Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On Writing: From a Certain Point of View

This is another in a series of short articles, written for students in my Writing Workshop, on various facets of craft. Eventually, I'll put them all together in an e-textbook. I'll certainly keep in mind any suggestions or ideas you might have as I revise.
In writing, there are five basic point of views to work with:

First person (I did so-and-so.)
—Second person (You did so-and-so)
—Third-person limited (He thought about fish as he did so-and-so for the gathered crowd.)
—Third-person panoramic (He did so-and-so for the gathered crowd, and the gathered crowd murmured)
—Third-person omniscient (He thought about fish as he did so and so for the gathered crowd. The gathered crowd murmured and assumed he was crazy)

First person is the second-most immediate. Between the reader and the story there is only the “I.” However, the writer can only show what the “I” sees, limiting his or her storytelling options. The first-person advantage is voice, which is why you should avoid it if your character isn't interesting enough to pull it off. First-person also allows the writer to work with an unreliable narrator: the “I” might have it wrong, or he might be lying. The first-person POV is not the voice of the author, unless the author is the protagonist. First-person makes it hard to show drama, like a supreme self-sacrifice, without having the character come off as a jerk.
Second person is the most immediate. There's no “I”; there's only you. You pick up the bat and club the baby seal to death, not I, or me, or him. This perspective is immediate and powerful, but can come off as accusatory. It's also limited to what “you” see and experience. It can come off as gimmicky.
Third-person limited allows the reader to see from just over the main character's shoulder. The reader can see into that character's head, but not into anyone else's. The reader can see things happen — the ninja creeping up behind the protagonist — but has to guess at the motivation, or discover it as the protagonist does. The third-person perspective can be shown from a knowable narrator: the author, or someone else relating the story. There’s a good amount of space between the reader and the story.
Third-person panoramic allows the reader to see everything that's happening, but not into the heads of the characters. This is probably most akin to screen writing; it all has to happen, physically, in front of the reader to count. The reader can see all but has to rely on subtext to see the characters' inner lives.
Third-person omniscient is rarely used these days, but it's all-powerful. It's the least intimate, the least immediate. The reader can see anything the writer wants; any character's thoughts are open. There are no shadows. This perspective works best with a knowable narrator: an old man looking back at his childhood, a ghost explaining his or her murder.
Picking a point of view: Many novice writers pick first person, because their characters are thinly veiled versions of the writers themselves. This is a bad idea on a lot of levels. It lends itself to a lot of navel-gazing monolog, especially if the story is at all autobiographical. Try third limited instead, which allows you to take the story out of your head and look at it more objectively. You may be able to see it for the bigger picture that it is.
Once you figure out who is telling the story, experiment with POV. Try different things to see what works. Consider Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the tales at a time when third-person omniscient was in vogue, but there’s little mystery in third-person omniscient; the reader can see everything. Putting the story in first-person Holmes’ perspective would have been irritating; the reader would have noticed every clue as Holmes did. Again, no mystery. Instead, Holmes told the story through Watson’s eyes (first person), the faithful follower who Holmes has to explain everything to.

POV modelers:
Peter S. Beagle (first person)
Elizabeth Bear (third person)
Suzanne Collins (first person)
Chris Bohjalian (first, second, third person)

POV practice: Based on a simple writing prompt (two people meet in a bookstore; one of them has a secret), the students took it in turn to write the intro to the scene in various points of view. Here is one set of results:
First-person: I paused before pushing the door open and stepping through. Would she even recognize me? I knew her face, knew she'd be wearing that cute bowler hat and a red scarf.
I hiked up my pants, settling them more comfortably under my gut. I'd gained a lot of weight since college, when the picture I used for my online profile was taken. Lost a lot of hair.
I sighed and walked toward the back of the store, toward the Crafts section and the love of my life.

Third-person limited: Bailey entered the store, hesitantly. Petunia had said she'd be here on time, most likely in the Crafts section at the back of the bookstore. She said she'd wear a bowler hat and a red scarf to make her easier to spot.
Bailey hitched up his jeans, settling them somewhere south of the wad of stomach he'd collected since college. He felt sweat beading on his forehead, and hoped she wouldn't be too disappointed that he no longer looked anything like his profile picture.

Third-person omniscient: Petunia waited in the Crafts section, pretending to browse a shelf filled with quilting books. She covered her nose and mouth with her hand and exhaled to check her breath. It was OK, she decided, but popped a breath mint anyway.
Bailey entered the store, hitching up his pants under a gut grown large since his college days. He shifted his weight as he studied the store directory, wondering if he should have used a more recent picture on his dating profile. He shook his head and trudged to the Crafts section, watery eyes searching for the bowler hat and scarf she'd promised to wear.
He saw her. “Petunia?”
She looked up, searching for the man she'd come to love over hours of online chatting. “Who the hell are you?”

Third-person panoramic: The woman in the bowler hat and red scarf lingered in the Crafts section at the far end of the bookstore, repeatedly scanning a shelf of quilting books. She picked a title, pulled it free from its fellows, and glanced at the back. She returned the book to the shelf and fumbled in her purse for a breath mint.
The door opened at the front of the store and a man shuffled in, wheezing slightly and adjusting a few locks of hair to cover his bald spot. He stopped in front of the store directory and used his finger to trace a path from the “You are Here” marker to the Crafts section.
The man grunted as he hitched up his pants, trying to rein in a wad of gut. He squared his shoulders and marched toward the back of the store.

Second-person: The door seems to weigh a thousand pounds as you grasp it by its faux brass handle and pull it open. You take a deep breath, one of many since you left the car, and step through.
Your eyes take a moment to adjust to the light inside, warm fluorescents illuminating row after row of bookshelves. You smell coffee.
The store directory is convenient and you use your finger to trace the path between the “You are Here” marker and the Crafts section where she said she'd be waiting in a bowler hat and red scarf.
Petunia. You'd thought you were ready to meet her face-to-face, but now you are not so sure. What if she doesn't recognize you? Worse, what if she reacts badly to the fact that you used a picture from college – years thinner and years less bald – as your profile picture.
You shake your head, suddenly weary, and take your first dragging step toward the future. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. An excellent example of 2nd person is "A Prayer for the Dying" by Stewart O'Nan.

  3. There's also Halting State by Charles Stross for second person and of course all those choose-your-own-adventure stories.

  4. I used to love those choose-your-own adventure books. I forgot about the Stross book. He did second-person so well that I didn't even notice it was in that perspective until someone mentioned it to me.

  5. Rob, love the new blog design. And thanks for the refresher course and great examples of the myriad POVs.

  6. I prefer to read and write in the first. Out of all your examples it's the one that drew me in the most. Don't think it's novice...more personal preference and it's more intimate and personal. I don't think I've ever read anything written fully in second...I'm not sure I could handle it.

    I love this post though. :-)

  7. Krystal, I'd agree that there is a point where it becomes a preference, or at least a well-polished skill.

    However, as a teacher of high-school creative writing, I see the majority of those penmen (true novices) using 1stP because they can't get out of their own heads (as is a common issue for adolescents).

  8. Suz, thanks for noticing the design change. Sometimes you just have to get off the couch and move the furniture around. I'm sure most of y'all don't need a POV lesson, but the youths do. Plus, anytime I'm talking about POV, reading about POV, or writing about POV, I'm thinking about POV, which is never a bad thing.

  9. Nice new digs, Atticus ...:)

  10. Thanks, Charlie. Never hurts to pretty things up a little.