Your point of view is one of the first and most important choices you'll make in any story. Done well, your story's point of view can draw your readers in to experience your story alongside your characters, and even make them forget they're reading fiction.
I don’t know whether you’re old enough to remember the old AT&T commercials from the 80s, “Reach out and touch someone.” As I pondered my topic for this article, that old phrase came to mind and I ended up Googling it. What I came up with was a five-minute video clip from ad man Chuck Blore describing how the campaign was born, and there was something about it that I found instructive.
Blore explained how the phone company wanted to create a commercial emphasizing the emotional connection that can happen over a long distance phone call. They’d even purchased the rights to the song, “Feelings.” Blore told them that would be a saccharine few minutes, but they trusted him to come up with something real.
A star is born
Blore’s partner had a girlfriend, and he said to her, “If you could call anybody, who would it be? Abe Lincoln?”
She said, “No, my father.”
“Why don’t you call him?”
“I can’t. He’s dead.”
A moment of silence passed, then he said, “Call him anyway.”
He handed her the phone and after some hesitation and a few false starts, she spoke to her dead father, telling him how much she loved him and thanking him for everything he’d taught her. She was in tears by the end of that “call,” and this became the basis for the “Reach out and touch someone” campaign that changed the face of advertising with something real.
The power to connect
I thought of this in relation to point of view because when we write, we have the power to reach out and touch someone, to create a real connection with another person.
And that communication can extend beyond the grave. When we pass on, our words remain, living on in the pages of our books and stories. Shakespeare, Twain, Dickens, Michener, Crichton, Salinger. An endless list of people who reached out through their writing and with whom we can still connect.
As writers, it’s important to remember that there are readers on the other side of our words. And POV is a powerful tool for establishing a connection with those readers.
What is Point of View?
POV, Point of View, is our delivery system. It’s the way we get into our readers' heads — making that connection — to deliver the information, opinions, emotions, memories, and sensory input of our characters. It is our interface, the door through which our characters transfer their experiences to the reader and, if done right, that shared experience turns into something real, if only for a moment.
Stephen King talks about this in his memoir, On Writing. He says:
“All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing is the purest distillation. An important element of writing is transference. Your job isn't to write words on the page, but rather to transfer the ideas inside your head into the heads of your readers.”
Point of view is a superlative instrument for making that happen.
Part One: The Nuts and Bolts
I’ve written this article in two parts, to share some of what I’ve learned about point of view. This week, I’ll talk about the different types of POV, with their advantages and limitations. Part Two will be about the magic.
Here’s my disclaimer: some of what I say here will fly in the face of everything you’ve been taught. You have to weigh the value of it for yourself. This is my experience, and my opinion.
That said, my writing mentors, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, are two of the most prolific and successful writers on the planet, with decades of intense writing experience behind them, and they have generously imparted a lot of their wisdom to me, and have given me their blessing in passing it on to you, in my own way. Especially when I get to the magic part, it will come largely from what they have taught me.
Presentation vs. Representation
My husband works for the US Army, helping families with special needs. Last week he attended a suicide prevention seminar for which Tom Farley, brother of comedian Chris Farley, was a keynote speaker. Farley told how he met people like Adam Sandler and David Spade and was surprised to see how different they were from their on-screen personas. Because Chris was always Chris.
They’d go to a family reunion where Chris would take off his shirt and beat it on the floor while swaying his hips or grin and put a coy little finger to his chin and get all kinds of laughs from the fam. The next thing Tom knew, he was watching his brother do the same thing on Saturday Night Live and getting paid big bucks for it.
I tell you this for two reasons. First, because as fiction writers, we use our own experiences to inform our work, like Chris did, and we can share our experiences in a variety of ways through our characters. And second, because it makes a point about presentational art. A presentational writing style tears down the fourth wall, making direct contact with the audience, like a stand-up comedian.
Breaking down the fourth wall
“Comedians are actors playing a role,” writes Orson Scott Card. “You don’t think Johnny Carson or Rodney Dangerfield or Howie Mandel or Elayne Boosler are really like their comedic personas, do you?” Comedians like Chris Farley are rare. Most place their characters as a buffer between themselves and their audience.
In presentational fiction writing, the character speaks directly to the reader, like this:
“Listen tight, boys and girls, this is what you stayed up so late to read. Your mommy and daddy have gone to bed, you’ve got the flashlight on under the covers, and now I’m going to tell you the story of …” (from Card’s Characters & Viewpoint)
You may think this creates a closer connection with the reader, but it’s actually a distancing tool. Here, reader and writer are two separate entities, interacting, one head to another, and the reader never forgets he is reading fiction. It’s a deliberate presentation.
Reaching for something real
A representational writer, on the other hand, never addresses her audience or expresses a personal opinion. Everything is filtered through a character’s point of view.
In this way, the writer opens the head of the character and invites the reader inside so that it is possible for the reader to virtually become the character, experiencing the story from that character’s point of view, without barrier. Ideally, the reader is so absorbed that she never remembers she is reading fiction.
So you have to decide which style best fits your story and your own writing abilities. Here’s some wisdom on that from Orson Scott Card:
“In a good representational story, the audience will forgive a certain clumsiness of writing because they care so much about the characters and events. In a good presentational story, the audience will forgive a certain shallowness of story because they so enjoy the writer’s style and attitude. So you not only have to know what’s good for your story, you also have to know what type of story your particular talents are suited for.”
Decide which style you’ll use, make it clear to your reader right up front, and be consistent. There’s nothing more irritating to a reader than being jerked around by a writer who can’t make up his mind.
First person: I go/we go
Second person: you go/you go (or y’all go, if your character’s a Southerner)
Third person: he goes/she goes/they go
For the purposes of this article, toss out second person and choose between first and third. Each has its strengths and drawbacks.
Distance versus intimacy
You may be inclined to think that first person is more intimate. But first person point of view, like presentational style, is a distancing tool, holding your reader at arm’s length.
When my mentor first told me this, I was stunned. Until that moment, I’d believed first person was the best way to draw a reader up close and personal, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized my mentor was right.
When your character says “I,” remember that your reader is also an “I.” You’re asking your reader to put aside his own “I,” and take on your character’s “I,” creating a subconscious psychological conflict.
To draw your reader in close, choose third person and take the reader along with your character, rather than going head to head. When you want the reader to step into your character and experience the story as if it were happening to her, this is the way to go.
Delivering information to the reader
Also, first person limits information flow. Your reader can only know what your character knows. Third person, multiple viewpoint, gives you more freedom with information flow, and allows for dramatic irony — when your reader knows more than your character. That can be a great deal of fun, and an effective storytelling tool.
If you have a lot of characters, with a lot going on in the story, you could take a page from James Patterson’s Alex Cross novels and use a hybrid approach, with third person multiple viewpoint combined with a first person main character viewpoint. This makes it clear to the reader whose story it is, and at the end of the day, every story is about ONE person.
So-called omniscient POV allows the storyteller to hover, moving around between characters. The strength of this is that you can cover great stretches of distance or time more effectively than other viewpoints. However, this point of view holds the reader at a shallow level and is rarely a good choice for most stories.
Need help deciding?
Card’s advice for making up your mind:
First-person and omniscient are distancing tools. If your goal is to get readers emotionally involved with your main characters, with minimal distraction from their belief in the story, then limited third-person is your best choice.
If you’re writing humor, first-person and omniscient help create comic distance, allowing an intrusive narrator to employ the kind of wit that calls attention to itself without jarring a reader who is deeply involved with the characters.
If you want brevity, covering great spans of time and space or many characters, the omniscient narrator may be your best choice.
If you want an eye-witness account, first person usually feels more factual.
Third-person limited is more forgiving of style deficiencies, so if your strength is in story over style, go with that. However, if you have a strong writer’s voice and an engaging style, while your story may be weak, consider omniscient or first-person.
Best fall-back positions
Most readers read for the sake of the story, and that’s why most stories are written in third-person limited. It’s also easier for beginning writers because it doesn’t require the same level of mastery as other viewpoints and it feels more natural.
As for tense, Card says this:
“The present tense feels surprising, distracting, and ‘unnatural,’ while the more common past tense feels natural and invisible. Ironically, this makes past tense feel more immediate while present tense feels more distant.”
And present tense creates point of view problems. When in doubt, go with past tense.
Regardless, let the story dictate the terms of its telling — it will let you know which POV, and which tense, is right for the story. You may have a hard time deciding. Just choose one and get started, and if it’s not the right one, your story should let you know before you get very far into it.
The unreliable narrator
A quick word about the unreliable narrator, which is what you have when the character telling the story can’t be relied upon to tell the truth. You must find a way to let the reader know that his account is not to be trusted.
Sometimes, it’s best to do this from the get-go. Other times, it works better to reveal it gradually as the story unfolds. And yet other times, it can be a surprising revelation that brings a plot twist near the end of the story. Done well, this can be a highly effective technique.
But there are caveats. Card writes:
“The use of an unreliable narrator can add a delicious element of uncertainty to a story, with occasional revisions of the readers’ understanding of all that went before. But used badly, or to excess, the unreliable narrator leaves the reader wondering why he’s bothering to read the story, or furious that the author never let him know what ‘really happened.' It’s a dangerous thing to attempt, and only occasionally worth doing.”
Nuts and bolts today. Next time — magic!
This was a quick rundown on some of the types of POV and styles available to you. For more information, read the Orson Scott Card book Characters & Viewpoint. It’s full of excellent material and this article barely skimmed a little at the back of the book.
My purpose with this article was to lay the foundation so that next time I can come back and show you where the real power of point of view comes into play. So hold tight, play around with POV, and keep an eye out for Part Two, coming soon!
How about you? Do you have a favorite viewpoint you like to use? Have you explored other POV’s? Tell us about it in the comments section.
Take a look at a story idea that’s been kicking around in your head. Whether or not you’re ready to write the story, consider the different POV’s you might use.
Choose a point of view and write the opening paragraphs of the story. Does it feel right? Might there be a better POV choice? Try it another way. Stories have a way of letting us know when we’ve found the right viewpoint.
If you don’t have a story idea handy, use this prompt: A girl gets locked in a department store after hours.
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.