Monday, December 22, 2008

Telepathy, interpretation, and POV shifts

First let me say that there is no rule you have to stay in one character viewpoint or that deep POV is the only or even most desirable choice. In fact, I suspect that some form of multiple (but controlled) POV will be "the" POV of the 21st century, as omniscent was the dominant POV of the 19th C and single POV of the 20th C.

AND what POV you feel most comfortable writing is the one you usually should be writing-- you should learn to do it as well as you can, but what sort of plot and characterization you choose probably derives from the same personality and preference that determine what POV approach you prefer. That is, don't battle your nature-- just do what you do really well, and do it for the sake of giving the reader the best experience possible.

But... I think whether you are using multiple or single POV, if you're using personal POV (not omniscient), at any given moment you are in someone's POV. For however long, you are putting the reader in that person's body and mind, right? And you don't want to inadvertently eject the reader from that person, right?

Sometimes as I read a passage, I feel ejected, like suddenly I'm not in Tom's mind, I'm in Joan's mind, or dangling helplessly in between. When I go back and read to figure out why, it's often actually a deep POV issue, where the writer has Tom interpreting something from the way Joan speaks or behaves... but because there's no "Tom thought" in there, it sounds like JOAN.

Okay, let me backtrack. While Tom cannot know what Joan is thinking, he can definitely interpret. This is not weird for the reader, as of course, the reader also cannot read minds but can interpret body language, tone of voice, facial expression, etc. But of course, Tom might or might not be good at this. He might be really empathic and intuitive and see a twitch of her lips and know she's lying, or he could be the clueless type who thinks he knows what that lip-twitch means ("Oh, she's going to sneeze!") but is wrong. But... the important thing is that if it's significant, if you want the READER to interpret also, the POV character has to notice and narrate it.

So let's try a scenario. Tom knocks on Joan's door, and she opens it.

Tom took a deep breath and knocked on her door. He heard a faint voice inside -- "Coming, coming," and braced himself.

She flung open the door. "Yes, can I--" Then she faltered. She wasn't expecting him.

Now when you're in deep POV, you might report his thought, his interpretation of her faltering, straight, without "he thought" or "he realized" (though really, neither of those are likely to bother the reader, so don't feel you have to get rid of them anymore than you'd avoid "he saw" or "he heard"). It is a rendition of his judgment about what her faltering means.

Trouble is, that line "She wasn't expecting him" is exactly what you might write about her reaction if you were in her POV-- in her mind. So the reader might hesitate and wonder if we're now in her POV. Hesitation, re-reading-- those are not what you want, as they mean you confused the reader and slowed down the narrative flow.

So how can you do this-- show the interpretation-- without the reader confusion? I'm going to suggest a couple things, but you might have other ways of handling this.

First, try going with a new paragraph. We associate what's in a quote paragraph with the speaker (the action, for example), although that's not a rule or anything... just if you are trying to un-confuse, that's a way to do it:

Tom took a deep breath and knocked on her door. He heard a faint voice inside -- "Coming, coming," and braced himself.

She flung open the door. "Yes, can I--" Then she faltered.

She wasn't expecting him.

Notice that her actions (flinging, faltering) are still there with the speech-- that's all "her".

But the next line might be more obviously his thought if it's in a new paragraph, do you think? Now I'm not fond of a lot of one-line paragraphs. I just got a submission where almost every paragraph, stretched out over an 8 1/2 inch page, was just a line or maybe two, and it "sounded" sing-songy and childish. If you love short paragraphs (shorter than 4 sentences, say), just remember that some readers will "hear" that as childish (children's books have short paragraphs for a reason). (I use "sound" and "hear" there because there are a lot of readers-- I'm one-- who actually hear the passage as they read, and thus will notice if a paragraph ends too soon or if a sentence has too many syllables... I know it's weird, kind of synesthesia, but do be aware that this is a fairly sizeable proportion of readers, and they actually might refuse to read books that "sound wrong". So it pays to think of the rhythm and sound of your prose as you write and revise. Who else has that "sound" response to reading?)

So you don't want to have a lot of short paragraphs, but having one shorter graph in the midst of longer ones serves to emphasize the importance.

Another idea is to use her name, or if you've established that Tom thinks of her as "Joanie" or "Mrs. Lewis," using that name will make clear this line is in his mind:

Joanie wasn't expecting him.

Also consider a term that replaces the name or the pronoun and is his-- "Mom wasn't expecting him," for example. Or "That little brat wasn't expecting him." (She wouldn't think of herself that way. :) But you don't want to get artificial-- it's got to be in his voice or it won't work.

Another thought-- look at the verb there.

She wasn't expecting him.

"Wasn't" doesn't sound like interpretation, actually. Well, of course, we do "interpret" in categorical ways, but if you want to make clear it's him interpreting, not absolute reality, consider fuzzing up the verb a bit. For example:

She must not have been expecting him.

"Must not" isn't straight reality or even pretending to be- it's obviously interpretation. If you don't like that complicated tense there (have been expecting), maybe: She must not expect him? (Have we left past tense there? I don't think so-- "must" is its own past tense, I think.) She must not have expected him?

And it's moments like these you realize why "he realized" is actually a useful device that shouldn't be discarded even in deep POV, because it signals to the reader that it's his thought, his interpretation, and not his observation, her thought, or absolute reality.

He realized that she had not been expecting him.

She had not been expecting him, he realized.

Now... another complication. What if he's interpreting wrong? What if she was expecting him, and her faltering was because, I don't know, she's in love with him and is trying not to blurt it out? Or she sees him and realizes that he's the crazed stalker she's been fearing? Or she sees that he's got spinach in his teeth?

How would you -- in his POV -- signal that this is his interpretation, but it's wrong (or limited)? Or would you just let his interpretation stand for the moment, as that is his reality at the moment?



Ian said...

I would combine it via semicolon with an action of Tom's:

He gave a wry smile; she must not have expected him.

This establishes it is clearly his narration, and ties an interpretation to an emotional response on his part to further reinforce that it is HIM.

Anonymous said...

This is such a great topic and always the subject of debate. I always get drawn into the whole "I'm not head-hopping, I'm using multiple POVs" argument when it feels like I'm reading a ping-pong match in a chapter. *sigh*

I thought of a few possible fixes such as:

She flung open the door. "Yes, can I--" Then she faltered.

Clearly she wasn't expecting him.


Then she faltered.

Whoever she'd expected, it clearly wasn't him.


Then she faltered.

His brow arched. She wasn't expecting him.

I think breaking for a new paragraph and maybe blending the "She wasn't expecting him" bit with some kind of tag helps makes the interpretation clear.

Edittorrent said...

>Then she faltered.

Whoever she'd expected, it clearly wasn't him.>>

I like this, because it adds the realization that she WAS expecting someone... and who was that?

Edittorrent said...

Jewel, yes, too many writers, I think, disguise their incoherence as "POV" or "my voice"-- the point is not how liberated the author feels, but what the reader experiences. And that's why it's important to revise as a reader-- to notice that even single words can give the reader the wrong feeling. The author who thinks that's the READER's fault (as so many do) isn't going to be very popular.


Anonymous said...

Is POV really the fault, here?

There's a breath of a POV slip in 'She flung open the door' because (from Tom's POV) he wouldn't know who was flinging open the door...unless is was a glass door, in which case she would have known it was Tom on the other side and there'd be no surprise at finding him there.

But maybe that last line 'She wasn't expecting him' could be causing as many problems because it's telling, not showing. If you show what Tom sees, there's no doubt that he wasn't expected.

Tom took a deep breath and knocked on her door. He heard a faint voice inside -- "Coming, coming," and braced himself.

When the door flung open, she began to say, "Yes, can I--" but now she faltered; her shoulders dropped, her hand went to her chest, and she backed away a step, saying, "Oh, my god--Tom!"

Tom held his head high. "I think we need to talk, Dad," he said.

Edittorrent said...

Clever twist there in the end. :)