Point of View: The Complete Writer *FREE READS*

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

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Point of View

The angle from which a story is told is its point of view: who tells the story and how much they know. A writer has several choices in this matter. You can create a narrator who’s outside the story, like God looking down from Her heaven. Or you might tell the story as it’s seen by one of the characters, either in the first person (“I heard him as he slammed out of the house”) or in the third person (“She thought his behavior went beyond the pale”).

The omniscient point of view is probably the most commonly used, because it gives the author quite a wide scope. In the plain, unadulterated omniscient PoV, the narrator knows all and sees all; with this technique, the narrator can tell you what everyone in the story sees, hears, smells, feels, and thinks.

This is an example of a straight, unadulterated omniscient point of view:

He spoke sincerely. Every day he worked hard in the court trying to decide which of two untrue accounts was less untrue, trying to dispense justice fearlessly, to protect the weak against the less weak, the incoherent against the plausible, surrounded by lies and flattery. That morning he had convicted a railway clerk of overcharging pilgrims for their tickets, and a Pathan of an attempted rape. He expected no gratitude, no recognition for this, and both clerk and Pathan might appeal, bribe their witnesses more effectually in the interval, and get their sentences reversed. It was his duty. But he did expect sympathy from his own people, and except from newcomers he obtained it. He did think he ought not to be worried about “Bridge Parties” when the day’s work was over and he wanted to play tennis with his equals or rest his legs upon a long chair.

He spoke sincerely, but she could have wished with less gusto. How Ronny reveled in the drawbacks of his situation! How he did rub it in that he was not in India to behave pleasantly, and derived positive satisfaction therefrom! He reminded her of his public-schooldays. The traces of young-man humanitarianism had sloughed off, and he talked like an intelligent and embittered boy. His words without his voice might have impressed her, but when she heard the self-satisfied lilt of them, when she saw the mouth moving so complacently and competently beneath the little red nose, she felt, quite illogically, that this was not the last word on India. One touch of regret—not the canny substitute but the true regret from the heart—would have made him a different man, and the British Empire a different institution.

“I’m going to argue, and indeed dictate,” she said, clinking her rings. “The English are out here to be pleasant.”

“How do you make that out, mother?” he asked, speaking gently again, for he was ashamed of his irritability.

“Because India is part of the earth. And God has put us on the earth in order to be pleasant to each other. God . . . is . . . love.” She hesitated, seeing how much he disliked the argument, but something made her go on. “God has put us on earth to love our neighbors and to show it, and He is omnipresent, even in India, to see how we are succeeding.”

He looked gloomy and a little anxious. He knew this religious strain in her, and that it was a symptom of bad health; there had been much of it when his step-father died. He thought, “She is certainly aging, and I ought not to be vexed with anything she says.”

E.M. Forster
A Passage to India

Notice how Forster makes us privy to the woman’s thinking (His words without his voice might have impressed her, but when she heard the self-satisfied lilt of them, when she saw the mouth moving so complacently and competently beneath the little red nose, she felt, quite illogically, that this was not the last word on India) and then, as though reading minds were as normal as a springtime day, we’re told what he thinks (He knew this religious strain in her, and that it was a symptom of bad health; there had been much of it when his stepfather died. He thought, “She is certainly aging, and I ought not to be vexed with anything she says.”). In the omniscient point of view, the author is as all-seeing as God.

A more interesting variant is the limited omniscient point of view, which tells the story in the third person through one person’s eyes.

Al could be gracious. He’d sent thank you notes to her and the other teachers who had come in before school started to prepare their rooms. Chris appreciated the gesture; she didn’t get many thank you notes. Al wasn’t fastidious about every little rule. He wasn’t one of those principals who made a hard job harder. And she was glad that he wasn’t a “Mr. Mealy Mouth.” Around Kelly School the threat of a trip to the principal’s office had weight. When she sent a child there, Al almost always took some action. Unlike some principals she’d heard about, he never declared that he was off duty. Some teachers disliked Al, but Chris would stand behind him, if a little off to one side.

Al was Chris’s government, all the government she knew. But Al did not imagine himself expert in instructional theory and practice. Mostly he visited the classrooms of new teachers who needed help in keeping order. This year he’d observe only one lesson taught by each of his veteran teachers. After watching Chris in action, he’d say little more than that she was doing a good job. Chris appreciated Al’s restraint, but she thought she’d like more advice.

She didn’t get much advice of any sort from her students’ parents. Research shows that, typically, teachers in affluent school districts complain of too much parental interference, while those in poor districts, such as Holyoke, complain that parents don’t get involved enough. These days, Chris always had a hard time persuading some of her students’ parents to visit her, even for the scheduled biannual conferences. this year she would receive just one note from a parent that contained a request about her teaching. The note came from the upper-class Highlands, from Alice’s mother. It read: “Alice seems to be having trouble with her math homework. would you please go over her work with her in class.”

Chris felt grateful for the message. “I’d like to have one year of parents pushing me,” she said. “Just one year.”

Tracy Kidder
Among Schoolchildren

When using the limited omniscient point of view, it’s important to stay with that character, and not carelessly slip into some other character’s mind. The narrator can reveal only what the selected character sees and thinks.

In the objective point of view, the story is told as though it were seen through a camera lens: without comment and without interpretation of what the characters think or feel.

Here, let me see that one—the young woman curved her body further out of the corridor window. Missus? smiled the old boy, looking at the creatures he held in his hand. From a piece of string on his gray finger hung a tiny woven basket; he lifted it, questioning. No, no, she urged, leaning down toward him, across the height of the train, toward the man in the piece of old rug; that one, that one, her hand commanded. It was a lion, carved out of soft dry wood that looked like spongecake; heraldic, black and white, with impressionistic detail burnt in. The old man held it up to her still smiling, not from the heart, but at the customer. Between its Vandyke teeth, in the mouth opened in an endless roar too terrible to be heard, it had a black tongue. Look, said the young husband, if you don’t mind! and round the neck of the thing, a piece of fur (rat? rabbit? meerkat?); a real mane, majestic, telling you somehow that the artist had delight in the lion.

Nadine Gordimer
“The Train from Rhodesia”

The second-person point of view, rarely used in fiction and nonfiction narrative, addresses the reader as “you.”

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.

Jay McInerney
Bright Lights, Big City

You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht,
Your hat strategically dipped below one eye.
Your scarf it was apricot.
You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte,
And all the girls dreamed that they’d be your partner

Carly Simon
“You’re So Vain”

In the first-person point of view, one of the characters in the story narrates the action. In this case, the details can only be told through the eyes and mind of the narrator, who cannot really know what the other characters are thinking and feeling (even though she may think she does), nor can she know all the facts and details behind all the action and words—any more than you or I can know those things as we pass through our lives.

That night we lay on the floor in the room and I listened to the silk-worms eating. The silk-worms fed in racks of mulberry leaves and all night you could hear them eating and a dropping sound in the leaves. I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then comeback. I tried never to think about it, but it had started to go since, in the nights, just at the moment of going off to sleep, and I could only stop it by a very great effort. So while now I am fairly sure that it really would not have gone out, yet then, that summer, I was unwilling to make the experiment.

Ernest Hemingway
“Now I Lay Me”

Each technique has its own effects and purposes. Mastering them and learning to marshal them to your purposes takes time and practice. And lots of reading.