Note: This is Part 3 of an article I’m writing for eventual cleanup and submission to several magazines. To see Parts 1 & 2, go to http://toniandrews.bravejournal.com and start with the Sunday, March 8th entry.
Now that we know only to include what the point of view (POV) character perceives on the page, let’s take it a step farther. Just because the POV character can perceive something does not mean that he will perceive it.
Think about the last time you came home. What did you notice as you arrived? Perhaps you…
– Checked whether your spouse’s car was in the driveway.
– Looked to see if the message light was blinking on your answering machine.
– Glanced at the table and saw that your roommate had picked up the mail.
– Noted that your children had duct taped the youngest to the refrigerator again.
You probably didn’t notice things like the color and style of your home’s exterior, the furniture, the carpet, the rug, the height of the ceiling, etc. When you got out of your car, you were thinking about how to carry your handbag, your brief case, two bags of groceries and a baby, not the make, model and paint of the vehicle.
And yet rejected manuscripts are full of scenes wherein Mary drives up in her sporty candy-apple red Mustang convertible and parks in the shade of her tree-lined driveway before opening the door of her split-level, three-bedroom, yellow, ranch-style house and walking into the sunny foyer with the Mexican tile floor and the mirrors flanking the door.
You think I’m exaggerating. Sadly, no.
But I need to give the reader a sense of the space, you say. They need to know what Mary’s environment is like, so that I can bring them into the home as well.
You’re right, you do. But, to really bring the reader into Mary’s world, you have to do it as Mary perceives it. This means that, if it’s important for the reader to know that Mary lives in a yellow house, you need to give Mary a reason to think about it. Is the house freshly painted, and the paint smell gives her a headache? Is the yellow paint peeling, reminding Mary that she can’t afford to have it repainted, doesn’t have time to do it herself, and the local home owner’s association has sent her yet another notice complaining about it?
In part two, I talked about physical descriptions of POV characters and how to get them on the page. I said that having them look in the mirror is an option, and it is. But, as J.E. Brown correctly pointed out in his comment, when you look in the mirror, you may be checking for something very specific, like whether your mascara is smeared, or if there’s some spinach stuck in your teeth. A women who has just gotten dressed to go out on a date might look at herself more critically, but she’s probably more focused on “does this skirt make my butt look big” than the color of her own eyes.
Luckily, there are lots of excuses for a POV character to think about his or her own appearance. He could be comparing himself with someone else, favorably or unfavorably. Women, especially, tend to measure themselves against others, wishing they were taller, shorter, thinner, or more voluptuous. A man on the way to his high school reunion might be self-conscious about hair loss or weight gain.
Physical descriptions of non-POV characters need to follow this rule, too. In part 1 of this article, I mentioned clichés. Several editors and agents I polled cited the long physical description when a new character is introduced (especially the hero in a romance novel). In a recent contest for unpublished romance, I judged seven entries. In six of them, the first time the heroine saw the hero, there was a three-quarter to full page soliloquy about his height, shoulders, muscles, cat-like grace, roguish grin and, of course his jet black hair and piercing blue eyes.
*Sigh. Contest judge considers pouring herself a stiff drink, but still has twenty-seven pages to get through.*
Then, halleluiah, came entry #7. When the heroine first notices the hero, she simply thinks, nice smile. She does, later, notice his fabulous physical attributes, especially after he takes his shirt off (for a completely plausible reason), but she notices them a few at a time, when it makes sense for her to do so. (He was, by the way, blond.)
Being true to what the POV character is thinking will also help you avoid the dreaded information dump.
Remember Mary of the yellow house? Paint isn’t the only thing she’s not thinking about as she arrives home. She’s not thinking about her age, where she was born, where she went to college, the name of the company where she works, how long she’s been married, how many siblings she has, or the name of her first pet.
The following is an actual excerpt from a contest entry I judged (used with the author’s permission):
Maria wondered what Jeff was upset about. She hoped there wasn’t a problem with the upcoming opening of the Los Angeles office of the prestigious New York City advertising agency where Jeff had worked for ten years.
Other than the fact that the second sentence is waaaaay too long, what’s wrong here?
I corresponded with the author, who got in touch to thank me for my comments on her contest entry. She explained that Jeff’s employment history and the current status of the company where he worked was vital to her story line. She’d actually inserted the information into Maria’s thoughts in an attempt to avoid information dumping.
I suggested that, in order for a POV character to mentally rehash historical facts, she needs a reason to make them pertinent to what she’s thinking about now.
Ultimately, the author shortened the sentence and changed it to internal dialogue. “I hope there’s no problem with the opening.”
Then, later in the scene, Maria is unpacking and thinking about how uncomfortable she feels in the new house and new town, so far and so different from New York and the friends she made over the past ten years. Even later in the scene, when the phone rings and it’s Jeff, she tries to sound cheerful, because this is Jeff’s big break, and he has enough to worry about, being in charge of opening the new office.
If back-story facts are important, it’s always best to introduce them in small snippets. To do that, there needs to be a plausible reason for the POV character to be thinking about them. This goes for flashbacks as well–something in the current action needs to realistically trigger the POV character’s memory. Note on flashbacks: Make sure they don’t happen too often, go on for too long, and the reader can clearly discern the transition back to the present.
Watch for Part 4, on what the Point of View character knows and avoiding the (dreaded) head hop!