Building a bit on my post from three weeks ago, “Write What Your Characters Know,” which was really all about point of view (POV), let’s look at one fundamental question every fiction author needs to ask at the beginning of a new scene: Whose POV should I be in?
If you’ve started writing in first person, that question has been answered already—or, well, usually, assuming you only have that one first person character and aren’t trying to juggle multiple first person narratives. That’s possible, by the way, but pretty hard to get right, so proceed down that path with caution.
But even in third person narratives you might still only want to stick with a single POV character throughout. This works well in whodunnit style mysteries, for instance, where you only want your readers to know what the detective/hero knows when they know it, and nothing more, so your readers are following along with the investigation.
Still, multiple POV characters are more or less the standard, and the reasons for that are a big part of that previous post. What that scene’s POV character doesn’t know but your readers do know, because they’ve been in the head of the villain a couple chapters back when the trap was set, can build suspense, which is good, right?
You can obviously employ more POV characters in a novel than a short story where one, maybe two, are usually best, though there’s no hard and fast rules here so if you can pull off ten POV characters in a 5000-word short story, well… wow.
For a decent basic primer on who your POV character should be in any given scene, check out “How to switch point of view without confusing the reader” at Nail Your Novel. I like this in particular:
Two key characters in one scene? Which POV?
Of course, some characters will have overlapping experiences. For these, you could:
1. Pick the person who will have the most intense experience.
2. Pick the person with the least intense experience and rely on the reader to intuit the turmoil in the other character (can be very effective, but needs setting up).
3. Hop between their experiences in different paragraphs, but be very disciplined to make sure the reader is clear whose experience they are following. To do this might interrupt the flow of the scene, especially the dialogue. And often when I see writers do this, they’re missing an opportunity for more tension.
4. Settle into one POV, then change. Start the scene from one character’s experience and after a while, make the switch. Do this with a break in the action, or even a line break, so that the reader understands to tune into a different experience.
I’ll add that “or even a line break” should be: with a scene break, every single time, so that the reader understands to tune into a different experience.
But then also… how to define “the most intense experience”?
First of all, the POV character should be someone who is the POV character in more than one scene. All of a sudden we’re inhabiting someone passing by on the street who we haven’t met before and will never see again…? There are precious few instances in which that won’t feel gimmicky and confusing. Some authors will limit POV characters to the hero, the villain, and a sort of third neutral party. I think that’s a bit limiting, but still—let’s stay with that advice about “the most intense experience.”
If you’re at all unsure of who your readers should be inside of in this scene, ask yourself:
Who knows the least about what’s happening, what’s about to happen, and/or what might happen?
Remember: Suspense comes from an imbalance of information. If we’ve been in the villain’s POV and see the trap being set, then jump to the hero’s POV just as they’re entering the place where the trap has been set, we know something the hero doesn’t and we’re afraid for them. Will they notice the trap before it goes off? If it goes off, what’s going to happen? Is this the end for our hero? Will this at least delay them long enough for the villain to escape or do the terrible thing the villain has threatened to do?
You get what I mean.
So then let’s change write what your characters know to:
Write what the least informed of your characters know.
This is, actually, exactly how a whodunnit works—the detective/hero has the least amount of information at the start, and has to gather clues to finally reach the end of the mystery. And it might just be fair to say that every individual scene is something of a whodunnit. What is this POV character learning—often the hard way—over the course of this one scene?
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