Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Two Points on Point of View


Donn Taylor

            Much has been written on Point of View (POV) in fiction, but I would like to add two minor comments as codicils to what most writers already know.
            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.

Donn Taylor is the author of The Lazarus File, Deadly Additive, Rhapsody in Red, etc.

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  1. I agree, Donn - experimenting is definitely a worthy element to try in short stories. I suspect things will swing around again for omniscient and off-stage narration, as it is in European fiction currently.

  2. I'm not an expert on POV by any means. Thanks for the advise. I'll work on some short stories based on it.