Monday, 10 June 2013

When Point of View Fails

Last week I mentioned my sample chapter test for picking a good book. Well, something snuck past my test and I'm fuming. I sampled a chapter that was amazing! I was thrilled. I had to download the full even though it was of the major pub variety that charges the same for eBooks that I usually spend on paperbacks. But hey, when a book is good it warrants the expense.

It only had a three star rating but I prefer my own judgement and loved the first chapter so who cares; ratings aren't everything. So with the magic of one-click I download the full and picked up where the sample left off. Except... Things weren't making sense. Really, weren't making sense. I read a few more pages and then the heroines cock twitched—Ummm her what did what now!

No, it wasn't a transsexual plot twist, although it would've been a more satisfying read if it was. The author had simply changed point of view. So that happens, nothing wrong with a dual POV. Obviously the POV changed and I just missed it. But it kept happening. The hero suddenly has tits and the heroine thinks about her dick... It was jarring and prevented me from being able to follow the story let alone immerse myself in it.

Some of the best advice I ever received was from a multi-published author/editor who explained to me the importance of POV, and that the one you choose should always be a considered choice made with understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of that particular style. It's advice I took to heart—so much so that I eventually changed the POV I write in because I understand why I'm writing in it, and what that does for my story.  I couldn't help but feel if the author had considered her choice, and understood the limitations of the style she chose, she could have had an amazing book.

POV changes are tricky, but this author had a few extra challenges and lost her way on several levels. For starters it was 1st person, so the "I" character was changing. This is the most delicate POV style to change. I'm not saying that dual 1st person should never be attempted; I am saying that it comes with a range of limitations that need to be understood and overcome.

For one the author cannot depend on the crutch of being able to identify who is in the scene immediately by name. If the character is walking down an empty street then; "I crept through the deserted street." There's not the ease of being able to write "Jessica crept through the deserted street." So you can see how if things are moving along the POV character may not be identified as anything other than "I" for several pages.

It then becomes crucial (and I believe this is true for every POV style) that the characters be distinctive and easily identifiable within themselves. They should have their own voice (including distinct language choice, way of speaking, syntax) as well as body language and mannerisms. You shouldn't need to say their name to feel their skin—and with 1st person you have no leeway not to achieve this. 

In the book I mentioned the hero's and heroine's internal narrative and body language were so simular there was no real way to distinguish who was who, other than when they each thought about the other, or specific details about their own life that would distinguish them to the reader. They simply weren't distinct enough. To make it worse they were of different genders so it should have been obvious.

Furthermore the major disadvantage seemed missed. Changing an "I" character is difficult for some readers to accept. It's jarring. Think, if you're in 3rd you can change POV but Jessica is still Jessica, and Peter is still Peter. But in 1st one moment Jessica is "I" and the next moment Peter is "I". It's far more uncomfortable. So the writer needs to make sure that transition is handled with utmost care. This wasn't.

Which brings me to the last issue—considering the why of the choice. Why does this story need to be told this way?  I couldn't help feeling in this book the author failed to seize the advantages and overlooked the disadvantages. For example the greatest advantage (IMHO) of 1st person is the intimacy of the storytelling; you can really make it a particular characters story. So if you plan to split it you really need to know why you are writing in 1st person and not 3rd deep POV? If you still decide that this is the right choice for this tale, then you need to consider how you are going to treat it. Who does the story belong to and why? This story seemed to not belong to either character and alternated at times because it was that characters 'turn', not because at that time the POV character was driving the story.

Please don't take this to mean I think there is anything wrong with 1st person or even dual 1st person. I have written both. But I do think no matter what POV you choose, know why you're choosing it, know the advantages, disadvantages and limitations, and most of all make sure it is handled with purpose and intention. 

Got any POV questions or tips?

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