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Point Of View And Other Devices

One of the most important decisions you will make in writing your story is choosing which point of view to use. The point of view is the "head" or "camera angle" from which the action will be filtered. Depending on which source you study, there are a variable number of points of view to choose from. However, I have selected the five I think are most often used.

First Person Point of View - The narrator is "I" or "we." Only things that are heard, seen, thought or known by the narrator can be revealed: I knew I shouldn't have let Grandma go down there. She isn't too steady on her feet to start with, and then she gets those dizzy spells. But she insisted, and the next thing I know, she's tumbling down those stairs like a gymnast . . .

Second Person Point of View - The narrator addresses the reader or some other assumed "you": You know how it is. You think you shouldn't intervene, you think she'll get mad at you if you don't let her do what she's always done . . .

Third Person Point of View, Panoramic - The narrator sees all the action, but doesn't read minds. This can best be understood as being like a movie camera--anything that can be seen or heard can be described, but we are not privileged to see into any character's thoughts. Mrs. Smith stood at the top of the stairs, her son John next to her. Clinging to the handrail, she planted her trembling foot on the first step. But the other foot caught on the carpet and . . .

Third Person Point of View, Controlled Consciousness - This is probably the easiest point of view for a beginning writer to use. Like first person, we see all the action through the eyes of a single character, and we can only see what that character sees. The difference is we use "he" or "she" instead or "I" or "we": John knew he shouldn't have allowed his grandmother to go down the stairs alone. She wasn't steady on her feet and sometimes she grabbed onto the nearest object when dizziness overwhelmed her. When using a controlled consciousness point of view, we choose one character to experience our story through. This character is called our viewpoint character. However, we can have more than one viewpoint character in a novel. Preferably, the viewpoint character should change only at chapter or scene breaks and should never change without good reason. More discussion on how to do this follows the detailed examples.

Third Person Omniscient - God-like; the narrator knows and sees everything, and can move from one mind to another. John stood next to his grandmother. He wanted to help her down the stairs. Mrs. Smith looked at her grandson, her blue eyes sharp, and moved a strand of hair from her face. She was determined to do this on her own, to prove she wasn't an helpless old lady . . . One word of caution: although third person omniscient allows the most flexibility, it is difficult to manage. Besides visiting the heads of different characters, we can also see into the future or see things that none of the characters can see.

Since point of view is one of the most difficult things a writer needs to learn, I'm going to give another, more detailed example of a scene using different viewpoints. First, I will present it in omniscient point of view, and then I will present the same scene in third person controlled consciousness from two different viewpoints. I will use green print to show the lines that are from Gary's viewpoint and purple print to show the lines that are from Ray's viewpoint. Additionally, in the omniscient example, I will use bold print to show the word or words that prompts the viewpoint change. In most cases, either a verb or internal dialogue will move the viewpoint from one character to another. The trick is to recognize when we actually enter the character's head to see, hear, feel or think something from the character's perspective. Notice that once we enter a character's head, we stay in his viewpoint until something prompts us to move elsewhere.

The first paragraph can actually be from anyone's viewpoint, but since the scene opens with Ray, the reader will assume it will be from Ray's perspective (therefore, it is wise to always open a scene with the viewpoint character to keep from confusing the reader).

OMNISCIENT POINT OF VIEW:

Ray walked the mile from the hospital to Bob's Sunoco. He found Gary in the bay, changing the oil on a pale blue Cadillac. He kicked his brother's feet until Gary rolled from beneath the car. "We gotta talk."

Gary wiped sweat from his eyes. It wasn't like Ray to interrupt him at work. "I get off at three."

"Now."

Gary stood and wiped his hands on an oily rag. "What's up?"

"Let's walk." Ray feared his brain was going to explode. Too much was going on, too many things were changing. He'd read the front page of the newspaper over and over while waiting in the doctor's office. The Apollo 7 astronauts were heading home after eleven days in space. President Johnson was negotiating for the release of fourteen North Vietnamese POW's. And Jackie Kennedy, the dead President's wife, was marrying a Greek billionaire the very next day. He didn't even know if it was legal for the President's widow to marry a foreigner.

Gary followed Ray outside and toward town. He didn't like it that Ray was so quiet. "What did the doctor say about Mom?"

Ray hated to break the news. "He put her in the hospital."

Gary watched colorful leaves swirl around their ankles, the drier ones crunching under their heavy steps. He kicked them out of his way. "Why?"

"He got the tests back."

"And?"

A young mother, her sweater flapping in the wind, pushed a baby carriage over the uneven sidewalk with one hand and pulled a stubborn toddler with the other. Ray stepped into the street to let her pass, wondering if she realized that the world had changed that day.

"What did the doctor say?" Gary repeated.

"She's got cancer."

Gary stopped walking. "Cancer?"

Ray slowed down until Gary caught up. "Something about a mass in her brain."

Gary's hand automatically went to his own head. He looked at Ray, waiting for more, waiting for reassurance that it would be all right.

But Ray was silent.

"Does she need surgery? Does she have to take chemo? Or radiation?"

"He says there ain't nothing they can do. He says it's too late." Ray remembered that part very well. He'd argued with Dr. Brown, insisting there had to be something. She had three young boys who needed her.

"Too late? Too late for what?"

"Dr. Brown says . . ." Ray rubbed his head. "He says it's too late. He says she ain't coming home."

They walked slower, silently, past the library and into the park. Pre-schoolers played on the swings and slide, laughing and shouting.

Gary leaned against an oak tree, his dirty gray jumpsuit blending into the trunk. He had always thought of his mother as being like a tree, strong and immovable. "What're we gonna do?" he said.

"About what?"

Gary took a new pack of Marlboro from his pocket and tapped them against his palm. "The boys."

Ray watched the children play. "I guess we gotta pick them up from school and fix them something to eat."

"I don't mean now," Gary said, opening the cigarettes. "Until they're grown. Who'll take care of them?"

"Mom will."

Gary stared at his older brother. The dull, distant look in Ray's copper eyes worried him. "You okay?"

Ray scratched the five-day-old stubble on his chin. "They made a mistake. We just gotta find Dad and get this all straightened out. Dad will know what to do."

Gary lit a cigarette and slowly exhaled.

Ray watched the smoke disappear into the October-blue sky. (Ray) A foreigner. Two hundred million people in the United States and the President's widow was going to marry a foreigner. No wonder the world was so damned screwed up.

As you can see, hopping from one head to another allows us to see everything each character thinks. However, it also makes it hard to empathize with any of the characters, and, when overdone, leaves the reader feeling like he's watching a ping-pong tournament at close range. This scene could be much more powerful if it concentrated on only one person's viewpoint.

THIRD PERSON, CONTROLLED CONSCIOUSNESS, GARY'S VIEWPOINT:

Gary scooted deeper under the Cadillac and loosened the drain plug. Heavy oil clumped out in globs, some splashing on his already-stained shirt. He scowled. Surely, people could take better care of their cars.

Something kicked at his foot. Probably the new kid again. He couldn't do anything without asking questions. Gary set the plug aside and rolled from beneath the car.

His brother Ray waited. "We gotta talk."

Gary swiped at the sweat on his forehead. It wasn't like Ray to interrupt him at work. "I get off at three."

"Now."

Gary stood and wiped his hands on an oily rag. "What's up?"

"Let's walk."

He followed Ray outside and toward town. "What did the doctor say about Mom?"

"He put her in the hospital."

Colorful leaves swirled around their ankles, the drier ones crunching under their heavy steps. Gary kicked them out of his way. "Why?"

"He got the tests back."

"And?"

A young mother, her sweater flapping in the wind, pushed a baby carriage over the uneven sidewalk with one hand and pulled a stubborn toddler with the other. Ray stepped into the street to let her pass.

"What did the doctor say?" Gary repeated.

"She's got cancer."

Gary stopped walking. "Cancer?"

Ray slowed down until Gary caught up. "Something about a mass in her brain."

Gary's hand automatically went to his own head. He looked at Ray, waiting for more, waiting for reassurance that it would be all right.

But Ray was silent.

"Does she need surgery? Does she have to take chemo? Or radiation?"

"He says there ain't nothing they can do. He says it's too late."

"Too late? Too late for what?"

"Dr. Brown says . . ." Ray rubbed his head. "He says it's too late. He says she ain't coming home."

They walked slower, silently, past the library and into the park. Pre-schoolers played on the swings and slide, laughing and shouting. Gary leaned against an oak tree, his dirty gray jumpsuit blending into the trunk. He had always thought of his mother as being like a tree, strong and immovable. "What're we gonna do?" he said.

"About what?"

Gary took a new pack of Marlboro from his pocket and tapped them against his palm. "The boys."

"I guess we gotta pick them up from school and fix them something to eat."

"I don't mean now," Gary said, opening the cigarettes. "Until they're grown. Who'll take care of them?"

"Mom will."

Gary stared at his older brother. The dull, distant look in Ray's copper eyes worried him. "You okay?"

Ray scratched the five-day-old stubble on his chin. "They made a mistake. We just gotta find Dad and get this all straightened out. Dad will know what to do."

Gary lit a cigarette and slowly exhaled. Their father wasn't coming home. He knew it. Ray knew it. And now their mother. A cold wind blew from the north and he shivered. It would be a long winter.

THIRD PERSON, CONTROLLED CONSCIOUSNESS, RAY'S VIEWPOINT:

Ray walked the mile from the hospital to Bob's Sunoco. He found Gary in the bay, changing the oil on a pale blue Cadillac. He kicked his brother's feet until Gary rolled from beneath the car. "We gotta talk."

"I get off at three."

"Now."

Gary stood and wiped his hands on an oily rag. "What's up?"

"Let's walk." Ray feared his brain was going to explode. Too much was going on, too many things were changing. He'd read the front page of the newspaper over and over while waiting in the doctor's office. The Apollo 7 astronauts were heading home after eleven days in space. President Johnson was negotiating for the release of fourteen North Vietnamese POW's. And Jackie Kennedy, the dead President's wife, was marrying a Greek billionaire the very next day. He didn't even know if it was legal for the President's widow to marry a foreigner.

Gary followed Ray outside and toward town. "What did the doctor say about Mom?"

"He put her in the hospital."

Colorful leaves swirled around their ankles, the drier ones crunching under their heavy steps. Gary kicked them out of his way. "Why?"

"He got the tests back."

"And?"

A young mother, her sweater flapping in the wind, pushed a baby carriage over the uneven sidewalk with one hand and pulled a stubborn toddler with the other. Ray stepped into the street to let her pass.

"What did the doctor say?" Gary repeated.

"She's got cancer."

Gary stopped walking. "Cancer?"

Ray slowed down until Gary caught up. "Something about a mass in her brain."

Gary was quiet for a long time, then spoke softly. "Does she need surgery? Does she have to take chemo? Or radiation?"

"He says there ain't nothing they can do. He says it's too late." Ray remembered that part very well. He'd argued with Dr. Brown, insisting there had to be something. She had three young boys who needed her.

"Too late? Too late for what?"

"Dr. Brown says . . ." Ray rubbed his head. "He says it's too late. He says she ain't coming home."

They walked slower, silently, past the library and into the park. Pre-schoolers played on the swings and slide, laughing and shouting.

Gary leaned against an oak tree, his dirty gray jumpsuit blending into the trunk. "What're we gonna do?" he said.

"About what?"

Gary took a new pack of Marlboro from his pocket and tapped them against his palm. "The boys."

"I guess we gotta pick them up from school and fix them something to eat."

"I don't mean now," Gary said, opening the cigarettes. "Until they're grown. Who'll take care of them?"

"Mom will."

"You okay?"

Ray scratched the five-day-old stubble on his chin. "They made a mistake. We just gotta find Dad and get this all straightened out. Dad will know what to do."

Gary lit a cigarette and slowly exhaled.

Ray watched the smoke disappear into the October-blue sky. A foreigner. Two hundred million people in the United States and the President's widow was going to marry a foreigner. No wonder the world was so damned screwed up.

Notice that by changing our viewpoint character, we get a different account of the action. Therefore, we need to carefully choose whose viewpoint to use so we can get the greatest power from each scene.

Even within third person omniscient, we should have only one viewpoint character at a time, only one character whose thoughts and mind we visit. We have the option to change viewpoint characters, but we must do it carefully, preferably at a scene or chapter break. However, if we must switch "heads" within a scene, we should clue the reader to what we are doing and allow for a transition. I prefer to do this by ignoring the previous viewpoint character for a sentence or two, then have the new viewpoint character touch his face -- rub his forehead, scratch his ear, any action as long as it involves his face or head -- to clue the reader that this is our new "head." Once the switch is made, stay with it. "Head-hopping" is confusing for the reader and should be done only when absolutely necessary.

Oftentimes when we get a vague feeling that something isn't right but can't quite put our finger on it, the problem is a breach in point of view. This means we have inadvertently changed viewpoints or switched from one type of point of view to another. To test your scene for viewpoint problems, get a set of four highlighters (or change print colors on your computer screen). Assign pink to character number one, blue to character number two, green to all other characters and yellow to the narrator. (Note: the narrator can be any dialogue or action that cannot be attributed to any specific character. But for this exercise, only mark as "narrator" those things that NONE of the characters could possibly know. i.e. -- "On that day, it rained in Scotland, snowed in France, but the sun shined in Harlem . . ." or "It would be years before the rest of the nation knew what happened that day. Years after the deaths of Anne and Bill . . ."). Then, go through your scene and color EVERY WORD. Now, if your page looks like a rainbow, find ways to stay with the same character for longer periods of time. If your page is single-color, HOORAY FOR YOU!

Another exercise that helps in understanding point of view is to do to one of your scenes what I ahve done in the detailed example above. First, identify every viewpoint character and viewpoint change (use your markers, if you want. Second, rewrite the scene strictly from another character's viewpoint. Examine each version of your scene and choose the one that is the most powerful.

Point of view is one of toughest elements of writing to learn. Study it. If you're not happy with the way your story is reading, try changing the point of view or try changing your viewpoint character. Just be consistent.

INTIMACY AND VOICE

Besides point of view, intimacy and voice affect how close the reader feels to the story and the characters. Intimacy is how close we are to the action and to the character's thoughts and emotions. Like a video camera, we can zoom in and out, getting close (into a character's head) when we need to and then back off when things get too hot or when we need a broader perspective.

Voice is the way in which the narrator talks -- it can be proper and formal, conversational, or even illiterate. To be effective, it must be natural and unique, just like each person's voice. I've heard it said that an author's voice is one of the most difficult things to develop. And that may be true. When we first begin putting words on paper, we "try out" different voices, trying to find the one that suits us. Of course, each story can have a different voice and still be the author's (for a cheap example, look at my fiction. The Rebirth has a much different voice than Jenny). The more we write, the more comfortable we become with our voice.

Likewise, the tense chosen affects the power of the story. We most often see past tense (he was) used in fiction, although present (he is) can be effectively used. Past perfect (he had been) and future perfect (he will be) should be saved for flashbacks and special effects. It is extremely important to maintain tense. Like viewpoint changes, tense changes jar the reader and mark the writer as an amateur. Unless you are an accomplished writer, do not even consider changing tenses within your novel. If you are uncertain which tense to choose, go with past tense. It is the easiest to handle and the most invisible to the reader.

Take full advantage of these tools. The same exact plot, setting and character can become totally different stories by experimenting with point-of-view, intimacy and voice. If you don't believe me, try it. Write a short story with three characters: a grandmother, her alcoholic son, and her five-year-old granddaughter. First, tell the story from Third Person Panoramic. Then use either first person or third person controlled consciousness to tell the story again from each of the character's perspectives.

Point of view, voice, intimacy and tense are the spices in your main dish of plot, character and setting. As such, they must exist, but they should be invisible to the reader, allowing for a smooth, full-bodied flavor without any jarring inconsistencies. My best advice: keep it simple, keep it consistent.

About Sandy Tritt

Sandy Tritt is a writer, editor and speaker. The founder and CEO of Inspiration for Writers Inc, an editing and critiquing service for aspiring writers, she has edited hundreds of manuscripts. She is president emeritus of West Virginia Writers, Inc., the state’s largest writing organization, and has recently led workshops at the West Virginia Writers Conference, the West Virginia Book Festival, the Alabama Writers Conclave, and the Appalachian Writers Association (Bristol, Tennessee), among others. Sandy’s short stories and novels have received many awards and have been published in literary magazines and local journals such as Gambit, Confluence, Allegheny Echoes, Mountain Voices, The Northwestern, and Mountain Echoes, in which she was the July 2004 featured writer. In addition, she has published Everything I Know (Headline Books), Inspiration for Writers Tips and Techniques Workbook, and seven technical manuals (Phoenix Software, Atlanta, GA). She has ghostwritten one award-winning screen play and two memoirs. But more than anything, Sandy loves to teach the craft of writing, and is available to give her dynamic workshops at your writers conference.