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Good Writing Is ...#8 Point of view -- the five big questions writers need to answer

Updated on December 2, 2011

Before we get started

Welcome to the eighth hub in our series on writing techniques.

Thank you for your support and encouragement

First I’d like to thank everyone for the tremendous support and interest you’ve shown in these articles, (far more than I’d imagined possible in the beginning) and to say how much your encouraging comments are appreciated. I find it satisfying to know my efforts have been of help to some of you and I will endeavor to continue doing the research and homework required to ensure I’m giving you the best information I can put together. After all, if we’re here on hubpages it’s because we are all writers and hoping to further evolve in our skills. By sharing our knowledge, we all benefit. Thank you, one and all.

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What do we mean when we use the term point of view?

The first thing to do is set aside the common use of the phrase as synonymous with opinion. It is certain that your personal point of view on life will leach into your writing, but that is not the definition we’re after here.

When we use this term relative to writing, we are speaking of the most complex element of fiction. In basic form, we refer to the relationship among writer, characters and reader. What is the vantage point given to the reader to “see” what is happening? Who is standing where to watch the scene?

The chart below shows us the five major questions that must be answered to determine the point of view of our story. Each of these issues are carefully answered by the author (sometimes unconsciously) to convince us to share the same perspective. We’re going to look at them one at a time.

(This is likely to be a longer than normal hub. Go get yourself a beverage and make yourself comfortable.)

The five big questions that make up point of view

Question One -- Who speaks?

The first question that must be decided before a single word hits paper or screen is person. You have three choices, and each has advantages and disadvantages.

First person narrative (I, me, us)

My turn to speak – my knees turned to water; my hands became sloppy, slick, clumsy appendages and my heart rattled a beat more appropriate to a squirrel. Somehow, I found my way to the podium, sorted my papers, and cleared my throat.

The ‘I, me, mine, us’ narrator speaks from first-hand knowledge and direct description of the events and usually takes the voice of the hero or the companion of the hero (such as Dr. Watson of the Sherlock Holmes stories who narrates Mr. Holmes adventures.) This is the central narrator. Conversely, the first person narrator may be only a simple observer, a minor character or even someone who plays no active role in the events. A good example of this is found in the major plot of Fried Green Tomatoes, where it is a character from the minor plot – an old woman in a nursing home, who played no part in the events but narrates the tale. This is the peripheral narrator.

Advantages of this point of view

  • It is a natural voice to most storytellers, as we live “I, me” lives. This is how we instinctively tell our tales in speech.
  • It creates a sense of intimacy with the narrator, as we share the described life experiences.
  • It develops an easier sense of reliability allowing the reader to suspend reality and accept the first hand testimony of someone who was there, who saw, and who experienced.
  • The writer only has to deal with one mind – the narrator’s. (Forgetting this is a common fault in new writers – one never knows what is in another’s mind, we can only guess and usually guess wrong.)
  • The writer can create a unique, distinctive internal voice, where we view the world and the people in it from one particular person’s perceptions and thoughts.
  • The first person narrator may be turn out to be unreliable (a liar,) or biased, or mentally unbalanced – adding a twist of craft to the writing. (However, if the narrator is any of these things, the reader must be “in” on the secret. It is cheating to tell a story and only at the end admit it was all a lie and as trite and unsatisfying as the “I woke up and it had all been a dream” ending.)

Disadvantages of this point of view

  • You can only write what the narrator can see, hear, smell, feel, taste or think.
  • The narrator must be constantly on stage or observing the stage.
  • You can’t go into the minds of other characters.

Second person narrative -- (you – the reader as a character)

Your turn to speak – your knees turn to water; your hands become sloppy, slick, clumsy appendages and your heart rattles a beat more appropriate to a squirrel. Somehow, you find your way to the podium, sort your papers, and clear your throat.

-- Rarely successful, and then only in shorter works. Considered idiosyncratic and experimental, most publishing people advise against using this point of view. There have been exceptions – for example, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.

You’ll note that even in this short example, the tense changed from past to present. Somehow, and for some reason (which I can’t explain) the second person narrative doesn’t work well in the past tense. How do you tell a reader, using the reader as the protagonist what he is doing and put it in the past. If it was in the past, the reader would already know it. (???) Meta-physics are not my forte.

Some writers have used second person narrative for portions of a story. This method is used successfully when an omniscient third person narrator directly addresses a character. And a good example of this use can be found in Tom Robbin’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues:

You hitchhike. Timidly at first, barely flashing your fist, leaning almost imperceptibly in the direction of your imaginary destination. A squirrel runs along a tree limb. You hitchhiked the squirrel. A blue jay flies by. You flag it down.

Here we find an affectionate, accepting relationship between the third person narrator and the main character, Sissy Hankshaw. This use is artful, original and damn difficult to pull off. Be wary.

Advantages of this point of view

  • You could be different, even eccentric in this informal manner of speaking to the reader.

Disadvantages of this point of view

  • It feels weird, presumptuous and quirky, whether reading or writing it.

Third person point of view (he, she, they)

His turn to speak – his knees turned to water; his hands became sloppy, slick, clumsy appendages and his heart rattled a beat more appropriate to a squirrel. Somehow, he found his way to the podium, sorted his papers, and cleared his throat.

The third person narrative appears more often than any other, and offers a variety of possibilities for limiting omniscience, or increasing it, more avenues of providing information both narrator and reader are privy to in the telling of the story. The third person narrator is subdivided into two general categories:

Unlimited omniscience

The author enters the mind of any character. He transports readers to any setting or action he likes. He is God-like in knowledge, seeing into every character’s soul and eventual fate. You may remember Dick and Jane from our discussions in plotting.

Dick stood stiffly at the door, unsure of how to proceed. Would Jane forgive him? Was it possible to put the past year behind him? What is she doing, he wondered as she moved slowly toward him.

She was going to kiss him. She would start things off. She would give him a kiss to knock his socks off. He’d soon forget and regret all he’d done. Let him see what he’d missed. Yes, she decided, she’d teach him a lesson.

He gasped for air as her mouth left his, and only just stopped himself from falling. Jeeze, where did she learn to do that?

She triumphed in her success.

Here we see into the minds of both characters.

Advantages of the unlimited omniscient point of view

  • Using all points of view allows more chances to enrich your writing with contrasting characters allowing the reader to identify with each in turn.
  • The horizons of your story widen, as you move from separated and diverse characters and events, changing viewpoint characters.

Disadvantage of the unlimited omniscient point of view

  • Both author and reader can be confused unless every voice and point of view is distinctive and unique.
  • The flow of action, the impact and power, the reader’s ability to relate may be diffused by switching to too many points of view. When we read the above example, the last two paragraphs are jarring, as we abruptly switch from one to another. (By the way, a common error I see in new writers, is forgetting that every change in POV requires a new paragraph.)
  • It becomes too easy to drift into narrating as the author (the author’s voice has no place in his work – remember?) instead of letting the characters do the job. (Remember, the all knowing third party omniscient author/narrator is considered very passé, and unpopular.)

Limited omniscience

The author enters the mind of a limited number of characters and views the action from a limited viewpoint. Here’s our example written from the limited viewpoint of the character, Dick.

What now? He stood stiffly in the doorway, unsure and nervous. Would she forgive him, and put the past year behind her? What was she doing? Then, he saw the determination and something else, something mischievous in her face. He watched her mouth curl into a circle. She was going to kiss him.

She did, and left him gasping for air and reeling on his feet. Jeeze, where did she learn to do that?

Advantages of limited omniscient point of view

  • All the advantage of the unlimited (save for the sweeping scope) and …
  • The writer can concentrate and tighten the narrative by keeping to major characters thoughts.

Disadvantages of the limited omniscient point of view

  • Can’t think of any. By imposing a certain amount of discipline on your points of view, you evade the disadvantages listed above in the unlimited viewpoint.

You, the writer, are free to decide how much you know, or want to present. You may know every universal and eternal truth (right!), or only what is in the mind of one character, or only what can be externally observed leaving internal thoughts to be expressed as dialogue. Whatever your choices, you must be consistent and signal very early on to your reader which point of view you’ve chosen.

Once you’ve established your point of view, consider this signaling a ‘contract’ with the reader, one that cannot be broken – at least not gracefully.

Whoever our narrator – we still have another two choices:

The neutral narrator

Is your narrator above opinions? Balanced? Not using editorially charged words? This kind of narrator has no vested interest in any one character, does not gush over the good guys or condemn the villain. The neutral narrator does not sneak the author’s opinions into the point of view, but just moves the reader along, transporting from one scene to the next – where the characters do the work.

The neutral narrator is only a reporter.

The judgmental narrator

The judgmental narrator opens up the flood gates for endless possibilities for telling a story artfully, just by the choice of words. A good example of this form is Jane Austen, who acerbically poked fun at the foibles of her neighbors and times. Often the opinionated narrator uses the first person point of view of one of her characters and develops an air of personal intimacy.

One of the great tools of this approach is once the reader is aware of the tone of the narrator, he understands the voice is not entirely reliable and becomes free to share, identify or disagree.

Again, once this choice is made, it must be consistent. Switching from the gossipy, opinionated, judgmental voice to that of the neutral omniscient mid-stream won’t work.The reader no longer has the confidence in the narrator to accept the all-knowing, entirely truthful voice.

Question Two -- To Whom?

When we establish our point of view, the author implies an identity not only for the narrator but for the audience as well.

The Reader

Most fiction is addressed to the reader – literary convention. When we first crack the covers of a new book, it is with the tacit understanding that we, too, have a role to play in the tale. When we open David Copperfield and read that most wonderful opening line: I am born, (so simple, so succinct it is brilliant) we don’t demand, “Why are you telling me this?” We know. We are the recipient of the tale.

But from the writer’s perspective, is “the reader” a universal audience or a specific one? Do we work on the assumption that anyone can be brought around to identify with our story, to share the author’s understanding? If we are penning for Harlequin romance, we have a pretty sound idea of who our audience is, and they have been well trained to expect certain formulaic elements of the story. (Indeed, if one finishes or not, one knows the end.) If we write what we hope is literature, then we expect our audience to be literate (which leaves out half the world) and use the appropriate tone.

No matter what we write, and from which point of view, the most common assumption is the reader is desirous of being persuaded into sharing our tale, and the telling of the story is its own justification.

Sometimes, the author may assign certain traits to the reader, a common practice in 19th century writing with direct addresses: ‘You, gentle reader’ or the flattering ‘To a mind such as yours, this may seem …’

Thankfully, we’ve relegated such artifices to the study of times past and these appeals are not normally found in modern writing.

In usual practice, the narrator addresses the reader, and the reader accepts the role of audience.

Another Character

We may choose to tell the story to another character (example: The Man Who Would be King in which the surviving friend of the adventure tells the story to Rudyard Kipling.)

In the epistolary novel, the narrative consists entirely of correspondence written by one character to another. That character may be an intimate, or a stranger, or an authority (newspaper,) a deceased person, or God. A good example is The Color Purple by Alice Walker, in which we read appeals from a girl to God.

In the monologue treatment, the entire work consists of a communication from one character to an unknown other. I’ve just finished reading Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, which is a novel length letter of complaint to the airlines in which the author tells much of his life story.

In these cases, the reader becomes an eavesdropper. The reader is no longer an ‘active’ participant in the speaker/listener contract.

The Self

An effective method of addressing the self is the diary or journal setting up an atmosphere of great intimacy as the writings are clearly not intended for public view, and the reader is let in on the confidential secret.

An excellent example of this form is The Diary of a Madman by Nikolai Gogol. In my novel This Bird Flew Away, I fluctuate between first person narrative, and the use of a girl’s journal to tell the story.

The possibilities are endless, bounded only by the writer’s imagination – providing the point of view and voice are consistent. One may use direct exchange to the reader and address to another character and addresses to the self all in the same work so long as the voice, the character and point of view remain steady and the forms of address do not contradict.

Question Three -- In what form?

The form of the story can be specified as part of the total point of view, as the relationship we want to build between the teller of a tale and the receiver often implies automatically which will serve best. We choose from the general narrated story, interior monologue, reportage, confessional, oratory, journal or diary, a series of written communications or a stream of consciousness.

Form is important to the point of view because it directly affects the level of self-consciousness of the teller, and therefore the degree of honesty we can expect. The written word requires more forethought and planning than the spoken word and less spontaneity, so it is safe to assume that a letter to father written by our heroine is unlikely to be as truthful and open as the spoken communication with her friends. Conversely, an entry in a diary, secretive and private in nature is likely to prove a more reliable voice than dialogue with another character.

This understanding affects the acceptance by the reader. Often, through combination of forms – a dialogue saying one thing, contradicted by internal thoughts saying another, we develop complexities that will alter the total point of view.

And most of the time, we don’t do these things through planning or conscious thought. They grow as we write, listening to the voices in our minds. Did I think of these things while switching from my heroine, Bria’s first person narration of events, to a stream of consciousness at a climactic moment, to the written words of her journal? No. I acted on instinct, on what seemed right. It wasn’t until after all was written that I realized the tools I had used.

I suppose what I am trying to say, is don’t analyze to death in your writing. Write, as seems to fit, but during the editing, rewriting process bring your awareness of these tools to the forefront. They may help you understand why a passage doesn’t feel right, doesn’t work, or why something unintended comes off as brilliant.

Question Four – At what distance?

Authorial distance (in some textbooks the subject is called psychic distance) refers to the degree in which readers feel intimacy and identification with our characters, or detached from them. Several elements already discussed in these articles impact the reader’s feelings and alienate his acceptance, such as use of passive language; offering trite, unnatural spoken dialogue (very important) or no interior thought;, shallow depictions or two dimensional characterization – well, actually everything we’ve covered so far.

Unless the reader can suspend reality and enter the realm of the story, he will remain so distant he may well decide he doesn’t care, and lay the story aside.

We are not discussing that kind of distance, which is simply a nice way of saying failure.

Spatial and temporal distance

Our tale may require distance in time and space – or both. When we use the classic opening of “Long ago and far away,” we transport the reader by our tone which we know means the events we are about to relate took place in the past, and far from our sense of reality. Whatever is to come will end; we know this because it already has. We are distanced from the story by its very beginning.

As always, the use of an example will explain far more than any long winded explanation. I am borrowing this example from Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway.

That spring, when I had a great deal of potential and no money at all, I took a job as a janitor. That was when I was still very young and spent money very freely, and when, almost every night, I drifted off to sleep lulled by sweet anticipation of that time when my potential would suddenly be realized and there would be capsule biographies of my life on the dust jackets of many books. – James Alan McPherson, ‘Gold Coast’

The author looks back through the distance of time and adopts a mocking tone towards his younger self, and now from the present of maturity, invites the reader to do the same. We know he no longer indulges in such fantasies and for the duration of the story, neither do we. His distancing technique stance sets a point of view, and we join him, so our distance is not just time but attitude.

Intangible distance

The use of attitude can be a strong distancing tool. For example, when we say, “There was a severe outbreak of diphtheria in the coastal town,” we are detached from the tragedy. This straightforward reporter style of writing does that – the facts, just the facts ma’am. But if we were to write, “He tilted her head to the light, pried open her mouth and found, as he expected, the grayish membrane from the roof of her mouth, traveling toward her nose.” Now we are not detached. We are not distant from the diphtheria outbreak.

Another method to attempt to reduce distance is the use of the present tense. The effort is to give the past the immediacy of the present, and may effectively do so, but is often abused. The present tense is difficult to maintain in the long haul, and a common mistake I find in new writers is “tense travelling,” often in the same sentence. If using the present tense, once established, it must be maintained, and this is where newbies fall short.

Again, an example:

Dick got home about five o’clock in the morning and fixed himself a peanut butter sandwich. He eats it over the sink, washing it down with half a carton of chocolate milk. He left the carton on the counter and stumbles up to bed.

How many changes in tense do you count? I count five, two in the last sentence.

Lately, present tense novels have become increasingly popular. Jodi Picoult’s latest, House Rules, is written in the present tense, but even for an author of sixteen previous novels, it is apparent in several instance she “tense wobbles.” Audrey Nifennegger wrote The Time Traveler’s Wife in the present tense, but considering the subject matter it is perhaps just as well, or the work would have been totally unintelligible.

Still, despite this sudden trend to the present tense, be aware it is a difficult trick to do so correctly. Also, I don’t know about the rest of the reading world, but I find it obtrusive for some reason. How can thirty years of story all be in the present? But I digress. This is not about my perceptions, but about the fact tense mixing is one of the biggest problems I find in inexperienced writers attempting to use the technique. When it is successful, yes – it does bring about that “in the moment” feel.

The writer must decide what distance he chooses to adopt from the reader, but make it a deliberate choice, not one of accident. Again, once those decisions are made, be consistent.

Question Five – With what limitations?

Most of the time, when we read a story we trust the narrator. We share, at least for the length of time it takes to read the work, the attitude and beliefs of the narrators who present the characters.

But sometimes, it is possible, even planned and expected you will mistrust the narrator. When we ask, "Who speaks?",and the answer is a child, an animal, a schizophrenic, an alien alone on planet Earth, or a jealous husband, an immoral swindler – the implications are the narrator speaks with limitations we don’t necessarily share.

To the extent such limitations are known, she or he is an unreliable narrator, and the author without using direct words must let the reader know certain elements of the story – the point of view – is not to be entirely trusted.

In my novel, This Bird Flew Away, the opening scene is narrated by a nine-year-old girl, and while she is an honest, open and candid child, her take on the world is limited by her experience, lack of intellectual maturity and education. It is understood the reader will consider these limitations and the speaker – a child – and see beyond her youthful view of life.

In other words, her story is not to be trusted as being complete.

Again, I’ll borrow from Writing Fiction and use an example I enjoy.

I have always, always, tried to do right and help people. It a part of my community duty and my duty to God. But I can tell you right now, you don’t never get no thanks for it! …

Use to be a big ole fat sloppy woman live cross the street went to my church. She had a different man in her house wither every month! Now, I’m doin my duty and she got mad! I told her somebody had to be the pillar of the community and if it had to be me, so be it! She said I was the pill of the community and a lotta other things, but I told the minister that too and pretty soon she was movin away.

Good! I like a clean community! – J. California Cooper, ‘The Watcher’

We distrust every judgment the woman spouts, (don’t like her much either) but we are also aware of the author using a carefully chosen tone to expose her – and the author we do trust. This passage is riddled with ironies, but because the narrator is unaware of them, they turn on herself. We get a clear picture of the narrator, her use of Biblical language while we suspect even the minister dislikes her, the overuse of the exclamation point drives home her overbearing intensity and self-righteousness. We suspect we’d possibly like the big ole sloppy woman from across the street and hold no doubts as to why she moved away.

This unreliable narrator is no accident, but a carefully chosen and well crafted decision.

In closing

Well, we’re approaching four thousand words here. I did warn you this would be a longer than average hub, but to do justice to the subject matter economy of words is unimportant. There are so many elements to point of view that are overlooked, as most discussion zero in on the question of person and tense – certainly important, but not the entire picture.

I hope this article is of help to those of you struggling to find that authenticity of voice and approach in your writing. Yes, there is much to keep in mind.

The amazing thing is this complex subject – point of view – doesn’t confuse us at all. It is something we sense, we feel as we work through our words. We do and approach these factors without thinking about it, much the same way we balance ourselves precariously on a bicycle without understanding how.

But when we are striving for a certain effect, or when we sense something isn’t working, doesn’t feel right in our writing, then is when we need to understand all these elements.

To all of you, I wish you good writing and a positive point of view.



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