A Story with a View

by Christine Stewart

Point of view, the angle from which your story is told, is a pet peeve of mine, so pardon me if I lecture you a bit in this installment. It's something even experienced writers don't always get right, either because they don't fully understand it or don't police their work for errors. But it's one of those key foundational parts to a story that hold it together. Before a writer "officially" starts his/her story, it's important to take time to figure out the point of view.

Some point-of-view basics for you:

These days, the view on first person is that it needs to come from an exceptional character with a unique perspective to work. Speaking in first person (ie, "I") must be necessary to the story and the voice must be compelling, not your general "everyman" type voice. It's going to be very close as the reader only sees what the "I" shows. The tone depends on the personality of the "I."

In my opinion, this is a rule you can break—not set in stone—if you find your voice for a character and story best in first person. You can also just write in first and then go back and change it to third. A lot of work (!), but the result will have greater intimacy than your average third person.

Second person is "you," where "you" can mean several things: the narrator speaking to him/herself, an absent person the narrator is speaking to, or the reader. Any of these can be an interesting approach, but best left for a short story than a whole novel as using "you" can shut out the reader in all of these cases, even in the third instance. The narrator is speaking for the reader in the latter case, which is a risky business unless the reader has an open mind.

Most writers do best with third person ("he/she"), either omniscient or close. With omniscient, there's a removed quality. The actions, descriptions, and words of a character clue us in to them and speak for them. There might be some internal thought and feeling, but very little. The narrator is a persona of the author and can zoom in on the point of view of one or more characters (if you’re using multiple points of view) and then zoom out again to a larger picture.

With close third person, there will be more internal thought and feeling. The writer dips more into their heads, no longer the author as filter—the character is our guide.

Here's the deal: once you decide, once you write the first couple of chapters to establish point of view, you're locked in. You can't suddenly switch from third person close on one or two main characters to third person close on multiple minor characters or first person on anyone (unless you're a genius or you write the book in parts—and you have a very good, necessary reason. We won't get into that here).

I often see writers suddenly drop into a waiter's point of view, for example, out of nowhere, because having that waiter think or feel something about one of the characters as a means of describing that main character or giving an insight into the character is convenient and they can’t get it from anywhere else. But the waiter is not important, and coming from his point of view, all of a sudden, 100 pages in, is jarring and inappropriate. It's called "jumping heads."

Once you've made clear whose head(s) we're in, that's it. As mentioned, you can certainly have different parts to a story where you have a different point of view in each part, or follow multiple points of view blended throughout each scene, but either approach has to be clear and carefully handled. No including secondary or very minor characters like taxi drivers, coat check people, grocery store clerks, etc., unless they are key characters you will speak the story through on several occasions and your story is in multiple points of view to begin with.

Good writing does not come out of a free-for-all where anything goes. Just like there's really no such thing as free verse in poetry, in fiction the writer creates limitations that are then imposed. One of those limitations is point of view. You, that writer, create the right type, shape, and size container for your story, then you fill it. Otherwise, you have a mess a reader won't put up with. It's like the saying about maintaining a good relationship with a partner, "Do you want to be happy or do you want to be right?" In this case, "Do you want to take a stab (and probably fail) at creative genius by trying to break the rules (yawn, you’re not the first, sweetie) and end up with something unintelligible and impossible to follow, or do you want to tell a good story well that readers respond to?" I’ll let you answer that one.

If you're not clear on what point of view is best, experiment. Whose story is it? If it’s more than one person, try to pick no more than 3-4 people. More than that becomes unwieldy and, remember, each one has to have an arc, which means having enough key scenes for each character’s story to rise, develop, and climax around the same time as the others, even if they intertwine. One character will always dominant over the others. Readers need a clear person to identify with and consider the main character.

Once you decide, be vigilant about not slipping up. If the character(s) whose point(s) of view are privileged do not see, hear, feel, touch, taste, smell, experience what’s happening then it can’t be shown. That means: if your point of view character(s) are not in the scene, the scene can’t happen. It is through their senses, eyes, experience, that the reader, in turn, experiences the events in the story.

Other questions to ask: What psychic distance would you like to have? This is the distance the reader feels between him/herself and the story. This will help you decide first, third, close or omniscient, etc. What is the attitude of the narrator? Comic? Ironic?

Also, and this usually applies to first person, is your narrator reliable or unreliable? Meaning, is he/she telling us the truth or not?

This is a good time to remind you about jumping heads. I often see writers drop into someone's head we've never seen before or will again, who is simply in the right place at the right time, to give a perspective we can't get from the point of view character(s) in that scene. Again, remember the container, you can't jump heads because it would be more convenient. If you haven't figured it out by now, writing is not about convenience, it's about the challenge of working within the chosen limitations. To jump heads when convenient is to step out of the fictitious space you've created and wake the reader from the dream. It may make things easier for you, but it's jarring for the reader and just plain sloppy.

So how do you establish point of view? Name that key person right away. Whoever appears at the beginning of the story will be considered the main character by the reader (important to remember that). Establish who the main character(s) and point(s) of view right from the start. If multiple, either blend them in each scene or alternate chapters (another reason to keep the character count low). It can be established by the first person to speak, take action, share a (very brief) thought, through that person’s senses. You can zoom in close to that character (or characters in turn) at the start then zoom out to then establish setting, action, conflict.

Point of view should be both invisible and all encompassing. Otherwise, the story is about you, the writer, showing off. If done well, the reader doesn't notice it, but is completely absorbed by it. Not done well and the story is an untethered balloon drifting out of control. There are many subtle variations to first-, second-, and third-person points of view that you can explore, but start simple and go with what feels right, what unlocks the characters and story for you. Practice variations you’re attracted to as exercises to see what’s possible.

Literally think of the view of your story you want your readers to have. Picture the opening of your book cover like the opening of a door or window. Do you want an open vista, a wall that you remove, brick by brick to reveal what's behind it, or a false landscape that turns out to be a movie set with the real world on the other side? Find the metaphor that works for you and it will keep you on track.

Christine Stewart is program director for arts in education, literary arts, and children's events with the Maryland State Arts Council and director of Maryland's Poetry Out Loud program. A former artist-in-residence with Creative Alliance in Baltimore, she is the founding director of the wildly successful Write Here, Write Now workshops. She has a M.A. and M.F.A. in creative writing and poetry, is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and has been published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Blackbird, The Cortland Review, and other literary magazines. Check out her Facebook page. She edits novels so if you have one and need help, e-mail her at therealwriter@gmail.com.

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