Monday, February 11, 2013

It all depends on how you look at it—Point of View

I’m reading a thriller from a big name author. It’s a bestseller published under a Simon & Schuster imprint. Yeah, I found a few typos and stray words, but they didn’t bother me. I miss some mistakes myself, so I’m pretty charitable. What I found discombobulating were the sudden shifts in point of view. With no warning, the reader was thrown from inside one character’s head into the thoughts and feelings of another character. These were stray single paragraphs wedged into an otherwise consistent point of view. It might just be me, but when this happens, it stops me cold.

There are three proper ways to change point of view: a section break, a chapter break, or use an omnipotent point of view. (I’m not going to address tense or first, second, and third person which should be artfully reliable throughout a book.) 

Omnipotent is when the reader regularly gets inside the thoughts and feelings of different characters. An omnipotent point of view (POV) is difficult to carry off, but with a deft hand it can be done so the reader never notices. In fact, the reader should never become overly conscious of the point of view. It’s distracting.

That’s why I prefer a fourth technique. Never change POV. My four Steve Dancy Westerns and The Shut Mouth Society use a single POV throughout the entire story. This was difficult for The Shut Mouth Society because the thriller has two protagonists. I tried switching POV between the hero and heroine, but decided that it added to the mystery if the reader didn’t know what one of the major characters was thinking.

I used a different approach with Tempest at Dawn. Since this was a novelization of the Constitutional Convention, I used POV to heighten the conflict between the opposing forces at the convention. Every other chapter alternated POV between James Madison and Roger Sherman. This allowed the reader to feel the emotions on both sides of the issues.  (I first ran across this technique thirty years ago in Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer.) 

It was difficult to keep the POV consistent when Madison and Sherman were together. Revisions and editing finally scrubbed out the irregularities. In the final chapter of the book, I made an exception to a single POV per chapter. Since both men were together for the entire concluding chapter, I switched to a distant omnipotent POV. In other words, I never entered the thoughts or feeling of either man, but described scenes as if a narrator was telling a story about what he observed. This is similar to a movie, where the viewer never gets to read the thoughts of a character.

People deride the errors in indie-published books, but turn a blind eye to the increasing number of mistakes that prestigious publishers allow to get into print. Sixteen years ago, when I published The Digital Organization, Wiley had the manuscript line-edited by three different editors. They told me a single editor always missed something. I suspect that economics has forced the major publishers to cut this to a single line-editor. It’s a business mistake because this is a level of quality indie-publishers can compete against.

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