Monday, September 7, 2009

Article by BILL KIRTON - The POV Police (aka PP)

Of course we have to have rules, codes of conduct, contracts and all those other things that make sharing a planet/society/leisure pursuit/whatever possible. But if rules are applied inflexibly, they stifle individuality and suppress progress.

There are some contributors to writers’ groups who succumb to apoplexy when they see an adverb. They’ve read Elmore Leonard’s excellent (but tongue in cheek) ten rules of writing and made them their religion. (Mind you, if you want to make a religion of any sets of rules, his are one of the best to choose.) So anyway, your prose has to be stripped of adverbs, adjectives, descriptions and what Leonard identifies as ‘writing’. Which is, of course, an absurd stance to take and light years from what he intended.

But to my mind, the worst offenders are those who’ve been schooled in Point Of View techniques. They use pejorative expressions such as ‘head-hopping’ to highlight the ‘errors’ of authors who move from one character’s POV to that of another. Whenever they spot a ‘head-hop’, they get an adrenaline rush, grab the offending sentence and become incapable of reading what’s actually happening in the text. All they see is the ‘rule’ and where it’s being broken. The implication seems to be that once you, as omniscient author, have slunk into the skull of – say – your heroine, you have to stay there. The fact that your hero is gazing at her with the flames of his passion searing his soul and the most exquisite expressions of love ever fashioned by man ricocheting around his head must be ignored.


Of course, if you’re so cavalier about it that the reader doesn’t know whether the thoughts she’s reading are those of the heroine or her pet salamander, the PP have a point. But using one character’s thoughts as counterpoint to another’s can create terrific effects. You can achieve such effects partly through dialogue but when you not only hear a character’s words but know the impulse that provoked them and their intended effect, they’re so much more subtle and potentially powerful.

As I said at the outset, we need rules. But when it comes to writing, we should learn them, understand them and then use or ignore them in the spirit in which they were conceived, i.e. to make the writing more palatable and enjoyable for the reader. The only POV rule worth respecting is the one that says the reader mustn’t be uncertain about whose thoughts she’s sharing.

(And now I’ll slink away and wait for the hammering on my novels at the dead of night from one of their crack hit squads of stylists and grammarians.)

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