A Chameleon’s Eye-View

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.

Simples…

12 thoughts on “A Chameleon’s Eye-View

  1. I’m almost on the point of being paranoid about POV *laugh*
    I have never noticed it as a reader – but someone pointed out to me that I had “swinging” POV changes in my earlier written books.

    When I had the chance to re-edit A Hollow Crown for the US market (and a title change to Forever Queen) I decided to tackle the POV issue.

    A couple of people had remarked that the opening chapters in Crown had too much POV change. So I diligently “sorted it”

    The reviews came in for Queen & someone remarked about the POV changes!
    Meanwhile it’s been reviewed for an article in the Historical Novel Society magazine, Solander, & the reviewer remarked that she didn’t spot any glaring POV issues.

    So I’m beginning to think that American readers notice POV whereas UK readers don’t…. and that POV is all a matter of individual point of view!

  2. I agree that one should be aware of POV, but not get paranoid. Perfectly ok to change heads so long as you either change the scene or ‘smooth’ the change – as the above article suggests – but in which case, leave a line break. However, with too many changes of POV, not only is the reader liable to be thrown out of the story by having the unsettling experience of switching heads, but the author’s omniscient presence is liable to intrude and then all hope of readers losing themselves in the story is lost.

  3. POV is certainly a tough one to master for a fairly noobie writer like myself.

    Here is a question – how permissible is it to change a policy on POV between books in a series.

    So I have one book which is entirely third person single. Everything seen through the eyes of a certain lad.
    Now I have an advantage in that it is sci fi and I have established that Tom can in dreams see the world through the eyes limitations of a single POV whist still having most of the book in the third person single.

    Now I am reaching the point in a third book of considering having another POV character – but not in a dream. The reader is used to seeing the world through Tom’s eyes or at least through the eyes of others he has dreams about.
    Making the book to third person multiple is a change in the way the series runs so far.

    I think I have answered my own question that it is not a good idea but I wonder if anyone has had experience of this.

  4. I’m horribly new to the pitfalls of third person. My trilogy, the same length as War and Peace (!), is all in first. In the middle volume, I did go mad and have two first person narrators. Absolutely no one commented on it, so obviously my wonderfully intelligent readers took it all in their stride. Matthew Kneale set the bar rather high with 26 first person narrators in English Passengers, so I’ve no idea why I felt so daring to do only two.

    I think the only real rule in the end is ‘Do whatever you like, so long as you are conscious of doing it.’

    That said, I did find John Gardner’s essay thought-provoking and think I may (consciously) opt for omniscient narrator next time.

  5. James Clavell is a PoV swinger, read Taipan. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is informative, but I feel he, like William Watt, cling to an art that does not allow evolution, or is cynical thereof. He also comes across as a bit of a literary snob, the kind he proposes he does not like.

  6. I’m a dual-national ( American / UK) who recently finished my M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. I have to say I DO notice swinging POV and I find it a bit jarring.

    Recently in the excellent book, “The Postmistress” by Sarah Blake there is a whole scene related to Postmistress Iris visiting the OB/GYN doctor for the purpose of obtaining a medical certification that she is, in fact “in tact.” That scene swings from Iris’ POV (which is about 98% of the scene) to the musings of the doctor who watches Iris leave his office and cross the street, and his thoughts about her unusual request– which takes up less than 2% of the scene.

    I think I know what Blake was doing– I think she was reinforcing the idea of how unusual this request was by having the doctor comment on the strangeness of it. But it wasn’t necessary. As readers we already think Iris’ request is unusual and wonder what’s going on and why she feels she needs such a document. By having the POV swing to the doctor it’s almost like Blake isn’t confident that after reading this scene of several pages, that her readers “got it.” I definitely “got it” and I found the swing to the doctor’s POV for 2 sentences at the end of the scene to be as clunky and unnecessary as “training wheels” on a bike owned by Lance Armstrong.

    At Newcastle, I battled the same thing in my novel-in-progress, and my tutor marked up my manuscripts stressing that it was fine to change POV– but please complete writing a scene from one POV before taking on narration or another scene from another character’s POV.

    I’ve thought a lot about this in rewriting my work and I was lucky to come across a reference to a book suggested by Ken Follett and written by his agent, the author, Al Zuckerman.

    In Zuckerman’s 1994 book, “Writing the Blockbuster Novel,” Chapter 6 (pp 134-141) he does a fantastic job of explaining POV. Zuckerman teaches us what different POVs can do– and helps us to determine which of our characters would be the most effective character from which to write the scene– i.e. who has the most at stake in this scene? According to Zuckerman, telling your story from several points of view adds tremendous vibrancy and emotional richness to one’s novel– much like various musical movements of different temper and complexity come together to create a rich and satisfying symphony.

    Additionally, walking a mile in different character’s shoes helps establish closer reader identification– something that a jerky “swing” of inexpertly used POV often proves a real challenge.

  7. I am delighted to stumble upon this blog, as I am deep into writing my first historical novel in which I’m consciously ignoring the “first person” warnings. How refreshing to read Linda’s advice.

    How does one go about finding other writers to read and critique one’s work? It would be so helpful to exchange ideas and critiques with others who write historical fiction.

    My book is tentatively titled “The Progenitor” and it is, indeed, the fictionalized story of my progenitor in the Louisiana Colony in the mid to late 18th century.

    If any of you would be interested in giving me feedback, I would be so grateful and would gladly do the same for you.

  8. Ann, that was such an informative comment – thank you. It’s making me think that the novel I’m currently revising FOR THE LAST TIME, could do with a little attention with regard to PoV. It’s about Fra Filippo Lippi and Lucrezia Buti, and most of it is his PoV. Lucrezia gets perhaps a page. I need to look at this and see if I can give her more. After all, added vibrancy and emotional richness are big juicy carrots. Who wouldn’t want them?

    • Thanks, Linda. I’ve done a lot of reading and research about POV and of all the sources I’ve discovered, Al Zuckerman’s book, “Writing the Blockbuster Novel,” gave me the most insightful analysis and instruction on usung POV effectively that I’ve found anywhere.

      I remember thinking that if Ken Follett recommended Zuckerman’s 1994 book, there had to be something to it– and I haven’t been disappointed. The book is inexpensive and available USED from Amazon– and probably from other booksellers as well. From my perspective, this book is worth it’s weight in gold for any writer trying to get to grips with POV and writing a rich, emotionally resonate , and page-turning novel!

      • OK, you’ve sold it, Mrs Zuckerman! The £3.50 copy has gone. I only hope becoming a blockbuster author doesn’t involve rewriting history to the extent that priories become cathedrals, and gargoyles, stained glass and flying buttresses are all invented by simpletons living in Somerset. Or perhaps I’m being unfair to Mr Follett and it was the TV version which did all that? I must read him some day… Still, let’s not knock being popular. Thanks, Ann.

  9. Marge, I’m interested in what you’ve said. Up until recently I’ve worked as an editor with one of the top literary consultancies, telling everybody what’s wrong with their books, no holds barred. I found it very difficult and sometimes used to sob over the ‘send’ button before dispatching a report that was going to rip the heart out of somebody’s baby.

    Oddly enough, of the hundred or more reports I wrote, I only got two broadsides in return. Many more people were grateful than I’d ever anticipated. Of those who remained silent, one can only hope….! But it remains a fact that critiquing is vitally important, and it is probably best to pay for it. Friends never really tell you the truth or, if they do, can you trust them? Also I find they do not read as closely and critically as one would like. They are not professionals, after all.

    I like the idea of swapsies and wonder if it would work. What do others think? I’d be happy to host such a service here although at the moment I’m not sure how it could be organised. For now, if anyone is interested in taking up Marge’s offer, please let me know.

    Tip: I once asked a friend to critique my work and he said he would, but that it had to be in the BEST POSSIBLE CONDITION before I gave it to him. When I got it to that condition, I realised I didn’t need his help.

    • Thank you so much for your response, Linda. I think it would be very interesting to exchange critiques with someone writing in the same genre. I am not adverse to paying for a professional critique as well, but my experience tells me that also would be best from a writer of like material.

      Yes, I have gone the friends route with my first novel, (about modern day fictional Habsburgs) and indeed am doing so again with PROGENITOR. My friends who are avid readers are very well intentioned and certainly helpful, but I don’t expect them to have the insights a writer would.

      Thanks for offering to host a “swapsie!” I do hope someone is willing to test out the idea with me!

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