Al Zuckerman’s Point of View

Chapter Six of ‘Writing the Blockbuster Novel’ is about Point of View and, unlike most other writing manuals I’ve read, is short and to the point. Zuckerman, a top editor and literary consultant, says nothing of first person, or third person subjective or objective. What he does say is so worth hearing that I’m going to quote some chunks here.

To a writer aspiring to build her first bestseller, I strongly recommend Follett’s method [which is to use several PoVs]. Several kinds of richness can accrue from it, some of them unsuspected. First and foremost, it forces the author to forget about trying to tell the story in broad narrative strokes as an outside observer might most readily imagine it. Instead, from the very outset the author must burrow deep inside one character, then another, and then another, focusing on the one character who at a particular piece of the action has the largest emotional stake.

Disciplined managing of point of view in The Man from St Petersburg also has the effect of expanding one story into what almost feels like four individual stories that intersect dramatically at key points. We are exposed to one series of events, but through the sensibilities of four points of view, each with widely contrasting world views, emotional makeups, and social and economic backgrounds. This adds a breadth, scope and depth to this book that it would not otherwise have.

He goes on to say that early works by Follet and John Grisham do not have the mastery of their later works in that they use a dozen or so PoV characters, ‘most of whom appear in one chapter and disappear in the next.’

He ends the chapter thus:

Having read all the above and, hopefully, the other example novels I’ve discussed, you may now be wondering if there is an optimum number of point-of-view characters. I would recommend the smallest number possible, taking into account the story you’re telling, but no fewer than three or four. With only one or two points of view, it becomes quite difficult to work up the kind of plot complexity and interpersonal drama readers expect in a big novel.

Another factor to consider is your readership. Both contemporary and historical romances are usually written from only one point of view, a woman’s, and almost all the buyers and readers of these books are women. Conversely, the same holds true for men with action-adventure novels and westerns. Authors who aim for a broad readership, one that comprises both men and women of varying ages, tend to create point-of-view characters who epitomize these differences. … The contrasts between these characters’ world views deriving from their sexes and stages of life contribute vitally to the book’s tension and drama.

And finally:

For a reader to become engrossed in your character, be it your hero or heroine or even your antagonist or villain, you must love each of them or at least feel deeply with and for them.

I can think of half a dozen exceptions to this wise advice about point of view already, and some of them Booker prize winners, but we have to bear something in mind. Editors in publishing houses tend not to be looking for midlist authors or, come to that, literary wonders (although they may be tempted by these). They want books that sell. And so we would do well to listen to what Mr Zuckerman has to say.

I for one must now ponder whether I really am in the final days of my latest novel or merely the beginning of yet another draft; to be sure, I am one character PoV missing, and I know who it is. So I’m very grateful to Ann for bringing our attention to this useful manual.

As for loving your characters, that is something I heartily endorse, no matter how difficult it is. There was a complete stand-off between me and Lorenzo de’ Medici’s wife until the day came when, miraculously, I penetrated the revulsion I felt and began to understand her. From that moment on, she became one of my strongest characters.


5 thoughts on “Al Zuckerman’s Point of View

  1. Linda, I’m glad you found Zuckerman’s chapter on POV insightful– I know I did. When I first came across this chapter toward the end of completing my M.A., I nearly jumped for joy and shouted, “Darling, where have you been all my life?”

    Everything I ever read about first person and third person and pales on comparison to this succinct advice from Zuckerman about how to make POV work in one’s story. I like his down to earth analysis, too– telling us how many POVS are too few, how many are too many, and how many, like the porridge in the Three Bears are “Just right.” And I like his real-life examples of WHY this is so, too.

    Anyway, I’m glad you were able to get past the surface of this book and discover the value of it’s substance behind the splashy title.

  2. I think he is right about balancing the man-woman’s character viewpoints in telling the story, and of having about three. I really got “inside” in doing this. I did it in my first novel, and in the Trilogy about the German-Texas settlements, and lo and behold – in spite of having lashings of materiel focusing on feminine concerns – about two-thirds of my dedicated fans are men – because I have put in sufficient of that male experience and viewpoint.
    The latest is strictly from the POV of the leading character – a woman – and I have found it a challenge to give accounts of events where she couldn’t possibly have been there to see firsthand. I’ve taken the “Gone With The Wind” expedient, of having a male character appear from the wings and breathlessly tell of what went on. The next book, though…

  3. “For a reader to become engrossed in your character, be it your hero or heroine or even your antagonist or villain, you must love each of them or at least feel deeply with and for them.”

    This is really important, I think, along with having the strength to create characters who have real feelings and emotions rather than simply the conventional ones (a mother who in addition to loving her children also hates them, for example). I’m reading a novel right now that I’m finding profoundly boring because the main character never feels anything other than what she ought to feel in whatever circumstance the author places her in. Actually, a few more points of view would have helped this novel, as well.

  4. I just thought I should let you know that reading this at the crack of dawn today – about POV and the right number of characters, and – gave me the most absolutely smashing idea for one of the current works in progress, which has a beautifully matched pair of female POVs; an English lady and her personal maid circa 1876, when said English lady marries a wealthy Texas rancher … an idea for the third character POV, who is already well-established and who I would be absolutely dying to explore further, especially with regard to the proposed plot … which this entry gave me several mega-dramatic ideas to flesh out! Thank you, Al Zuckerman! Thank you, Mary and Ann!

    No need to dive into the river, following a tin of crisps with a label in Sanskrit…

  5. Yes, I’m in the same condition, Celia. My oh-so-carefully polished final draft is about to be hacked to pieces. I feel as if I’ve been given a golden key. After more than twenty years teaching creative writing, I really should have known this trick, but perhaps I was blinded by always writing in first person. That’s my excuse, anyway…

    Happy writing!

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