Point of View: Common Ideas and Misconceptions

In English and creative writing classes over the past fifty years, students have often been instructed that once a particular point of view has been established in a story, that point of view should never be deviated from or broken. The explanation given for the rule is that if point of view is not maintained consistently, the reader will be disoriented and the story’s necessary illusion of reality will be ruined. While correct in principle, and often in practice, this teaching has led to general misunderstandings and oversimplifications of point of view. For many student writers, point of view may seem a monolithic or mechanical apparatus, not easily moved once put in place, and best left alone. Or, if it is to be shifted, it is to be done only at a major transition—a chapter break in a book or at the line space between sections of a story, for instance. Likewise, student writers often work with the unexamined premise that a story’s narrative point of view is identical to the point of view of the primary character. So, for example, the working premise would be that in a first-person story, the I who is the narrator is the identical individual and has the identical point of view as the I who is the main character, or that in a limited third-person narration, the reader receives only the immediate perspective of the he or she main character—in either case, first person or third person, the writer would seem to be allowed to tell the reader only what the character directly experienced and knew at the time of the events or knew from an earlier time.

Other common misconceptions and exaggerated ideas about point of view include: the writer must avoid direct authorial statement to the reader; only the points of view of main characters who are “moving” rather than “fixed” should be conveyed; the categories of point of view are mutually exclusive of each other, so that, for instance, a first-person narrator cannot narrate omnisciently. In each of these statements, there is a measure of truth, and a sensitive, intelligent writer adhering to them will write successfully; however, an attentive reading of classic and worthwhile contemporary fiction quickly reveals a greater fluidity, flexibility, and lifelike spontaneity in the use of point of view and encourages an expansive interpretation of ordinary teachings about point of view.

Why Point of View Is Ordinarily Taught
In a Categorical Manner

There are several reasons for the dominance of conventional ideas about point of view. Some readers and writers are confused, if not offended, by shifts in point of view and by the presentation of multiple points of view in a single work, and indeed, if a reader is intended to attach to a story by virtue of identification with a single, main character, then a unitary point of view may be expedient. Likewise, some readers and, to a lesser extent, some writers, are opposed to the idea that one individual can know the mind, inner life, or point of view of another individual, and thus multiple points of view mediated by an omniscient narrator seem implausible. However, the primary reason for categorical definitions and rules for the use of point of view is the reasonable intention of making a complex element of fiction clear and manageable for student writers.

A Broader Understanding of Point of View

The basis of art is limitation. No single work of art can do everything or contain all of life. Successful works of art achieve their effects by virtue of the artist’s choices from among all the possibilities of life and by the artist’s proficient use of technique to create a design that was not otherwise apparent or did not exist until the work of art came into being. A fiction writer who is learning the art may be wise to begin with a few basic techniques rather than with many or advanced ones and with a more limited scope than can be employed after the writer gains experience, confidence, and mastery. Each writer comes to the task with certain given talents that require little or no study to apply skillfully on the page. For instance, some writers are gifted in the use of point of view and need give it little deliberation. That is to say, some writers, as they look around at the world, easily perceive the points of view of other individuals and can, as if effortlessly, express and accurately interpret these points of view. Such perception does not depend on other individuals directly explaining themselves to the writer but on observation, intuition, imagination, sympathy, thought, and an abiding interest in human nature.

The term perspective connotes an awareness of the true relationship that one thing bears to another; as a facet of point of view, perspective indicates a recognition of the cause-and-effect basis of human interactions and of the way character influences fate. The earliest Greek plays were one-character plays. Gradually, as the form developed, characters and subplots were added. And, as the millennia have passed, literary art has moved beyond viewing humankind, or its representative hero, as being consigned to fate. Instead, today’s fiction describes individual action on par with fate, if not predominant over it. Consequently, character determines the plot of most stories today rather than, as Aristotle noted two thousand years ago, plot determining character. Written storytelling has evolved from the fated one-character (heroic) dramas of Greek tragedy and comedy into today’s multiple-character stories expressive of a psychological and pluralistic world, and, in like manner, young or beginning writers typically evolve from writing one-character, limited-point-of-view stories to attempting stories of broader scope. This is not to say that one-character, limited-point-of-view stories cannot strike deep nor that some great writers have not built a life’s work of stories and books in which genius lies in the thorough expression of a single type of character and point of view. However, in such bodies of work the singleness of type is most often an expression of the author’s own type, whereas in the work of writers who can step outside their personal stories, one recognizes a greater, more encompassing perspective that provides a writer the freedom and insight to draw inspiration from diverse sources and to cast material, as needed, on wholly invented, original story lines not determined (or overdetermined) by the writer’s personal history.

Don’t Protect Your Characters

A writer must be careful not to give preferential treatment to some characters over others at the cost of drama. It frequently happens that a writer, without fully meaning to, throws a protective cloak over characters closely resembling him- or herself, giving them the best or most dominant lines, maintaining them firmly in their accustomed positions, whether those positions are fortunate or not, and in any case resisting the natural changes on which drama and truth depend. Preference does not always entail a positive circumstance for the character but merely the writer’s elevation of the preferred character’s situation above the natural play of cause and effect that influences life. A writer may, for instance, have a preference for characters who are victims, or ones who are obsessive cynosures. But no matter the degree of negative or positive preferred attributes, a writer must alertly oppose his or her preferences by providing equally strong characters to contest the preferred ones, and the challenge must not be one of drawn battle lines uncrossed but of reciprocal actions and inevitable movements. Protecting characters produces one-sided, flat drama and gives the impression that the writer’s motive in avoiding risks is self-protection.

E M O T I O N

Ideas are emotions that penetrate the future of coherence.
     —Cynthia Ozick

When someone says that a piece of writing moves them, or when a writing teacher says that a change must occur in a story for it to qualify as a story, what they are noting are movements based in emotion. The word emotion indicates activity. I emphasize the action of the word, for the benefit of students, by writing it on the chalk board: e-motion. The e- is a variation of ex-, meaning “out” or “from,” as in emerge and emotive. Emotion indicates an outward-turning movement proceeding from an inner prompting. Our emotions rise in response to needs and connect us to our environment. Emotions move us and, likewise, move characters in stories. The reader follows as one emotion changes into another—joy to sorrow, fear to love, and so on. When writing teachers speak of character motivations, they mean the emotional impulses from which actions arise. Readers assess the truth of a story by how accurately portrayed, or real, the emotions are. Most readers do not deliberately make the assessment but react according to how their own emotions are engaged. The greater the degree of emotional truth in a story, the more involved the reader will be.

Sentimentality should not stand in for emotion, though readers conditioned by popular romance in film, television, and commercial fiction will sometimes accept sentimentality as though it were emotion. Whenever the emotions in a story are treated superficially, or in clichés, or otherwise with inadequate or inaccurate expression, the effect is sentimental. Sentimentality also occurs whenever too much is made of the emotions—that is, when the reader is asked to care more about something than God would.

Mortality: Time in the Lines

Successful writing depends on a strong, continuous sense of time flowing forward. A reader’s most profound awareness is of his or her own mortality; and for a reader to suspend his or her life in favor of words on a page, the words must produce a sense of mortality as great, or greater, than the reader’s own.

In creating a written work, an author must, from the first word, create time. This effect is initially achieved by the rhythm and meter of the lines and then must be sustained and played out through the structure of the piece. If the sense of time flowing forward in a piece stops—that is, if the clock stops—the piece loses its mortal connection to the reader and, in effect, dies.

Rhythm

The heartbeat is the syllable, the breath is the line.

An unborn infant growing in its mother’s womb listens to her mothers’ breaths and heartbeats and to its own heartbeats threading with its mother’s. At birth, there is the infant’s first breath and cry and the solo beats of its heart. Our constant knowledge of life and death flows from our breaths and heartbeats—we are never far from this truth, and it provides the thread of story, of narrative.

Writing, like speech, is physical. The muscular activity of uttering sound is at one with the emotional and intellectual experience of life. Words proceed from a unity of mind, body, idea, and emotion. Before words reach the page, the writer locates the core of each rhythmic phrase and lets it come to life so that it touches and quickens the reader’s heart. Without this connection between writer and reader, the other elements of writing fall flat.

Rhythm may be defined as a regularly patterned flow of sounds or movements; it is the repetition of time in a perceptible pattern—the ticking of the clock, the pulse of the heart, the flow of human voices. Rhythmic sound creates a temporal pattern; rhythmic movement creates both a temporal and a spatial pattern. In literature, words create sound and movement—a lyric, formal effect.

The lyric aspect of writing is its songlike or musical quality, the light, flexible play of sounds through which emotions are expressed. Writers whose gift is lyric—that is, who have a good ear and whose experience of language is felt—may need give little thought to diction, unless to take care not to rely on lyricism in lieu of employing other elements, such as plot and point of view, to create successfully structured, modulated work.

The music in writing should be inseparable from the meanings and emotional associations of the words. Expressiveness, not solely musicality, is the function of literature.

In lyric writing, the prominence of vowel sounds creates a melodious effect, while the prominence of consonant sounds creates a staccato one. A writer may create these and other musical effects at will, but if the musicality is for its own sake, it becomes meaningless, or if it is insistent, it smothers meaning. Writing should be tactfully, subtly, variously musical, according to the meaning it expresses.

Writers who come to the task without a natural talent for lyricism can improve their work by listening carefully to the rhythmic movement of language and by paying close attention to the connection between the meaning of the words and their sound not only as intelligible sounds but also as felt utterance or instrumental performance. In workshops, I often ask students to read their work aloud, and sometimes when a piece isn’t working well, I stop listening to the words and listen instead to the thrum of the voice. Is it coming from the head only, or is it coming from the center of the body, from the heart and loins and stomach as well as the head? What are the moods, prevailing emotions, needs, or desires being expressed? Do they correlate naturally and spontaneously, with the words riding the rhythms, or are the words and rhythms forced, and if so, why, and how might the utterance be improved? How might the writer come in closer contact with the impulses driving the work and make more conscious, or at least effective, choices about the play of language?

Rhythm initiates a form that the words fall into and focuses the reader’s attention. The effect of rhythm is to make the reader feel the emotional truth of the story. If the rhythms are authentic (lifelike), then the reader directly experiences the pain, grief, joy, and other emotions of the characters.

Dramatic Purpose

The dramatic purpose of a scene is the specific and necessary work the scene is intended to accomplish within the overall dramatic argument of the story. Dramatic purpose is defined and determined by the emotional truth that plays itself out between characters and within each character. The emotional truth of a scene is the human nature of storytelling. Just as emotions are what move us in life, characters’ emotions are what move a story. A scene may be designed to advance the plot or the movement of time in the story, to provide information (about place, prior events, theme), or to do other work, but if a scene lacks an essential, character-based development moving forward, as with the spontaneity of life passing in crucial or definitive moments of change, there is no dramatic purpose. In establishing purposeful scenes, the writer selects the essential, rather than the incidental, details and moments of drama. Likewise, the overall dramatic argument of a story determines the selection and illumination of scenes from among all possible scenes that could be written.

Essence vs. Incidence

The events and details in a story should be organized so that if any one of them is displaced or taken away, the whole will be shaken and put out of joint. If the presence or absence of a thing makes no discernible difference, that thing is not part of the whole. If the existence and placement of a detail or an event are justified by having a dramatic purpose or by contributing necessary work to a dramatic purpose, then the detail or event is essential; otherwise, it is incidental and must be cut, substantially altered, or transformed into an essential element by combining it with other elements to do more necessary work.

What is a Scene?

A scene is comprised of a dramatic action or development occurring across a specific period of time in a story and with a definite purpose whose conclusion follows from the preceding actions and developments and provides a causal and dynamic transition to the next scene, or, if it is a final scene, returns the reader to life with an enhanced perspective.

Front Story/Back Story

The term front story describes everything that moves forward in time following from the first moment that the clock starts running in the beginning of a story. Back story indicates anything that comes into a story from a time preceding the immediate forward movement of the front story. Back story is sometimes referred to as flashback, especially in instances of past events that are briefly recalled.

Student writers tend to avoid front story, relying instead on back story. There are numerous reasons why student writers rely on back story, though most student writers do not give it much thought and inadvertently fall into back story to avoid the difficulty of writing front story. And then, having written a predominantly back story narration, a student writer is liable to rationalize the form as the most natural one, and not infrequently a teacher will encourage this view because the teacher’s own work takes this form or because the student presents great resistance to doing anything other than back story. However, relatively few stories with predominantly back story narrations succeed.

In student manuscripts back story typically appears in the form of one-character, reflective, passive, subjective narration. This form of narration does not require the writer to dramatize, to create a well-defined plot, to set characters on stage interacting in live moments of conflict; rather, it allows the writer to reflect subjectively (from a single character’s limited point of view) on events that have already occurred and, most often, these reflections come as free associations rather than as directed thinking. As a result, the back story produces an indefinite effect in the minds of readers.

A writer’s ability to do anything other than front story depends entirely on the writer’s ability to create and sustain front story.

Back story should come into the front story only when it addresses a desire or question already present in the reader. The back story must be a necessary development at the exact moment it comes into the front story.

When back story occurs, the front story must have enough tension and magnitude to sustain the interruption of the front story. The writer must be accurate in assessing how much back story can be presented—how long it can go—without attenuating the front story beyond the reader’s active engagement with what happens next in the front story. The reader’s desire for the front story must remain palpable during the intervening movement of back story.

The back story must present a dramatic movement of its own—that is, the back story should play as front story. Whether dramatized or narrated, the back story should present a forward moving, causal sequence of conflict, action, resolution occurring in a scene or scenes, or it should otherwise produce a commensurate dramatic effect such as the progressive development of directed thinking that has the force of recognition.

While the back story is occurring, it must simultaneously carry the front story forward so that when the reader returns to the front story that was interrupted it has been advanced from where it left off.

Any writer who overly relies on back story or who has trouble developing and sustaining front story will do well to concentrate on forming stories primarily in front story. The first step in doing this is to restrict the use of back story altogether or severely limit it until the writer develops a confident use of front story. A good rule of thumb for limiting back story is to allow no more than a ratio of 10 to 1, front story to back story, which is a ratio commonly observed in works with a strong narrative drive.

There is, of course, no absolute rule about how much back story to use, and the primary pitfall in using back story is simply that it tempts a writer to pose material non-dramatically. But back story can work only when posed as drama.