“Plot, setting, character, and point of view. Plot, setting, character, and point of view. Plot, setting, character, and point of view, and you can tell a story too.” I wonder what Mrs. Bridges would think to know that I still vividly remember her singing that song in sophomore English. I won’t tell you exactly how long ago, but it was more than a decade. In my last writing post I talked extensively about the first three. If you can establish a character, a setting, and a conflict, then you have a story. This is about the fourth one, point of view, which is the first step in deciding how to tell your story.
Point of view means from whose perspective the story is being told. It’s usually abbreviated to POV, and it determines the narrator of a story and how much the reader will know. There is first person, second person, and third person POV, and they can each be either limited or omniscient in viewpoint and subjective or objective in mode. Bored yet? Me too. Let’s write.
Currently everyone knows I am writing in first person because I, the narrator, use the word “I.” I am the first person. Straight from the source. Here are some excerpts from popular books written in first person. The first person to guess all of these books correctly in the comments will win first prize. First prize is I write you a poem.
“I hear his instructions in my head. "Just clear out, put as much distance as you can between yourselves and the others, and find a source of water." But it's tempting, so tempting, when I see the bounty waiting there before me. And I know that if I don't get it, someone else will.” See all how the character uses “I”?
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.”
First person is easy to recognize, but difficult to write. You can only put what your main character sees and experiences directly, and not what other people are thinking or feeling. Everything that you put on the page needs to be colored with the lens of your character. If you were writing in first person and your main character was a young unmarried woman in Victorian England, she would not spend a lot of time worrying about hunting wild boars. If your first person is a soldier in a war, what he notices about battle will be different depending on if this is his first engagement or if he’s at the tail end of several tours. Feel free to write pages and pages of character narrative just to get a feel for who they are and the belief windows through which they see the word. Your book will be better for your understanding.
Second person is even more obvious when you read it, but it can be exceedingly tricky to use to write an entire fiction novel. Instead of the “I” of first person, second person is written with “you” in mind. Literally. The first two lines of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984) are these: “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.”
Used primarily in do-it-yourself manuals, choose your own adventure books, role-playing games, and song lyrics, it is uncommon to find books written in second person. In fact, in all my research I couldn’t find one work of literary fiction written entirely in second person. But there were several that had second person POV sections. Ready? I promise you’ve heard of these authors, even if you don’t know it.
“You sink down and muffle your head in the clothes, shivering all the while, but less from bodily chill, than the bare idea of a polar atmosphere. It is too cold even for the thoughts to venture abroad. You speculate on the luxury of wearing out a whole existence in bed, like an oyster in its shell, content with the sluggish ecstasy of inaction, and drowsily conscious of nothing but delicious warmth, such as you now feel again.”
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”
First person is “I”, second is “you”, and now we’re arrived at third, personal pronouns. Our main character is “he” or “she,” and this is currently the most popular POV to write. This is also where the limited or omniscient viewpoint is the most noticeable. Limited viewpoint means that everything you write down is limited by what your point of view character personally knows. He can’t say that Max parked in his usual spot if he doesn’t know that Max usually parks there. She may know there are ten steps between her bedroom door and the bathroom, but have no idea there is someone waiting in the hallway in the dark. Third person limited examples. And if you’ve gotten them all this far, start thinking about what kind of poem you’d like me to write for you, the victor.
“It was an incredible sight. The dungeon was full of hundreds of pearly-white, translucent people, mostly drifting around a crowded dance floor, waltzing to the dreadful, quavering sound of thirty musical saws, played by an orchestra on a raised, black-draped platform. A chandelier overhead blazed midnight-blue with a thousand more black candles. Their breath rose in a mist before them; it was like stepping into a freezer.”
“Kendra stared out the side window of the SUV, watching foliage blur past. When the flurry of motion became too much, she looked up ahead and fixed her gaze on a particular tree, following it as it slowly approached, streaked past, and then gradually receded behind her.
Was life like that? You could look ahead to the future or back at the past, but the present moved too quickly to absorb. Maybe sometimes. Not today. Today they were driving along an endless two-lane highway through the forested hills of Connecticut.”
Third person omniscient has fallen out of favor somewhat in recent years, but it used to be the go to for writers. In this POV, you the author know everything that everyone knows and can share any part you want. It is tempting to reveal too much, but it can also be fascinating. Imagine if you will a group of people sitting around a table at a restaurant. They are eating delicious food. The conversation is lively. Then the table explodes and they are thrown backwards in heat and pain and shrapnel. Intense? Maybe. Surprising? Yes.
Now imagine that as a reader you know the bomb is under the table. You know it’s going to go off very soon. You watch the people be seated and order, and you hear their lively banter and compliments about the food, all the while knowing that at any moment-boom. Surprising? No. Intense? Absolutely.
“She was a notable housewife; her work was always done and well done; she "ran" the Sewing Circle, helped run the Sunday-school, and was the strongest prop of the, Church Aid Society and Foreign Missions Auxiliary. Yet with all this Mrs. Rachel found abundant time to sit for hours at her kitchen window, knitting "cotton warp" quilts—she had, knitted sixteen of them, as Avonlea housekeepers were wont to tell in awed voices-and keeping a sharp eye on the main road that crossed the hollow and wound up the steep red hill beyond.”
“The old woman was let in by the side door down the vaulted passage by Paul's room and she was allowed a moment to peer in at him where he lay in his bed. By the half-light of a suspensor lamp, dimmed and hanging near the floor, the awakened boy could see a bulky female shape at his door, standing one step ahead of his mother. The old woman was a witch shadow -- hair like matted spiderwebs, hooded 'round darkness of features, eyes like glittering jewels. "Is he not small for his age, Jessica?" the old woman asked. Her voice
wheezed and twanged like an untuned baliset.”
All right, now that we’ve gone through plot, setting, character, and point of view, it’s your turn to tell a story. The first person who can name all the books correctly gets a poem, and as for the rest, write.