The Eyes that Give Descriptions in a Book

 I’ve had a number of discussion with people about how much to describe a character’s appearance, a room  they walk into, or scenery viewed from a car. Using an omniscient narrator gives an author the leeway to describe a room down to the coasters on a coffee table. 

But what if you write in first person or close third person? I subscribe to the belief that all information has to be provided through the eyes of the person narrating the story. The “I” individual in first person stories. In close third person, such as the Harry Potter stories, everything (except occasional chapters he’s not in) is through his filter. 

A first-person book may offer information from the character’s point of view — even long paragraphs. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone provides in depth background on a neighborhood, criminal, or crime — but it’s always something Kinsey knows or is learning.

Sometimes it may seem hard to tell a reader about a setting if the point-of-view character has been there previously. They wouldn’t walk into a good friend’s home and recite (to him or herself) the layout, style of furniture, or color of the walls.

However, there are ways to tell a reader what they need to see without doing a full stop as the character tells herself what she already knows. To use the friend’s house (we’ll call her Chloe), the sleuth could admire how Chloe manages to put so much antique furniture in a small living room without blocking access to the second-floor stairway. The reader learns  the house is small and has a second floor. Knowing Chloe values antiques may be something that goes with other characteristics she exhibits. (Or tells the reader something else, such as the kind of stores she burglarizes.)

I go to a lot of conferences and short classes about writing. I’ve learned pearls of wisdom from John GilstrapLeigh Michaels, William Kent Krueger, and Julie Hyzy, to name a few. These authors write very different kinds of books, but they impart knowledge well and offer good discussions on point of view. 

First person works well for traditional or cozy mysteries, when the reader is solving the crime with the sleuth. Third person (especially multiple points of view) is almost essential for thrillers. It’s the best way to learn what the bad guy (a.k.a. the antagonist) is up to. Even then, a writer has to b e “forever conscious of camera placement” — John Gilstrap’s way of saying don’t stray out of the point-of-view character’s vision.

Authors have their preferences. As long as they, their readers, and at least some reviewers like them, books sell. In the Harry Clifton novels, Jeffrey Archer announces each POV change by putting the character’s name and a time period on a separate page. 

Contemporary romance novels usually have two POVs, since the focus is on a couple’s relationship. The more racy Regency romances may have several, often associated with different subplots and clearly delineated. 

One method that will make me close a book is shifting points of view in the same scene or even paragraph. Authors may see this as more appropriate now that we’ve watched movies for…more than a century. The camera takes in everyone’s view, including the audience’s. I find constant POV shifts to be a lazy way to tell a story.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a guest blog post for Dru’s Book Musings. I took a scene from Final Operation, one of the Logland Series books, which are generally from Police Chief Elizabeth Friedman’s point of view. Then I rewrote the scene from the medical examiner’s POV — which is never expressed in the book. What a difference! I’m going to do it more often.

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