Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Balancing POV

Guest Blogger: Rachel Grant

Thanks so much for sharing your readers with me, C.J.! I love to talk about craft, and my husband gets tired of hearing me ramble on, so it’s probably better if I redirect my random musings to people who actually care about the subject.

Although I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer, I spent a decade of my life pursuing something else entirely, which has given me great fodder for my writing. I think I first decided to major in archaeology because it sounded cool. Of course, this Calvin and Hobbs cartoon sums up the profession nicely and is required to be posted in every archaeologist’s office. Actually, the work really was cool, but strangely enough, unlike the way archaeology is portrayed in books and movies, there was a decided lack of mysteries to solve, and treasure hunting is pretty much taboo. Fortunately for me, I have an active imagination and to make the job even more fun, I spent some of the more mundane hours thinking up story ideas.

Later, when I became a stay at home mom, I finally had a chance to write some of those stories down. My Golden Heart finaling manuscript, Murder in Situ, was my first attempt at writing a book, and I’ve learned so much from the process, starting with the fact that it is perfectly okay to write a really, really lousy first draft. Critiques are a gift, and revision is a wonderful thing.

So, on to what I’ve learned about point of view during the revision process....

Choosing the Right POV for the scene and Balancing POV

A while ago I was instructed (challenged, ordered — any of these verbs will do) to use only one point of view (POV) per scene. I didn’t head hop, but I did change POV usually once or twice in a scene, and I was told this was giving too much away, and therefore killing the tension in my scenes. I was also told by the same person to alternate POV with each scene for balance and pacing.

I decided to give this directive a try because the command came from Jill Barnett, a New York Times bestselling author who has devoted twenty-plus years to studying craft, and I have the highest respect for her writing and her skill at zeroing in on the problems in a story. But changing to one POV per scene meant that I had to rewrite my entire masterpiece —I mean manuscript— and decide which POV was most important for every scene.

As a starting point, Jill gave me these three tips for selecting POV:

1) Ask yourself who has the most at stake.

2) Ask yourself what information you want to reveal.

3) Ask yourself what information you don’t want to reveal and why..

I added more to the list:

4) Which character is on scene first? Is that the ideal character to use for POV?

5) Do I need to change the scene opening to use a different and stronger POV?

One stumbling block I had when making this switch was losing the incredibly brilliant internal dialogue of the character whose POV I was no longer using. So I implemented a rule:

Rule #1) Put incredibly brilliant internal dialogue into actual dialogue.

Now my characters were saying the wonderful things they’d only been thinking before, and I had a whole new dynamic that was so much better. Making them say their thoughts made the tension between them active and exciting. Now they had chemistry in a way that had been missing in earlier drafts.

Most scenes were relatively easy, as the character identified in tip #4 gave me my POV character. But sometimes it wasn’t so easy. I made a road map of my story, making sure I alternated POV wherever possible. I discovered that some parts of the story were POV heavy for my heroine, where she was at work and the hero was nowhere to be found.

First I created new scenes for the hero and inserted him and his investigations (he’s a cop) between the heroine-heavy sections of the book. His investigation became more important, instead of just the heroine’s work (she’s an archaeologist) as the driver for the mystery. But I couldn’t do that everywhere, putting him in some of her work scenes would not serve the story.

What to do? Well, I chose to elevate a secondary character to POV character. But wait, her only purpose was to be the heroine’s best friend and sounding board. Now that I’m giving her a POV she has to have something relevant to add. She needs to tell the reader something new, some piece of the mystery that only she knows about. She needs to be another force that drives the mystery.

Bam! My secondary best friend now had her own goal, motivation, and conflict (GMC) and a pivotal role in the story. The story got a new layer, and the sequel I had planned for the best friend gained urgency. Plus I’d learned a new rule:

Rule #2) All POV characters need to have something important to add to the story, their own GMC, and information not available without using their POV.

Okay, so now I had the whole book revised, one POV per scene. I’d maintained some great lines by making them dialogue and improved story pacing and balance by elevating a secondary character to POV character and alternating POV in every scene.

All done, right? Not exactly. I’m a draft writer, and for me, now it was time to revise and polish. Time to tighten those scenes and make the prose sing. This is where I discovered I’d made the wrong choice in POV character in a few scenes.

So, how do you know when you’ve chosen the wrong POV? This is my nine step process:

1. Rewrite the scene for hours and hours, stubbornly stick to the same POV, but fail to see why the brilliant dialogue has fallen apart, the heroine has become whiney and bitter, and the hero has become a groveling wimp. Tell yourself it’s still sexy.

2. Change the dialogue. If the hero doesn’t say the words that trigger the heroine’s internal and external whining, then the hero doesn’t have to grovel.

3. Congratulate yourself on the brilliant fix.

4. Send an email to your mentor, gushing about how you’ve realized that changing the dialogue sequence fixed the tone of the scene, and how you finally get so much of what she’s been trying to teach you.

5. Read Jill’s reply: “The other option is to tell the scene from the other person's POV. Remember the Kinsale quote?”

Here, for your benefit, is the Laura Kinsale quote to which she was referring:

“Sometimes the most impact comes from seeing the scene NOT from the person with the most emotional investment, but instead from the other person. It increases sympathy.”

6. Feel a ton of bricks hit you on the head. When that doesn’t hurt enough, smack yourself.

7. Chant the phrase: “of course the POV is wrong” until your Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man impersonation is perfect.

8. Flip the POV. Discover that you don’t have to show the heroine’s wounded pride, and see how the hero can explain himself without groveling. Notice that the hero no longer even needs to apologize. And now it really is sexy.

9. Or, skip the first steps and just ask Jill Barnett. She can tell you.

Rachel's web site is currently under construction but you can visit her soon at


  1. This is a terrific post! So well thought through and I even agree with your hows and whys as to choosing POV in a scene. I, too, have had to rewrite several masterpieces because of this very reason. Am still working on one. :)

  2. Hi Rachel & CJ!
    What great tips, Rachel. You should teach an online class on POV.

    I liked the tip of asking yourself 'What info do I NOT want to reveal?'

    Usually, I ask the opposite- 'What DO I want to reveal in this scene?'

    I think your new, 'flipped' question will be be helpful.

    I also like the tip 'turn internal dialogue into actual dialogue.' I, too, find that really brings things to life, amps up tension, and often introduces new conflicts between characters that could never have been, if it was all inside someone's head.

    There's also more white space that way. LOL I am a BIG fan of white space. (Although you wouldn't know it from that last paragraph)

    Thanks for the thoughts, Rachel! Very valuable.

  3. Hi Beth and Kris!
    Thanks for commenting! Beth, it's a good thing I love revision, or I'd have had to give up on Murder in Situ a long time ago. It's really come a long way.

    That said, I'd be happy if I never have to read my prologue to Concrete Evidence (the ms. I'm currently revising) again. :-) Kris knows what I'm talking about.

    Kris, I've found that when I put those internal thoughts into dialogue, often the response they get is even better than the original line I loved so much. Those scenes write themselves, I just get to enjoy them.

  4. Hi, Rachel,
    Great Post!!!
    Thanks for sharing what you've learned and figured out.
    Love your rules.
    One thing I've found is true for me: if writing a scene is going really, really slowly, then likely I'm using the wrong POV for that scene.

  5. Hi Lee!
    Thanks for reading. I absolutely agree, if I've spent way too long on a scene and it's still not coming together, it's either a POV problem or an information dump. Unfortunately, I'm pretty slow at picking up on that--the realization usually hits me after I've packed up for the day and am on my way to pick up my son from preschool. It's dangerous to drive while mentally breaking apart a scene. Then I become Rain Man behind the wheel.

  6. Awesome post Rachel, thanks for sharing that!

    I've never heard the term "draft writer" I love it though, it perfectly explains my style also - get through the story and then go back to sand and polish and paint a bit. :D


  7. Hi Katy,
    Thanks for posting! As far as being a draft writer, I always have to get to the end to figure out what is wrong with the beginning.

  8. This is very helpful! Sometimes my scenes feel like I'm tring to sprint through Never thought about changing the POV as a possible fix!

  9. My favorite is the "Ask yourself which character has the most at stake in the scene".

    I can see how that would help move along my current WiP!

  10. Hi Mayberry and Casey,
    I'm late responding, sorry! I'm glad you found the blog helpful. Good luck with your writing.


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