At the Back Fence #95, fka Laurie’s News & ViewsDabney Grinnan2017-06-23T08:29:39-04:00
At The Back Fence Issue #95
(May 15, 2000)
Links from this column are “jump links” and will open up new windows in your browser.
We’re going to do something we haven’t done since the fall of 1997 – use a specific book to create a set jumping off points for the genre in general. My plan is to give my impressions of Mary Jo Putney’s The Burning Point, to share with you a brief Q&A I had with her about the book, and then to broaden the discussion on those points. Because we have already posted one review on this book and will post May’s Pandora’s Box about it as well, we won’t be devoting the entire column to this topic, and will include as well a discussion of Point of View as written by AAR Reviewer Jennifer Keirans.
First, let me say that I realize both The Romance Reader and AAR have been criticized for revealing what some consider “spoiler” information in their reviews of this book. I do not believe either review did that, but if you have not yet read the book and have not yet heard what all the controversy is about and would like to skip this portion of At the Back Fence, please click here to be taken to the remainder of the column. I do not believe this book can be discussed without revealing what both reviewers revealed; furthermore, the plot point is revealed relatively early on in the book and occurred ten years in the past.
The Burning Point:
If you have been reading historical romance for any length of time, you’ve likely read Mary Jo Putney. As have many of our best romance writers, Mary Jo began her career writing Regency Romances, later making the transition to historical romance, set in the regency period. What I have found about her past books is that they have never failed to engage my imagination, that they transported me to a different time and place. More than that, however, they made me feel as though I were inside the pages of her books, experiencing what her characters experienced, feeling their sorrow, pain, and joy.
With The Burning Point, Putney’s first contemporary romance, I was not transported to another place, and I did not feel as though I were inside the pages of the book. I did not experience what her characters did, nor did I truly feel their sorrow, pain, or, ultimately, joy. In analyzing my response to the book, however, it is necessary to note that what made this a less than enjoyable read for many did not do so for me. For AAR Reviewer Marianne Stillings, the fact that the hero had committed spousal abuse on the heroine during their marriage ten years before the book is set, was something she could never forget. Marianne, the victim of abuse herself, brought something to her review that, God willing, most of us never will.
I learned years ago never to say never to a plot line, because in the hands of a talented author, I’ll read just about anything, from forced seduction, to vampirism, to even spousal abuse. Marianne’s problems with The Burning Point went beyond the abuse, but for me, the problems were far more pedestrian, which was all the more disappointing. I didn’t expect to encounter pedestrian premises in a Mary Jo Putney book – just saying “pedestrian” and “Mary Jo Putney” in the same sentence seems an intolerable utterance, doesn’t it? My final grade for the book? C- BTW, I’ve already got our review of China Bride, MJP’s upcoming historical romance, in the wings. I believe it will be on sale in July. According to our reviewer, this should be a marvelous read!
In a thumbnail, I’ll present the plot, and then my issues with it. Here goes. Kate Corsi returns to her Maryland family home after her father, Sam Corsi dies. She has been an architect in San Francisco, estranged from her father, for ten years, since her marriage ended. She has always dreamed of running the family demolition business, and her father’s will opens up that option for her – if she’ll agree to live in the same house as her ex-husband for a year, she can be part of the business. Not only that, but her brother Tom, whom Sam disowned/disinherited ten years before as well, will be reinstated back into the will.
Kate has never told anyone but her brother and one friend why she and ex-husband Patrick Donovan divorced – she was raised too well by her WASP mother to air dirty linen. Had her family known Patrick had beaten her, they would not have, in effect, replaced both Kate and Tom with Patrick in the family business, and the family heart. Can she put aside her fears and unresolved feelings for Patrick in order to gain all she wants? And, can Patrick, who has spent years recovering from being an abuser, and who still loves Kate, live with her for a year and not muck it up again?
While author Putney does nicely with a secondary romance between Kate’s mother and a close family friend, and creates a homosexual character in a romance who is neither a walking stereotype nor a villain, the book revolves around too many overly-used premises to succeed. First is the will stipulation, which I find to be contrived. I’ve read it in historicals and contemporaries, and, as if often the case, while I generally find it contrived, it bothers me more in a contemporary than in an historical. Indeed, a couple of the problems I had with this book bothered me more because the book was a contemporary rather than a historical romance.
Secondly, the most prominent character in the book is neither the hero nor the heroine. Indeed, the most prominent character isn’t even alive, and he’s far more of a negative character than anyone in the book seems to believe. I’m talking, of course, about Sam Corsi, a man who bullied his wife and children throughout their lives, and yet was seen as this sort of larger-than-life influence rather than the bully he was. How many books have you read where a secondary character manages to overshadow the hero and heroine? In the same vein, I also found myself more interested in the growing relationship between Kate’s mother and family friend Charles – how many romances have you read where a secondary romance is more intriguing than the primary?
Next is that the villain in the book seemed totally unnecessary. Now this is truly spoiler material, so I won’t reveal who that person is, but the book could have succeeded without his/her inclusion at all. This is a problem with all too many romances, where there is a villainous sub-plot that seems extraneous.
There is also the spousal abuse itself, and, as I stated, my problems with it are not, per se, the abuse. My problems with this part of the story are as follows:
Though the hero and heroine have not seen each other for ten years and each has gotten on with their lives, they are in bed together after their decade-long absence within two months. Given that the heroine must take the hero’s word on it as to whether he has truly reformed, this seemed too quick to me.
Too much of the discussion between hero and heroine on their shared history and recovery sounds like a discussion between therapists about spousal abuse than it does a series of conversations between a man and the woman he used to abuse.
Too much secrecy on the heroine’s part in not telling her family why she and the hero split up. Though partially explained, it seemed too contrived, a too-neat puzzle piece to make the will stipulation fit the story.
The abuse itself. For some reason, it is more difficult to forgive a man who hits his wife in a contemporary setting than it is to forgive a man similar transgressions in a historical setting.
Mary Jo on The Burning Point:
As you can see, while my problems with the book were not as explosive as those raised by Marianne, they added up to a final grade that was much lower than I expected. Since many readers are having the sort of visceral reaction Marianne did, I was careful in my questions to Mary Jo to ask in just a few what I felt was of most interest to readers.
Laurie Likes Books: Obviously you have never shied away from controversial subjects – you dealt with alcoholism in The Rake and the Reformer, rape in Dearly Beloved, and have, in general, dealt with the dark side throughout your writing career. What made you decide to feature such an explosive topic (no pun intended) as spousal abuse in your first foray into contemporary romance?
Mary Jo Putney: The entire, complex issue of human violence has always fascinated and concerned me. Violence against the innocent is horrifying, yet violence is part of human nature, and sometimes essential for survival and to protect the helpless.
As a genre, romance tends to glorify aggressive, dominant, “alpha” males: The Warrior. The Viking. The Lawman. The Soldier. The romance expectation is that these men will use their strength and aggression in honorable ways – in defense of the weak and to uphold justice. To be heroes, not predators. Despite having so many heroes in occupations that require a potential for applied violence, all too often we don’t deal with the dark side. To the extent that we do, it’s often over the issue of “alpha heroes” and when is “rape” really “forced sex.” Yet the sad fact is that in real life a certain percentage of cops and soldiers and dashing “bad boys” go home and beat their wives and children.
In the last ten or fifteen years, the subject of domestic abuse finally came out of the closet, but most of the time there has only been one kind of story told about this: The abused woman who flees her monstrous husband. In romance, this would probably happen in the backstory, and while trying to escape and rebuild her life she meets a parfit gentle knight who is everything her husband wasn’t.
This is certainly a powerful and valid story, but there are other, less extreme stories to be told, and The Burning Point tells one of them. Men who are prone to violence don’t come with a scarlet “A for Abuser” on their foreheads. Many of them are the sexy, attractive men we fall in love with-and that’s the horror of it. I wanted to show a normal, healthy young woman falling in love with a guy who in most ways was pretty great, and how insidiously abuse can develop. Kate was bright, but she was out of her depth on this, and let the situation slide too long because she denied the reality.
Until she hit her personal breaking point, and bolted.
Donovan wasn’t a monster – he was a decent guy with a difficult childhood and poor impulse control. We’ve all seen alcoholics and drug addicts overcome their dangerous weaknesses – why is it so hard to believe that a man can develop the ability to keep his anger within acceptable bounds?
There have been countless romances featuring men who behave very badly, yet are ultimately forgiven. Are we saying that a hero who rapes, kidnaps, or hurls vicious verbal abuse at a woman can be forgiven, but a man who has used inappropriate physical force is forever condemned to the lowest circle of hell, beyond redemption? Nonsense. All forms of abuse are unacceptable. If they occur in romantic novels, it is because of the genre’s profound belief in growth, healing, and forgiveness.
Donovan knew that what he’d done was utterly wrong. He deliberately undertook the long, difficult of process of psychological change not because he hoped to get Kate back – that seemed impossible – but because it was the right thing to do. He worked hard to make himself a better, less violent person, and succeeded.
I know of cases where far more abusive men than Donovan have changed dramatically, to the point where they reconciled with their wives and became good family men. This may not be the norm, but it does happen, and fiction is usually about characters who are unusual – who manage to beat the odds. Personally, I think it’s pretty heroic to grow beyond one’s own abused childhood and find emotional health.
LLB: This next question comes from my reaction to the synopsis of your book – will stipulations are something I’ve come across before, and while they may seem far-fetched even in historical situations, because historicals are more “fantastical” by nature of time and distance, I can more readily accept such a premise in a historical romance. In a contemporary setting, I find such a premise less easy to accept and it is bothers me to some degree, much as the hero who takes the heroine-in-disguise-as-a-lad to a whorehouse to make a “man” out of him does. It can work effectively, but it seems overdone in general. How do you respond?
MJP: This is a matter of personal taste. Unlikely plot set-ups are pretty common in romance. Certainly they work more easily in historicals, where we’re more distanced, but I’ve seen them in contemporaries and had no problem. As a reader, I’m willing to allow an author an outrageous plot contrivance if the story is developed in a believable manner after that.
In The Burning Point, it’s made clear that neither Kate nor Donovan were compelled to obey the dictates of her father’s will. She had a business and a life in San Francisco, and he was quite capable of starting another explosive demolition firm. They both voluntarily (and warily) decided to try to fulfill the conditions of the will because they had unfinished business from their long-dissolved marriage. They needed to get closure on that so they could get on with their lives; neither of them expected a renewal of their earlier relationship.
LLB: Because this book is a contemporary romance that features bad behavior, how did you handle it differently than in your historical romances featuring, say, rape? For instance, I might read an historical romance where a man had hit his wife and respond to it differently than I would if the same thing happened in a contemporary setting. How about for you as an author?
MJP: When I tackle a difficult issue, I construct the plot and characters very, very carefully to reflect the points I want to make, and to create a tapestry of circumstances and motivations that will lead to an acceptable resolution. This has been true in all my historicals, and is equally true in The Burning Point.
LLB: What sort of research did you to on spousal abuse?
MJP: The kind of research I always do-lots of reading, lots of talking to people who have first-hand experience of the subject.
LLB: How would you answer this question from Marianne:
“It used to be believed that abused children grew up to be abusers themselves. Sometimes, this is the case. But the studies only showed abused people who ended up in trouble (arrested and whatnot). If they themselves had been abused, the correlation would have fit. However, many, many children who were abused do not grow up to abuse their own children, but there was no way of measuring that. It turns out, that an adult who was abused as a child would rather die than abuse their own children.”
MJP: That last sentence makes it sound as if abused children – never – grow up to abuse their own children, which is as extreme as saying that all abused children become abusers. I doubt that there are accurate statistics about what percentage of people who were abused become abusive vs. those who would never, ever subject their children to violence. Nor would it matter if accurate data existed – I write about individuals, not statistical profiles.
LLB: Now that you’ve done your first contemporary novel, what are your plans for the future? More contemporaries? Fewer historicals? Some of both?
MJP: At this point, I’m hoping to be able to continue to do both, though perhaps more contemporaries than historicals.
LLB: Strickly from a political correctness perspective now, how would you respond to the statement that you are doing a disservice to women in abusive relationships by showing an abuser as a heroic figure?
MJP: I’d respond that anyone who says that hasn’t read the book. I think this story sets a positive example, because as soon as Kate truly understood what was going on, she left. She didn’t let Donovan get away with saying “you made me do this,” and she didn’t give him endless second chances. She recognized that their relationship was in a dangerous downward spiral, and took drastic action to stop that.
LLB: I know you talked about redemption in your afterward to the book, but what will you say to readers, and some of your long-time readers, who will say/are saying you made a mistake?
MJP: I’ll say that I regret that The Burning Point didn’t work for them, but that I believe it is a powerful, compassionate story that needed to be told.
Final Thoughts on This Book:
I’ve often said that “hell hath no fury like a reader’s favorite romance author scorned.” I’d like to have us briefly consider that statement with the spoiler arguments about this book. One of our long-time readers indicated that the reviews she’d read of this book, both here and at TRR, caused her to be unable to finish the book. The abuse both reviews referred to is made known to readers no later than page 92, which is less than a third of the way through the book. Had she discovered it on her own, without reading the reviews (and the TRR review was a favorable one), what would she have done about the remaining 241 pages? Because I’m a part crank, part devil’s advocate, and apparently part lightning rod, I’d like to have you consider this: might some of the frustration some readers feel have less to do with the reviews than with the book itself?
Not too long ago, another of our reviewers and I were talking about the latest release of another excellent romance author. This reviewer said that all the hype about the book made her want to shout, “But the emperor’s not wearing any clothes!” She felt that the anticipation of the book had been so keen that perhaps readers were oohing and aahing over the book more because because of the anticipation than because of the actual quality of the work.
Which, of course, in my own perverse manner, makes me wonder whether, in this instance, some readers are responding more to the messenger than the message. Didn’t part of the empire get mad at the brave person who declared, “The emperor’s not wearing any clothes!”? I might be incredibly wrong on this, which is why I ask. Feel free to post later on – you can call me an idiot if you need.
Broadening the Perspective:
Will Stipulations and other Premises:
As indicated above, I don’t like will stipulations much. They seemed clever at the time I read them initially, too many romances ago to count. Just like skanky villainous sex and women disguised as lads who are taken to brothels by heroes to make men of them, they now seem contrived. On the other hand, forced marriages still manage to work for me, even though I’ve read them even more often. The same goes for heroes who, instead of trying to marry off heroines as they are supposed to, they find fault upon fault in those considered eligible choices.
Which premises do you still enjoy, even though you’ve read them too often to count? Which premises did you once enjoy but no longer do? And, which premises always seemed contrived to you?
In The Burning Point, the vitality of Sam Corsi seemed stronger than any other character in the book, even though he was dead. And, a secondary romance between Kate’s mother and a close family friend was so poignant and sweet that I often wished the book had been about them rather than Kate and Donovan. It’s a difficult line for authors to walk in creating secondary characters who are vibrant but not overpowering. I’ve found that authors writing a series of books sometimes falter in this by focusing too much on characters who have gone before, but this is not the first book that’s not a sequel to have faltered in this. What have been your own experiences with overpowering secondary characters and secondary romances?
The Snidely Whiplash Effect:
It’s a rare romance that doesn’t include someone out to do bodily harm to someone else. Sometimes the villainous sub-plots add a great deal to the story; at other times they seem tacked on. And, while some villains are drawn with exquisite care, sometimes they are so over the top as to be utterly unbelievable. The worst for me are those so fiendishly clever in their foresight and machinations that they make Einstein look the fool. Which villains have you read that are sublime in their evil? (We’ll be happy to add to our Favorite Villains list). Which villains were absurd? What books contained suspenseful sub-plots that made the books so much the better? Which books either featured villainous sub-plots that seemed added on to achieve a word count, or worse, eventually ruined the book for you?
Never Say Never:
I’ve learned years ago never to say never to any particular plot point. Some author inevitably makes it work for me. However, I will admit that premises including rape, abuse, adultery, alcoholism – indeed – most “issue” oriented romances tend to make me want to pass them by, often because I fear a sermonette from the author.
In The Burning Point, the main problem I had with the abuse was the manner in which the characters talked about it. The characters didn’t seem real, they seemed to be spouting therapy, which took me out of the narrative. Some authors take me out of the narrative more than others – Beverly Jenkins does this in her historical romances, but since the history lessons she imparts are so very fascinating, it bothers me less than when others do it. Some books get so caught up in their issue or their dazzling display of history that the romance goes by the wayside. What authors handle “issues” and/or history better than others? What authors have failed to do this in your opinion?
I mentioned a couple of times above that there are certain premises I can tolerate better in a historical context than in a contemporary setting, rape, spousal abuse, and will stipulations among them. Certain premises seem either melodramatic or downright silly in a modern setting that seem totally acceptable when presented in a historical romance. Let’s talk about this as well when it’s time to post to the message board, okay?
Another recent review started a lot of debate on one of our message boards, and had to do with another of Marianne’s reviews. Although we’ve granted Nora Roberts/J.D. RobbDesert Isle Keeper Status thirteen times (Marianne alone has given three of her J.D. Robb seriesDIK Status)and given her something like two dozen favorable reviews, her recent grade of D+ for Carolina Moon raised a great deal of ruckus. Particularly because of her emphasis on the number of point-of-view (POV) changes in the book.
For many readers, multiple points of view and multiple changes in POV in books is of limited concern. For other readers, too many points-of-view and too many changes in POV become “head-hopping,” a writer’s term. I rarely have a problem with losing track of who is thinking what about whom. My own personal pet peeve is a lack of dialogue tags, those, he said, she exclaimed, he shouted tags that keep me from getting confused during a lengthy conversation. In at least two recent books, when I added the tags myself, the conversation didn’t work as it was supposed to have. But I digress.
Here at AAR some of our reviewers are more bothered by “head-hopping” than others. Blythe, for instance, is rarely bothered by it; Robin sometimes is. But Jennifer is frequently annoyed by it, and she wrote a segment for us that comes next. Anne Marble and Marianne are bothered by it as well, and Anne’s comments are far lengthier than we can include here, so look for them in the follow-up to this discussion in a later ATBF.
Head-Hopping or Heart-Stopping?
Youre probably familiar with the debate. Some readers cant stand it when the point of view (POV) of a novel switches from character to character in the middle of a scene. Some readers dont even notice it, and some really like it. I weigh in on the cant stand it side – POV that jumps from character to character can very nearly ruin a book for me.
The way I see it, some authors carefully select the POV technique that will work best for the situation theyre writing about. Other authors, in my opinion, jump POV around for no reason, and this can detract from a romance. Id like to discuss a few of the ways that POV can make a romance shine, and also some of the ways that misused POV keeps a romantic scene from working.
A Few words about the First Person:
First person narration creates emotional intimacy with the narrator. Youre inside the narrators head; you see things when she sees them, and all your perceptions are colored by her perceptions. This can be good. But it can also be tricky. Sometimes its hard to really like a first person narrator. If she is self-confident and aware of how much she deserves to be loved, she can seem arrogant. If she has self-doubts and insecurities, she can seem like a whiny loser. Since we have no other points of view but hers, we dont see all the reasons why another character would appreciate her. This can be deadly to a romance novel. In fact, I havent read a first person romance novel in years.
First person POV was used in Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, a love story written in the eighteenth century that some scholars claim is the very first modern English novel. Pamela falls into the most serious of the traps to which the first person narrative is prone. The novel is a series of letters from a servant-girl to her parents, in which she describes how her master has kidnapped her and is attempting to force her to become his mistress. Pamela never surrenders her virtue. When the boss gives in and proposes to her, she delightedly accepts, and our sweet, innocent narrator comes off as a manipulative little gold-digger. I found it impossible to trust our narrators version of events, which absolutely killed the book for me. (However, in the eighteenth century, Pamela was insanely popular.)
Another famous love story, the nineteenth century novel Wuthering Heights, also uses the first person. Emily Bronte presents us with layers and layers of first person narratives: Heathcliffe and Catherine confide in the nurse, Nelly Dean, who proceeds to recount these conversations verbatim to our narrator, Mr. Lockwood. Thats three layers of narration right there, and in places there are more. Bronte, unlike Richardson, takes glorious advantage of the innate untrustworthiness of first person narratives by allowing us to conclude, from their own self-serving accounts, that Mr. Lockwood is a ninny and Nelly a damaging meddler.
Although nowadays you almost never see a romance novel written entirely in the first person, authors sometimes take advantage of the emotional intimacy provided by the first person by inserting letters or diary passages into the third person narrative. This technique is very effective in Patricia Gaffneys To Love and to Cherish, which contains first person sections from the heroines journal. My Sweet Folly, by Laura Kinsale, begins with a series of letters written by the hero and heroine. Kinsale, like Emily Bronte, uses the untrustworthiness of first person narratives to the advantage of her plot: it is quite a shock when we discover that one of our letter-writers has not been entirely honest.
I wish that more current romance novelists like Joan Wolf were taking advantage first person POV. Authors in other genres, like Dick Francis, Diana Gabaldon, Robert B. Parker, and Steven Brust, are all writing great books in the first person.
Multiple Points of View:
When I was in middle and high school, almost all of the romance novels I read were told entirely from a single third-person point of view, that of the heroine. I have before me a prime example: Rosss Girl by Jane Corrie, a Harlequin Romance published in 1982. This is the story of a spunky nineteen-year-old ranch girl named Vicky. For years everyone, including her parents, have assumed that she would one day marry neighboring rancher Ross, a union that would profitably unite two pieces of property. Vicky loves Ross, who takes her for granted, so she sets him free, a gesture that receives with what can only be called amused contempt. For the remainder of the book Ross mockingly but persistently pursues her. Later, he will confess: Id got so used to thinking of you as my girl I simply didnt believe you when you said you werent going to marry me. When it finally did sink in, I called myself all kinds of a fool We see none of this from his point of view. Only in the last three pages does he speak up and make Vicky the happiest girl in the whole wide world!
Now Rosss Girl is not likely to have ever been a keeper for me, but you must admit it would have been better if there were passages from Rosss POV, showing us his feelings for Vicky, his hurt pride, desire to win her back, and so forth. Thats why multiple POVs are so useful in romance novels.
Sometime in the mid-eighties – Im not sure when – romance novelists began to use more than one POV, for the simple reason that this technique is perfect for displaying all the nuances of a love story. The heroine thinks about that gorgeous hero, who is just the right height for kissing; then she regrets her own fat thighs. The hero thinks about the heroines lovely thighs, then wishes that he were taller than 53. We are privy to the way a character sees himself, and then we see the way he is perceived by the one who loves him. When its done right, multiple POV is the exact right tool for portraying a romance.
I frequently read novels in which both the hero and the heroine have POVs in the same scene. The narration switches back and forth between them. In general, I dont like it. This is a personal opinion, not one I expect everyone to share. I prefer it when an author has the discipline to alternate POV chapter-by-chapter or section-by-section. I like to have a good five or ten pages of one characters POV before we switch to someone elses. That gives the author room to really delve into the characters personality, and I really get to know the character. When the narrative switches POV in the middle of a scene, I sometimes find myself jarred out of the story.
POV That Doesnt Work:
As an example of POV that doesnt work for me, heres a section from All Smiles by Stella Cameron. In this scene, it is late at night, and Jean-Marc comes to the room of Meg Smiles, whom he hired only that day to be his sisters companion.
Slowly, Meg opened her eyes. He stood a few feet from her, a solid, faceless silhouette, but with a glimmer of white – his shirt. He wore no coat. How could she ask him to stay without his thinking she lacked modesty? Why did you come?You should be angry. He was humbled by what she made him feel. You dont know me at all. My presence must be a shock.
His low voice had broken – just a little, but definitely – as if with emotion. To have such feelings for a man who was a stranger must be very wrong. No doubt she was being foolish, perhaps even walking into a trap set by a man of the world for a girl of little experience.
Miss Smiles, may I Did he know what he intended to ask? Why had he come here? Was he looking for a dalliance with an interesting girl who posed no threat to him? No threat in the form of potential demands for commitment?
Meg clutched the robe and gown together at the neck and sat up. She wasnt dressed. Please tell me why you are here. She pulled off the mantilla and wished she had not let her hair down. This was too intimate.
I wandered, he told her. I didnt know where I intended to go until I arrived at your door. May I sit with you?
He wanted to sit with her, with Meg Smiles, orphan of almost no means, seamstress ashamed of practicing her skill to make a living, a woman whom he had hired because she fabricated her appearance and played on his need?
No, of course not, Jean-Marc said, as much to himself as to Miss Smiles. Ill go. If she decided to leave once they returned to London it would be his fault.
This is a very romantic situation. The nobleman and the servant encounter each other in a silent room in the middle of the night, each so drawn to the other that they are willing to flout social convention to be near one another. But the POV switches with every single paragraph. Obviously not everyone shares this opinion, since Ms. Cameron is a huge bestseller, but to me, not only do the POV shifts not work for the scene, they seriously detract from it. They keep me from getting to know either character at all well. They drain the tension from the scene and, at two points, completely interrupt the scene while I try to figure out who is thinking what.
The first paragraph is from Megs point of view: she wants to ask him to stay. The second is in Jean-Marcs POV: he is humbled by his emotions. The third is hers: she wonders if shes being led astray. The fourth paragraph begins with his words, but the POV is not clear. Either one of them could be wondering, Was he looking for a dalliance with an interesting girl who posed no threat to him? No threat in the form of potential demands for commitment?
The fifth paragraph is clearly in her POV again: she worries about her hair. The sixth paragraph is dialog. Here is the seventh paragraph, in its entirety: He wanted to sit with her, with Meg Smiles, orphan of almost no means, seamstress ashamed of practicing her skill to make a living, a woman whom he had hired because she fabricated her appearance and played on his need? Whose POV is this? I dont know!
This scene could have been a heart-stopper if it had been written from a single point of view. The author could have shown us the depths of one characters emotions – the irresistible attraction, social daring, genuine vulnerability. Instead, the POV flutters around, and we only get these little single-sentence glimpses of their feelings: To have such feelings for a man who was a stranger must be very wrong. What feelings? He was humbled by what she made him feel. What does she make him feel?
And those bits that could be from either characters POV – ooh, they irritate me. They totally dispel the magic of the scene for me. Nothing aggravates me more than when a good romantic moment is interrupted because I cant figure out whos thoughts or emotions Im reading.
POV That Does Work:
On the other hand, even I have to admit that there are authors who use the technique of mid-scene POV shifts with great success.
Silk and Shadows, by Mary Jo Putney, opens with a garden party. There Lady Sara Weldon meets the mysterious man known as Prince Peregrine. The lady and the prince chat. Midway through their pleasant and witty conversation, this happens:
[Sara] raised her eyes to look for her betrothed, but from the corner of her eye, she saw that the prince was also watching Weldons approach. Since his face was profoundly still, why did she feel that silent lightning crackled around him?Sorry Im late, my dear. Weldon bent to kiss Lady Saras cheek, but Peregrine was interested to note a slight withdrawal on the part of the lady. No, it was not a love match, though the two exchanged easy greetings like a long-married couple.
Note the way the POV switches from Sara to Peregrine just at the moment when a third character, Charles Weldon, enters the conversation. The remainder of this section is in Prince Peregrines POV – it never switches back to Sara.
Ms. Putney very rarely changes POV in the middle of a section. The way the POV shifts in this scene draws the readers attention to a vital plot point. Charles Weldon is a villain whose actions drive the plot of Silk and Shadows. These two paragraphs, in which each of our protagonists react to Weldon – and observe each others reactions – foreshadow their entire relationship. The fact that were shown their reactions, each in their own POV, makes this scene crackle. Even if you dont notice the POV switch, you can sense that something important just happened. It sets up both characters and the reader for the drama to follow.
Thats the kind of writing that shows what POV can be – not just a tool to help us get to know the characters, but also a device that can heighten tension and call attention to important events.
Not everyone has the same allergic reaction to multiple POVs as I do. And it really isnt my intention to spoil your reading for you by drawing your attention to something you dont usually notice. But its nice to pay attention to POV, because once in a while youll come across an author who does some pretty neat tricks with it.
A Few Final Thoughts on What She Said:
After taking a brief poll among the reviewing staff at AAR, I came to a very unscientific conclusion – those of us with less formal training in the writing of fiction seem to be less bothered by multiple changes in POV than those of us who consider those same changes to be a negative and “head-hopping” experience. While I’ve had the experience of reading a scene and feeling as though I’m on a fast-moving carousel, those experiences have not been negative ones – I felt the author wanted me to feel that way and I was happy to go along for the ride. Others simply get dizzy and want the ride to end.
Time to Post to the Message Board:
Here are some specific questions to think and post about:
Which premises do you still enjoy, even though you’ve read them too often to count? Which premises did you once enjoy but no longer do? And, which premises always seemed contrived to you?
What have been your own experiences with overpowering secondary characters and secondary romances?
Which villains have you read that are sublime in their evil? (We’ll be happy to add to our Favorite Villains list). Which villains were absurd? What books contained suspenseful sub-plots that made the books so much the better? Which books either featured villainous sub-plots that seemed added on to achieve a word count, or worse, eventually ruined the book for you?
What authors handle “issues” and/or history better than others? What authors have failed to do this in your opinion?
Would you agree that certain premises seem either melodramatic or downright silly in a modern setting that seem totally acceptable when presented in a historical romance. If you agree, what premises come to mind? And, if not, please share why some premises are timeless.
Do you find multiple changes in POV dizzying? Do you even notice them? Where do you come down on the “head-hopping or heart-stopping” discussion? And, have you noticed a lack of dialogue tags lately, or is that just me?
In conjunction with Jennifer Keirans and with gratitude for Mary Jo Putney
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