DIALOG AND POV

If you’ve been following Fantasy Authors Handbook for any length of time you’ll know I’m not big on rules for writing fiction. Fiction is an art form, and so has to be open to new ideas, new methods, new voices.

That said, there is one rule, at least for novel-length fiction, that I feel rather strongly about, and that is: one scene, one POV.

If you’re writing in first person, point of view is easy: everything is coming from the experience of the first person narrator: I did this, I saw that, and I felt good about it. In first person writing there’s no room to get into the heads, to hear the unspoken thoughts, of anyone else in the story. This is POV at its purest state.

It can get a bit more complicated in third person: He did this, she saw that, they felt good about it…? If “he” and “she” are separate people in that last sentence, one of them has to be the POV character, so it’s either: He did this, she saw that, she felt good about it or She did this, he saw that, he felt good about it. Why? Because what “he” did is likely clear to the person looking, but its not necessarily clear to the person doing something exactly what the other person saw, and though we can guess at what other people think, we can’t know for sure.

POV is the one element that newer, less experienced authors struggle with. I see it, and try to correct it, time and time again with the authors I work with. Some get it right away, others struggle to see breakdowns in POV happening in their own writing. And, like anything that might fall into the category of a (I cringe to use the word…) mistake, it can be difficult to spot even for the most experienced author, at least in the occasional or smaller lapse in POV.

In terms of a bigger issue with messy POV all over the place, that’s where a capable and experienced editor comes into play. But that doesn’t mean POV is impossible to learn, or impossible to see in our own writing. This week, let’s look at one of the places that slips in POV can be the most evident, and that’s thoughts and actions adjacent to or as part of dialog attribution.

Dialog attribution is simply: which character is saying this line of dialog? This…

“Hi, this is me talking,” Galen said.

…tells us Galen said “Hi, this is me talking.”

We can add a little emotional or intellectual context (thoughts) to that:

“Hi, this is me talking,” Galen said, hoping everyone recognized him now.

That puts the scene in Galen’s POV because it’s revealed that he’s hoping something. If the scene has been previously established as coming from Bronwyn’s POV, a simple add can keep us from going inside Galen’s head:

“Hi, this is me talking,” Galen said, clearly hoping everyone recognized him now.

“Clearly” indicates that this is Bronwyn thinking, and she’s assuming he’s hoping everyone recognized him, but she can’t necessarily know that the way Galen can know what he’s thinking in his POV.

It’s in this spot that POV tends to wander, because we often want our readers to know what our characters are thinking, and want to coordinate the action of the unfolding plot. For instance:

“I came alone,” Bronwyn lied, knowing backup was a single safe word away.

“Good, because if there’s anyone else here, I’m blowing myself up,” Galen replied, his finger on the detonator, which only he knew was actually plugged into nothing.

So then in this exchange, only one of the bits that follow the dialog are okay. A decision has to be made as to which of these characters is the POV character. Is it Bronwyn, who knows she has backup but has no idea Galen’s bomb is fake? Or is it Galen, who thinks Bronwyn came alone and knows his bomb is fake?

If we (your readers) know both these things there’s no suspense. We know Bronwyn is fine either way: she can summon help with a safe word, and anyway, there’s no bomb. But suspense comes from an imbalance in information: Galen (the POV character) knows something Bronwyn (not the POV character) doesn’t know, or you’ve previously written a scene in which something about Bronwyn is revealed that Galen (as current POV character) doesn’t know, so his thinking she came alone makes you worried for Galen.

In any case, your readers should be worried, one way or the other: Galen doesn’t realize he’s about to get busted, or Bronwyn thinks she can’t use the safe word or Galen will blow them both up.

The story lives in that disconnect, so if you’re lazy about POV, you’re dong damage to your story. Look first at the actions and thoughts around dialog to make sure that we’re only seeing inside the experiences (she saw, he thought, etc.) of one character in each scene.

—Philip Athans

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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1 Response to DIALOG AND POV

  1. Pingback: About This Writing Stuff… | Phil Giunta – Paranormal, Fantasy, & SF Writer

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