There are few choices in fiction writing more important than POINT of VIEW, the building block to VOICE, which is the single most important element in the craft. Start with the premise that any piece of writing with an ill-defined point (be it fiction, nonfiction, essay) will ramble and spin its wheels if it is “pointless”, and any fictional work will find itself mired in mud, spinning its wheels, if it is without a Point of View.
Of course there’re various uses of this element of fiction. One single person, first person-character point of view, for example. One single person-narrator, second person point of view, or one single narraor third person point of view. Confused yet?
An author can choose 3rd person, 2nd person, or 3rd person single point of view, but that is the easy part. Sound complicated? Well yes, it is somewhat as an author can also select multiple-point of view in any one of the three ‘persons’–that is first, second, or third person. Then there is the question of time—should the Point of View (narrator or character) be speaking in present tense (now time) verbs or past tense (then time) verbs?
The choices are many, and the choices an author makes are varied, even head-spinning if you stop too often to think about how you do what you do. However, thanks to Jerome Stern’s meticulous display of all these varied choices, defining each clearly and precisely in his alphabetically organized book for writers—Making Shapely Fiction—there is HELP! After reading it, then check out Dead on Writing by yours truly in audible or ebook format.
Few authors resort to using second person to tell their entire story or novel, but some choose to tell an entire novel in present tense, often as a single point of view. Scott Turow is known for using present tense for entire novels (which I could never do…maybe a short story), but that is how his mind works, and it behooves we authors to determine how our minds work, and in what manner our minds work best, in what environment of language-scape are we feeling most comfortable? Turow blows my mind in his ability to stick with present tense for 300 pages or more. The reporter author of Homicide—Life on the Street also wrote in present tense that entire book (later a TV drama) but this author was a reporter taking notes in real time—as it all happened; in other words, in present tense/time.
For my first novel ever, the control of having one perspective, one character-narrator in Daniel Webster Jackson & The Wrongway Railroad was a good thing for a young author, but like Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn tales, upon which I fashioned the novel as a high-schooler out to create the sequel, I used third person past tense/time. I have ever after used this comfortable POV, even doing now multiple view point crime novels and horror novels and historical novels. Of course with the multiple viewpoints, each switch I go into has to be consistent within that scene or chapter where a new POV takes precedence. Even so, I always feel most comfortable in past tense, third person. In fact, in that frame of writing, I feel as comfortable as an ocean otter floating on his back in the Pacific, eating clams and holding hands with his lady otter.
When it comes to POV, you can believe this fact: it is absolutely intertwined with verb tense/time and person as in first or third person, or at times second person, which is often quite folksy in tone, in the bell it rings. Each choice, believe me, rings a different bell. Take these three sentences each written in a separate ‘person’s voice’:
I slipped into the rear of the ‘old palace’ as Nick called his place, a rundown bungalow off Second Avenue, and I saw it was tucked in behind the Lowe’s as the lumber yard sign stared back at me.
Once you slipped into the rear of the ‘old palace’ as Nick called his place, a rundown bungalow off Second Avenue, only then did you catch sight of the Lowe’s Lumber Yard sign staring back at you.
Lucas slipped into the rear of the ‘old palace’ as Nick called his place, a rundown bungalow off Second Avenue, tucked as it was behind a Lowe’s loading dock. “Some view,” Lucas said as the Lowe’s sign stared back at him.
Brrrrrrring one, brrrrring two, barrrrrrinnng three. Each rings a different bell, which is called tone in the textbooks. “What is the tone of the piece? Is it sarcastic? Authoritative? Straight-laced? Tongue-in-Cheek?
The point is that the construction of one’s POV character or narrator (who are not always one and the same) is a difficult set of constructs that requires that you juggle a host of decisions, but once made, then it is a matter of being consistent in your choices. If your story begins in first person, it should end in first, unless you’re doing something ‘innovative’ or extra special and you know it. If your story sets out in second person, you are stuck with it throughout the story. If in third person (my favorite choice) then it should end in third person. If your story is set up as a single-person POV in past tense like Huck Finn who tells his own story, the whole story then is Huck’s VOICE, Huck’s single point of view. Nothing happens that he does not see and experience. It is totally his story.
In my Instinct Series I used third person narrative throughout, but I also use multiple viewpoints throughout, so you are in the mind/body/spirit of Dr. Jessica Coran (whose story it is) most of the way, but you are also at times in the mind/body/spirit of the villainous serial killer or Jessica’s supervisor, or her lover, or her shrink, or her lab assistant. These other POVs all are connected to Jessica. She is at the center of the universe of the novel, and all other minor POVs are satellites in her orbit. Some call it the character WEB with Jessica at the center and all others are connected in her web by the connective tissue of each relationship status and interrelated status(es).
So there! How simple is that? So easy… Frankly, if it was easy, it would not take years upon years to learn the craft to the point of writing lines that do more than lay there on the page, lines that instead sing. As Stephen King has said, if you can’t make it sing, at least make it clear. By controlling POV and using consistent POV referencing, you remain clear. Deviating all over the POV map is the fastest way to confuse your readers, committing the #1 sin in writing—Being Unclear. You are not going to be that writer. Your narrator or character-narrator is going to ring a beautiful bell.
Robert W. Walker has written & published over 70 novels, 3 short story collections & the how-to Dead On Writing, all since his first published work in 1979, Sub-Zero. A graduate of Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., Rob holds an MA in English Education & today is an adjunct professor at West Virginia State University. While he was born in Corinth, MS., Rob grew up in Chicago, setting for many of his novels. Today Rob has ten separate series characters in as many genres. Rob’s Instinct Series began with Killer Instinct & is Rob’s longest running franchise. Rob has taught writing almost as long as he’s been writing—since his junior high days. His first novel, completed in high school was Daniel Webster Jackson & The Wrongway Railroad, a book highly influenced by Mark Twain’s boys’ tales. Rob’s favorite authors are Twain and Shakespeare. He lives in Hurricane, WV with his wife and step-children.