character. If you’re writing about John, and Jane comes into the scene, don’t write Jane had a fight with her mother that morning. It was the same fight they had every morning; when would she find a husband? Your main character can’t know about the altercation unless Jane tells him. Use dialogue to convey this information and stay in John’s POV:
Jane barreled into John’s office before he could invite her, slamming the door behind her.
“Problem?” John asked.
She plopped into the chair beside his desk and sighed. “I just can’t take it anymore! Every morning it’s the same thing. When are you going to find a husband? When will you make me a grandmother? Honestly, my mother could drive a saint to drink.”
Yes, there is such a thing as an omniscient point of view, which is like a giant camera in the sky simply recording events that cross its lens. But it takes a great deal of skill and experience to master this technique. And frankly, I’m not a fan. I find myself continually drawn out of the story, sometimes to the point of being confused and frustrated. If you haven’t already seen your name on the New York Time’s Best Seller’s list, you might not want to tackle this technique as yet.
Also, some writers tell their story from different viewpoints, by devoting individual chapters or sections to different characters. These stories are almost always written in first person which allows the writer to establish a unique identity and voice for each character. This style still keeps the reader grounded in that character’s psyche for the duration of the chapter and the chapter or section break is a clear signal that a change in viewpoint is forthcoming. Often the chapter headings tell us which character is speaking. Even then, the POV is singular and focused: One chapter – one point of view.
My advice: practice writing from a single viewpoint. You’ll find yourself with a main character that is more developed, more interesting and much more emotionally compelling. And you’ll keep your reader from feeling like that little silver sphere that bounces around inside a pinball machine.