Friday, May 31, 2013

A Word About POV

I just came back from MisCon last weekend, and holy smokes, what a blast that was. MisCon is one of the most congenial science fiction conventions anywhere, and it has a great writers' workshop. I critiqued several manuscripts and I hope the writers got something useful out of my comments. I occurs to me, as I sit here going through a couple of old manuscripts I am now incented to work on again (they're sold, they're sold!), that perhaps those writers and others could benefit from looking at old and new examples of my own rewriting.

I am working through the latter books in a series I wrote quite a long time ago and just now sold to Sky Warrior Books. I am a better writer now than I was then, and one passage in particularly sort of leaped out at me as a way to illustrate one of the greater mysteries of writing that often baffles newbies to the craft: point of view, or POV.

POV, in all its bewildering glory, is the viewpoint from which you are observing the scene with the reader. That can be godlike, loftily “telling” us everything that’s happening; first person, which locks you into one character’s head and the only thing the reader can know is what that character knows; or third person, in which you refer to everyone has “he” or “she” and you can widen the view a little. I like third person myself, though I have written many short stories in first person, even second person (but you have to be realllllly good to pull off a second person story, and there’s not much market for them). My older stuff tends to combine tight third person with a bit of omniscience, as in the first excerpt below, which is the original passage:
Money began to change hands on the sidelines. The King of Sevakand and his heir were fencing together for the first time in months, barefoot and stripped to fighting leathers, an unequal contest to the untrained eye. The King stood a clear hand taller than his brother and was half again as broad across the shoulders, with a tremendous reach, but Alarion was quick and hard to catch as a flea, his blade flickering in and out like summer lightning. The betting grew heavy among the Mreens. The Whites, Alarion's own regiment, slyly prodded the Blacks to lengthen the odds on him. He had been bedridden until two months ago, recovering from a near-fatal wound. This match was the first all-out duel he had fought since. Even so, the Whites were fiercely proud of their prince; they would have died to a man rather than confess doubt in his ability even against his brother, the second-best swordsman in the Citadel.

The Blacks gave odds warily, wondering if the Hav'an's earlier unwonted flinching was a trick, until Treleramon tripped Alarion and brought him crashing to the sand a hair's breadth ahead of the fabled sword of the kings of Sevakand. Alarion rolled desperately away, coated with sand and sweat. The Blacks whooped and slapped down crystals. Treleramon grinned at his brother and took a half step back, gesturing with his free hand for him to get up.

"You are too generous, Majest!" Alarion flipped to his feet in a muscle-straining move that brought a groan of appreciation from every throat in the yard. His sword described an eccentric arc, whipped under the King's blade and ended at his throat. Treleramon staggered back and stopping, grinning, his own point just touching Alarion's naval.

"Draw?"

Alarion snorted. "What would your enemies think?"

He hurled himself backward and they began again, circling like dancers under the hot summer sun. They had to get down to knives to finish it, and Treleramon did not have his younger brother's lithe ability with a dagger. He surrendered gracefully in the end, setting the Whites whooping as they moved to collect from the disgruntled Blacks.

S'Bralic, commander of the King's bodyguard, leaned down to give him a hand up. "You're slipping, Majest." His lean face wore a wicked grin under the black turban of his elite service.

Let me hasten to state that there is really not that much wrong with this old passage. I wrote a great deal in omniscient POV when I was younger, head-hopping merrily and often observing the action from a bit of a distance. This was and is acceptable if you do it right; anything that holds the reader’s interest is pretty much okay; damn the “rules” of writing. But (she said), getting close the character is always, always preferable to watching from on high. This is a common problem that I end up pointing out to people whose work I critique in workshops of all types. 

Because I, too, was once prone to the sin of omniscient Telling, I am rewriting a lot of this old stuff to put the reader back into the main character’s head, thusly:
Money began to change hands on the sidelines. Alarion grinned as he spun away from a parry, catching a glimpse of a tall sarjent dangling a pouch in front of a recruit who looked horrified. It must indeed look like an unequal match to an untrained eye; Treleramon was a hand taller than he was and half again as broad across the shoulders. But he has to catch me to use that thing on me, Alarion thought smugly, and danced again out of the path of the fabled sword of the kings of Sevakand, cast centuries ago from the remains of the ship that had brought the Founders to this world. Dimly he heard a White Mreen from his own regiment taunting a Black to lengthen the odds on him. “And wasn’t the Hav’an flat on his back for two months?” drifted over the shuffle of Treleramon’s boots on the sand as the King spun and brought his sword across sideways in a wicked slash at Alarion’s legs.

He leaped clear, panting, enjoying this first full-out match they had fought since last year. Trey was still the second-best swordsman in the Citadel after S’Bralic, commander of the King’s bodyguard, and Alarion wanted badly to beat him, just once. Besides, there was a lot of money changing hands over there. The Whites would never forgive him if he lost.

Treleramon feinted, stepped out of the way of a counter, and tripped Alarion to the sand. Alarion rolled desperately away, coated with sand and sweat. The Blacks whooped and slapped down crystals. Treleramon grinned at him and took a half step back, gesturing with his free hand for him to get up.

“You are too generous, Majest!” Alarion flipped to his feet in a muscle-straining move that brought a groan of appreciation from every throat in the yard. He whipped his sword under the King's blade and up, ending at his brother’s throat. Treleramon staggered back and stopping, grinning, his own point just touching Alarion's naval.

“Draw?”

Alarion snorted. “What would your enemies think?”

He hurled himself backward and they began again, circling like dancers under the morning sun. Treleramon attacked, driving Alarion back on sheer brute strength. Alarion ducked, wove, and finally found an opening when Treleramon’s foot collided with his, jarring them both off-balance. Alarion, lighter, quicker, recovered first. He took a quick step sideways, ducked under Treleramon’s arm, and tapped his sword lightly to the back of the King’s neck.

“You can pick up your head now,” he said, as Treleramon wheeled around, a fraction of a second too late.

Treleramon, his broad chest heaving, gave Alarion a sardonic salute and surrendered. The Whites whooped and moved to collect from the disgruntled Blacks. S'Bralic stepped out from the sidelines. “You're slipping, Majest.” His lean face wore a wicked grin under the black turban of his elite service.

Pretty much everything that was in the original is still there in the rewrite, but now we “see” the scene from Alarion’s POV instead of me telling the reader what’s going on over there on the sidelines. If you are a new writer struggling to “show” the scene, think about the differences here and how to really get inside your character’s head. Confine yourself initially to what he can see, hear, taste, smell, and actually know, and you will go a long way toward mastering the intricacies of putting your reader into the scene with your character.

This excerpt is from the second book in the “Fate’s Arrow” trilogy. “The Mask of God,” the first book, will be out at the end of July if all goes well. I am very much enjoying revisiting this world, and I hope you’ll like it, too.

Until next time!

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