POV Corrupts

Here’s my new saying: “POV corrupts. Omniscient POV corrupts absolutely.”

Alright, I’m butchering the popular euphemism about power and corruption, but I think I can use my new quote to make a fair point. Bear with me.

When writing fiction, I only have a few choices for point of view. I’m going to ignore the bizarre (e.g. second person view, or even weirder, first person plural) and focus upon the most common choices in modern fiction: third person limited, third person omniscient, and first-person.

Now, a truism about fiction writers: we are an egotistical bunch. I write fantastical stories about characters and events that I then foist upon others, firmly believing that they should/must read and enjoy my literary magnum opii (Opuses? Really? I like “opii” better. Screw you, Merriam-Webster!). What I write matters. My audience, willing or otherwise, must read it, love it, be transfixed and transformed by the glory of it. Yeah, that sounds about right.

How does that massive ego play into POV? Well, I’m often tempted to tell my readers exactly how my story is going to play out. This was particularly true when I first started taking my novel-writing seriously. I want to control every emotion and every thought provided to my audience. And I do so by choosing a narrative point-of-view that gives me absolute control. That choice is a toss-up between first-person POV, where I get to live in the narrator’s head, and third-person omniscient, where I reside outside my characters, but can dive into their thoughts and emotions at any time and schmear those insights across the page in as much gory detail as desired.

The problem is that word “tell.” Good stories don’t tell, they show. If an author describes, ad nauseum, every niggling detail and thought and emotion that occurs throughout their story, the end result is ugly indeed. Trust me, I’ve been there, and it ain’t pretty.

The easy solution to the “tell” dilemma for me is to resist the temptation of omniscience and choose a limited POV. Limiting my viewpoint forces me to demonstrate thoughts and emotions through action rather than blatant description. It sounds like a simple solution, and it is, except for one glaring problem: the dreaded adverb.

Once I adopt a limited POV, my ego immediately retreats, regroups, and launches a new attack on my writing, attempting an end-run around the “show, don’t tell” mantra by adding lots (and LOTS) of adverbs to the writing process. For good measure, my ego also modifies almost all of my dialog tags to something other than “say” or “ask.” After all, why have your MC say something, when they can utter something angrily?

“Abundant Adverbiage”™ and overly descriptive dialog tags are reasonably easy to fix during the editing process. Once again, however, my ego wants to step in during this stage and rewrite my dialog, to make absolutely sure it’s conveying the intended emotion. Or to add things like gestures and body language to enhance the meaning of the scene. Resisting that urge and letting dialog convey itself in a limited fashion, just like it would in the real world, is still something I struggle to manage.

So: limit your viewpoint, remove all adverbs and colorful dialog tags, keep your dialog and surrounding actions simple and sparse, and let your writing show the reader the story, rather than tell them the story. That sounds simple enough, right?

Yeah, sure. I think I’ll just stick with being a completely corrupt, morally bankrupt novel-writing dictator. Absolute Power FTW!

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