Writing Point of View – Part 4: What a Character Would Not Report

1-see-no-evil-amber-sneadLast week, I provided a list of ways to get inside a character’s head in order to establish intimacy with a character and give readers a feeling of “being there” in the scene.

  1. Report only what the focal character sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes, or thinks without using narrator phrases to introduce the sensations.
  2. Avoid describing anything that the focal character cannot perceive or would not notice.
  3. Dive deeply into the character’s mind to explore his or her thoughts and emotions.
  4. Employ motivation/reaction units to make the action flow with a real-time feel.

Today, I will discuss item #2.

In limited POV, whether third person or first person, don’t tell readers  what the focal character cannot take in with his own senses. The character doesn’t know what’s going on in a different room, though he might hear sounds and draw a conclusion based on the sounds. With the exception of mind-reading characters, the focal character doesn’t know someone else’s thoughts, though he might deduce those thoughts based on facial expressions or body language.

Many writers correctly employ this concept, but some miss a subtler issue. When writing intimate point of view, it is an error to report details in a scene, or personal physical qualities, that a character wouldn’t normally notice.

For example, when most people walk into their own bedroom, they normally don’t notice the color of the walls, the texture of the carpet, or how high the ceiling is. They have been there so many times, these details are not an issue. It would be odd to mentally register what we wouldn’t notice.

The same is true with details about ourselves. If we comb our fingers through our hair, we wouldn’t think about its color or how curly it is unless something has changed recently. Yet, many writers report these details without giving thought to the fact that their characters probably didn’t notice them. Details like these harm intimacy and disturb the illusion of realism we’re hoping to create. When a writer reports a mundane detail, readers might not consciously register the lack of realism, but the illusion might become fractured anyway.

Most mundane details are not important to a scene, so in many cases you can just avoid reporting them. But if the details enhance the story or the world-building you hope to establish, you can include them by attracting the character’s attention to the details in a natural way.

For example, if you want to describe a tree in a character’s front yard, have a bird fly into a nest in the branches. This will cause the character to look and perhaps take in the tree’s foliage, how its thickness hides the nest well. If you want the character to notice his wife’s hair, have her enter the scene with a fresh cut or a new color. (No comments about clueless husbands. 🙂 )

For example, the following is an excerpt from a piece sent for critiquing on this blog:

After a few more turns the gravel path beneath her feet turned into the familiar paved streets of the main square. As the sky grew lighter she could see her destination, dark and foreboding, just two hundred yards distant.

The council’s building loomed like death’s shadow at the end of the cobblestone lane. The large gate to the courtyard would be locked and guarded, as the sun hadn’t risen yet. The granite columns, which surrounded the building while providing anchor points for the perimeter fence, were definitely the most impressive feature of the complex.

While all twelve held designs, the two that stood front and center were the most magnificent of them all. Each one was carved with designs of dragons of all sizes and colors. The mere sight of them was enough to chase away her foul mood. Perhaps the morning wouldn’t be as bad as she had thought.

The focal character has seen this structure many times, so it is odd that she would take such careful note of it. To her, it’s the same old thing. When I want to describe something like this, I will have a character notice a change of some kind so that her attention is drawn not only to the change but also to the rest of the structure so she can check to see if anything else has changed. Also, I would try to add more clarity to the visuals and show her change of mood rather than tell about her change of mood.

Maybe something like this:

After a few more turns the gravel path gave way to the main square’s familiar cobblestone streets. As the sky grew lighter, her destination came into view, dark and foreboding, just two hundred yards distant. The council’s building loomed like death’s shadow at the end of the lane.

She walked on, head low, shoulders sagging. Losing was bad enough, but facing the council members? Their sharp tongues would show no mercy.

When she arrived at the gate, a pebble dropped and rolled to her boot. She looked up and scanned the barrier, trying to locate the source. Might there be a fault in one of the granite columns surrounding the building? They had always provided anchor points for the perimeter fence, so they needed to be strong and impenetrable.

She let her gaze pass across the twelve columns and their designs. The two at the front, each bearing the carving of a red dragon in flight, seemed intact, as did the lesser dragons on the other columns, whether blue, green, or orange.

As she stared at the magnificent creatures, she inhaled deeply. What beauty! What inspiration! How many times had she passed by these columns without taking a second glance?

She picked up the pebble, slid it into her pocket, and squared her shoulders. The training defeat today was the mere dropping of a pebble. The columns, and her determination, had lost nothing of consequence. She would press on, no matter what.

The falling of a pebble drew her attention to the details and allowed a natural way to describe the beauty. It’s also natural for a character to take wonder in the fact that such details had escaped notice before. Many people let amazing beauty pass by because they’re too busy to notice.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them.

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9 replies

  1. Thank you! This has helped me so much. 🙂

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  2. I have a POV character’s introductory chapter that describes an abandoned building she has lived alone in for years. It is important to describe it early on as she is alone for 2/3 of the story before another POV character sees this building. However, she has not always lived there alone and everywhere she looks reminds her of better times. I wrote the chapter with this in mind, mingling the description of the place with specific memories stirred by the objects she sees around her every day.

    Might this be an effective way to relay familiar surroundings to a reader as well?

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  3. One scene that is giving me trouble right now is where the main char is waiting behind a market stall, hiding from sight and listening while his uncle deals with a troublesome merchant. I’m doing my best to only describe what the main char would be able to decifer, and I kind of know how I want to handle the scene, but the words are failing me and the scene isn’t working as I’d like. I’m just trying to plow through it as best I can when I have time to work on it.

    One issue is how to convey that the main character knows certain things about the people he is eavesdropping on that way the audience knows it’s plausible for him to come to certain conclusions about the conversation. I’m trying to stay away from too much telling or background info dumping.

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  4. This is excellent advice. Genius!!! 🙂
    Seems like it would be tough to remember all of these guidelines. I’m guessing it gets easier the more you write like this.

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