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How the tale is told: viewpoint

Slipping in and out of point of view is not an uncommon problem for new and advanced fiction writers. In fact, point of view can often become a point of contention among writers. There are those who are strict and maintain a writer should remain within one point of view for an entire chapter, others allow shifts from scene to scene. Should the story be told from one person’s viewpoint from the beginning or does the story demand multi-viewpoints? Which is better? Some might even consider point of view a plague upon writers. One thing most writers agree upon, despite evidence from bestselling writers to the contrary, you don’t write from the point of view of the dog or the horse.

Point of view can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. Often it’s suggested that writers use the metaphor of a camera shot that can range from the wide, panoramic view to the intense, tightly focused shot. But the perspective of viewing is but one part of the puzzle. Many writers consider first, second and third person, as well as omniscient to be the main point of view narration options. The degree of closeness offered by third person limited is also quite common. Sometimes a story doesn’t work when told from one point of view but with a shift, say from first person (I) to third person (he/she), that is all that is needed to get the story flowing. Other times, the viewpoint character (the one telling the story) might be the source of problems or awkwardness and there‚Äôs a need to consider whether the character chosen is the correct filter for the story.

I’ve heard writers suggest rather cavalierly that someone should simply change the point of view from first to third person as though all you have to do is strike out the “I” and insert the “he” or “she” and the problem is solved. Most changes from first to third will require more thought and more changes. There is a decided change of focus and an impact on the reader to consider. Often the changes are subtle but they do exist.

If you’re interested in learning more about the differences that characterize the various points of view available to a writer, you might want to get a copy of Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories edited by James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny. This small but hefty paperback has become a classic and has been used by many creative writing teachers. With forty-four stories and twenty-nine authors, including Amy Tan, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty and Raymond Carver, this anthology is particularly helpful because the stories have been grouped according their various viewpoint narrations. As Moffett and McElheny say, “the shifting relations among these first, second, and third persons–storyteller, audience, and story–constitute the very basis of the sequence in
Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories. What happened is a factor of who’s telling the story, to whom, and in what circumstances.”

Part of learning happens through observation. As a critical reader who is also a writer, simply reading through the stories will reap new discoveries. An additional exercise might be to ask yourself why the writers chose to tell the stories through their particular viewpoint and person. What did they gain from that decision? What did they lose? How would the stories have changed had different forms been used? The next stage comes when you begin to apply this new knowledge to your own work with the question: how should my story be told?


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  • Deborah Whitaker

    Very insightful, Vikk! And I have a feeling you haven’t even yet scratched the surface of all you know about point of view.

  • Deborah Whitaker

    Very insightful, Vikk! And I have a feeling you haven’t even yet scratched the surface of all you know about point of view.

  • http://www.craigirvin.com Craig

    Excellent and well written points on points (of view). I enjoyed this, especially the part of the different things to consider when changing voice.
    He went away quite satisfied with what he’d learned.

  • http://www.craigirvin.com Craig

    Excellent and well written points on points (of view). I enjoyed this, especially the part of the different things to consider when changing voice.
    He went away quite satisfied with what he’d learned.

  • Eli

    I couldn’t agree more. Changing from first person to third is no easy matter. I’ve tried it (she said shaking her head) and you might as well rewrite the piece. Everything about the story changed for me. The immediacy of first person was quickly lost, and the story fell flat. Good points, Vikk. Thanks for all the insight.

  • Eli

    I couldn’t agree more. Changing from first person to third is no easy matter. I’ve tried it (she said shaking her head) and you might as well rewrite the piece. Everything about the story changed for me. The immediacy of first person was quickly lost, and the story fell flat. Good points, Vikk. Thanks for all the insight.

  • http://clear-lake-reflections.com mark

    nice post.

  • http://clear-lake-reflections.com mark

    nice post.

  • http://clear-lake-reflections.com mark

    You must have struck terror into the right people because this seems to be working again. First lines are important.
    “None of them knew the color of the sky”
    Stephen Crane

  • http://clear-lake-reflections.com mark

    You must have struck terror into the right people because this seems to be working again. First lines are important.
    “None of them knew the color of the sky”
    Stephen Crane