Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Point of View In Writing

A couple of  months ago I entered a first paragraph critique contest co-hosted by Steena Holmes at "Chocolate Reality."   Needless to say,  it was an eye-opening experience. Although the reviewers described my piece as “gripping,” they also identified a point of view (POV) shift in the paragraph.  One of the critiquers indicated it was difficult to determine which character owned the scene.

Of course, this was not the response I hoped for.  I was consumed by a rush of emotions. First came denial, I thought, what do they know anyway? One of the members of my writing group is an English professor and he didn’t notice the POV shift.  This feeling was followed by despondence and self-deprecation, i.e., I suck, I can’t even get past the first paragraph without a problem. I’ll never be published. Finally, came acceptance.

Before tackling any changes to the paragraph, I decided to conduct a bit of research to make sure I had a firm grasp on point of view (POV).  What I learned has proven invaluable.  Point of view shows the reader whose eyes the story is told through. The most commonly used POV’s in literature are first and third person.

In first preson POV, the narrator is the character within his or her story.  This approach limits the reader to a single person's thoughts and observations. However, the advantage is the reader is able to connect to the narrator by knowing his or her most personal thoughts and feelings. If a book requires multiple characters to tell a story, then first person POV should be avoided.

Third person POV is the most commonly used approach in fiction. The narrator is an uninvolved person who knows everything. Third person can express plot twists occurring at the same time ,but in different places. Also, the narrator is able to switch between characters to describe each of their thoughts and feelings. Lisa Binion at “Fiction Writing Site, ” warns that too much character hopping can confuse the reader. She says it is best to approach each scene from the perspective of the character with the most to lose.

Point of view shifts can be subtle. For example, the one in my first paragraph was overlooked by numerous eyes before the problem was identified. The following is the original and the revised version.

Inside room 424 of the cardiac wing at Charleston Memorial Hospital, Jorge Mendoza hung tenuously between life and death. The sixty-seven-old patient’s chest heaved with each uneven breath and his olive skin appeared sallow and sunken under the dim lights. Just five feet away, the massive silhouette of a man lurked in the shadows as Jorge lay vulnerable and alone. With the stealth of a thief in the night, the stalker crept to the bed and covered the patient’s nose and mouth with his hand. Jorge jolted awake. His right eye scanned the room while the other drooped as the result of a recent stroke. When he looked up, Jorge met the menacing blue gaze of his attacker.

Notice how the point of view changed from Jorge to the stalker. Now, the next version sets the scene from Jorge’s perspective (please keep in mind the following is the first re-write and I have not edited for conciseness yet).

Inside room 424 of the cardiac wing at Charleston Memorial Hospital, Jorge Mendoza 's mind reeled with anticipation and panic. Despite the doctor’s admonitions to calm down, he simply could not. There was too much at stake. Although the rest of Jorge’s family had visited today, his eldest daughter, Soledad, the one person he needed to speak to, was out of town. Jorge could trust no one else to pass on the knowledge he possessed. Although he left hidden messages where he hoped Soledad could find them, Jorge could not chance letting 400 years of family secrets die with him.

The swish of the hospital room door distracted Jorge from these problems. He glanced at the clock on the wall, it was 12:00 a.m.  Midnight rounds had just begun. Hoping to avoid another scolding from the night nurse about his sleep habits, Jorge shut his eyes and pretended to slumber.  Just as he had mentally prepared himself for the familiar feel of the blood pressure cuff upon his arm, a large hand clapped across his mouth and nose, cutting off his air. Jorge writhed and twisted under his captor's grip.  His right eye scanned the room while the other drooped as the result of a recent stroke. When he looked up, Jorge met the menacing blue gaze of his attacker.

As you can see, the new scene is totally set from Jorge’s eyes. I won’t deny that having to re-write the scene was frustrating, but identifying my weaknesses early in the writing process will help me in the long run. Have any of you struggled with point of view shifts? If so, it would be interesting to know how you identified and corrected the problem.