When I was in grad school, my long fiction professor used to say that she really, really wanted to teach a course on point of view and narrative voice — topics, she said, students seemed to find troublesome. These days, as I work with students and clients, many of them new writers, I find that she is right.
I never found point of view/narrative voice to be particularly confusing, but I’m thinking the uncertainty has to do with the excitement and enthusiasm that comes with telling a story — authors want to tell readers absolutely everything that everyone in the book is thinking every step along the way.
And you CAN do that. Sometimes. Not all the time. There are some decisions that have to be made about how you, as the author, want to tell your story:
- Decide which character’s point of view you want the reader to experience your story through. It may be one character. It may be many. In Baby Grand, I have something like 10 main characters, each of them with several chapters devoted to his or her point of view.
- Once you decide on a point of view, STICK TO IT. If a serial killer is your narrator, then the reader should only be experiencing the book through that person. Readers will know what he sees, what he feels, hears, smells, and tastes, as well as his or her thoughts, plans of action, etc. That serial killer will take readers on your journey.
I find that writers have the most problems with #2. They often run into the danger of what’s called “head hopping” — they’ll suddenly switch point of view in the middle of a scene in order to write what’s going on in another character’s head. Here’s an example. In this case, “Janet” should be serving as our narrator for the entire book:
There he was again.
Janet saw the tall, dark stranger at the far end of the frozen yogurt counter, filling his overflowing styrofoam cup with Oreo pieces and chocolate sprinkles. This was the third time he had come into the shop this week! Janet was determined to work up the nerve this time to do more than smile at the guy. She was going to speak.
She quickly ran behind the counter and managed to slip behind the register just as he was ready to pay.
“Hi,” she said when he put his yogurt on the scale. God, was he cute!
‘Hi,” he said.
His eyes crinkled when he spoke. Janet felt her heart skip a beat.
“That’ll be five dollars and forty-nine cents,” she said.
The stranger dug into his jean pockets and pulled out a ten-dollar bill. “Here you go,” he said, wondering why the girl was staring at him. Did he have something on his nose?
Janet nearly fell over when his fingers brushed against her palm as he handed her the money. She couldn’t get his change out of the register fast enough on the off-chance they would be able to touch again…
Did you find the sudden change in point of view? It’s right at the end, when the reader learns that the stranger is wondering why Janet is staring at him and if he has something on his nose. This can be jarring if all along the reader has been accustomed to experiencing the story only through Janet, which is why it’s important to pick a point of view and stick to it.
Of course, if you’re writing your book in third-person omniscient, the above example would be perfectly fine.
But that’s for another blog post. :)