The Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing, Part Eight

As a student of the art of fiction, there are several axioms and pieces of advice that I come across again and again; "show, don't tell", "write what you know", "don't trick the reader", etc. These aren't items from a single book, they're everywhere. Some of them surely originate with specific authors, but as ideas they've taken on a life of their own, becoming more than something one person said.

In this series, I will try to gather all those admonitions, encouragements, and adages into a single, definitive list; the Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing. Hopefully this will be as fun and educational for you as it is for me.


Commandment Eight: Thou shalt not meddle with point of view

I've talked a lot about point of view. I've talked about how to edit for point of view. It's pretty obvious that I'm opinionated on the subject, and I've taken the time to express those opinions. So this is going to be a short post.

I've also talked a lot about the fictive dream. The fictive dream is the joy of reading fiction, and anything that meddles with it threatens that joy. And POV is the portal through which we enter the fictive dream (like this quote? Click here to tweet it!).

POV is a delicate thing. In the hands of a master, it can produce startling effects. In the hands of a careless amateur, it can make a story totally opaque.

When you supply too much information, you clog the portal with facts, and the fictive dream disappears. When you shift unexpectedly from one POV to another, you close one portal, and force the reader to search for the new one. When you use a first person narrator to tell a story whose scope goes beyond that character's experiences, you build the portal too narrow. When you use an omniscient narrator to show and tell everything, you build the portal too wide, and the reader is unable to focus.

If you have doubts about your ability to wield POV, err on the side of caution. Don't try to pull any tricks just for the sake of being tricky (as I've said before in this series).

And most importantly, think about what you can and cannot know, given a certain point of view. If your detective story is written in first person, your detective can't know what the murderer is doing while he's walking the beat. If you're writing in an intimate third person, you can't see what's going on behind walls or across vast distances. If your narrator is retelling stories from her past, remember that she is going to have a different perspective on those events than she did at the time.

In short, don't fiddle. POV is a tool, not a toy. Pick the right tool for the job, and don't mess around with it, or you'll hurt yourself.