In this week’s Word Essential 60 Second Writing Tip, Alida discusses a common problem writers have with point of view. She calls it the POV stranglehold. It happens when the POV chokes off the narrative voice. Alida shows you how they should work together, not against each other. This writing tip is illustrated with a toilet paper tube and a piece of bread–believe it or not.
Prefer reading to watching or listening? Read on!
Do you ever feel like you’re looking at the world through one of these?
I do, whenever I read I story in which the writer is trying so hard to be true to the POV character that it feels like I’ve got blinders on.
I call this problem the POV Stranglehold.
It seems a lot of writers focus so much on being true to their point of view character’s perspective that they forget their story has a narrator as well.
Every story has a narrator, or narrative voice if you prefer to think of it that way. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re in or how fast paced your story is.
You will and must have a narrator, as well as a point of view.
What’s the difference between a narrator and a point of view?
The narrator is the storyteller, the author’s voice, if you will. Sometimes the narrator is a character, as in first person stories or when there is a Storyteller figure addressing the reader directly. More often, however, the narrator is the voice of the piece. It brings continuity of style to the whole.
I like to illustrate this with a Bread and Spread metaphor.
Think of the narrator or narrative voice as a piece of bread. It’s wholesome and comforting. A staple in any pantry. A constant.
Think of the point of view character as adding a flavor to that bread, like a spread.
In the case of a multiple POV novel, the narrative voice is the bread, that comfortable constant throughout the story.
One POV character is peanut butter. Another is cheese. A third is Nutella.
The points of view each bring their own individual flavor, like a spread, to the constant, reliable flavor of the narrator, the bread.
The narrative voice often works quietly in the background, providing stability. But it is crucial and not to be minimized. When writing in the narrative voice, you get to do things the POV character can’t or won’t do.
- World Building/Describe Setting
- Create Mood
- Reveal things = Narrative Exposition
- Describe what’s going on around the character
- Show the reader things the character couldn’t know
- Move forward or backward in time
The Point of View character adds to the story a specific human perspective to the events of the story. This is the person the reader empathizes with. It’s the reader’s vehicle through the story.
The narrator is often a neutral voice, while the point of view, being a character’s perspective, colors the reader’s perspective of events.
For instance, suppose your narrator shows the reader two men greeting each other in an elevator. They make small talk, smile at each other, inquire about each other’s families, and when the elevator stops, say, “See you later,” with a nice rise to their voices.
How will the reader interpret that scene? Based on the information the narrator has shown her, the men are friends or at least casual friends. There is no conflict or tension in the scene.
But if the POV character gets off the elevator and drops his smile, scowls and shakes his head, thinking What a jerk! we’ve now added a layer to the scene. The layer of perspective, which will color how the reader interprets and feels about the action. It also changes the meaning of that action within the story. The encounter is no longer friendly, or even neutral. We need to discover why that guy is such a jerk when the encounter seemed to normal.
If it helps, you can think of the narrative voice of your story as the camera in a movie and you as the director controlling it. The narrator, like the camera, focuses the reader’s attention where you want it.
If the character walks into a crowded restaurant, after grounding the scene in an overview of the setting, the narrator might describe the bar where mostly men are watching the game on the TV overhead. Or the narrator might shift our gaze and focus on a small table in the corner where a single woman waits for someone, wearing a dress that leaves her shoulders bare, despite the air conditioning in the place.
If our attention is drawn to the guys and the game, that’s going to lead into a different type of encounter for the POV character and a different story for the reader, than if our attention is drawn to the single woman.
Your narrator and your POV should be best friends, working together to deliver the best story possible…like bread.
And peanut butter.
Here’s your 60 Second Writing Tip:
When writers focus too intently on being true to the POV, they end up creating a story that doesn’t breathe, with a myopic field of vision.
Every story, no matter the genre or pace will and must have a narrator or narrative voice. The difference being, whether you write a character as narrator or use the author as narrator.
The narrative voice is a constant throughout the story. The narrator provides context, builds the world, gives descriptions, sets the mood, creates the voice, and other things the POV character is too busy being and doing to bother with.
The POV is the perspective through which the reader experiences the events of the story.
It may help you to think of the narrative voice as being like a movie camera, showing much more to the reader than the character alone. The author is like the director, focusing the lens on what the reader should most notice and when for the greatest impact. The character, like the actor, is part of the scene.
So. Don’t strangle your narrator. It creates an uncomfortably tight story without much in the way of world, mood, or voice.
Did you enjoy this 60 Second Writing Tip? Share it with your friends. Tell strangers on the bus. Why not?
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