Article of the Month


 
  


NARROWING IN YOUR POINT OF VIEW

c. 2003 by Alicia Rasley


                       


    You can add texture and intensity, not to mention character dimension, to a scene by focusing tightly on the internal and sensory experience of the point of view character.  You’ll want to experiment, because different situations call for different approaches.  But let’s look at a single situation and show how you can “narrow in” by adding in POV elements.
    Here's an old-fashioned objective POV:

    The houses were dilapidated, in various states of disrepair.  Several storefronts were boarded up.  The whole town looked to be in the middle of a recession.

    Okay, notice that we're in no one's mind.  This is an objective view of the town, not one filtered through an actual character.  The "objective" viewpoint is now just generally used in very small doses, perhaps to introduce a setting or character, and many writers don't even use it then.  It's too distancing to use for to narrate most scenes, and reveals nothing about the characters.

     How about bringing in the omniscient narrator to provide some context?

    The houses were dilapidated, in various states of disrepair.  Several storefronts were boarded up. This was not the sort of environment where a woman like Tara Wilson could go unnoticed, and indeed, as she got out of her BMW, she was being observed by elderly ladies hidden behind threadbare drapes in the apartments above.  She couldn't know it, but she was the subject of more than a few quick phone calls that afternoon. "Prettier and more elegant even than Erica!" one said, referring to her favorite soap opera character.

    But usually the story is generally told through the perspective of one or more characters-- they narrate the events.  The reader usually wants to be inside someone's head, experiencing the events through a character, these days.
    So here's another version that sounds more modern:

    Tara pulled her car up to the curb and turned off the engine.  She sat there staring out at the dilapidated houses, the boarded up storefronts, and realized that the town must be in the middle of a recession.

    We're in Tara's head here.  We're seeing the houses through her eyes, and we're privy to her thoughts about the recession.  We can tell those are Tara's observations, not just sort of an abstract description of the town.
    Here's how it might be with two POV characters sharing that opening moment (multiple POV):

    Sergeant Joe Tradewski's squad car cruised down the street, and he scanned the broken sidewalks noting the usual problems– discarded syringes, rotting garbage, shards of glass from a beer bottle. Then, through his rear-view mirror, he saw the elegant woman driving along in her BMW.  It was such an unprecedented sight that he made a U-turn at the end of the block and came back for another look.
    Tara pulled her car up to the curb and turned off the engine.  She sat there staring out at the dilapidated houses, the boarded up storefronts, and realized that the town must be in the middle of a recession.

    We get two perspectives, and more physical anchoring– Sgt. Joe looking through his rear-view mirror. But it's still not really interesting, because these observations aren't particularly acute.  One requirement of more personal POV is to think about those perceptions that a person actually there in the scene would have. 

    For example, Tara probably not just see, but hear and smell too– she would not just view the setting, but experience it through all her perceptions.

    Tara pulled her car up to the curb.  When she turned off the engine, silence engulfed her.   It was the middle of the afternoon, but the street around her– what passed for Main Street, she guessed-- was empty of people, movement, and noise.  She rolled down the window and breathed in the stale smell of the garbage left on the sidewalks, waiting to be picked up.  The houses were dilapidated and every car she could see was an older model. No one here had any extra cash, that was clear.  She figured the town was in the middle of a recession.
   
    A lot more sensory detail here, more sense that there's a real body in this place doing the seeing and smelling.

    What's missing, however, is Tara... that is, the unique person there in the scene.  This is more than just a place for Tara, presumably.  She wouldn't have driven here just to experience the ambience.  She has some reason for being here, and that reason will make her narration different from someone who had a different purpose.  So let's say Tara works as an investment advisor, and has gotten a call asking for advice on how to invest $10 million.  The account is hers if she's willing to make a house call, because the investor can't travel.  So –

    Tara pulled her car up to the curb in front of 858 Main Street.  When she turned off the engine, silence engulfed her.   It was the middle of the afternoon, but the street around her– not much of a Main Street -- was empty of people, movement, and noise.  She rolled down the window and breathed in the stale smell of the garbage can left on the sidewalk a few feet away, waiting to be picked up.  She squinted through the sunlight at the cracked driveway.  The car was a 1980s-era Monte Carlo, on its last legs to judge by the rust around the wheel-wells.  The house behind it was dilapidated, with a single shutter hanging from one nail.  The rest of the windows were bare, and the one over the doorway was cracked.  She mouthed a silent curse.  Some smartass was playing a trick on her, calling her and telling her there was $10 million here waiting to be invested.  No one who had $10 million dollars would live in that house, on this street, in this recession-battered town.

    Notice how much more detailed this is, and how much closer the details are.  Not garbage on the sidewalks, but "the garbage can left on the sidewalk a few feet away"-- more focused, more concrete.  Not a vague "every car she could see was an older model," but the much more specific Monte Carlo with rusty wheel-wells.  She's interested not in all the dilapidated houses, but the one at 858 Main, the one with the hanging shutter.  And she doesn't just observe the scene– it has an emotional effect on her... she curses.  And there's a conclusion reached too– that someone faked the call.

    But Tara is still mostly an observer.  She's maybe wasted an afternoon, but her being in this place isn't going to change her life.  The more unique you could make her observations, the more powerful it could be.  So consider adding a strong emotional investment here, and see if the voice changes and the perceptions alter... and if the actions might be different too. Let's see how perspective changes when the emotional investment is greater– when this experience really matters.  (Let’s change her profession too, while we’re at it!)

    Tara pulled her car up to the curb in front of 858 Main Street. She checked the rusted number over the door once, then twice, then once more.  Impossible. It couldn't be.  It had to be some kind of mistake.  Bristol Fabric Manufacturing Inc couldn't have promoted her to sales manager, then transferred her here, to this recession-battered town, and rented her this– this dump.  She couldn't be expected to live anywhere so dilapidated as this sickly mustard-colored house, with its single green shutter hanging from one nail.  The color combination alone made her nauseous.
    She had to look away, down the street, hoping that the real estate improved.  But every house was as bad or worse, all the way down to the next block. Three women came around the corner, walking disspiritedly along the cracked old sidewalk, and automatically Tara assessed their attire– not even K-Mart, probably the Dollar General store, or some polyester thrift outlet.  They didn't even carry real handbags, just plastic sacks... how could she stand it?
    She pulled out her cell phone and stabbed out the number of her former boss.  "Terri," she said, her gaze lingering in dread on the garbage can overturned and overflowing on the sidewalk ahead of her. "Okay, you win.  I was wrong.  Way wrong.  I was so wrong.  You were right. That sales manager job isn't for me." She swallowed back the sour taste of panic and hurried on before Terri could protest.  "I'm an idiot and I can't tell silk from nylon.  Can I have my old job back?  I'll give you every single Kate Spade handbag I own.  I'll-- I'll give you my vintage Chanel jacket.  Just-- just let me come home."

    In this last example, there's much more emotion, and more "voice" – we get a real sense of what matters to her and what her taste is like and what her values are.  We hear more of her internal thoughts. We also get her big change– her decision to grovel to her old boss and get her old job back.

    Notice the closer we get, the longer the passage gets!  That's one hazard of focusing POV– but the passage is much more interesting and purposeful once we "channel" the scene through the character.
    You’ll notice this is very much a process of revision.  Certainly some writers can identify so immediately and deeply with a character that they need no reminders to channel the POV.  But most of us will need to add bits of sensory detail here, thoughts there, an emotion or two, as we revise a passage.

If you liked this article, try my 200-page manual on Point of View:  

The Power of Point of View


                   

Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.
 

If you like my articles, check out my interactive writing booklets, Point of View Manual, and plot guidebook:

The Story Within Writing Series

The Power of Point of View

The Story Within Guidebook

Or if you prefer the spoken word, check out my workshop tapes:

Alicia Rasley's interactive workshops

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Mail to Alicia: rasley@juno.com