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Up From Down Under February 2007

February Issue 2007
 

 

Point of View – Part 1

INTRODUCTION

If you've reached the end of a story gasping for breath and wondering why you forgot to pour that cup of coffee, thank the author for choosing the right head or heads to tell the tale. If you've lived the story, the point of view transmitted you to another body and let experiences and emotions fill your mind as events transpired through and around you.

One definition of point of view (POV) is: "the perspective from which a story is told."1

That sounds simple, but it's deceptive. The two basic elements of point of view, technical and thematic, require explanation and clarification. Writers need to know and understand their tools of trade.

Technical POV refers to who is telling the story. No, it doesn't mean we should know the author's name. It revolves around the author choosing a method to narrate the tale.

The author is omniscient; he or she knows the whole story – everything about the major and minor characters, the plot, the world, underlying social and political issues, the weather, etc. This god knows the ending from the beginning. However, the narrator is a tool of the author, an entity that tells the story by revealing it progressively to the reader.

“English grammar lets us write in three ways:

        in the first person, using the “I” narrator,

        in the third person, describing everyone as ‘he’ or she’,

        in the second person, ‘you’.”2

A number of techniques exist for authors to use their ‘personal’ narrators to recount events and consequences as stories develop.

Thematic POV refers to how the story is told. From what standpoint will the chosen narrator tell the story? Many diverse factors influence standpoint, but these can be grouped into two main categories, external and internal.

External factors: Race, religion, ideology, culture, and environment are examples of external determinants of a character's actions, reactions or interpretations.

Internal factors: Abilities, talents, intelligence, language proficiency, personality, speech patterns, and physical disabilities are examples of internal determinants.

 

TECHNICAL POV I - the common techniques

There are different ways to tell a story. Consider the possibilities in these common techniques:

First Person Narration. The story unfolds through the mind of one character. You, the reader, merge with that character. Everything you know comes from the comments, thoughts, actions or reactions to events within the restricted sensory boundaries. External interaction reveals the other characters and their roles in the story. "I" is the common pronoun. For example:

I woke early, my body snug against her back. Rhonda still slept; auburn hair thrown back across a shoulder. Loose strands, floating in the air as the pedestal fan swung its arc of breeze around the room, tickled my nose. I vowed to never leave her again.

Secondary characters may reveal details about the narrator. For example, an author could construct a conversation like this:

"I finally get to meet you," I said, hugging my grandmother.

"Oh, you have your mother's blue eyes and blond hair," she said through her tears, moving away and holding me at arm's length.

With this technique, the reader never knows the thoughts or feelings of other characters unless they're revealed to the POV holder through speech, facial expressions or some other actions. For example:

She claimed she worked late, but I saw the lie in her eyes and the way she licked her lips.

First Person is a great technique. It’s suited for strong active writing that can build a solid bond between the narrator and reader.

Third Person Narration. This can range from a very limited narration to a godlike omniscience.

 “’Limited’ refers to the author’s decision to stick to the limits of what one character experiences. … Sometimes, when the view is kept very tightly focused on what the main character experiences, first and third person are practically indistinguishable.”3 One protagonist becomes the focus for the story. The dominant pronoun will be "he" or "she". The narrator stands outside the POV character's head, but knows all his thoughts, actions or reactions.  For example:

He hesitated, confused by her vocalised “No” that contrasted with her revealing clothes and previous come-hither actions. He frowned.

She smiled, the softness helping him relax. ‘Is she teasing me,’ he thought.

Some authorities expand limited to allow the narrator access to other heads. However, the additional POV characters are still restricted to their own perceptions. “… each self-contained scene follows the viewpoint of one specific character.”4 This introduces an element of omniscience, but only to the extent that the narrator is not confined to one head.

An author may believe that a single Third Person narrator is not enough to give sufficient depth to her story. She may have two main protagonists she wishes to develop and acquaint the reader with intimately. Hence, there will be movement from one head to another as the story unfolds. This should present no problems if switches of POV seem logically planned and smoothly executed.

Sudden changes of POV, or confusion over which character's POV is being used, will unsettle readers and throw them off the emotional bridge the author has endeavoured to build through the narrator.

Consider this example from Rob Parnell, a principal of the Australian Writing Academy5:

Jenny thought about what he'd said. He was right; she was lonely and would do anything to stop him from leaving. Finally, she said, "Do you care at all?"

"Of course." Don looked away, trying to contain his angst. Should he tell her about Debra? He wanted to but knew it would only make things worse. He chose to lie. "We've grown apart, Jen..."

Gwen entered the room. Instantly, she could tell something was wrong. She scanned the lovers' faces and decided to leave them to it. Head bowed, she left.

The POV started with Jenny, moved to Don, and then jumped to Gwen when she entered the room.

Rob's example illustrates a potential problem with third person narration: "Head-hopping". Readers like a relationship with characters; building a personal affinity is natural. Using too many different narrators may prevent or sever rapport and stifle suspense. Where's the intrigue and drama in knowing everything about everybody? It can become boring!

Broad omniscience occurs when the narrator not only moves between heads, but also introduces information the POV characters have no direct knowledge of at the time it’s mentioned in the story. For example:

John, tired from his unexpected delay at the airport, stretched out as best he could in the confines of the helicopter. Despite the noise and gnawing hunger, he soon dozed.

Ten miles away, below the direct line of John’s flight path, three terrorists loaded a missile launcher.

John obviously didn’t know about the terrorists, but the narrator has introduced them into the story for reasons to be clarified later.

There is a spectrum of possibilities in this technique. The range goes from “Limited Third Person” to "Omniscient Third Person", with any number of narrators from one to infinity. Take care that the possibilities you use hook and hold your readers, not repel them.

Limit your third person narrators (and transitions between their heads) to a reader-friendly number.

 

TECHNICAL POV II - less common techniques

Some more possibilities, but should you consider them?

First Person Narration - Stream of Consciousness. This technique presents narration as a series of thoughts, feelings and impressions.

Traditional grammar and sentence structure may be abandoned in preference for unbroken and, seemingly, unrelated images. It originated in the late nineteenth century and became popular with such writers as James Joyce, William Faulkner and Virginia Wolf in the early twentieth.

An excerpt from James Joyce's "Ulysses"(1922):

"Fed and feeding brains about me: under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and in my mind's darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds. Thought is the thought of thought. Tranquil brightness. The soul is in a manner all that is: the soul is the form of forms. Tranquillity sudden, vast, candescent: form of forms." 6

Know the formal rules very well, before you break them. Also, develop a close working relationship with your publisher before submitting anything written in this style.

Second Person Narration. The narrator addresses the reader or some other assumed "you". Not a common choice for fiction, this technique could be used to denounce or discipline. A eulogy summarising a deceased person's life may be appropriate for second person.

In life, you showed us the way to treat our fellowman. You were generous and kind, although not without fault. You did once trespass upon the property of another and partake of forbidden fruit...

Too much second person would switch off readers. Perhaps suitable for a diversion at times, but can you imagine a novel written like that?

Third Person Narration – Panoramic/Objective. In this technique, the narrator simply describes what is perceived by the human senses. It's similar to cameras and microphones making a movie. The narrator describes many things within the range of our sensory equipment, but has no interactive role. Observation occurs, but no internalisation happens except a reader's own interpretations and reactions.

A story written in this manner has less chance of hooking and retaining a reader’s attention because it doesn’t provide an emotional link to one or more characters.

Part 2 will address Thematic POV:

  • choosing your POV character or characters
  • POV and Voice

 

References

  1. Point of View. http://www.nyu.edu/classes/op/writing/old_pointofview1.htm
  2. Grenville, Kate: THE WRITING BOOK, A Workbook for Fiction Writers. Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1990, p 60
  3. Tuttle, Lisa: Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. A & C Black, London, 2001, p 72.
  4. Sawyer, Robert J: “ON WRITING” Point of View, Two Heads Aren’t Always Better Than One. http://www.sfwriter.com/ow07.htm
  5. Parnell, Rob: Point of View in Fiction - What's Right and What's Wrong. Australian Writing Academy, January 2007 Newsletter.
  6. Episode 2 - Nestor. http://www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/ulysses/2/

 

 
 Copyright 2007 by The Muse Marquee. All rights reserved. All authors hold individual ownership & copyrights of any material contributed. No unauthorized usage of any published material within the Muse Marquee unless permission is first granted by copyright owner of said material.