Point of View and Freewheeling Thoughts

First of all, a huge thank you to everyone for your well wishes and congratulations. I’m super excited about bringing Midnight Thief into the world, and I’m looking forward to sharing more details about the deal and process (BTW, if anyone has any specific questions, lemme know!). But first, for today, something different.

My freshman year of college, I took an expository writing class. One of the most important skills we learned was how to transition smoothly between different ideas. It was good, solid, advice, and improved my writing greatly. But like all writing rules, it doesn't always apply. I was reminded of this when I read Victoria Schwab's The Near Witch.

Take a look at this passage, in which the main character Lexi takes her sister Wren into town (the town is called Near). Everybody is talking about a stranger who showed up the night before.

Wren has strayed far ahead now, and Otto casts a look up at me, giving a sideways jerk of his head. I turn and go, making should note that Bo lives on the western edge of the village, so the stranger must have circled Near in that direction. Catching up to Wren, I pass by two families from the southern part of town. I slow my pace, careful to keep my sister in my sight.

"No, John, I swear he towers like a bare tree…" hollers an older woman, holding her arms wide as the scarecrow.

"You're daft, Berth. I saw him, and he's old, very old, practically crumbling."

"He's a ghost." "No such thing as a ghost! He's a halfling – part man, part crow."

[More dialogue…]

"Crows are terrible omens!! You've lost your mind, John. I know I said it last week but I was wrong. To Dave really lost it…"

I've lost Wren.

I look around and finally see a slip of blond hair vanishing into the nearby circle of children. I reach the cluster and find my sister, a good head shorter than most of them but just as loud and twice as quick.

 I love the abrupt transition from the dialogue of the villagers to the thought "I've lost Wren." If I’d been writing it myself, I would've been tempted out of habit to smooth over that transition with something like, "Suddenly I stop and look around. I've lost Wren." But our minds don't smooth over transitions in real life, and there's something about the abrupt switch that deepens the point of view and pulls you inside Lexi’s head.

Here's another example. In this scene, Lexi is watching the witch Magda arrange her cabin.

Magda collects her pieces of the world daily. I imagine it's all for charms. Small craft. Now and then a piece of the sisters’ work will find its way into the villager's pocket, or around their neck, even if they claim not to believe in it. I swear I seen a charm stitched to the skirt of Helena's dress, most likely meant to attract Tyler Ward's attention. She can have him. 

Again, I love that last sentence. First she's talking about the charms villagers carrying them, and suddenly it skips to a much more personal comment about Tyler Ward and Helena. It's a neat technique to keep in mind.

What about your writing? Do your characters transition smoothly between thoughts, or do they let them run free? 

Today is actually the paperback release day for The Near Witch. To celebrate, Victoria Schwab has written a prequel novella called The Ash-Born Boy, and it's available for free download at the Disney Hyperion website. I've just started reading it, and it's fantastic.

Also, I'm giving away a free hardcover edition of The Near Witch. To enter the drawing, do one of two things:

1. Share this post on twitter and leave your username in the comments.

2. RSS subscribers will see a secret code at the bottom of the post. Send an e-mail to liviablackburne at gmail com with the secret code in the subject line.

I will draw a winner on May 22 , 2012.  

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  1. This is a great post on a technique I affectionately (and clunkily) call "avoiding too much explaining." You've said it beautifully--the quick transition deepens the point of view & pulls you into the POV character's head. I'll refer to this in teaching. Thank you!

    1. Helen – LOL, "avoiding too much explaining" is a good way to put it as well :-)

  2. These are great examples of very evocative uses of what I like to term "textual jump cuts." Like in film, we get lulled into one mode of narration only to be undercut by a jarring statement meant to show the schism between what was being described and some other version of reality. I think it's so cool when techniques drawn from other media cross-pollinate into how we tell stories on the page.

    1. Reinhardt - it's interesting that you bring up movies. Now I'm wondering if there are visual ways to use jump cuts as well.

  3. My first drafts demonstrate that I have that smooth-transition habit and for some reason, I feel the need to explain everything under the sun. On the first pass-through for edits, I try to cut what I call "the-reader-doesn't-need-this" bits.

    I like the jolt effect of the examples you gave. Popping into the characters' inner-most thoughts make it so seamless to identify with them. I'm going to keep that in mind as I continue rewrites on my non-fiction. (And TRY to incorporate it when I'm drafting the fiction.)

    As always, your blog is enlightening.

    1. Janet – yes, jolt effect is a great way to say it! It does jar you a little bit, in a good way.

  4. You are always worth reading, Livia. Nice technique to avoid the tendency to explain everything. Victoria's book looks like a good read!

    P.S. Belated congratulations on your book deal!

    1. Shelley – I'm glad you found it useful, and thank you!

  5. 'I love the abrupt transition from the dialogue of the villagers to the thought "I've lost Wren." If I’d been writing it myself, I would've been tempted out of habit to smooth over that transition with something like, "Suddenly I stop and look around. I've lost Wren." '

    Back when I took a creative writing course -- the mid 90s -- the canonical, go-to writing advice book was the one by John Gardner, "The Art of Fiction" (an excellent book in many respects, but...) I remember a very similar example he gave, which I *hated* -- he came down in favor of introducing the surprise. I think it was:

    "Watch yourself, Boon!"
    "Suddenly, from somewhere, a voice called out: 'Watch yourself, Boon!"

    and the second one telegraphs the shock while the first one actually demonstrates it, so why would I want to do the second? Arguably, attempting to recreate the shock is artificial, somehow, but so is all of storytelling, to some extent.

    All that to say, this entry was very bolstering to me! It's nice to know others have the same preference. So much so that I've delurked! (Many congratulations on your forthcoming book, by the way.)

    1. Camille -- Good for you for being confident enough to question the experts. After all, it's an art, not a science. :-)