Monday, January 14, 2013

Two Points on Point of View


Much has been written on Point of View (POV), but I would like to add two minor comments as codicils.

First, I recommend consideration of first-person POV, minor character, despite the fact that Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald (in STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL) recommend against it. For a novel, they're probably right. But for short stories, that POV makes several interesting effects possible. The very limitations of the minor character can become a strength for the story. In Ring Lardner's classic story "Haircut," for example, the barber who narrates the story is almost totally a spectator. He provides the reader with enough information to conclude that a murder has been committed, yet the unthinking barber never questions the official verdict of accidental death. This gratifies the reader with knowing more than the narrator does. Since the unperceptive barber typifies the attitudes of the town he lives in, I suppose one might argue that he's a major character. In any event, Lardner's use of POV adds an interesting complexity to the story.

Second, I'd like to recommend the objective POV for satirical short stories. This goes directly contrary to what is often said of fiction--that one should create interest by portraying intense emotion. In satire, part of the fun can be the absence of appropriate emotion in outrageous circumstances. The interesting complexity here is that the reader's normal response to outrageous events contrasts with the characters' apparent acceptance of those as part of the everyday world.

In the commercial novel, objective POV can be used effectively for short scenes which present important narrative information but which (for the sake of the overall plot) must remain short. For example, the reader may need to know that two villains have made a decision that will endanger the hero or heroine. The quickest way to provide that information is to show the two villains in conversation—without the complication of showing what either is thinking. Space permitting, of course, one could write such a scene from the POV of one villain, showing the contrast between what he says and what he thinks. My point is that the objective POV may be the most efficient technique simply because it is lean and spare.

One word of warning, though: objective viewpoint is extremely hard to maintain. For an example, try Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." The POV is almost totally objective, but near the end of the story the author (whether intentionally or otherwise) allows the male character to perceive that everyone in the station except the woman is acting reasonably. Is this an artistic lapse? I don't know. I do know that Hemingway got by with it, while we lesser lights could not.

In most cases we should follow the conventional wisdom in choosing POV. But the skilled writer will consider these variations to add spice to his writing.


Posted by Donn Taylor (www.donntaylor.com)

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13 comments:

  1. I prefer first person sometimes, as it gives a feeling of intimacy, like the character is talking to the reader. It can help the reader to get into the protagonist's head. It limits the tome, as the omniscience goes out the window. And of course, writing being subjective, who's to say absolutely that something shouldn't be done? Stephen King and Dick Francis have had much (MUCH) success with writing in the first person, so why not us? Well, maybe because we're not them!
    KP

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  2. Thanks for the fresh perspective, Donn. I think you said in a similar way, is what Terry Burns has always told us as clients. A good story trumps everything else. If you are able to pull of objective and it's done so brilliantly that the reader can't put it down, then it works. Good writing trumps all else. Thanks for this fresh thought.

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  3. I love the idea of a minor character POV, someone who is objective and has nothing at stake. It would be particularly fun when the minor character has a different interpretation of the action than the other characters do. Who to believe could be part of the tension and conflict.

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  4. Thank, Linda and Linda. You're singing my song. I like stories in which the narrator is dead wrong, and the more he argues his case, the more he proves he's wrong. That let's the reader's perception get involved in completing the story.

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  5. Donn, thanks for the interesting take on POV. I may have to create a short story to try this. A minor character's POV perhaps to "muddy" the waters!

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  6. Very perceptive, Donn. But then I would expect no less from you. Great examples. We need to explore all possibilities to come up with what works best in our story. By the way, I used you and Deadly Additive as an example in a workshop I recently gave. So, I guess I should say, Thanks for the help in my workshop.

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  7. I read a short story by J. D. Salinger in which the main character was never named nor described. It took place in a hotel room in Palm Beach, I believe. It was very powerful and memorable (except for the title). Then again, he was J. D. Salinger.

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  8. As always, a wonderful and thoughtful post, Donn.

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  9. Thank you Marian, Jim, Moonine, and Normandie. And Jim, I hope my "Deadly Additive" was not too deadly an additive to your workshop.

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  10. Great post, Donn. As the rules are made, they can also occasionally be undone—and quite well at that. What's important is clarity and understanding for the reader who is longing for that all important "good story." Thanks for your insights.

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  11. Thank you, Donn! Helpful to me as I am juggling two WIPs right now.

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  12. Thank you Elaine and Latayne. And, Latayne, good luck...uh...Providence with your two WIPs.

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  13. Great insights, Donn. I love objective POV but have found it time-consuming and not commercially popular. Your suggested use intrigues me.

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