Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A POV Workshop with Stephanie Osborn

Last week I asked several authors their thoughts about POV. Well, the talented (and brilliant -- after all, she's really a rocket scientist, no kidding) Stephanie Osborn had so much to say about the topic that I decided to pull her comments out of the regular roundtable article and make it a stand-alone workshop on the subject. Enjoy!

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by Stephanie Osborn

I prefer to write in 3rd person omniscient to semi-omniscient — preferably semi-omniscient. I find it easier and think it flows better. However, there is an aspect, even to this, that involves “being in a character's head.” That is to say, in any given scene, even if you are writing in 3rd person semi-omniscient, there is one character in whose perspective you are recording.

If, for example, I am writing a dialogue between Sherlock Holmes, Skye Chadwick, and FBI Agent Adrian Smith, it might run like this:

“So, Agent Smith, do sit down and tell us the details,” a curious Holmes invited, moving to his chair and sitting. He waved Skye toward her own armchair, and Smith took the sofa. Holmes promptly slouched, stretching his feet toward the fireplace, steepling his fingers and closing his eyes, comfortable; he prepared to absorb and analyse the information presented.

“Well, Holmes, the whole affair started when the Vice-President came through on that campaign junket last week.”

“You’re kidding,” Skye said, grinning. “So it really IS politics.”

“It sure is,” Smith admitted, a wry twist to his features. “Just like you said on the phone. I told you, you’re Holmes’ parallel. You’re him, in all the ways that count. Stands to reason you’d pick up on stuff just as fast.”

Sky blushed, and shot a quick glance at Holmes, who bit his lip to hide an amused smile.

Now, this entire scene, even though it’s 3rd person, is written from HOLMES’ perspective. How can I tell? Because we are told what Holmes DID, how he FELT, but not how he looked; yet we are told how Smith and Skye LOOKED, but not what they were feeling. This is called “being in the character’s head,” and it is important to be able to tell, because a skilled writer inserts scene breaks whenever:

  1. there is a major shift in location without transition;
  2. there is a major shift in time, often also without much transition;
  3. there is a change in character perspective.

Let’s try the same scene again, but from a different perspective, still using 3rd person POV storytelling.

“So, Agent Smith, do sit down and tell us the details,” Holmes invited, moving to his chair and sitting. He waved Skye toward her own armchair, and Smith took the sofa. Holmes promptly slouched, stretching his feet toward the fireplace, steepling his fingers and closing his eyes. A dreamy expression appeared on his face, denoting the fact he was now prepared to absorb and analyze the information presented. 
“Well, Holmes, the whole affair started when the Vice-President came through on that campaign junket last week.”

“You’re kidding,” Skye said, grinning, cutting a swift glance at Holmes. “So it really IS politics.”

“It sure is,” Smith admitted, a wry twist to his features. “Just like you said on the phone. I told you, you’re Holmes’ parallel. You’re him, in all the ways that count. Stands to reason you’d pick up on stuff just as fast.”

An uncomfortable Sky felt her cheeks grow warm, and she shot another quick look at Holmes.

This time we are looking at the exact same events...from Skye’s perspective. We see what she feels, what she does, but we see what the other characters look like — we are seeing them through her eyes. Note also that the spelling of “analyze” changes; when I was writing the scene from Holmes’ perspective, I used “analyse,” the British spelling. But when I changed to Skye’s perspective, I reverted to American spelling. This latter is a particular style of mine; more about it later.
We could redo this exact scene yet again and depict it through Agent Smith’s eyes, as well. I have actually done this sort of thing in a book, depicting the same key events in triplicate in order to provide all of the clues needed for the reader. But each MUST be a separate scene. Why? Well, I find that when an author “head-jumps” too much in a scene, it can be jarring at the least, and massively confusing at worst.

I was taught this little technique by my writing mentor, who is a NYT best-seller, and who was in turn taught it by his mentor, et cetera; it is a subtle technique, but often the mark of a more nuanced, more experienced writer.

How do you know which perspective to use? I generally pick the character whose thoughts and/or emotions will evoke the most thought or feeling from the reader. However, sometimes there are advantages to using a different character, in order to allow the reader to SEE, e.g. the anguish your protagonist is in. Helplessly watching while the hero breaks down over the death of his love can twist knots in the reader’s gut in a way that trying to express the grief directly from his own head and heart may not.

Be Careful

If I avoid any POV, it is second-person, without doubt. It’s just too blasted awkward. I’ve never even attempted to write anything in 2nd person, at least not anything fictional. It works reasonably enough for how-to books, or other forms of nonfiction instructional books. “Insert tab A in slot B...” A lot of text interviews also tend to come out as second-person, at least in places. But while some authors have done so, I can’t even imagine how I’d write a fiction book in 2nd.

I’m not keen on writing in first person, though I can and have done it on several occasions; one of those was when my co-author had already started the book in 1st, and I had to kind of follow along with that. It depends on the character as to whether I will try it. Some characters are easier for me to “get into their heads.”

But in general I find the limitations of first person to be too annoying to mess with it. For instance, if Holmes and Watson decide to split up and one investigate one detail of a case, and the other another, if I’m writing 1st person Watson, I can’t — CAN’T — go after Holmes and find out what he’s doing, unless I want to do some serious tweaking to the way I’m telling the story. E.g. I could do so IF I chose to write the entire book alternating between Holmes’ and Watson’s POV. This can be done, but it can be confusing for the reader unless the writer is very careful and skilled. It can also make for the book being much larger than one had anticipated, as effectively one is telling a dual story.

Choosing POV

I do put a fair amount of thought into it. For instance, I deliberately chose to write my Displaced Detective series — and the upcoming, period Sherlock Holmes: Gentleman Aegis series — in 3rd, though Doyle told the original Sherlock Holmes stories in 1st, from Watson’s POV. But I wanted to make them my own, my own style. At the same time, I tend to use Victorian turns of phrase, and even have the British characters speak and think using British English. It’s subtle; very few people even notice it consciously, judging by the feedback I’ve gotten. But it has the effect of evoking Doyle’s style without actually BEING Doyle’s style.

On the other hand, I was recently asked to write a Holmes short story for an anthology, and I was going to write it in 3rd, but ended up deciding to use 1st because of the certain feel it evoked and some little games I could play with the reader’s head by doing it that way.

It IS possible to use more than one POV — 1st vs 3rd — in the course of a book. I have done this in one of the Displaced Detective books, where I had Holmes keeping a journal. So the journal entries were in 1st person, and the rest of the book was in 3rd. Letter correspondence can also serve this purpose. My co-author Dan Hollifield and I are currently writing book 4 of the Cresperian Saga, titled Heritage, and it will combine 1st and 3rd. The first two books of that series were written in 1st, but the third book was too broad in scope to do that way, and I wrote it in 3rd. But as this fourth book will complete the story arc, I wanted to return to the technique of the book’s main character telling the events. However, we threw in a twist in which another story is being told in parallel, and that story is told in 3rd person.

Advice for New or Struggling Writers

I would say first of all, decide what works best for you, and make that a part of your personal style. But also practice writing in other POVs, because one of these days you’re going to either co-author a book with someone who wants to tell it in a different POV, or encounter a story idea that insists on being written a certain way. And it will be really good if you already have some skill with it when it arrives.

Second, start paying attention to whose head you’re in when you’re writing, and make sure to change scenes when you change heads! It can also be helpful to read other authors in an analytical fashion, and figure out which character’s perspective is being used for any given scene. Did the author head-jump? Is there a joint perspective being used? (Yes, this is possible. Married couples, for instance, may use a joint perspective.) After reading some experienced authors with this in mind, pick up some newbie authors and read them in the same analytical fashion; you’ll quickly see how confusing it can be, and why many of the better editors will come back and tell a writer, “Stop that! You’re head-jumping!”

And then go back to your current WIP and apply what you’ve learned.