Vision: A Resource for Writers

Welcome to the archives.  Current Issue is here

 

Book Review:

The Power of Point of View:
Make Your Story Come to Life
By Alicia Rasley

Reviewed By Christina M. Stachura
Copyright 2008 by Christina M. Stachura, All Rights Reserved


It's easy to tell that Alicia Rasley enjoys writing about her subject matter. She has already written several articles as an editor on the subject, which can be found on edittorrent, http://edittorrent.blogspot.com, co-authored by Theresa Stevens, also an editor. A book surely intended to lessen much headdesk-ing, and worry about issues of point of view (POV) and the problems it can create, The Power of Point of View lives up to its word in a comprehensive manner. Readers will find it is meant both to define the basics and to probe some of the difficulties inherent in the essential elements of POV.

At the beginning, Rasley delves into each separate point of view in depth. She then provides exercises after each section she has covered, and includes a list, at the end of every chapter, of great books that are examples of each point of view previously shown.  

Rasley makes a bold and important statement during the basics of viewpoint: when thinking of POV one should be asking oneself what works best for the reader and the narrator of the story, not for the author. Too often, books get written based on the POV that works best for the writer. Rasley flips that idea upside down and sideways. It's easy to think, "What will work best for me as I write this?" It's much harder to ask, "What's best for the story?" Rasley stresses that, as one writes POV, one should always consider the reader first, and what he or she will run up against. Readers do sense when something is not right with POV, although they might not know precisely that it's POV that's causing the problem. They'll perceive the book as being "jumpy" or "hard to follow."

There are many illuminating sections on The Power of Point of View, and one such section includes getting into the character's POV. Rasley calls this "sitting in the character." She literally sits down, takes a deep breath, pictures a scene her character might be in, and then sort of goes inside the character. Rasley says she tries to feel both the inside (emotion and thought) and the outside (the fictional environment), but always from the character's perspective. For the non-visual writer, as Rasley purports to be, this exercise isn't easy, as it's hard to "see" a scene. Some might find it easier to start with tactile input, or all of their other senses, to get into the character.

If that doesn't work, Rasley suggests interviewing the character. This is not a new technique, but the questions that she proposes are unique, such as: "So [name], how did you get into this mess?"; "What is it you want? Why do you want it so badly?"; "How did you feel when [fill in the blank with some event] happened?"; "Why are you so upset?"; and so forth. These are questions a writer can certainly dig her teeth into to get to the heart of her character and his motives.

In Part Two of The Power of Point of View, Rasley introduces each different POV choice in depth, beginning with first person. She starts each by giving a rundown of the basic advantages, and how each advantage can easily become a disadvantage if not handled properly. Rasley reminds one that first person is limited in scope, because the narrator can only be in one place at a time. She then gives several well-chosen examples of how great authors have taken that limitation as a gauntlet thrown down at their feet and risen above it marvelously. Interestingly, the author herself has chosen to write her book in the first person narrative and admits that, for her, this is also difficult to maintain and manage. At the end of the chapter, as Rasley does with each POV, she gives a wonderful list of books to read as exemplary examples, including Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner.

Second person POV garners the shortest chapter in the book. This is partly because, as Rasley states, most readers have a hard time distinguishing themselves from the "you" in the story and think "Oh, I would never do that."  She says it can also be a distancing device when the topic may be emotionally threatening. While this can be a problem, it can as well be a saving grace if used correctly. "You" sounds like an incrimination, but it can also create compassion with the reader. "This suspension of disbelief and cultivated empathy is the power of second person," states Rasley. As always, there are exercises at the end of the chapter to help one further understand second person POV, as well as the reading list, which includes such books as Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, and If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.

Rasley then explores impersonal third person POV. This form encompasses objective, classical omniscient, and contemporary omniscient. Third person objective is often called "camera-eye POV" because there is no sign of an actual person behind the camera. So then, readers don't get to participate in the scene per se, but are only privy to what they can see and hear. It's sort of like watching a movie. One only gets to see what the director wants one to see. While objective POV is not useful in "romances, women's fiction, coming-of-age novels, and family sagas" - in short, character-driven fiction - it can be useful in thrillers and horror stories. Objective can also be helpful in duplicating a sociopath's POV, watching but not sensing.

Classical omniscient viewpoint usually highlights a narrator who "knows everything about everything, including what's going to happen in the end." Omniscient, Rasley says, works best in "social" stories, which are more about the happenings of people in a group rather than one person's personal journey. Moreover, many omniscient writers pick this style to feature their own excellent strong prose style.

Additionally, says Rasley, irony and perspective are the purposes of classical omniscient. She cites Jane Austen as an excellent example of someone "ironic, detached, and amused by all these mere mortals." It's as if the narrator and reader are sharing something funny at the cost of the characters. Also, like a movie director, the narrator can pick and choose which character to zone in on whenever he pleases. This, though, is not "head-hopping" because the narrator will go into one character's head, come back into omniscient POV, then go into another character's head. It's all very easy to follow, when skillfully applied.

Contemporary omniscient mainly differs from classical POV in that there is no narrative persona, yet still narrative control. This POV is most helpful in books with bigger casts, many settings, and a broad angle. It also works to make smoother shifts between many parallel events (Meanwhile, on the deck of the USS Fishtail ...). One of the biggest downsides of contemporary omniscient POV is that without the narrator as in classical omniscient, it can quickly dissolve into head-hopping if one is not careful.

Rasley lists, at the end of the chapter, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris and The Kay Scarpetta Series by Patricia Cornwell as good reads for objective POV; Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian and Psychlone by Greg Bear for omniscient POV, among several other books as examples.

In the same way as all of the above, Rasley then delves into personal third person: single POV as opposed to personal third person: multiple POV. Single third shows an entire scene through the eyes of one character, and sometimes the entire novel. However, it is more likely that one person will be featured in one scene and then another character in the next scene when helpful, and so forth. Single POV is a great technique with protagonist-centered books when one wants to build reader empathy. The question one needs to ask as an author is "What do I most want the reader to experience and how can I make that happen?" Rasley then gives some definitive reasons to go with one or the other viewpoint when dealing with more than one POV character in one's book. Still, it all comes down to a single question: "What effect do I want to have on the reader at this moment?"

A few book recommendations for single POV are Sole Survivor by Dean Koontz; Bee Season by Myla Goldberg; Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf; and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.

The reason third person multiple POV has earned such a bad reputation is because it's easy to do it badly. Multiple POV can quickly fall into head-hopping. Hit-or-miss switching between character POVs is disturbing to many readers.  Rasley writes that it helps to "think of a continuum of involvement starting with 'hardly involved' and ending with 'highly involved.'" The most involved characters are often the best characters, and are the ones who bring their own plans to the scene.

Some book recommendations for multiple POV are: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis; Ain't She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Phillips; and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

The Power of Point of View is a comprehensive book, which proves helpful to both new and veteran writers. It was enough to make this particular reader decide to change the POV of a book after it had already been written, all for the sake of the story and the readers. Rasley explains things well and has an easy writing style. This is a book not to be missed.

The Power of Point of View: Make Your Story Come to Life

By Alicia Rasley

Published by Writer's Digest Books (2008)

ISBN-10: 1582975248

ISBN-13: 978-1582975245