In the first POV post, you learned about why POV (perspective) is important, and about separating facts from interpretations. First-person POV has considerable limitations. However, there are ways to work around it, to create a richer, more engaging reading experience.
For example, you can create case studies or anecdotes (scenes) from the limited-third POV of the person—if you’ve interviewed them in depth or worked with them closely and (this is key) have their permission. This approach provides a bit of variety in narration, without breaking the rules of POV.
You can create scenes that you didn’t observe, as long as those scenes come from primary-source documentation (originally written by the people involved, a direct observer, extensive interviews, or a video of the scene). However, you cannot attribute emotions or thought processes to participants in the scene unless they have told you directly what they were thinking and feeling.
Writing About Others
If you’re the parent of an autistic child, for example, you can write about what you observe, what you experience in response to your child’s actions, but you can’t write about their internal experience, unless they have told you (verbally or in writing)—in which case, you must add a clause like, “She typed ‘I don’t like that’ on her iPad.” I use this example because, with autism in particular—as we’re learning from a number of non-speaking autistic bloggers—observers’ interpretations often don’t match the internal experience of the individual.
However, the same goes for any other person (client, partner, woman on the street, etc.) Instead of saying “he was angry,” show what he did, objectively, that made you believe he was angry (stomped his foot, pounded the air with his clenched fist). Don’t mind-read (even if you’re an intuitive; use the qualifier “I saw/sensed/picked up”), and don’t put words in others’ mouths that weren’t there originally. Otherwise you’re writing an interpretation or assumption about another’s behavior. To borrow a technique from a dog behaviorist (who is also a compelling nonfiction writer), Patricia McConnell, imagine you’re watching a video of the scene. Write out what each person says or does as though you’re transcribing the video. Those are the facts. Then you can add in your interpretations.
In addition—and this can be tricky—consistent POV requires that you can only reveal what you knew and felt at the time of the scene you’re writing. When you’re writing a scene that takes place in the past, this is an important thing to keep in mind.
If you are writing about a series of studies, for example, you can only reveal what you knew at the time of a given study—unless you use specific techniques to identify that you “would later learn” or “didn’t yet know” something.
If you’re writing a full flashback scene or chapter—meaning, one in which you transport the reader back in time—your POV is limited to what you knew at the time and how you perceived events at the time.
Have you ever seen a bad actor make faces during a performance that show the actor doesn’t agree with the character’s behavior? That’s called “commenting” on a performance, and it’s as bad form in writing as it is on stage or screen.
If you’re writing about a memory that embarrasses you, for example (which all of us do, at one time or another), own your perspective and rationale at that time. You acted that way for a reason. You had needs and feelings and a perspective that justified that behavior. We all take certain actions because we believe those actions will help meet our needs in the moment. Don’t comment on it; don’t acknowledge within the continuity of that scene that you are terribly embarrassed by it now.
Take yourself back in time and consider these questions:
- What did you need at the time, that motivated you to act the way you did?
- How did you think your behavior would help get those needs met?
Again, consider those from the perspective of then-you, not today-you.
When you comment on your behavior, it takes the reader out of the story. It shows the reader that he can’t trust the narrator (you) at that point in time, because if you knew then what you know now…you wouldn’t have acted that way. And by now you know that trust is the essential element of creating a relationship with the reader. In fiction, this is called a clash between authorial and narrative voice, and one of the most difficult skills within fiction is to prevent authorial voice from intruding on the story.
What’s most effective for the reader is to show what you did, reveal your feelings as they happened in the moment, then show what the response was. That elicits empathy, and it also shows the ineffectiveness (or effectiveness) of that particular behavior, at that time, in that context.
Commenting extends to how you communicate facts. If you’re writing a flashback scene to childhood, and you talk about dipping your toes in the ocean on your first trip to the beach, don’t write “my tiny toes”—that’s commenting. At the time—say, when you were four—your toes weren’t tiny to you. They were just “my toes.” (By contract, your perspective from that age might have been that your father had gigantic toes.)
For me, learning not to comment has been one of my biggest challenges. I have a tendency to want to lead readers by the nose, to tell (or powerfully suggest) how they should respond to what they’ve just read. Ultimately, learning not to comment comes down to trusting yourself and your reader. If you’ve written honestly from your perspective at the time, the reader will likely respond empathetically.
Photo: © Life of Pix / Bugani Pablo