I love playing with point of view. It’s one of the fun bits of writing a romance novel!
Firstly, what is point of view? It’s the eyes you use to tell the story. It’s the person you filter the events of the novel through.
Novels like the classics often use omniscient point of view which I like to think of as the ‘God’ format. This is where the author sees all and knows all and can pop into everyone’s head to give the reader a quick idea of what’s going on in a character’s thoughts.
The benefit of this is you get that whole world effect that someone like Dickens achieves. The downside is you run the risk of not developing a particular emotional intimacy with any character as you’re always dashing off to see the world through another set of eyes.
Omniscient point of view is still used these days but sparingly. I think of it as a wide-panning camera shot that sets up the scene and then of course, you can zoom in to get the close-up. Used sparingly, it can be a highly effective way to begin a chapter or a scene. Used too much, it can make your book seem old-fashioned and lacking in emotional punch.
Still popular is first-person point of view, ‘I’ books. Chick lit and women’s fiction have a great fondness for first-person point of view although I’ve read many romances, especially gothics, that also use this technique.
With first person point of view, you can play games with things like unreliable narrator that keep the reader guessing. WUTHERING HEIGHTS, for example, is a sequence of first person narratives and every single one of those narrators doesn’t understand the full story. All of this adds very effectively to the story’s unsettling, dark atmosphere.
The principal benefit of first-person point of view is you develop extreme emotional intimacy with the person telling the story. One downside is readers can become tired of that one character’s voice unless that character is very engaging. Another downside is you view all the other characters from the outside. You don’t go into anyone else’s head.
The majority of romances, in fact most books these days, are written in third-person point of view (he/she). The writer picks one character or a couple of characters through whom to tell the story. With most romances, including mine, the viewpoint characters are the hero and the heroine. Sometimes the villain or a major secondary character will become the point of view character. Unlike omniscient point of view, the narrators in third-person point of view can only know what that character knows at that stage of the story. So unreliable narrator games also come into the equation.
Most romances take third-person point of view one step further and are written in what I’d term very close focus point of view. This can also be called deep point of view. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this close focus point of view is one of the reasons romances are popular across the world.
This technique brings you really close to the character, concentrating on their reactions, their emotions. If it’s done well, the reader feels like there’s no filter between them and the character’s actions and feelings in the story. You get that intense intimacy you experience with first-person point of view combined with the ability to move into other viewpoints that you get in third-person. The reading experience becomes intense, vivid, as though the reader were experiencing the events of the story with the viewpoint character. It’s an amazingly powerful technique.
Most aspiring writers have heard the term ‘head-hopping’ and the general consensus is it’s a bad thing. Head-hopping is when the point of view character alternates quickly or across a large number of characters – omniscient point of view often uses head-hopping but as I said, the effect can be rather old-fashioned.
I’ve judged contest entries where the point of view character changes from paragraph to paragraph, even from line to line. Sometimes the problem is that the reader becomes confused about whose eyes they’re viewing events through. But that’s not the greatest danger. The greatest danger is that with lots of viewpoint characters or this whiplash effect of changing viewpoint characters, the reader never develops that intimate relationship with the lead characters and never gains that intense experience of living through the story with them. So you’ve missed your chance to create a page-turning, compelling romance that delivers a huge emotional wallop. The story may be great, the characters may be interesting, but the reader will experience the whole thing from a distance.
My advice for anyone wanting to use deep point of view in a romance is to limit how many characters tell your story. I’d strongly recommend just hero and heroine, maybe villain if that’s the only way you can get essential information across or you think this builds suspense. I’d also recommend staying in each viewpoint for an extended period. Some people say for the whole scene. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that, but stay in one head long enough for the reader to feel they are intimate with the character.
Whose point of view should you use for a particular moment? The general consensus is that the point of view character should be the person with the most at stake. Another technique is to pick the character who gets the surprise when the information conveyed in the scene is revealed, especially if it’s information the reader doesn’t yet have. This puts the reader and the character on the same footing and builds intimacy.
Often in my books, the characters have equal stakes in a particular scene. What do you do then? In that case, I’d go for the most dramatic option or for the option that gives the reader the most new information. In a love scene, I may choose a point of view character who hasn’t yet had the chance to express their feelings/reactions in a similar moment. So the first love scene may be in the hero’s point of view. The reader wants to know how the heroine feels so the next love scene will be in her point of view.
What techniques can you use to achieve close focus point of view? One is to concentrate very much on the character’s sensations, thoughts and emotions. How does that character react to something that’s been said or done? How does that character feel in any given moment? Use the senses – ALL of them, not just the visual. Use memory. Give us a strong impression of what it’s like to be inside that person’s skin.
Another technique is to limit filter words like “he thought” or “she felt”. Close point of view reflection is presented as dialogue with the flavour of speech. So if the character curses, the patterns of his thoughts should include cursing. Use other techniques you’d use with speech, like fragments or colloquialisms.
Effective internal monologues use words the character would in speech:
He thought she was beautiful. This puts the reader at a distance.
By all that was holy, she was lovely. The reader instantly hears the cadence of the character’s speech.
Yet another trick is to use imagery that relates specifically to him or her. To give you an example, in UNTOUCHED, Matthew, the Marquess of Sheene, is a botanist so he uses a lot of plant and horticultural language. The more specific you can make a character’s internal dialogue, the more the reader will feel they’re inhabiting their head.
Use point of view to play games with your reader. This is when it becomes really fun! Your reader is in the box seat when it comes to knowing what’s going on with the story. The hero may be going through agonies because he thinks the heroine doesn’t love him. The reader knows better. The heroine may completely misunderstand something the hero does. The reader knows better.
You can also use point of view to keep your reader turning the page in a fever to find out what happens next. When your hero, in his point of view, declares his love at the end of a chapter, the reader will immediately rush to read the next page because of course, your reader wants to know how the heroine reacts to this important moment in the story.
Skilful use of point of view is a really powerful technique for drawing out suspense and creating a compelling story that will keep your reader sitting up past midnight to finish the story. And isn’t that just what we want?
Come on! Use point of view to get us really intimate with the men and women in your stories! Your readers will be clamouring for more!
This article first appeared (in German) in Love Letter Magazine in February, 2009, then was reprinted in Heart to Heart, the newsletter of Romance Writers of New Zealand, in March, 2009.