Do I even need to go on?
Please believe me that I’m not a rules-monger when it comes to creative writing. I want to read great stories told in fresh and fascinating ways. If that means a copy editor at The New Yorker would faint dead away at the sight of your sentence fragments and exclamation marks—em-dashes… ellipsis, commas, commas, and more commas then so be it.
But there’s always a but, isn’t there?
For me, the one rule to bind them all in fiction is: one scene, one POV.
That means there is no such animal as “third person omniscient.” Find a character in that scene—and I recommend it be the one character who has the most to learn—and show us (your readers) that scene from that one character’s perspective. That means we only experience what that character experiences. We only see what that character sees, only hear what that character hears, only taste what that character tastes, only feel what that character feels, and only know what that character knows. The feelings of other characters have to be filtered through that perspective, so if Bronwyn is the POV character and she says something to Galen that pisses him off it’s:
Bronwyn could tell Galen was pissed, but he would just have to get over it.
Galen was pissed, though he knew Bronwyn would just tell him to get over it.
Yeah? And it goes deeper than that—it gets harder sometimes. POV issues are one of the things I see most often in the work of less experienced authors I work with, and it can take a bit of concentrated effort to lock into one scene, one POV, but it’s effort well spent.
But even beyond slipping from head to head within a scene (or even a paragraph), I sometimes see authors falling into something I can only describe as “group POV.” This makes my editor’s brain swell in my skull and bad ideas come to me from the Screaming Darkness.
Let’s say you’re writing a fun space opera about the crew of a starship going to the planet Zeblax on the Important Mission. They’re leaving the space station…
As the ship thrusted away from the station, the crew was nervous. The reports of alien things abducting colonists from the outpost on Zeblax came as a surprise to everyone, but they knew they had to get there fast since the colonists were unarmed and none of them were ready for this. The crew were well trained, and confident in their abilities once they hit the ground, but if half the stories they’d heard about the… things… on Zeblax were true, they could be in for the worst fight of their lives.
Oh, so scary, eh? What a brilliant set up! This is the story of some number of people who all feel and experience exactly the same thing at exactly the same time and I’d be scared for them but… who are they? Who am I in this? Am I reading a newspaper article about this mission?
As a reader, I feel pushed back from the story, disengaged, and whether or not I might even be able to articulate why I’m struggling with this, I am struggling. If this goes on in this fashion another few paragraphs… ouch.
Jettison the “group POV” immediately and completely!
The good news is this is something you can revise your way out of:
As the ship thrusted away from the station, Captain Bronwyn could see that the crew was nervous. They’d all seen the reports of alien things abducting colonists from the outpost on Zeblax. The reports came as a surprise to everyone, but Bronwyn took it personally. She was the one who’d cleared Zeblax for colonization, had declared it devoid of animal life, had called it safe.
“Ready for hyperjump at your command, Captain,” Navigator Galen said, not looking up from his console.
“Engaging hyperjump,” Bronwyn said as she keyed in the command code.
“Will we get there in time?” the ship’s surgeon, Dr. Zox asked. Bronwyn hadn’t realized she’d come up to the bridge.
“I hope so,” Bronwyn replied. “The colonists are unarmed. None of them could be ready for what’s happening there.”
Bronwyn swallowed in a dry throat. Her crew was well trained, and she was confident in their abilities once they hit the ground, but if half the stories she’d heard about the… things… on Zeblax were true, they could be in for the worst fight of their lives.
The same information, but with the addition of a person who carries the experience. Note that I’ve included dialog here because, y’know, sometimes people talk to each other. This also shows not just “the crew” but specific members of the crew, with specific jobs, doing things. And now, though it may be true that everyone on the ship is afraid of what they’re going to find on Zeblax, that’s filtered through Bronwyn’s experience of her own emotions, and her ideas and expectations of her crew’s ability. Note the addition of an emotional layer, too, in the guilt Bronwyn feels about having said the planet was safe for colonization.
The second attempt feels lots more like a story to me.
So again, one scene, one POV, and that means not one group of people but one person, and of course that “person” can be any sort of sentient creature you can dream up!
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In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.
You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.