Revision is like putting on layers of gesso, making the piece ever smoother. But there comes a point when you cannot let something pass, thinking, ‘I’ll catch that next time.’ Now’s the time, if the process of revision is not to be an endless one.
In the very, very many redrafts and revisions of A Gift for the Magus, there’s been one scene that’s nagged at me because it breaks the rules regarding Point of View but I’ve been kidding myself that no one would notice. They may not, consciously; but for a moment the reader will feel a touch queasy without knowing why.
Point of View is such a difficult topic in creative writing tutorials that it’s worth trying to get a real understanding of it. The rules don’t say, ‘don’t switch from one PoV to another.’ What they say is, ‘don’t swing’. Read all the good writers and they do switch PoV. In one battle scene in War and Peace you even get, momentarily, the PoV of a horse. But that’s because Tolstoy was writing in the ‘omniscient’ point of view, as if he were God. When God went out of fashion in the first part of the twentieth century, the omnisicent point of view, which was so common, went with Him, to be replaced by the nicely psychological subjective point of view. This is when the author is as close to the character – one character – as in first person. This is the most common PoV used today, and where the confusion arises. Can you switch PoV when in subjective mode? Yes, you can, but don’t swing in any mode.
On this fascinating history of PoV, see John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. If I could have only one writing manual, this would be it.
So, in revising Magus, I came across one scene which, as in every previous revision, made me uneasy. I had a closer look and found I was breaking a cardinal rule: in a third-person subjective narrative, I was switching PoV, but it was more than a switch: it was a swing.
Here’s the set up. We follow Character A coming downstairs and from his PoV notice that, in the courtyard, Character B is standing in the shadows watching him. We follow Character A over to ask, ‘Are you Character B?’ And Character B says, ‘You must be Character A.’ And the next thing is that we are in the mind of Character B as he thinks about Character A.
A good sign that we have done wrong in PoV is when you feel car sick because your consciousness is swinging about too much. I’ve just had a bash at curing my error and found that the trick was to switch the PoV deliberately by adding a line in which we stand with Character B watching Character A approach. Switching is fine; swinging is not.