Sunday, 16 June 2013

Point of View; returning to a forbidden planet.

Point of View; it's the 'forbidden planet; of writing, the bugbear of my student's lives, mostly because I go on and on and on about it. It's an important thing to get right, and can be the toughest to crack, yet it can be the most revealing part of becoming a creative writer, and it can be an incredibly flexible aspect, too.

Point of View (POV) is the hidden camera though which the reader perceives the fact all the story. It may be inside a character, so that we see the character’s thoughts and reactions to events, or move outside all characters as an omniscient narrator or move between characters, or actually be an active, present, author-voice. It is tied closely to narration, perspective and chosen protagonists, and also to interior monologue, and what I call 'filterless monologue' and what David Lodge (who is a bit more important than I am) calls Free Indirect Dialogue.

POV answers the question: whose voice tells the story or gives us the information we need to understand what is happening? Does one character control our understanding of events, or do we have an omniscient narrator who gives us facts and insights that the characters themselves do not have? How does the voice or consciousness that acts as the point of view shape our interpretations? What might happen if another point of view took charge? 

To give you the best chance of choosing the right POV for your fiction, you should know how to approach all the different ways POV can be categorized. These include:
  • 3rd Person Limited…sometimes called the 3rd person subjective, we are limited to seeing inside one character’s head. The narrator seems to sit on his shoulder, but it’s fairly clear that the character and the narrator are not absolutely the same. 
  • 3rd Person Deep (also called unobtrusive)…dipping deeply into a single person’s head…they are the narrator…check above to see how this works with interior monologue, as we saw it used to ‘dip down’ into a character’s mind.
  • 3rd Person Wide-ranging…sometimes called the 3rd person objective. By taking a step away from the intimacy of limited and deep, this gives the author a more neutral canvas to work on. One character is often still the central point of the narration, but the author can tell us what goes on outside their range of vision, even moving into scenes they don’t inhabit. 
  • First Person…Character tells their own story – they are the narrator. It is distinguished at all times by the use of the pronoun ‘I’ and they are in every scene. 
  • Omniscient….A complete range of vision over the narration – the reader will have glimpses into any character’s head the narrator pleases. The narrator knows everything and can shift in time and space at whim from character to character, inside thoughts, feelings and motives. Unlike the multi-viewpoint, the narrator can also be the writer, and make authorial comments legitimately.
  • Second Person…the writer addresses a third person at all times, using the pronoun ‘you’. 
  • Multi-viewpoint…This is a popular format, quite different the omniscient in that all the changes of viewpoint are at specific moments in the text; usually the changeover of scene, chapter, etc. 
  • Stream of consciousness…1st person deep interior monologue, possibly incorporated with third person, or omniscient passages
  • Oddities…would include all little-used POV’s.
Definitions and Pros and Cons 
You may very well find other definitions and other explanations of POV, and, indeed, other terminologies. Try looking at Tami's blog, and her suggestions in  I really like her use of imagery when trying to explain this 'forbidden' subject, such as scull-hopping, using your psychic camera and the image of the balloon on a string...the balloon being the narrator, the string being the POV, and the holder of the string being the writer.
Bearing the things Tami says in mind, look at the pros and cons of each POV;
  • 3rd Person Limited. The narrator is editing the story being told. The convention stands that the writer and the character are separate beings, but so intermingled into one thought process that the reader genuinely feels they are meeting a real person on the page… In Gerry’s head a plan began to form. He thought about a new home, visualized building it. He decided the move would be in secret. A quiver of joy bubbled up his spine…We only ever see inside Gerry’s head. 
  • PROS:  A good straightforward POV
  • CONS: Because we are only inside on character’s head at a time we are definitely not allowed to wander into others, or view scenes the narrator is not in.
3rd Person Deep Almost all no editing takes place, the convention above is replaced with an understanding that the reader is witnessing the narrator’s thoughts…Finally, he had a plan. A new plan! Build a new home. Tell no one. Secretly move into it. That was the answer. A quiver of joy bubbled up... It would be reasonably easy to rewrite this POV into the 1st Person, should it be necessary; the ease of such a rewrite gives you a clue to whether you’re actually writing in Deep, Limited or Wide-ranging 3rd Person. It is in these deep perspective we reach the Free Indirect Discourse that David Lodge is able to give a historic perspective to   in his book of essays, Consciousness and the Novel.
PROS: a rich, inner feeling of attachment to the narrator. There are no secrets, everything is exposed
CONS: Hard to maintain, but that’s less of a worry because you don’t have to maintain it – you can move in and out of this deeper perspective into 3rd Person Limited or Wide-ranging. 
3rd Person Wide-ranging It was clear that Gerry’s plan was working, and he was pretty sure no one had
had guessed at it yet….At first glance, this looks like 3rd Person Limited. But it is used a lot in books where a narrator tells almost all the story themselves, except for some limited scenes, where the writer at will dips into other POV. In a second scene, Gerry's opponent might be shown briefly within a new POV, thwarting Gerry's plan. Another way of use the ‘wide range’ is by almost moving into the omniscient. 
PROS: Flexibility. It can be a lot of fun to move back from being right inside a single head
CONS: Needs professional handling or it can lose its ‘thread’ and become muddled, so not for the beginner – the writer must be absolutely sure they understand, and are in control, of their perspectives. 

First Person is a commonly used perspective, especially for autobiography… I decided to build a new home, secretly. A quiver of joy passed up my spine as I thought about it…1st Person can, like third, be deep or limited.
PROS: We are intimate with this person. We really identify with them
CONS: we cannot ever get into anyone else’s head, or see action that the narrator is not a part of.

Omniscient. At one end of the range is the god-like perspective, where almost no character is examined closely and there is no ‘dropping down’ into anyone’s consciousness. The ‘legitimate authorial standpoint’ I mentioned above is probably the most tricky aspect for the 21stC writer, and only attempt this if you have the confidence to do so. At the other end of the omniscient range is the constant fluctuation between intimate viewpoints, even within the same sentence. Navokovich called this latter approach propelling the reader into a new angle. E.M. Foster called it ‘bouncing’. An ironic overview is therefore possible. Authorial…Poor Gerry! Little did he know that Lewis was on his case. Readers, I can tell you now that Gerry’s plan was about to fail…Constant fluctuation...Lewis was thinking that Gerry didn’t have a chance. Gerry, however, had a plan and it was sending quivers of joy up his spine... 
PROS; Excellent for stories in which a richer effect would be created by knowing what several characters think – generally gives a ‘lifted’ tone to work, but can be used to achieve a detached, humorous tone. 
CONS: The ‘hovering above the characters’ aspect can feel cold and unaffecting. One way of achieving the effect of an omniscient viewpoint is to approach is casually; i.e. write your chosen piece mostly in a wide-ranging 3rd person, becoming authorial on necessary occasions. But the major con is that this is devilishly difficult to achieve well – most of the examples of omniscient I see as a tutor are errors of judgement on the writer’s part; they’ve moved outside their chosen POV without realizing it. However, once you’ve ‘got’ the voice, it can work very well.  

Second Person.  This is a tricky one to understand, and rightly so, it should only be used sparingly. Although identified by the use of the pronoun ‘you’ it broadly separates into two approaches; the first where the writing feels like correspondence (most friendly letters are in the 2nd  person) and those where an ‘I’ who is actually doing the writer is hiding inside the text. Second person narratives require a strong suspension of disbelief as the writer invites the reader to become the character.  When handled well this method can quickly draw the reader in and lend a sense of urgency and excitement to a story. A story can seem to be written in the 2nd Person POV, but further along into the story, it is revealed that the narrator is actually watching the scene from a distance. This POV is useful in certain specific areas. Fighting Fantasy books (children’s interactive stories) are one; self-help books are another. Magazine articles look good in this POV…You are planning to build a new home. What is the first thing you should be doing?
PROS: eye-catching in the short story. Achieved well, it can make the reader feel as if they are the character
CONS: Achieved less well, it can make the reader feel distant to the character. Is very hard to maintain.

Multi-viewpoint This perspective is used a lot by saga authors, and is also useful in crime fiction. It is probably least useful in ‘true’ romance, where the reader wants to get under the skin on one character (usually the heroine), and also in the short story. Authors use the multi-viewpoint very flexibly, including 3rd and 1st Person, even the omniscient or 2nd Person, within a single novel. 
PROS: It’s flexible and yet remains intimate.
CONS: There is a definite problem with the ‘changeovers’ – readers find it hard to move on from an established favourite. Try to do these changes only at the start of new sections, chapters or parts 

Stream of consciousness Technically this is just the next step into the very deep 3rd Person; it can, however also be used in the first person. It is a literary devise, beloved of the Modernists and extremely difficult to maintain, and best served in fairly small doses. This is the ultimate in personal interior monologues, in which every thought that runs through the character’s head will be documented (or, as with natural dialogue, ‘seem to’. 
PROS: this is a literary style which needs careful thought and attention. Equal to cooking a perfect meringue. 
CONS: Not relevant to a non-literary style. 

Oddities. There are many other perspectives writing can take, such as the plural first person…we’ll build a home together…and plural third person…They built a home, secretly… Rarely you will come upon examples of perspective moving way out of the normal range, as with the wolf cub’s POV in Michell Paver’s Wolf Brother or trying to get into an alien’s head without humanizing their thoughts. Read Julio Cortázar’s short stories, particularly Axolotl, in which the perspective transforms from a man looking at an amphibian into that of the amphibian.
PROS/CONS; Use these sparingly and judiciously. Bit like eating a meringue!

Choosing the Right POV
POV is one of the most effective ways of approaching how you will narrate a story you are planning, but that doesn’t make the decision any easier. Luckily it’s there is no reason (other than it is somewhat time consuming) why you cannot change POV at the end of a first draft.

You might like to ask some of the following questions about the project you are undertaking at the moment:
  • What do you want the reader to know, and therefore, who is the best character to reveal these things…or not?
  • The three 3rd Person POV’s (limited, wide-ranging and deep) are so close in construction that it is possible to allow a single piece of work to move between them at will, without having technically gone outside  the 3rd Person POV - ask if it might be to your advantage to be more flexible if you are using 3rd person.
  • Whose voice would tell the story in the most gripping manner?
  • Which voice gives us the crucial information we need to understand what is happening? 
  • Do you want only one character to control our understanding of events, or would it be preferable to have an omniscient narrator furnishing facts and insights that the characters themselves do not have? 
  • Do you need a second perspective to allow the reader to see things a single POV will not cover?
  • Some writers apply first person perspective to a secondary, rather than main, character.  Such works can allow for a broader view or take an observational role. Nuances of interpretation may be developed in this way. Classic examples include Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.Would this be a good move for your story?
  • Almost by definition the reader will perceive the POV character as the most important in a scene and will remain sympathetic to that character. This is a crucial point when deciding which POV to use, especially if you’ve chosen multi-viewpoint. 
  • First person perspective also raises questions of reliability. You can hint to the reader, that they should not believe what the character says.  Stories of childhood can be told through the eyes of a child or an adult looking back. When told through the child’s eyes, care must be taken to prevent adult language or an adult perspective from slipping in—a tricky challenge when the story still needs to be told in language that appeals to adult readers.
There are some conventions to this aspect of writing fiction;
  1. The ‘voice’ of your narrator must be absorbing, rewarding and attractive to a reader 
  2. Most readers cannot ‘take’ – or at least ‘dislike’ a lot of changes in POV in one novel. The convention is that only one narrator should ‘carry’ a scene or chapter – swapping POV during scenes is dangerous and can lose the reader. This is what the ‘omniscient’ achieves more successfully, but it does need a skilful hand. 
  3. In the short story, this convention is magnified. It is advisable for only to allow one person to narrate the story, at least, depending on the word count the very minimum of POVs should be attempted, and it might be better to choose the omniscient than to swap around between short duration scenes.
  4. Another convention is that only major characters in the novel should carry a POV. Allowing minor characters to have sections to themselves is dangerous because it gives out the wrong message…readers will assume the character carries more weight than it actually does. (This runs alongside the convention about dialogue we looked at earlier)
  5. The voice or consciousness that acts as POV shapes the reader’s interpretations. This therefore is a major consideration when choosing POV. 
  6. The perception fallacy slides a narrator into the omniscient (The rain fell...rather than...I felt the rain falling) This is a common POV error – don’t worry about it too much, but can lead to a ‘passive’ feel to the writing.
  7. In fact there are many slips t’wixt POV theory and the actual writing of fiction; even distinguished writers often fall between these. My advice to the new writer is to learn the foundation criteria well, so that you avoid POV errors that make you appear an apprentice rather than a master craftsman – errors such as slipping between 1st and 3rd person. Once you have the basics under your belt, you can experiment with POV with confidence and a certain degree of impunity; self-belief counts for a lot in creative writing.
Intimacy and POV
It isn’t necessarily true that the omniscient inclines towards tell, while more intimate perspectives incline towards show, but there is a danger than the omniscient can stray into telling more easily. Check the two sentences below:

It was snowing already when Bertie left his house to clear the drift around his car…

Bertie armed himself with a spade. Chill hit his face as he left the house. A drift of snow, high as a wedding cake, surrounded the Vauxhall…

Although in such short sentences it’s not yet entirely clear with POV we might be in, one is nudging us towards and intimacy with Bertie and one is not.

Choosing the appropriate POV can often aid the writer in knowing what their story is about, and how it should be structured. Approaching Bertie from above, as in the first example will result in a very different story to one that approaches Bertie from inside, as does the second example.

Distinguishing Interior Monologue 

The novice writer sometimes has difficulty distinguishing exposition from interior monologue. This is understandable, as both can look the same laid out on the page, and in fact, some exposition is an interior monologue – possibly the best way to lay out facts in an expositional way is to use interior monologue. 

It might be said that the entire narration of a fiction written in the first person becomes internal monologue - look at the opening of Catcher in the Rye, for instance. Allowing the outside narrator of the 3rd Person to become invisible and create the illusion that the reader is in direct contact with the character helps the reader both identify with the character and pulls them into the story . This ‘dropping down’ into the mind of a character is sometimes called perspective filter, suggesting a lens of perspective that makes the author as unobtrusive as possible. To accomplish a filterless monologue, steer clear of turns of phrases that your character would not use in their mind. Phrases like ‘he thought’  or ‘he realized’ and adverbs that qualify  perspective such as ‘apparently’ or ‘seemingly’,  pull the reader away by reminding them that the character is actually doing some thinking, and that an external narrator is telling us so. To get round this problem, the character’s thoughts are directly communicated, so keeping the reader in close proximity to the action. Make sure your reader ‘follows you into the interior’ by missing out the pronoun or name of the character. This will quickly create a demarcation between monologue and description and action. Here is an extract  from my novel for older children, Sweet’n’Sour;

The dragon was coming. Scarlet and gold, its mouth as wide as an open window, it swayed  down the centre of the road. The crowd cheered Low Hee cheered. This was why he’d waited all morning in the sun.
Low Hee and some of his mates from school were messing around in the crowds, scooting between legs, laughing when people nearly toppled. Because it was the last day of the New Year celebrations, their victims laughed back. Old women handed them laisee envelopes, red packets stuffed with coins, and everyone tossed sweets at everyone.
Now, he realized, he was too far back. Cymbals and bells, tumblers and jugglers came first in the procession but the dragon would soon be in view. All Low Hee could see were the heads in front. He dropped to his knees and wriggled between two sets of silk-draped legs. He would be at the front of the crowd in seconds.
‘Come here!’ 
Low Hee’s grandmother had him by the sleeve of his coat. Her face was grim. He stopped his wriggling.
‘I wasn’t doing anything,’ he mumbled, quickly swallowing a mouthful of chocolate bar. ‘And the dragon is coming!’
Sweet’n’Sour Nina Milton
This is the opening from the book, but we're already on the borderline of Low Hee’s interior monologue, especially at: Now, he realized, he was too far back.
He would be at the front of the crowd in seconds...

To be technically accurate, it would be safer to categorize most of this as description... Cymbals and bells, tumblers and jugglers came first in the procession ...and action... dropped to his knees and wriggled ...

 If we were further on in the story, I would  want to 

tip it over into monologue. All I have to do is get just a little closer… He was too far back. How had that happened? The cymbals and bells rang louder, louder. The dragon would soon be in view, but there was nothing to see but the heads in front. He dropped to his knees, wriggling between two sets of legs, silk slicking against his cheek. He would be at the front of the crowd in seconds...

Free Indirect Discourse
I’m trying, in my rewrite, to allow the outside narrator to become invisible and create the illusion that the reader is in direct contact with the character. This ‘dropping down’ into the mind of a character is sometimes called free indirect discourse, which is a bit of a mouthful, so I usually refer to this as filterless monologue. A perspective filter suggests a lens of perspective that makes the author as unobtrusive as possible. Interior Monologue and Point of View work closely together to create the personal voice/persona the writer wants to use in any given piece of work. To accomplish a filterless monologue, In the Sweet’n’Sour rewrite, I avoided phrases phrases like ‘as ever’ and ‘therefore’ and ‘Low thought’  or ‘he realized’, and adverbs that qualify  perspective such as ‘apparently’ or ‘seemingly’, because this tends to pull the reader away by reminding them that the character is actually doing some thinking. Instead, the character’s thoughts are directly communicated, so keeping the reader in close proximity to the action.

Clearly, interior monologue is invaluable in allowing the reader a hint of what characters are thinking, by allowing us to listen in to their thoughts, so extending the reader’s identity with them and breathing vitality into a portrayal. It can successfully be use to engineer one of the most widespread needs for exposition, too; that of introducing new facts or elements. Introducing information thought monologue in place of straightforward exposition is another aspect of showing rather than telling.  Without dropping the emotional content of the narrative, which is often what happens when exposition alone is used to explain story, the new detail is communicated directly between character and reader.  

Comments from you;
Please get back via the comment button with your thoughts on perspective; offer your own best loved fictional examples of different POVs, too, please.

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