One of the first things I learned as a writer was to pay attention to point of view.
There is so much advice on point of view, some of it very contradictory. Never head-hop. Don’t move from one point of view to another in the same scene. Wait, yes you can, Nora Roberts does it. No, you can’t because, hey, we’re not all Nora Roberts.
In the end, I found point of view a fascinating writing tool.
I’ve written two books solely from one point of view, Dinah of Seneca, an alternate history romance, and the upcoming The Curse of the Brimstone Contract, a steampunk romance. But I’ve written all my other published romances with the usual two point of views: one for the hero, one for the heroine.
So why did I limit myself to one point of view with these two books?
I wanted a challenge.
I’d fallen in love with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, a science fiction series with a romantic elements. My favorite book in the series, Cordelia’s Honor, was told entirely from the point of view of Cordelia Naismith, the heroine. Not once does the reader get inside the head of Aral Vorkosigan, the hero, or any other characters in this huge cast. And yet, every character is so clearly defined, so real, and incredibly vivid.
Even more, despite (or perhaps because of) this single third-person limited point of view, Bujold was able to suggest scenes and events that took place off the page and these “off the page” suggestions fired my imagination as much as the scenes on the page. For instance, there’s a short conversation in which Aral is informed that he’d been in a crash and was unconscious for three days. Aral doesn’t remember the events at all. The only internal reaction we see about is his expression. Cordelia hardly reacts internally either, focused more on what’s happening in the now.
And yet…I was left with this image of those he loved, particularly his father, frantically searching and rescuing Aral, and a subsequent scene with how the whole household kept the crash from him when he woke up.
How did Bujold do that? How did she make me, the reader, imagine an entire sequence of events from just a few sentences of words on the page? Brilliant.
I wanted to learn how to do that.
What I discovered is that the “restrictive” single point of view structure is actually not restrictive at all. Staying inside the box forced me to think of new and inventive ways to tell the story.
My scenes had to do double duty. I not only had to show what was going on inside my point of view character’s head, I needed to imply what was going on in everyone else’s head too. That’s always the goal in any scene but sometimes when you know you’re going to get a character’s internal thoughts on an earlier scene laster, it’s easy to let that aspect slide.
Not this time.
I found being forced to stay in my heroine’s head in Dinah of Seneca made me a more observant writer. I had to add more descriptions not just of character and setting but also in body language, facial expression, and imply scenes, as Bujold did, with a few carefully chosen words. I’ve always been a decent dialogue writer and good with external plotting. The single point of view made me a better overall writer and improved the weak aspects of my game.
The decision to write The Curse of the Brimstone Contract with a single point of view came from a different place. The Victorian steampunk was inspired by my love of Sherlock Holmes. As everyone knows, save for a rare exception or two, the reader is never, ever inside Holmes’ head. The stories are told entirely from Watson’s point of view. He’s the everyman, the character the audience identifies with as he follows this eccentric genius into crime-solving.
It’s a neat author trick by Arthur Conan Doyle because if Holmes never reveals what the clues mean to him, the reader doesn’t know. They have to figure it out with Watson. And since Holmes himself is such a mystery, Watson is intrigued at what makes him tick, and so is the reader, making him doubly interesting.
Watson is always the key to a great Holmes story. He can’t be an idiot, because that means the audience is an idiot. He has to be an above-average but somewhat ordinary person who can keep up in some ways with Holmes. In Watson’s case, it’s his skills as a doctor.
But…the author can’t cheat! The clues all have to be there for Watson, so when Holmes reveals the solution to the mystery, the reader thinks “Of course! I should have seen that! How clever.” rather than “Wait a minute, you’ve just pulled clues out of your ass.” (A mistake, by the way, a lot of mystery writers make.) For me as a reader, withholding clues from the reader that your point of view character should know and share is a cheat, a way to falsely pump up the mystery.
Doyle never had to worry about that. I still think he doesn’t get enough respect for crafting incredible mysteries, along with creating such long-lasting characters as Holmes and Watson.
And Doyle did it, like Bujold, by never changing point of views. Our rich impression of Victorian London, our introduction to Holmes’ clients, and the very nature of Holmes himself is all from Watson or, rather, from Doyle sticking to Watson’s single point of view.
And, as a writer trying to emulate Holmes, the single point of view forced me into being better, into noticing, into putting in details in Curse that I might not have otherwise included because I would have thought “ah, when I get to that POV, I can share that.” Nope. There’s just one way to get that information in there and it had better be good.
They had to be so good that entire scenes only suggested by a word or two on the page suddenly form, full-fledged, into a reader’s imagination.
Corrina Lawson is a former newspaper reporter with a degree in journalism from Boston University. She turned to writing fiction after her twins were born (they were kids three and four) to save her sanity.
She is the author of the alternate history Seneca series: Freya’s Gift, Dinah of Seneca and Eagle of Seneca, and the superhero romance Phoenix Institute series: Phoenix Rising, Luminous, Phoenix Legacy, and the upcoming Ghost Phoenix and Phoenix Inheritance. Her steampunk romantic mystery, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract, is due in ebook format out on April 29, 2014.
She’s also is the co-writer of The GeekMom Book: Projects, Tips and Adventures for Moms and Their 21st Century Families published by the Potter Craft division of Crown Publishing in October 2012.
You can find her at her website, Corrina-lawson.com, on Facebook as Corrina Lawson writer, and Twitter as @CorrinaLawson.
The Roman Empire of this tenth century stretches from Russia in the East to a new continent in the West. But a new continent brings new threats to their rule. The Roman garrison in Seneca, located in modern-day New York, lacks the supplies and men needed to defeat an alliance of native Mahicans and immigrant Vikings.
Dinah, a former slave trained in espionage, had hoped Seneca would be the start of a new life. Instead, she’d pulled back into war. If Seneca is to survive, Dinah must reconcile her allegiance to Rome with her chance to create her own destiny in the New World with Gerhard, the Viking Chief.