Using Point of View to Intensify Emotion


Know how sometimes you’re reading a book and your attention wanders? Or how some books suck you into the world on the page?

There are many ways an author can create that kind of intensity for a reader: through plot, through innovative syntax, mood, the kinds of characters. Getting into the mind of the point of entry character, though, getting into that character’s head so tightly that it’s a mind meld is one of the most powerful because then the reader forgets the separation between his/her head and life and that of the life of that character.

You know when an author’s done it well. In romance writing, I think Jennifer Greene, Anne McCallister, and several others do it so well that you’re inevitabley drawn into the emotions of the books. In thrillers, Lee Child keeps you at a distance with Jack Reacher, but Child gets into Reacher’s head, if not his emotions, so that you’re observing with, seeing the same things Reacher’s noting.

Child doesn’t necessarily give you the conclusions Reacher’s making, as, for instance, in the famous and brilliant scene in The Persuader, where Reacher is observing the gun the villain is talking about and there’s the chance that the bad guy will turn it on Reacher.

Suspense builds as Reacher notes every detail of the gun, processes it, absorbs it. As a reader, you could no more stop reading at that point than the earth could stop revolving.

Child creates suspense, even while maintaining a kind of distance between Reacher and reader, through a fabulous accretion of details, building and building. He keeps the mystery of Reacher at the same time, however, by not giving the reader Reacher’s conclusions about what he’s always observing. By not providing Reacher’s conclusions, Child holds back on a certain kind of emotion.

We don’t get Reacher’s feelings. We do, however, get an incredibly intense scene of suspense through the power of those details about this very special weapon and what it can do.

A romance novel, however, will include those feelings, will include the point of entry character’s conclusions and decisions as a way of intensifying emotion because you are then bonded with that character. Having the same emotions as the character allows you to root for him/her, allows you to be in that character’s head and world.

So using specific, powerful details is one way of creating suspense and emotion through a character’s point of view.

But not just any details.

Each detail has to be essential to what will happen as a result of the character’s observation.

If a writer, less skillful than Child, for instance, just piles on detail after detail, even wonderful, specific ones, what happens is that the details don’t add up to anything. They don’t acquire meaning, emotion, or suspense.

And the reader tends to skip over those sections.

So if you mention a detail, or several, figure out what your purpose is, but even more important, be sure you, as the writer, know why these details are important to the character and what s/he will do with them or how s/he will be affected by them.

Otherwise, shoot, sugar,it’s just all purty stuff, and it don’t mean a thang.

All right, using specific, pointed details that are important for whatever reason to the point of entry character is one way of creating and intensifying emotion, suspense, and page-turning interest.

Another, slightly trickier technique is to look at the vocabulary and syntax of your point of entry character. But. . . not the vocabulary s/he uses in dialogue–that’s a whole ‘nother topic–but the kinds of words the character uses when s/he’s talking to himself or herself. When the character’s thinking . Take a look at how the character structures his/her thoughts.

If you stop yourself sometime while you’re thinking–NOT that easy to do, is it?!–you’ll notice that you’re not thinking in complete sentences. Your thoughts aren’t flowing in an organized point, sub-point, connected fashion. Most likely they’re bouncing like ping pong balls in a lottery machine all over the place. Odds are the the thoughts burst out , randomly feeding off the previous thought, leaping forward to something else. The vocabulary is usually simple, maybe profane in ways the character isn’t in dialogue.

Here’s the reason this technique can become tricky. As authors, we tend to use our own inner vocabulary and syntax when we’re trying to create those of a character.

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

Stoplight! Stoplight!

The mind meld you create depends on your using character specific language, character specific structure.

For example, if a guy’s a carpenter, how does a carpenter perceive things when s/she observes them, when s/he thinks about a problem? Does a carpenter think in terms of measurements? Of planes? Of how things join together?

What are the carpenter kinds of words and world view that are specific to that occupation? Painters tend to be aware of colors, musicians, sounds. What characterizes how a carpenter, your character, sees the world? Reacts to it?

If you’re not into carpentry or whatever your character is, then you need to rejigger your writerly thinking so that your writer mind can give your reader the reality of that carpenter. Or cook. Or pilot.

So you need to interview folks like your character, talk with them, get a sense of how they express themselves, and, just as crucial, how they think and how they see the world.

Two techniques. They’ll both serve you well as a writer. There are more. But two will serve for the moment, right?