24 May 2007

POV markers

I was leafing through one of my tried and trusted writing books the other day -- one called Scene and structure by Jack Bickham -- one of the many excellent productions put out by Writers Digest. Honestly, I can't extol the virtues of these books enough. I loved them before I ever started teaching writing, and once I started teaching I found them a godsend.

Anyway, Scene and structure was the one book that really nailed home the importance of causality in a story. Cause and effect -- even on a sentence letter. (Eg why "After I ate dinner, I went out" is a better sentence than "I ate dinner after I went out". Whereas if that had read "before" the second would be better -- it's all about information being presented in causal order.) He has lots on cause and effect, and stimulus and response, and this was vital to my own understanding of writing better fiction and to the way I taught this aspect of fiction.

So, it was with some bemusement that I came across a section where he talked about POV markers -- words a writer uses to tell a reader whose POV they're in. Words like "he felt", "she saw" etc. Words that I think tell the reader about what the character is experiencing when really the writer should be showing them. I think that if the writer has written something from firmly within the character's POV, the reader understands that they are feeling, seeing, smelling, hearing these things, so putting these markers in is the exact opposite to what I'm telling my students, which is: take them out.

Anything in moderation is okay. If you're writing in first person and have an "I felt" every ten pages or so, that's fine, but if you've got several on every page, I'm going to be thinking that you're not deeply enough inside your POV character's head. It's something I seem to say a lot in class: "You need a closer POV". I want my students to write from the inside out, to be the character (or at least think like him or her) while they're writing. Readers today are so much more used to intimacy with a character -- whether it's in first person or third-person multiple viewpoints. I think that lack of intimacy is why third-person omniscient (where the writer can dip in and out of any character's head, and even give their own thoughts on the matter at hand) feels dated today (though you do still see it in spec fic writing quite a bit).

So, I'm interested in what other writers think. Do you consciously put POV markers into your text, or are you like me and try to avoid them?

In any case, the Bickham book is still worth a read for all his great stuff on causality, and on other structural elements too. But perhaps it's a reminder that opinions differ -- I shudder when I think of all the different information I've heard about synopses, and how contradictory it all is. But that's something for a future post.


Sherryl said...

You'll be glad to hear then that nearly everyone at the conference who spoke on character and point of view said the same thing - you have to make the reader feel close to the viewpoint character. So you show through voice, thoughts, feelings and actions. Not with "he felt" tags.

Tracey said...

Good to hear. Thanks.

I tend to think that "he felt" etc are leftovers of the times when most people were writing in omniscient, and readers were dipping in and out of heads all the time, and needed to be reminded of exactly whose head they were in at any given time. These days of course you don't see it so much, and POV is usually much more intimate, so there should be no doubt. And I must say I like my prose lean and mean. Any extra words that slow down the flow make the book feel stodgier over all.