Adventures in Forbidden POVs

Currently I am reading a novella by Virginia Woolf called To the Lighthouse. It intrigues me because it broaches the problem of flat female characters found in many early twentieth century novels. Woolf reveals what’s going on in their heads. They’re not always thinking about what man will make a good catch. This novelette is also written in a form of stream-of-consciousness, which means the author head hops between characters within the same scene. At least, Woolf gives us the benefit of using punctuation and paragraphs in her writing unlike some of James Joyce’s work.

When someone says never to head hop, the person repeating this often retold nugget of wisdom is obviously not talking about famous authors. Rather this the kind of advice is aimed at current authors who wish to become famous, or people who want to get their first book published. Despite the confusion that can occur with head hopping, it shouldn’t be forbidden. It can be done in a manner that supports the quintessential part of the story. Virginia Woolf has shown me that it can work.

Recently, I noticed the encouragement to write in what is called deep POV. Every time a person speaks their thoughts appear prior to the verbal conversation instead of a dialogue tag. Sometimes that interrupts the conversations, making them tedious to read. It takes some skill to pull it off. If authors push deep POV farther and let the reader know both people’s thoughts before they speak, that is essentially head hopping. Eventually the advice not to use deep POV may start circulating, too.

There is another technique called authorial intrusion, in which the author inserts his or her own ideas as if talking to the reader. There is also the literary form of an aside that is used in theater, in which the character addresses the reader in the manner the character Jane Eyre addresses the reader in Charlotte Brontë’s novel. Of course, both of these techniques break the fourth wall and may be labeled as “never to be used.” But, they have been successfully used by authors as varied as C.S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde and Franz Kafka. The authorial intrusion often provides a thoughtful insight concerning a complex point.

Everyone knows about the first person and third person point of view. So what happened to the second person narrative, which is written from the “you” viewpoint? Although we frequently use this construction in conversation, it almost sounds insulting in writing. Imagine reading the following:

You creep towards the front of the school, clutching your backpack in your hand. You scan the entry way for any sign of Derrick. You sidle around the side of the building to the gym doors just to be safe. In your gut you know you are a coward and wonder how long you can keep avoiding him.

We tend to take the second person “you” personally. In which case reading about a fearful character from that viewpoint might not click. However, it has been done in poetry, short fiction, and novel form. The most notable novel is Bright Lights, Big City by the American Jay McInerney which appeared in 1984. The main character (referred to as you) is tired of the New York City rat race and attempts to escape his life in the fast lane. This book was popular in the ‘80s, so a lot of people identified with that same dilemma and were not insulted by the second person POV.

People are often unwilling to take risks when writing, but I am glad that at least a few authors have risked their writing careers. I welcome more creative attempts at using forbidden techniques.

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