Let me set the scene... It's my lunch break. I just finished a book the night before, so I'm looking through the long backlog of titles on my Kindle to decide which one to read next. I settle on one with a cute title and a clever premise, sit back, and prepare to escape to another place.
The book is written in third person from the point of view of a woman who's just lost her job and has also just found out from her boyfriend that he's been cheating on her. She's devastated by this news, obviously. She's nauseated. She's stunned. I'm feeling really bad for her. Oh, what a horrible day! I'm feeling her pain. And then suddenly, without warning, I'm thrust into the head of the unfaithful boyfriend, who's despairing about his soon-to-be-ex-girlfiend's reaction to his confession. I think, "Whoa! Either this protagonist is a mind reader or the author forgot who was telling this story."
Reading on, it's obvious it's the latter. And after another chapter, it's obvious that it's going to continue happening throughout the book. That's a deal breaker, kids. The book, which I was just moments ago very excited to read, goes into the "reject" folder on my Kindle.
Disappointed, I nevertheless choose another, only to be faced with another book with an identity crisis. REJECT.
What is happening? If these were the first two books I'd recently encountered with this problem, I'd chalk it up to an unfortunate coincidence and go on my way, but it's, sadly, a common occurrence in contemporary fiction. An epidemic. I see it all the time. And as a reader, I'm fed up with being made to feel schizophrenic by writers who don't have a basic understanding of the fundamental concept of point of view. Who's telling the story?
In To Kill a Mockingbird, it's Scout, the young girl learning some hard life lessons pertaining to human nature. Does that mean we never know what Scout's father, Atticus Finch, is thinking or feeling? Of course not. In many instances, we know by what he says and does. But we never hear his thoughts directly. We see everything through the filter that is Scout. If Scout doesn't see it, hear it, taste it, or feel it, then neither do we.
In The Devil Wears Prada, it's Andrea Sachs, the terrorized junior assistant to a high-maintenance magazine editor. Is the despot in the designer label voiceless? No! But the only character we know as if we are in her head is Andrea. She is the lens. We never find ourselves sensing that the evil magazine editor is hungry... unless she comes out and says, "I'm hungry," or Andrea hears her stomach growl. Because the story is written from Andrea's point of view.
In other books, the person telling the story may vary per scene or chapter or section. For example, in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, sometimes beleaguered publisher-turned-investigator, Mikael Blomkvist, is the character leading us through the story. Other times it's the title character, Lisbeth Salander, who is our guide. But never both at the same time. We don't have Lisbeth's point of view in one paragraph and Mikael's in the next.
It's just like life. Unless you're a mind reader, you can't hear what your boss is thinking when you arrive late to work for the third day in a row. You may have a good idea based on the scowl on her face. Or you may know more definitely when she says, "Your tardiness is becoming a problem." But there's a big difference between those two things and experiencing what she feels in connection with your lateness. You can't feel her frustration, anger, or disgust. Your personal point of view doesn't allow for that, just as it wouldn't if you were the protagonist in a book facing her boss in a similar situation.
Decide who's telling the story--or that particular part of the story--and stick with it. Put the camera in that character's hands, and don't let him or her hand it off to any other characters.
Below are the top five reasons writers need to get a handle on this elementary concept:
- It's bad manners to make the reader invade the privacy of more than one character at a time. Okay, it's not. But worse than that, it's bad writing.
- It's psychologically uncomfortable. Some people may not understand why reading your story makes them irritable and in the mood to kick puppies, but I do. It's because you're constantly yanking the reader out of the story by switching from character to character every other sentence or paragraph. If we wanted to watch a tennis match, we'd tune into ESPN.
- You're robbing readers of their expectation of discovery. As a matter of fact, there's nothing to discover. You're telling us everything! Please, don't insult our intelligence. We can deduce what secondary characters are thinking and feeling, as long as you write well and let us know through exposition and dialogue. We don't need to have it spelled out for us by ping-ponging around in every character's head.
- It's exhausting and overwhelming to know every character's thoughts and feelings at once. One character's insight at a time, please.
- It's frustrating to constantly wonder, "Who's thinking this?" or ask "Wasn't I just experiencing this from the woman's point of view? Why am I suddenly privy to the man's thoughts and feelings?"
Have mercy on the mental well being of readers everywhere and get a grip!
I'm the crazy girl sitting in her car on her lunch break, beating her Kindle against the steering wheel. Just kidding. I would never mistreat my beloved Kindle. I'm also the author of six books available exclusively on Amazon. You can find links to their pages and my Twitter feed and Facebook page on my website, www.breabrown.com. My seventh book, which I am currently writing, had better be point-of-view error-free after this self-indulgent rant. I am fully aware of that.