Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Color Inside the Lines

Color Inside the Lines
Or…Controlling Your Points of View
by Editor Maggie Johnson

Has anyone ever read your manuscript and advised that you need to control your POV? Have you ever mentally answered “What the h-e-double-hockey-sticks are they talking about?”

Well, in a romance story the Points Of View that we are interested in seeing are the Hero’s and Heroine’s. Isn’t our main reason for reading romance to experience how these two people meet, fall in love, and feel about each other?

Did we really buy the book hoping to find out how her mother thinks she is a total incompetent in homemaking skills? Or were we really hoping to read a sub-plot about how his best friend thinks he is a complete fool for being taken in by this seductress?

Well, yes and no. These little tidbits of information are interesting, and make the hero and heroine seem just a wee bit more human. So they do have a place in the story--we’re just not going to hear about them from Mom and Dave (the best friend) directly.

All of our information is going to be filtered through Jack and Sally, the aforementioned hero and heroine. (Please feel free to be more creative in naming your characters.) But we’re going to learn these things in an organized manner--one that does not give our readers a headache wondering who is saying or thinking what…and why.

In other words, it is a big turn-off to hop from head to head in any given section (or sub-chapter) of a story. Do not give us Sally’s experiences for two paragraphs before giving one paragraph of Jack’s and then hopping back into Sally’s head again. Readers should not have to ask themselves where the aspirin bottle is. That takes them way out of the story…never a good thing.

 Remember that when we are in Sally’s point of view, we are not going to think about our long, slender, well-manicured fingers--unless Sally is a narcissist. We typically don’t think of ourselves that way. I’m not saying that her manicured fingers are not long and slender, only that the reader will find this out during Jack’s POV as he admires said digits.

Also during Sally’s POV we’re not going to learn that Jack is overwhelmed by Sally’s telling of her mother’s bizarre “accidental” death while mopping the kitchen floor. Unless, of course, Sally has perfected the art of mind-reading and can feel that Jack’s whelm is beyond the normal boundaries. Although we could find out about his distress at this time if he expresses in their conversation that he is utterly overcome.

So what’s with the color reference in this article’s title? Well, it’s a little exercise that I recommend my authors do for a couple pages when I see them head-hopping. They can either print out the pages and use their six-pack of multi-colored high-lighter markers, or use the multi-colored high-lighting capabilities that most word processing programs have. I even let them choose their own colors…though am happy to provide them with the following examples:

Blue = Jack said (or thought…or felt)
Pink = Sally said
Purple = They said (Mom, Dave, or anybody else directly conveying information)
Gray = Somebody said (This is the narration, or backstory)
Green = Nobody said (Deliberate scene setting Ex: He saw the red couch, she wore the blue dress)

So the gray and the green are not a part of this essay, but I will say this about that: Add the gray and green together and they should not total more than 10% of the entire manuscript. This is covered under the concept of “Show, don’t tell.” That’s another story for another time.

Now we have to take the purples and convert them to either blue or pink. It’s not that Mom cannot feel that Sally is a complete and utter failure--it’s just that these feelings need to be filtered (probably) through Sally as a (current or remembered) conversation with Mom. Or maybe Sally views a videotape or reads a letter in which Mom rants and harangues Sally about her un-ironed bedsheets. (You’re starting to feel that perhaps the mop--from the above death scene--is going to get off on “justified homicide” about now, aren’t you?)

After we’ve made everything blue and pink, they need to be segregated into their own sections. But sometimes this interrupts the story flow, right? Well, then what we need to do is bring in a translator and translate some of the pinks to blue and vice versa. Instead of Jack being overwhelmed by mom’s demise, he may “appear” or “seem” (to Sally) to be overwhelmed.

In an ideal (fantasy) world, the amount of blues and pinks would be about equal. But we must admit that the pinks are generally more “touchy-feely” so will most likely be more abundant. Just try to have at least 1/3 blue to 2/3 pink because our readers want to know both sides of the love equation, better known as the love story.


Brenda Gayle said...

Great post Maggie,
Understanding POV is crucial. The question to ask is who has the most at stake in a scene and then use that character's POV to tell the story. I have to admit though, I really like secondary characters' POVs. I think they can add some depth to the main action by mirroring or contrasting what's going on with the main plot ;)

Patrice Wilton said...

Wow - that was very interesting. I thought I had a good grip on POV but never did the color coded stuff and it makes sense. I'm usually in a person's deep pov, like a lot of dialogue, but a nice balance of inner thought. A certain amount of backstory and telling comes into play, so I'll keep in mind your 10% rule!

Toni Lynn said...

Nice tips, Maggie. I recently started reading a book and couldn't finish chapter one because of all the head-hopping. Very distrating, especially for a writer. She could have used your advice!

Question...Is having a third POV in the first couple of chapters a deal breaker for an editor?


Paula Martin said...

Excellent advice, although I tend to think different editors have different ideas about changing POV. Some don't mind a change of POV part way through a scene and/or allow head-hopping within a scene, while others insist on a line-break or four asterisks to denote change of POV. It's sometimes difficult for a writer to know whta is acceptable and what isn't.

Toni Lynn said...

Good point, Paula, that's why the best advice in this business is to read the books from the line you are targetting.

This way you can see which editor will accept your writing style.

Brenda Gayle said...

Sometimes it just make sense to change POV part way through a scene and those four asterisks are too jolting a break. But I wouldn't do it more than once. I am reading The Night Circus and there's a lot of back and forth head-hopping going on--sometimes it's difficult to follow. But it's considered "literary" fiction so I guess the rules are more fluid.

Maggie said...

Wow! This discussion really took off while I was sleeping in.

Toni, the answer to your question is: "It depends"...on the editor, and on whether that plot device is absolutely necessary to get the story told. I will say that here at The Wild Rose Press, the house preference is to only allow a third POV (especially a villain's) when there is just no other way to tell the tale.

Paula, you are correct. Each editor does have her/his own take on how closely to follow guidelines. As we know, literature is subjective, and personal attitudes do play into whether a story gets picked up or not.

And Brenda, I would consider a single POV switch (as you describe) to be more of a head 'nod' than multiple hoppings back and forth...and acceptable as long as it was not used on a regular basis.

So, the short answer is...oh, that's right...I NEVER have a short answer. lol

M Kate Quinn said...

Good info, Maggie. Thanks for the post. I agree with the head-hopping becoming a headache in the making. I keep my POV's to the Jacks and Sallys of my stories and do my best to double-check the clarity of each POV during the scenes. I've found it too confusing and head-clogging to read something with a bunch of people talking...It's like Sybil.
Thanks for the pep talk.
M. Kate Quinn

Clover Autrey said...

Point of View shifts is one of the first thing new writers need to learn. I like the idea of color coding them for reference. Neat tip.

Anne Ashby said...

I love the colouring idea. We had Margie Lawton at RWNZ conference a couple of years ago show us this strategy, its scary to see how much of the 'wrong' colours you end up with on a page. I hate how many successful novelists ignore this 'rule'. I read a Nora Roberts recently where I had to re-read often to figure out which POV she was in. Very distracting