Interview: Nancy Kress on POVs

Nancy KressMike Resnick said of Nancy Kress, “No one teaches writing basics better.” Here she gives us the basics on POVs. When to use one and not the other, why one works and another doesn’t.
First person, second person, third person, alternating person, third person subjective, third person objective, third person omniscient, multiple third person, epistolary. Did I miss any?

I’m not even familiar with all the ones you listed! I think in terms of: first person, multiple first, third person, multiple third, second person (rare), omniscient, objective.
When do we use them and why, when do we not use them and why not?

That’s a big topic; entire books have been written on the advantages and disadvantages of each. Briefly: First person allows for a very tight reader identification with the narrator, as well as a more distinctive voice,which means it’s a good choice if your character has a distinctive voice. Its disadvantage is that you are limited to only what that character knows and observes. Third person allows more description and observation of the characters. Multiple third “opens up” a book to more settings, action in different places, more characters’ internal lives. It can, however, feel more fragmented if each POV character is not fully developed. Omniscient is hard to do well; it’s more than just going into anybody’s mind whenever you feel like it. Omniscient implies the presence of a strong authorial POV (the “all-knowing” presence of “omniscience.”) Objective goes into no character’s thoughts, recording only what a camera would see and hear. It works best for short stories, and even then can feel cold in less-than-skillful hands.
When is it a hard and fast rule to use/not use a certain POV, and when is one OK but another is better?

There are no hard and fast rules in writing. Everything is a trade-off: are you gaining more than you are losing with a particular point of view? What overall effect are you trying to achieve, and how much reader identification are you aiming for in this story?
Is there such a thing as a story that is more effectively told with several POVs, each chapter or scene with its appropriate POV, omniscient in one chapter, second person in the another chapter, epistolary in another?

That actually sounds like a mess. Unless you are aiming at a deliberate confusion of identity (as in Alfred Bester’s classic “Fondly Farenheit”), don’t mix first, second, and third. With multiple third, I usually keep to one POV per scene. Epistolary, as in inclusion of a letter or diary entry, works in any POV.
Suppose an author’s fan base has come to expect a certain storytelling style that involves certain POVs, whereas a different POV strategy might appeal to a broader audience but alienate the established readers.

This sort of thing is always a problem, if what you mean by a change of POV is “a different protagonist doing different things and written in a style different from previous books.” Then it’s not really a POV question but, rather, a content question. Readers will easily accept one book written in first and then another written in third, if the story being told is the same kind of story usually associated with that author. J. K. Rowlings’s Harry Potter books are all multiple third; so is her novel CASUAL VACANCY, but their audiences are entirely different.
I’m working on a short story with every character in every scene. One is dominating the situation, one is trying to moderate the situation with mixed success, one is trying to take control of the situation with no success, 2 are asking a lot questions and seeking a lot of assurance, 2 are preoccupied with each other and neutral toward the others. There’s lots of rapid fire, heated dialog; lots of action; lots of choreography. Everything about the plot and the characters is revealed in real time through the interaction of the characters; no info dumps, no flashbacks, no descriptions, no body language, no inner narrative; strictly the words and activity of the characters. Which POV/POVs do I use?

It’s hard to be sure from that description, but if this were my story, I’d probably tell it in either first-person or limited third. In both cases, I would give the internal reactions and thoughts of only one character, whose story it would then become, and that choice would be the character who either has the most at stake or is the most capable of change. The events of a story should affect the protagonist,if they don’t, why should I, the reader, be affected?
Is POV a standard part of the curriculum in most workshops?

Yes, either through direct lecture or, if not addressed directly, it inevitably comes out in critique sessions, as in “You are switching POV on page 6,why?” or “You cannot describe a character’s appearance in first person unless he’s thinking about his own looks” or “This story might be better told from the wife’s POV and not the husband’s.” By the end of the first paragraph an author has usually committed to a POV, so it’s a good idea to consider your options before you begin.



Nancy Kress’ writing craft books:



Meet up with Nancy Kress at the Hugo House workshop in Seattle, Washington and at Taos Toolbox workshop in Taos, New Mexico.



Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

The Best of Podcastle 2013

written by David Steffen

Podcastle, and the other Escape Artists casts had a bit of a crisis to overcome this year–they realized that although they had a great listenership, only 1% of the listeners donated, and it wasn’t enough to keep the publications afloat. The good news is that when they revealed this there was a strong reaction to add subscriptions–if you read this and you like the cast, consider adding a subscription.

Podcastle published 57 stories in 2013, here are my favorites.

The List

1. Scry by Anne Ivy
Seeing the future, like time travel, is one of those story elements in which it’s hard to find new permutations which some other hasn’t already thought of. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use it for stories, but most attempts at using these elements novelly will result in something much like another existing story. This story managed to feel novel despite all that, giving interesting limitations to the main characters ability to scry the future, ways to make it both a strength and a weakness. She has been captured by a creature incapable of lying who has vowed to kill her, but she makes the most of what seems to be a bleak situation. Very cool.

2. Wuffle by Chantal Beaulne
Beard humor! A wizard rids himself of his beard that has soaked up so much magic it has become sapient.

3. Mermaid’s Hook by Liz Argall
A great nonhuman POV, a mermaid rescues a man who’s been thrown off a ship and does her best to try to understand his perspective.

4. The Sunshine Baron by Peadar O Guilin
An unlikeable narrator done extremely well. Cool worldbuilding, and even though I hated the POV character, I wanted to see how it turned out, and I could understand his decisions even if I hate him for them.

5. Excision by Scott H. Andrews
I’ve heard time and time again that there is a conflict between magic and science. But there really isn’t–science is the study of the universe through measurable and repeatable tests. If magic exists, science would strive to understand it and catalog it. This story embraces that concept, trying to rigorously find new methods of healing magic.

6. The Discriminating Monster’s Guide to the Perils of Princess Snatching by Scott M. Roberts
I don’t much care for the title of this one, making it seem like it will be a whimsical lighthearted adventure story for children, but the story is very good, voiced by Dave Thompson, a perfect choice. The POV character is a monster who abducts people with great destinies to steal away their destinies as a source of energy, but this time he’s abducted the wrong princess.



Honorable Mentions

The Red Priest’s Vigil by Dirk Flinthart

Rumor of Wings by Alter S. Reiss

Beyond the Shrinking World by Nathaniel Katz