Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Show Your Setting through the POV Character’s Eyes - Jodie Renner

Jodie Renner is our guest today sharing some pointers on description.

Fiction writers—one of the fastest ways to bring your story world and characters to life is to portray the setting through the senses, feelings, reactions, and attitude of your protagonist.

Enhancing your fiction by filtering the description of the setting through your viewpoint character’s senses is a concept I instinctively embraced when I first started editing fiction about six years ago. I was editing a contemporary middle-school novel, whose two main characters, a boy and a girl, were both eleven years old (details slightly changed). The author had them describing rooms they entered as if they were interior decorators, complete with words like “exquisite,” “stylish,” “coordinated,” “ornate,” and “delightful.” Then, when they were in the park or the woods playing and exploring with friends, each tree, shrub and flower was accurately named and described in details that were way beyond the average preteen’s knowledge base or interests.

Besides the obvious problem of too much description for this age group (or for any popular novel these days), this authorial, “grownup” way of describing their environment would not only turn off young readers, but also create a distance between any reader and these two modern-day kids. As a reader and editor, I didn’t feel like I was getting to know these kids at all, as I wasn’t seeing their world through their eyes, but directly from the author, who obviously knew her interior design terms and flora and fauna! Through this unchildlike, out-of-character description of their environment, the author puts a barrier between us and the two kids. If we don’t get into their heads and hearts, seeing their world as they see it, how will we get to know them and bond with them, and why will we care what happens to them?

I advise my author clients to not only show us directly what the characters are seeing around them, in their words, but to bring the characters and story to life on the page by evoking all the senses. Tell us what they’re hearing and smelling, too. And touching/feeling – the textures of things, and whether they’re feeling warm or cold, wet or dry. Even the odd taste. And don’t forget mood—how does that setting make them feel? Emotionally uplifted? Fearful? Warm and cozy? Include telling details specific to that place, and have the characters react to their environment, whether it’s shivering from the cold, in awe of a gorgeous sunset, or afraid of the dark. Bring that scene to life through your characters’ reactions.

As Donald Maass says, in Writing the Breakout Novel, “Place presented from an objective or omniscient point of view runs the risk of feeling like boring descriptive. It can be a lump, an impediment to the flow of the narrative.”

He continues, “Do you have plain vanilla description in your current manuscript? Try evoking the description the way it is experienced by a character. Feel a difference? So will your readers.”

James Scott Bell also advises us to “marble” the description of the environment in during the action. “The way to do this is to put the description in the character’s point of view and use the details to add to the mood.”

Jack M. Bickham gets more specific on this: “When you start a scene in which Bob walks into a large room, for example, you do not imagine how the room looks from some god-like authorial stance high above the room, or as a television camera might see it; you see it only as Bob sees it, coming in….”

And include what he’s feeling, hearing, and smelling, too. Filter the scene through his perceptions and feelings. “This leads to reader identification with Bob, which is vital if the reader is to have a sense of focus.”

Fiction writers – what’s your preference? Describe the settings of your story from the author’s (omniscient) point of view, or filtered through the POV character’s perceptions and reactions?
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction, as well as YA and historical fiction. Check out Jodie’s website 

Posted by Maryann Miller who agrees that descriptions should come from the character's POV.

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  1. If a scene description reads like a police report, the writer is going to lose me. I agree it should be from the character's point of view and appropriate for the character's age.

  2. Thanks for this. I beat on my students and the writers I consult with all the time about this. It makes fiction richer and enhances the character.

    Of course, Maass doesn't like the omniscient POV...but then, unless it drops into the character's head and becomes, serially, a personal POV, I don't much like it either. I creates what John Gardner would call psychic distance.

    I'm adding this article to my teaching file.

  3. Thanks, Karen and Kate, for your comments. I forgot to mention that I would take it one step further and just describe what a person of the age demographic, gender, class, education, cultural background and general interests of that POV character is likely to notice. Leave out the stuff they wouldn't be interested in, and color what they do notice with their attitude about it. This way, his/her (your) description of the setting is also serving another purpose: deepening that character and bringing him or her more to life.

  4. And thanks to Blood-Red Pencil for allowing me to guest-post once a month since Aug. 2010, and to Maryann Miller for posting my craft-of-fiction articles!

  5. This is interesting and important. I still have a question: is there any time when omniscient POV is useful and effective?

    I mention it because I like to read the classics and older thriller novels, such as Le Carre. When I try to switch to modern-day writing (which is much more POV focused) I tend to put in omniscient parts... that end up not working. To be more aware of my writing, is there a time when omniscient is a good thing these days?

    Thanks for this great post!

  6. Barbara, opinions vary on the effectiveness of omniscient point of view, but modern fiction uses it much less than was popular a century ago, and for good reason, in my opinion. The closer we as readers get inside the character, the more we are drawn in to his world and bond with him. And the more we become invested in him and care what happens to him! If the author steps in too often to describe things "from above," it can seem like an intrusion into the intimacy we have established with the POV character.

    That said, historical sagas written today still seem to need to use the omniscient POV more to explain the "times" to the readers.

  7. Great reminder, Jodie. One thing I particularly like about this technique is the way it can evoke character emotion in a story-specific way. We can all tire of the hearts thumping in our characters' chests, because we've read it and written it a thousand times. But when it is comforted by a grandmother's hand-made quilt, or wicked away by the chill of a ghostly presence, or amplified by the echoes of water dripping off cave walls, the sound of that beating heart becomes much more interesting.

  8. Wow! Well said, Kathryn! And I definitely agree. Thanks for the eloquent example. :-)

  9. You are so welcome, Jodie. We really appreciate all that you have shared with the readers here. Your expertise has complemented our group well.

    I so agree about the description being gender and age specific. I realized that when I had a male cop go into a room and realized he would notice different things than my female cop. It was one of those "aha" moments for me.

  10. Fantastic. I would much rather "feel" it through the character's reactions than read a "travelogue" version.

  11. This is so wonderfully put. I teach writing the middle grad and young adult novel and I'll be adding this link to my course!

    It is not only the best way to set a scene but it lets you do so many things at once. You don't have to say Johnny loved computers, if he walks into a room, and eyes the mac book pro like his own best friend, and wonders how much ram it has, and wonders if garage band really lives up to the hype.

  12. Great points, Beckie! Helps with the "Show, Don't Tell" concept. Thanks for your insightful comments.

  13. Thanks so much for the reminder!!! Hopefully this time it will Stick!!


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