Friday, July 13, 2012

A Light in the Darkness XII

Today's entry deals with point-of-view, oftentimes called POV. I will not be detailing the shades of gradation between various types of third-person POVs, at least not today. I will make do with a broad differentiation between close third and omniscient third, and move on from there.

But first things first.

First person narrative is all about “I” and “me”.

I wandered through the forest, frightened and alone, looking for the alien who had stolen my phaser. It was getting late, and I would need to be beamed up soon. When I find that alien, I thought, I will vaporize him, just as soon as I get the phaser back.

And I'll do it in period costume, just to make your death more humiliating.

Straightforward enough, right? Because “I” am the narrator, it is usually fairly easy to keep this one in the proper POV. If “I” don't know a thing, say, where the alien is, then it cannot show up. But even in first person it is possible to fall into the Star Trek trap.

What is that, you may ask? The Star Trek trap is where the captain, in this case Kirk, makes a captain's log entry, saying “But unknown to us, a totally new and unusual disease has been brought aboard.”

If Kirk does not know it, then he cannot make a log entry about it. This should be your axiom when examining POV. “If Kirk (the POV character) does not know it, don't show it.”

And be careful you don't jettison pod, either.

Second person narrative is about “you”, and it has almost no applications outside of choose-your-own-adventure books, so I will skip it for now.

Third person is the most common POV in which to write, and in the past third person omniscient was popular.

This POV type was in everyone's thoughts, everyone's point of view. You could write the following, and it would be acceptable as third person omniscient.

Kirk shook his head. The last alien he had taken to bed had had some sort of rash, and now he had it. He hoped it went away before he had to let McCoy take a look at it. He was supposed to meet up with that girl again in a week, and he wanted to be healthy by then.

If I had a rash, I'd name it "Marta".

Unknown to Kirk or his alien chick, neither one would make the rendezvous. The alien's planet would be swallowed up by a black hole and be redistributed throughout the galaxy as radioactive particles.

No one in the story, neither Kirk nor the alien, can know about the coming black hole catastrophe, but the “narrator”, the omniscient story-teller, does know.

Third person omniscient, however, does not often follow the inner workings of a character too much. Perhaps this is why it is currently unfashionable. Regardless, it is unfashionable, so we will move on to the most common POV nowadays: close third.

Close third uses much of the first person POV limitations, but transposes it from “I” to “he” or “she”. Here is an example of close third POV.

Spock wanted to roll his eyes, but he did not give in to such human expressions. He contented himself with raising an eyebrow. “Indeed, Captain?” He tried to put infinite disdain into the words, but he was not sure if Kirk even heard him. Spock sat down heavily on his chair and ran his fingers over the cold knobs and dials of his science station.

But when he thinks he's alone, he does give in.

We see what Spock sees and have access to his thoughts, but we do not see what he does not. We do not know if Kirk actually heard him, but we do know that his science station has cold knobs.

In close third it is possible to switch POVs, but it is best to do with with a proper scene shift demarcation (or even a new chapter). DO NOT HEAD-HOP.

Yes, I know that there are skillful, published authors who do this, but do NOT assume that it is all right to do just because so-and-so does. Once you have mastered POV sufficiently to be able to head-hop without it jarring, you will know these rules already. Do not break a rule unless and until you know how to keep it and know exactly why you are breaking it.

What is head-hopping? Skipping from one POV to another, and often back again, in the same passage.

Picard is not impressed by your head-hopping. How do you think he lost his hair?

Here is an example of head-hopping.

Kirk watched the swaying posterior of the alien as she walked away. She might be green, but she was shapely and attractive. He promised himself that he would get her to bed within the week. “Warp factor two, Mr. Sulu.”

Spock clutched his fingers convulsively. Sulu was supposed to be Japanese, but his name had an “l” in it. Spock was only half human, but even he knew better. And the captain never seemed to notice. Why did no one notice this?

Spock forced his thoughts back to his time travel calculations, as Kirk smiled inwardly at his romantic plans for the evening.

I must kill Spock before my secret gets out!

Not only do we move from Kirk's thoughts to Spock's, but we have a sentence at the end that is in both's POV. Spock is the only one who knows where his thoughts are, and only Kirk can know about his own inward smile.


Remember our Kirk axiom?

If Kirk doesn't know it, don't show it. That works for close third person POV, too. If you want to switch from Kirk's POV to Spock's POV, you can. But you had better flag the change by having Spock make his own log entry.

Until next week, keep those grammar candles burning.


  1. Hehehe. I was doing a beta read for someone and my comments kept referencing Star Trek: Next Gen.

    Always good to read these.

  2. Very entertaining look at pov. "If Kirk doesn't know it, don't show it." I'll have that phrase stuck in my head for some time now, dang it. :)

  3. Thanks, Tory and Lace, for reading! Glad you enjoyed it. Gotta do something to try to make this dry stuff funny! :)

  4. Yes, knobs are best served cold. I always had to laugh at the "unkown to us at this time..." log entry, too! JM


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