Monday, March 15, 2010

POV Glitch

I had not noticed it when she first arrived: the way she leaned too far toward him as he kissed her hand, the hint of surprised recognition in his eyes.
~ A Fatal Waltz, Tasha Alexander

That's the first line of the third book in the Lady Emily Ashton series. I've already read the first two, so I already know we're dealing with a competent, controlled author. Even the best can run into these small pov snags, though.

What's the problem with this sentence? We're dealing with a first-person narrative. This means the narrative should be confined to what is within the scope of the viewpoint of the narrator. So, if the narrator didn't notice these things, how can she report them? She can't, not without breaking the pov. Or, if she did notice them, why does she say she didn't?

Can anyone see a way to read this sentence so that it doesn't break pov? There is a way, but you would need to spell it out for the reader in the next sentence or sentences, I think. In the alternative, there might be a way to tweak that sentence so that the meaning is slightly different but the pov remains pure. Anyone care to take a stab at this as an exercise?

Theresa

10 comments:

Jordan said...

Here's a stab at a fix: rewrite the line to make it clear that POV character saw those things at the time but only interpreted them ("noticed") when she remembered the event later.

Of course, that could be wordier and less powerful.

Heidi Cautrell said...

I'm thinking, perhaps, the author mentions something in the next sentence about being informed of it by a friend later on. Or having the pov character's attention drawn to it by a friend after the fact?

I like Jordan's thought on rewriting to have the character not realize it until later. Or not recognize the significance until later.

Dave Shaw said...

Or perhaps the POV character recalled it because of something that happened later - a disagreement, some unexpected dalliance, discovery of one of them dead - something that would change the unmemorable moment into an encounter of importance.

A (probably wordy - my Achilles heel) rework could go something like:

"I attached no importance to what happened when she first arrived: the way she leaned too far toward him as he kissed her hand, the hint of surprised recognition in his eyes."

Edittorrent said...

Dave, that seems like a good solution to me.

Heidi, the second sentence is,

"But having spent an afternoon in the same room as them, watching the effortless manner in which they fell into familiar conversation -- two striking individuals against an equally spectacular backdrop -- I could not deny that they were more than casual acquaintances."

Jordan, can we read the two sentences together to accomplish what you suggest?

Theresa

Josh Hoey said...

I think it is acceptable for a first person narrative to break those confines of what the narrator saw "at the time".

The deep third person narrative exists to put us in the viewpoint character's head at the time of the scene, but the first person narrator can be in a conversation with us. They can telling us what happened long ago, and as they tell their story, it can possibly be coloured by what they've learned about the the scene (or include any other wisdom they've gained) since they experienced those events.

Of course, the "rules" that govern the first person POV may vary from book to book, and some first person POVs may limit themselves only to what happened at the time, but I don't think they should have to. Am I wrong for thinking this?

Feywriter said...

It seems to me perhaps the punctuation is the problem. It's not that she didn't notice the actions, but did not notice the significance (that they were more than casual). I think Dave's revision works well.

Iapetus999 said...

Personally, I like the sentence as is and none of the suggestions has improved it, just turned it into "telling."
The sentence gave me these questions: why didn't she notice it at first, and what happened to change her interpretation of it?
So I like the mystery of it.

Edittorrent said...

@ Iapetus - Eh, it's telling either way. I'm not too worried about that because the sentence has lots of good narrative tension and does generate reader interest. A good bit of that tension comes from the contrast between the confession and the actions, though, and I wonder if we would lose that if it were revised for pov.

@Josh Hoey - That expositional/ conversational first is a tricky beast. When it works, it works well. But it so rarely works. And I think one of the reasons we see so many first-person sleuths is that the pov tightly limits reader perceptions (in accordance with character perceptions), and that allows the author to manipulate red herrings and plot twists a little more readily.

Theresa

Kathleen MacIver said...

Not sure where my first comment went.

My suggestion would be:

I didn't think much of it at first: the way she'd leaned too far toward him as he kissed her hand, the hint of surprised recognition in his eyes.

That takes out the "when she first arrived," but I don't really think it's necessary. I'm also not sure if "I hadn't thought" might be more correct...but it just doesn't feel like how a person would naturally talk/think.

For me, the bigger issue is how realistic the positioning of these three people is. I'd think that, in order to see a "hint" of something in someone's eyes, you have to be looking straight into them from a pretty close distance. That would put the narrator opposite him. Then, when a woman gives her hand to a man to kiss, she is usually standing directly in front of him and he typically leans forward slightly to kiss it...placing her directly between the narrator and the man. So how did she see that hint in his eyes? I suppose that the surprised recognition might have shown before he bent, so if he was tall enough, the narrator might have been looking over the woman's shoulder.

That "hint" seems like it doesn't quite fit, though. Unless the narrator turns out to be obsessed by him and watching his every tiny movement...which might also be the case.

Glynis said...

My effort with the exercise. The pov is watching, so they had to have seen something to spark off the interest in the couple.

A hint of chemistry was there, I sensed it: The way she leaned too far toward him as he kissed her hand, the hint of surprised recognition in his eyes.

"Then, having spent an afternoon in the same room as them, watching the effortless manner in which they fell into familiar conversation -- two striking individuals against an equally spectacular backdrop -- I could not deny that they were more than casual acquaintances."