Our Sunday Best: Who Is Driving This Story, Anyway? POV in Writing

C.W.A.Scott Binoculars

I crave books I love the way I crave certain foods.   I will stop cold in the middle of a task during the day with a single line from a novel or poem written in fire over my head, and the craving is so strong that I know, before the day is out, I will have that book tucked open in my right hand as neatly, and as tightly as a well-made bed.

The moment that drives my ordinary reader’s desire into the swerve of a bibliophilic craving is the artistry of the writing itself. (There are stories, and there are stories, after all.) What keeps me turning pages is my fascination with the person (or persons) whose story is being told.

But who is telling the story?

I’m not talking about the writer/author, per se.

(We know s/he is telling the story— sometimes s/he tells us right in the middle of the story— disruptively— but we’ll get into the fiddly bits of postmodern literature in just a bit.)

What I’m trying to ask you here is who is the actual voice telling you the story?

POV, or point-of-view, is one of the most necessary structural details you need to consider as you prepare to write your own stories.

Because, for every story, there are a thousand, thousand ways to use POV as one of the pistons pulling the action and motivation and meaning along.

There are no shortcuts to figuring out the POV question to help you sort out the structural details of your story.   

What should be helpful is to know what your options are in the POV world.   (Some structural details of a novel are setting, plot, tense, time frame and so on. There are many architectural elements necessary to provide your novel with a solid structure, but POV is where we will start.)

Those options may spur you to think of a new, or relatively unused form of POV that will send me, your reader, skidding to the bookshelf to devour the story you tell to sate a mad craving.

The big four points-of-view (POV) in brief — First person  (“I” or “We”); Second person (“You”); Close Third Person (“S/he “or “It” or “They”); and Omniscient Third Person (Reader sees everything narrator, AKA storyteller, reveals.). 

The hot POV right now is Close Third Person because— honestly?  That’s the POV everyone sees on TV.  Some folks argue that Close Third Person encourages strong verbs, but if you are revising your work— which you do, I am sure, because you are trying to create something beautiful and readable— you will tighten and strengthen your verbs when you revise.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-31476-0007, Prerow, Urlauber mit Ferngläsern am Strand

POV is reallyreallyreallyreally important.  Think about it this way:  When your cousin tells the story of the time she got you to eat cat food, that’s one version of the story.  It isn’t the story.   I’m sure that version of the cat food eating story is a BIG HIT on holidays with your cousins.

When your mom tells that story, it becomes a completely different tale about the time when your badly-raised cousin talked you into eating cat food and your pediatrician had to take x-rays to make sure that you hadn’t also eaten the batch of free coupons in the cat food bag.  That’s your mother’s version.

What’s your mother’s sister’s version?  Is it the story of her free-spirited child and her uncontrollable younger cousin who didn’t know how to take a joke?

Ah.  Now you see what I’m seeing!  You are seeing the world as a writer views the world— the ways to tell the story fall out in endless combinations of POV! 

Each person is telling a completely different story using their own viewpoint, remembrance of the facts (dates, times, places), ability to observe, and on and on!
Here are a few imaginative uses of POV to think about today:
First Person POV/Alternating:   Each first person character tells their version of the story.  Jonathan Safran Foer wrote  Everything Is Illuminated with a double-first person POV.  The first part of the book is one part of the story by one person (Jonathan Safran Foer himself) and the second half of the book is the rest of the story told by his guide, Alexander Perchov. 

Popular in the 18th Century was the epistolary novel in which First Person POV/ Alternating narrator is played out in alternating letters between two or more parties.  Les Liasons Dangereuses, (Chonderlos de Laclos) is my favorite example.  It’s a more masterful novel than Safran Foer’s early but ambitious effort.
First Person POV/Gender Unspecified:  In Jeanette Winterson’s Written On The Body, you never know whether the person telling the story is a woman or a man.  The additional twist— Written On The Body is a compelling love story about the (gender non-specified) main character’s illicit attraction for a married woman.
First person POV/chorus:  The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides) is written from the perspective of a group of neighborhood boys— now grown men— who are fascinated by the Lisbon sisters, even after each girl commits an untimely act that ends in her death. You wouldn’t think this would work well, but the speaking as a Greek chorus of “we” makes the story more heartbreaking and intimate.
Second Person POV:  Although a second person narrator (“you”) is rarely used as a device in an entire novel, it’s often used in pop songs.   Because the directness of “you” can be difficult to maintain, only the most practiced and inventive writers use it with confidence in a longer form like a novel or novella— try  The Things They Carried  (Tim O’Brian) or Bright Lights, Big City (Jay McInterney).   

It’s such a rare POV that Wikipedia has a fairly definitive list of instances in novels and short stories where Second Person POV is used as the main POV.
Third Person POV/Close:  Almost every novel you read is in Third Person Close POV, but did you know there are two distinct subsets?

    The first is Subjective Third Person Close POV— that’s the one you know, where you see inside a singular character’s actions and the story is based on what s/he discerns from her/his sensory information.
    The second, Objective Third Person Close POV, is used more in feature stories for newspapers and academic writing— third person is used, but only observable phenomena are described.  (You, the reader, will get no internal psychological discussion in Objective Third Person Close POV.)

Third Person POV/True Omniscient:  You see everything under the sun, but do not know advance information about what will happen to the characters.  Dune  (Frank Herbert), which we will be discussing in about two weeks, is a textbook-perfect example of this POV.  Third person POV/True Omniscient is another common POV for the contemporary novel. Third Person POV/True Omniscient takes a lot of muscle control because the writer has almost infinite resources at her/his disposal with which to tell the story.
Third Person POV/Universal Omniscient:  This POV allows readers to have advance information the characters don’t know yet— of the “Little did Janie Sue know that she would soon fall off of a cliff.  But, you dear reader, know this” school of thought.   Victorian novels used this POV trick beautifully— it invites closeness between the reader and the unnamed (or named) narrator who is not inside the story being told and can jump around as s/he it sees fit.


Let’s talk about the narrator of the story— that’s the person or persons whose voice is heard throughout the novel, short story, et. al.

When I say “narrator,” I’m not talking about the writer. The narrator is the person created by the writer to tell the story. Sometimes the narrator is well defined character, and sometimes you never really get to know who they are. Sometimes they are trustworthy, sometimes they are unreliable. 

Sometimes the “universal” narrator is the author— that’s another trope that postmodern writers liked to employ, and it is similar to “breaking the fourth wall” in theater, where the storyteller is revealed to be a storyteller and you, the readers/audience has “contact” with him/her.  (Officially, these breaks where the writer/author “speaks” to the reader are called “disruptions/intrusions into the narrative.”)

The bigger point here is that when you are reading and when you are writing— someone is being created or utilized to tell the story on the page.

The better control you have over point-of-view and its tricks and tropes, the stronger and more compelling the story becomes.
What people love about narrative and stories has little to do with the events or the action per se— we care about the people in the midst of the action, and one of the ways we learn to care about them is by tuning into the point-of-view that frames the way their story gets told.

For instance, when Andy Griffith retells the story of Romeo and Juliet, we care deeply about what happens to the two younguns’ because Griffith (who used this story in his comedy act first) makes the star-crossed lovers’ tale seem fresh for his audience. It’s a clear use of good POV— the Andy Griffith persona tells us a gripping tale of love and youth straight out of the hills that surround Mayberry.

In those moments when you are reading a story, you can easily get caught up in the moment and forget that a great deal of thought and structure when into the shaping of this tale that you love. The goal of every writer, and storyteller, of note— is to make it all seem effortless— as though the story is floating on a breeze and you managed to catch ahold of it.

And when a story is particularly well-crafted and effortless and created from an intoxicating POV, you’ll find me running towards it in the middle of the day, full-tilt, on fire with the words, enthralled with what happens next— even if I know the story word for word. Good POV unleashes the heart of my cravings, and that, alone, brings me back to the page again and again.

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