Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Point of View

Hilary suggests:
How about a discussion of the advantages of different types of POV?

Okay, but first, here's some background information for the late arrivals. Point Of View (POV) defines who's telling the story and the vantage point from which they're speaking. The major forms are:

  • First Person is when the narrator is speaking to the reader about something the narrator is doing or has done, as in, "I am writing this."
  • Second Person is when the narrator is speaking to the reader about something the reader is doing or has done, as in, "You are reading this -- and aren't you glad that you are?"
  • Third Person is when the narrator is speaking to the reader about something that someone else is doing or has done, as in, "Hilary suggested this topic."
  • Fourth Person is left to you to work out as a creative exercise. Probably it involves time travel.

Tightly tied in with POV are the questions of scope and tense, or as a special prosecutor might ask, "What does the narrator know and when does he know it?" Tense can be either past, present, or future, while scope varies continuously from omniscience (the narrator knows everything) down to very, very limited.

Observations: I've used First Person/Present Tense (stream of consciousness) to very good effect in a couple of quite successful stories. However, a little of it goes a long way, and it seems best saved for very short stories or things like fugue sequences in longer narratives.

My "natural" form appears to be First Person/Past Tense -- at least, that's what I've used for most of the work I've sold. This doesn't bother me. Some writers (e.g., Mickey Spillane) have had very long and successful careers writing nothing but FP/past. The catch is that it's dramatically limiting. Since the narrator is telling the story after it's over, he's obviously survived it, which immediately removes a major source of plot tension.

Second Person is used very rarely, although it can be used to great effect in "Tales of the Crypt"-type horror stories that end with a nasty surprise, e.g.:

Why is it so dark and stuffy in here? Why, you're lying in a coffin! You're dead! It sure sucks to be you, doesn't it?

While this idiom was heavily overworked in the 1950's, there's a whole new generation out there now who did not grow up reading E.C. comics, so it might be worth revisiting.

Third Person/Present Tense is useful only when you want to be annoyingly artsy, and then only for short stories or fugue sequences. I mean, who wants to read an entire novel composed of text like:

Sara goes to IKEA. She studies the display of kitchen cutlery, and wonders which of the beautiful shiny knives would work best for slitting Bill's trachea. But then some heavy ceramic crocks on the next rack catch her eye, and she thinks, "Perhaps it would be better to make it look like an accident."

Third Person/Past Tense/Limited is the form most commonly used for contemporary fiction... and I'm out of time and must post and dash.

What works for you, and why?