*But were afraid to ask
By Michael A Black
Few things bedevil new writers in my classes more than point of view. I usually begin with the following advice: figure out which point of view is best suited to tell the story you want to tell. Does that sound like an oversimplification? Let’s take a look at the basic types of point of view.
First person, me, myself, and I, is the most natural way to tell a story. If I were to ask you what you did last weekend, your first response would probably be something like, “Well, I went to the movies, then I …” Like I said, it’s the most natural way to tell a tale, establishing an immediate bond between the narrator and the reader, who vicariously experiences the thrill of the story through identification with the narrator. The limitations are equally apparent, however. The reader is totally limited to what the narrator experiences.
Second person is seldom used in writing for good reason. Not only is this point of view immensely restrictive, it’s also extremely difficult to write in an engaging fashion. Take a look: You sit down at the desk and you begin writing. You have to make it interesting … I’ll bet you were already squirming just reading that little bit. As I said, second person is almost impossible to pull off, although I have heard of one novel (Big City, Bright Lights, by Jay McInerney) that purportedly does it. I haven’t read it, nor do I intend to do so. The only other exceptions of note were those interactive books of the 1980s, which were written in the second person, and allowed the reader to “Build Your Own Adventure”. I must confess to be unfamiliar with these books, as well. My advice: stay away from second person.
That brings us to the old stand-by, third person. There are more variations to this point of view than the preceding two. Third person, omniscient, uses an “all-knowing” narrator who can jump around wherever he likes, shifting scenes, commenting on ironies, and going into the thoughts of different characters, sometimes simultaneously. This bouncing back and forth, often within the same scene, can be somewhat jarring to the reader. Perhaps that’s why this variation has fallen out of favor. It can also leave the reader feeling a bit cheated if the all-knowing narrator withholds some information, while in the perspective of a character, and subsequently reveals its significance later on. In days of yore, the omniscient narrator was very popular and was accepted more readily, but it’s seldom seen today. I recently read a new novel by Dick Wolf, Intercept, that features an omniscient narrator, but in recent times the preference has shifted to what is called the third person, limited.
This point of view stays in one character’s perspective for an entire scene, allowing a more in-depth narration to be filtered through the prism of that specific character’s perspective. If the point of view shifts to another character, it’s designated by a scene break. The great Elmore Leonard was the modern master at using third person, limited. It’s currently the favorite point of view for fiction writing these days. A masterful writer like Dutch was able to imbue the distinctive flavor of each character’s perspective during the course of a novel. The vernacular was exquisitely crafted to fit the depicted narrator. Thus, we can experience the perspective of a vicious thug for several pages, and then switch to the more analytical viewpoint of a police detective. Leonard always wrote in the third person, limited, and he was an expert at making those pages dance. Check out his novels, La Brava, Glitz, and Cuba Libre for entertaining reads written in the this POV.
I always like to include another variation of third person when I talk about point of view. I call it third person, objective. The narration resembles that of a camera, describing every outward move, but not getting inside the heads of any of the characters. The most famous example is Dashiell Hammett’s classic, The Maltese Falcon. The reader never gets inside the head of the protagonist, Sam Spade, and hence is totally surprised at the end when the tough detective reveals that he knew the identity of his partner’s killer all along: “He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear―and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him …” The Maltese Falcon was published in 1930. Like the omniscient narrator, the third person, objective has also fallen from favor of late.
There’s also a variation of the first person that I neglected to mention. I call this one first person, objective. Remember those grand old stories by Rolad Dahl (“Taste” and “The Man From the South,” to name two)? The setup uses a first person narrator, who is not the protagonist, to tell what he is observing. The narrator may or may not be overly affected by the telling, but this type of first person point of view is a kissing cousin to the third person. A bit of distance is established between the reader in the narrator in both instances, which means the reader is getting a filtered description of the action. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby, and Louis L’Amour’s short story, “The Cross and the Candle,” both come to mind when thinking about this point of view technique.
So there you have it: everything you wanted to know about point of view, but were afraid to ask. Like I said, the key is picking the POV that best tells the story.