"Mastering Point of View: How to Control Point of View to Create Conflict, Depth and Suspense," Sherri Szeman

Pros: Thorough; easy to read; clear; did I mention thorough?
Cons: A few repetitive details
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 9/16/2002

Point of view is such a spiny, tangled issue for writers – it’s sort of like that Satanic rose bush we found growing next to our house after we moved in. Every time you think you have it dealt with, it sends out shoots fifteen feet away in an attempt to make a break for it. You think you’re going to rip it out by the roots, but the spines bite right through those heavy gloves you bought.

Can you tell I’ve been gardening recently?

It seems like it should be so simple. If you’re using “I” a lot, it’s probably first person. “You” probably indicates second person. He, she, it… these things denote third person. There. That was easy, right? WRONG!

Oh, heavens. We’ve hardly even begun. It’s like those escaping spiny runners that we dig up every week, only to find more the next week. There’s unlimited point of view, first-person, inner limited, second-person, outer limited, combo, multiple, and that’s just the basics. Scared yet? I know I was! Point of view was one of those things that I just kind of closed my eyes and prayed about. I’d write a story and trust PoV to take care of itself. Sure, I had a decent sense for it, so usually things worked out okay. But I’m also sure that if I went back now, after having finished this book, I’d find a whole lot of little mistakes here and there that I need to fix. And you want to look like a pro who knows what she’s doing when you send that story to an editor, right? Right.

And that’s why you need to read “Mastering Point of View: How to control point of view to create conflict, depth and suspense,” by Sherri Szeman:

The purpose of this book is not to add any more divisions or complicated terms to the study of point of view. Nor is it to analyze the author’s motive behind his choice of point of view or to pass judgment on the quality of any individual point of view. Instead, it is to offer practical advice for creative writers, especially novelists, on mastering point of view.

What is point of view?

Ahh, another deceptively easy question. This thorny thicket is getting high enough that I’m beginning to feel that I should at least find a Sleeping Beauty on the other side. “Mastering Point of View” debunks common myths regarding what you can and can’t do with PoV. It dispels common misperceptions. It’ll tell you what “point of view” really means to a writer, and you might be a little surprised by the answer. You’ll learn the difference between PoV and perspective, and you’ll also learn that PoV involves a lot more than just pronouns. If you want to have a first-person narrator you’ll need to learn to portray that narrator’s unique voice, for example.

Layout

This book is very well-divided, by which I mean that topics are divided into short sections that are labeled clearly. This makes it much easier for you to find the specific piece of information you’re looking for at a moment’s notice.

Each chapter begins with the basics of its topic, then it goes into greater detail. You’ll find out about the advantages and disadvantages to using each form of PoV – both to you and to your readers! You’ll read examples, get a simple description of things to consider when choosing whether to use a certain PoV or not, find out about genres and situations each type of PoV is typically used in, get a run-down on various related topics, and explore any extra tips the author has on the subject. Finally the author neatly summarizes her main points.

Very occasionally details get a little repetitive, but only occasionally. By and large all the information is quite welcome, as it serves the purpose of gently and thoroughly detangling all those pesky branches and vines.

First person

Rather than trying to give you an in-depth run-down of the vast topics present in this book (now that would be an awfully long review!), I’ll just give you the tour of chapter three: First-Person Point of View.

We start off with the basics: what you must have in order to have 1st person, what you can and can’t do (“The narrator can judge the other characters, but the author does not openly present her own personal judgments”), the advantages and disadvantages, how it’s been used in literary fiction, and how it’s been used in commercial fiction. As always, the author lists several books you can check out to get a better idea of what she means.

Next we get a run-down on the differences between author, persona, and narrator, as well as a discussion of why a confusion between author and persona sometimes occurs. We find out about the intrusive author or persona, talk about whether or not this method works, and receive a few cautions on the matter. We even get to talk about reliable and unreliable narrators, including how to create unreliable narrators. Then we move into stream-of-consciousness narration, interior monologues, first-person plural PoV, epistolary narratives (stories told through letters), journal and diary narratives, e-mail, phone, and interview narratives, and even autobiographical narratives.

Now that’s a far more exhaustive discussion of the topic than I’ve ever heard or seen elsewhere! Certainly if I’d been able to find out these things in this manner before – i.e., all laid out in simple and clear terms, spiny branches not even optional, I wouldn’t have been nearly so afraid of point of view!

A few final details

There seems to be a slight preoccupation here with postmodernist fiction. However, since I gather this is where you’ll find a lot of wacky experimentation with PoV, this is perhaps inevitable. The suggestions regarding experimentation seem very balanced to me. They advocate neither following the rules simply for the sake of following them, nor doing something hard-to-read just because you can.

There are some erotic quotes in the section on point-of-view and erotic scenes, so this book isn’t for the kids. (That was probably obvious, but just in case…)

Every chapter ends with exercises. Some are okay; some truly wow me! (Like the ones on revision and writer’s block.)

“Mastering Point of View” is a comprehensive, simple, clear treatise on a thorny and painful subject. Every writer owes it to herself to read it at least once. Me, I’m keeping mine right here in my garden… err, desk.

Posted in Writing

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