Friday, May 25, 2018

Getting the Right (Write) Perspective


So now we are writing, we are writing regularly, and we are thinking about why we are writing. Now comes another fun part – thinking about how we are writing. This is a particularly broad topic, so let’s start with one simple facet: Point of view.

In some ways this is very easy to understand, but it can be very difficult to apply. At its core, it is about how the story is being told. Is the main character the narrator (first-person), or is it explained by some voice to the side that usually sounds like Morgan Freeman (third-person)? And if the narrator is the main character, is the story being told as it happens (present) or explained after the fact?

This may sound like some simple decision-making, but it spreads a much broader shadow. Let’s start with how these offer different tones to any story. Right now I am typing this entry on the 2:53 train into Chicago. Let’s translate this to narrative form:

  • First-person present: “I am typing this blog entry from my window seat on the 2:53 train to Chicago.”
  • Third-person present: “Jim types his blog entry from his window seat on the 2:53 train to Chicago, his train stop quickly approaching though he shows no sign of leaving his keyboard.”


Seriously, the only difference is pronouns and verbs, but clearly more information can be offered when someone sees more than just the main character’s perspective. Moving the narration to the past, additional pieces can be included:
  • First-person past: “I typed this blog entry from my window seat on the 2:53 train to Chicago. I was so into the writing that I missed my stop.”
  • Third-person past: “Jim typed his blog entry from his window seat on the 2:53 train to Chicago, so engrossed in his words that he failed to get off at his stop.”

In first-person present, the reader lives through the character, knows only what the character knows, and reads the world from their senses. It is all about the character writing the entry on the train – the part about missing the stop cannot be introduced until the character notices it. Sometimes this can take away the suspense of an event, but the surprise of new information gives the reader a jolt. Third-person present, however, allows the writer to throw in little hints of pending events – the approaching train stop. The reader will not be as deep into the character’s head, but the trade-off is the added suspense of how the character deals with the upcoming event. When we write from a perspective, this is one of the trade-offs we should consider.

Now, present versus past. First-person past is a personal favorite of mine and easier for some to use, because it is the natural voice of a storyteller. I can talk about that time I was writing my entry on the train and missed my stop, add my commentary, joke about how I ended up in the Van Buren switch yard or whatever I feel. It is still an insightful perspective, but when the narrator is telling their own story, it is important to remind the reader what part is narration after-the-fact and what part is happening to the character at that time.

Lastly, there’s third-person past. This is also a commonly used form of story-telling because the narrator carries all the control. This is often used with broad, sweeping tales with many characters and incidents, where the story is driven by a chain of events rather than personal reactions. As this view is broadened out, it can become omnipotent – all information is provided to the reader, all perspectives are reliable and on full display. However, as that suggests, we no longer dwell within the mind of one particular character. We lose that intimate perspective, the internal dialogue. We trade away depth for breadth, and shed insight for information.

While a sweeping epic might be best portrayed in third-person past, a story of the reluctant hero may benefit from knowing that character very intimately. Surprises and jolts come easier from the first-person, but suspense and tension are easier to build from the third-person. And ultimately, we have to make the decision of how much our character personally goes through versus how much gets explained through narration. (Seriously, if this gets to be a podcast, I am hiring Morgan Freeman)

On that note, one additional factor needs to be considered before we know exactly how we are going to write our story, and it’s the narrator. Our narration acts as the reader’s guide through the story, a navigator who shows us the route we will take through the story. However, like an out-of-date GPS finder, this can lead the reader down some bad roads. And sometimes, that’s exactly what we want that voice to do.

But that’s for the next post. For now, I need to get off the train. I am not missing my stop a second time.

2 comments:

  1. "...we no longer dwell within the mind of one particular character. We lose that intimate perspective, the internal dialogue. We trade away depth for breadth, and shed insight for information."

    Very interesting observation Jim. I like that.

    I find POV fascinating. I've taken a first-person piece, and changed it to third-person. Such a transition, is not as easy as one might think. Everything changes.

    As far as a writing exercise, I feel everyone should attempt just to play with your work and get outside yourself and your piece.

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    Replies
    1. As long as we remember that we can rewrite a story and still keep the original, it becomes easy

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