by Annette Lyon
When I first started writing seriously (back in the Jurassic era), the more I tried to learn, the more there seemed to be to learn. And there was so much.
For me, the language side of writing came relatively easy; my brain simply works in a way that grammar, usage, mechanics, and punctuation are easy to grasp. It was the bones of writing, the structure, the storytelling aspect, that took longer.
As I continued to write and study the craft, I began to see a pattern: whether it’s showing instead of telling, creating great description, rounding out characters, writing riveting action or just about anything else, one of the best ways to do all of those things is through a single tool in my writer’s toolkit.
My secret weapon is simple but powerful. Chances are if a scene isn’t working or the pace is aging or any number of other problems crop up, I can fix it by improving one thing: point of view.
I won’t go into the types of point of view here (first, limited third, tight third, omniscient, and so on). Study those yourself to learn contemporary trends and why different types work in different situations. (A great place to start: Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint.)
Here’s the secret: When you know who your POV character is for any given scene, the world of your story opens up to you.
For example, a writer recently asked me how to make his descriptions better; he wasn’t sure how much description to include of a room or some other location, or how to create a description without stopping the plot.
No surprise, my answer went straight to POV. I used the lobby at the conference we were at as an example. If it’s a man who has just walked in from the hot sun after hours of working on his car, chances are he’d first notice the Pepsi machine. Maybe he’d then be annoyed, because he’s a Coke guy. Maybe he then looks for a drinking fountain or settles for a Dr. Pepper before finding one of the couches to relax on—feet propped on the coffee table.
Or if it’s a business woman with a design background, maybe she’d first notice the decorative metal piece hanging on the wall—and either think it was tacky or unique and fun. She’d probably wonder who picked out the puke yellow paint for the walls, and if she took a seat on the couches, instead of reclining, she’d find a plug in the wall and prop open her laptop to work—likely giving Mr. Smelly Mechanic a look and wishing he’d put his arms down so he wouldn’t be quite so odiferous.
In both cases, I picked a specific personality to view the very same room, and each person found different items they noticed first. That’s the key with POV—what is the lens through which your character sees the world? What does this particular character notice? What does he or she like or dislike? What does he or she want?
If an eight-year-old girl obsessed with princesses came into the room, what would she notice first? What about a ninety-year-old retired biology professor? A middle-aged homeless woman?
What your character notices—whether in the description of a room, in dialog with other characters, what they see in another person’s demeanor—is just as important as what they don’t notice. How they do and do not feel about those things matters.
Imagine what the Harry Potter series would have been like written from Draco’s POV. Snape would be a total hero from page one. We’d think Hagrid is a nincompoop and view Dumbledore as a has-been.
The more I’ve played with POV in creating characters and scenes that come alive, the more POV almost feels like the best cheat ever—I can show without trying so hard, simply by remembering to look at the story world through my POV character eyes. My plot moves forward, the conflict intensifies, and more, all by staying true to POV.
Which is also why not knowing how to use POV well can have a disastrous effect of your story. Instead of pulling your reader into your world and holding them there, poor handling of POV pushes the reader out and constantly reminds them that they’re reading a story that someone else created.
Or worse, bad POV can confuse readers to the point that they shrug and simply give up, closing the book (or turning off the e-reader) and moving on to something else.
I’m almost a nerd about how excited I get over POV and all the many uses it has. It’s definitely my secret sauce, no matter what kind of story I’m writing.
About the Author
Annette Lyon is a Whitney Award winner, a two-time recipient of Utah’s Best in State medal for fiction, and the author of ten novels, a cookbook, and a grammar guide as well as over a hundred magazine articles. She’s a senior editor at Precision Editing Group and a cum laude graduate from BYU with a degree in English. When she’s not writing, editing, knitting, or eating chocolate, she can be found mothering and avoiding the spots on the kitchen floor. Find her online at blog.annettelyon.com and on Twitter: @AnnetteLyon
This year, she’s released Band of Sisters: Coming Home, the second edition of There, Their, They’re: A No-Tears Guide to Grammar from the Word Nerd, and novellas in the Timeless Romance Anthology series.