Point of View From My Point of Viewby Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, May 1998
As a teacher, as a judge of short-stories and now as an editor-judge with World Wide Writers I'm constantly being reminded of the poor control of point of view ("POV") in beginner and even intermediate writing. I should be used to it by now, but I'm not. I continue to be surprised by what some authors allow to slip into their narratives, how things occur and are "known" to the reader, when really they should not be, how point of view can drift from the murderer to the victim, then float to an overhead shot, then perhaps to the detective ruminating on the crime.
I have never been a great fan of omniscient (all-seeing, all-singing and dancing, anything goes, "I know what's behind that door") viewpoint, but I can acknowledge that some top-selling writers have mastered it. In the hands of all but the best, however, it kills credibility, makes for a weakening of tension and, for me at least, interrupts the fictive dream.
First person, me-me, seems the most natural (it isn't) but is one of the two best approaches when we are in the foothills of writing. Most of us can quickly learn that if we write "I got up that morning feeling like the cast of Rawhide had been rehearsing in my mouth," that we should confine ourselves to the "I", what "I" can see, hear, feel and think. One drawback to the first person (especially in suspense fiction) is we expect the protagonist to survive (he's writing the story after the event, after all)... This can be overcome with a little artifice, but is still a suspense-deadener.
A second problem with first-person (for some readers and writers) is a sense that the author is or might be present (or at least too close) in the text. I, for example, am very uncomfortable writing a first-person sleaze-bag. I couldn't write, say, of rape or child abuse in the first person, simply because I identify strongly with my characters and write "through" them and "as them." Even writing third-person limited (see later) about a police detective, near the end of a novel I virtually AM the detective! This makes for a fun few weeks as my detective is female...
Most myths and folk-tales are not first person -- it isn't the oldest form. Think of the fables, aren't most, like "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" in fact delivered in the third-person? "There was a shepherd boy, and he was bored and..."
Third person is probably the most common POV employed in the stories I get landing on my desk. My Caz Flood stories (the first four anyway) were like this, 3rd P-POV and severely limited, so limited that they were virtually first-person but with certain advantages. For example, in Cuckoo, when Caz is attacked and lapses into unconsciousness I can finish the scene:
A red flash of something that felt like sexual excitement passed through her and she realised she was about to die. It felt not even remotely bad. The world was a black circle coming to a point. As the circle closed, she felt the sudden thump of the knife hammering at her chest. She wanted to smile, but instead she went to sleep.
Winter rain rolled over her in the empty street.
Third-person limited allows the "cheat" of the last line, yet allows the writer and the reader to identify with, to empathise with, the main character. Caz is always present, just like an "I" character, and we see and hear only what she sees and hears and nothing else! This has advantages like being able to "follow" through with Caz in her investigations, to keep the tension exactly so... My advice to most writing students would be to avoid omniscient writing until all the other skills of writing had been absorbed and to use first-person where the 1st person POV character was very distinctive, and had a great voice, like here:
In the villages all down this valley, from Senghennydd down to Caerphilly, they call me Ernie the Egg.
I do not mind this, but for the record, I am Ernest Jones, poultry farmer, son of Robert Jones, Deacon, and they are my hens that run amok on the hill above the town. You may eat whosoever's pigs you wish, but it is my eggs that you shall have on your plate if you sup anywhere in the valley from Park Hamlet right through Abertridwr. My eggs is on the plates for most the best part of Caerphilly, too, though I know of some Cardiff eggs there.
Yes, I am rich, and the boys in the villages, and the old men, make jokes about me. Yes, Ernie the Egg I am, and with a few bob, and sought after by the Revenue, too, but I am wealthy by fortunate accidents and hard work, and with the help of God, and because of a great and ordinary man, Meredith Toop Evans, collier, and because I am shot in the neck in the Great War and because I am a failed scholar.
The hens have been my livelihood but this have not always been so. Once I was to be a teacher, then a collier, then dead underground, then dead from a bullet in the Great War. That I am not any of these things is an odd thing for me, peculiar altogether, but facts is facts, which is why I will relate my story.
Otherwise, I would always suggest seeing if the story will work in third person, and, if it does, consider how limited you would like that perspective. Totally restricted to the main character you have the intimacy of first person but the advantage of being able to write long camera-shots, and occasional lines where the character is "out of it" as in the extract where Caz falls unconscious.
If you are going to allow more than one third-person viewpoint, take great care. If you dip in and out of more than one person's head, you begin to lose the tensions of not knowing stuff. It can be done but it is a very delicate art and awful when done badly. I'm a very experienced writer and I still try to avoid this.
One common technique is to be limited third-person but maybe write the thoughts of two people, often the detective and the serial-killer. This is so commonplace as to have become clichéd, but can be pulled off. I would personally advise against it. In my opinion, it is far better to increase identification with the protagonist and share his or her troubles and bafflement.
But what I see more commonly is slippage of POV where the writer, knowing everything, forgets that the viewpoint character wouldn't know these things. This is only the briefest of introductions to point-of-view, but always think hard about scenes and test them for "would she know this; would he be able to see that?" For example, in the passage to follow, would a man in a bar know from across the room what the woman is drinking, or would it be better to indicate that he is guessing? This was a student passage.
She immediately sensed his vulnerability and though Jeff was surrounded by other men, drinking and chatting at the bar, he looked uncomfortable and a little helpless. he had noticed her, and while the Friday night jokes of his office mates fell on unresponsive ears he let his mind and occasionally his eyes wander towards this woman. She sat alone at the table nearest the door and sipped a vodka and tonic, returning his furtive glances. Because she was dark and rather quietly dressed she seemed approachable; his wife was a tiresome blonde. Beside her to her left, resting on a chair was her hand-bag, her left hand inside, not rummaging for anything, but just there.
Note here that the piece has not been written deliberately and clearly with alternating points of view, but kind of drifts from one to the other. We can produce different stories by selecting who is the most interesting character to "go with." Should we see him wondering about her, or her wondering about him? Yes, both can be done, but remember to do it well.
I wrote: Choose whose POV, his or hers. That gives emotional control. I'll try not to improve the language and use as many of the original words as possible.
She saw him first, drinking and chatting at the bar, uncomfortable, a little helpless. She immediately sensed his vulnerability and though he was surrounded by other men, she felt he was alone. She knew he had noticed her, and while the Friday night jokes of his office mates rambled on she sensed his mind wander occasionally and his eyes furtively glance her way. That was when she felt for her handbag.
She was sitting alone at the table nearest the door, sipping a vodka and tonic. He glanced her way again and this time she returned the glance, just a flicker or wider eye and raised lashes. She saw him shift slightly so he would be able to look across more easily, then she saw him laugh, a little too loudly, a little too forced.
Because she was dark and rather quietly dressed she knew she seemed approachable. She unclasped her bag. She'd guess - his wife was a tiresome blonde, probably one kid, she'd lost her figure.
Now she had her hand inside the bag not rummaging, just there.
Jeff was surrounded by other men, his office mates, drinking and chatting at the bar, laughing at the Friday night jokes but he was uncomfortable and a little lost. He had noticed the woman almost as soon as he came in. She sat alone at the table nearest the door and sipped what looked like a vodka or maybe a G&T. He had glanced her way a few times, maybe furtively, and she had looked back once with something half-way between a come-on and fuck-you. He saw she had her handbag open, her hand in as if she was rummaging for something. But her hand didn't move. It was just there. She was dark and rather quietly dressed. She seemed approachable. He thought briefly of his wife then dismissed the thought. He looked again at the woman. Her hand was still in her bag, not moving, just there.
See the differences in the two passages? Note also that by choosing one POV we can "sit on the shoulder" of the character: to me, the most natural of ways through a story. And if we have one POV, one character's, it's easier to shape the language and tone of the narrative to approach that of a first-person POV; masculine for a male protagonist, not-so for a female...
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.