What No One Tells You About Point of View: Part 1, A Primer

A student writes:

I would like you to talk about point of view – even something as simple as an enumeration of the possibilities. I told my story from the point of view of an omniscient third person who knew the thoughts of the main character but of no one else. This was inconvenient at one point because I envisioned a chapter where [his] love interest goes off with [his] mother [for a scene]. I couldn’t do that directly because the storyteller only knew what was going on through the main character’s eyes. Did I make a mistake? Can an omniscient storyteller know everything? That was about the only place I needed that extra knowledge for the storyteller.

Part One of my three-part reply:

Usually, when people talk about point of view, they concentrate on the technicalities. Let’s get the technicalities out of the way.

Generally, the point of view can either be

* first person (“I walked down Salamander Street, hoping to see Charlotte, who owed me five-hundred dollars and an ex-husband.”) First person can be singular, as shown in example, or collective, as when a town or a family or some other group entity narrates, using “we.” This tends toward a more omniscient role, as the storytellers are often part of the setting more than they are the main character. First person singular need not be a main character, either. Madame Bovary is written in first person from the point of view of a classmate of M. Bovary who shows up briefly in one early pronoun and not much more if at all . . .

* second person (“You walk down Salamander Street, hoping to see Charlotte, who owes you five-hundred dollars and an ex-husband.”) Note verb tense change. Second person is a bit of a stylistic tic and tends to come in present tense, perhaps to give the impression of hypnotising the reader.

* third person (“She walked down Salamander Street, hoping to see Charlotte, who owed her five-hundred dollars and an ex-husband.”)

Third person can be “close” or “omniscient”:

* A close third operates from inside the head of one character, or follows that one character and dips in and out of his or her head. It is similar to first person, except for the pronoun choices.

* An omniscient third is the God point-of-view. Your narrator can see all; however, this does not mean that your narrator tells all. An omniscient narrator hopping from head to head can be as dizzying and unappealing as a 1970s hippie doing the same from bed to bed. Omniscience is about control, about that bird’s eye perspective that can zoom in, sometimes here, sometimes there, but thoughtfully, craftfully. No zipping, no hopping.

The other technical point of view issue to keep in mind is distance in time between the moment of narration and the moment of the events of the story.

This is an issue in non-fiction, as well, especially in memoir. The writer is obviously going to write in first person–or perhaps I should say, likely going to unless serious experimentation is taking place, whether legitimate–The Autobiography of Miss Alice B. Toklas–or illegitimate–A Million Little Pieces. However, a narrator looking back across a span of fifty years has a different first person point-of-view than one writing as if just upon the heels of the events. Either narrator will zoom in on the events to give the reader a sense of immediacy–we don’t want every moment moderated by that fifty-year perspective–but the first narrator can draw back and reflect, while the second keeps us close to the bone of the story.

Naturally, in any point of view, the distance in time will impact the perspective such that one could argue that the narrator is a different person at one age than at another.

That’s about what you will get in a standard creative writing course. Maybe less.

But I am going to tell you what no one tells you about point of view.

Point of view is story. It is plot, voice and therefore language, character, dialog, setting, the whole caboodle. It could be said that all of these elements of narrative are doors into the same large, labyrinthine room, but that does not mean that the interconnections are not fruitfully searched.

These elements will be explored in parts 2 & 3 of this post.

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