Monday, July 26, 2010

The Finest Details

Sometimes it comes down to the finest details. For writers as readers—the most critical readers, I suppose—the success or failure of another artist’s work falls upon whether the small things act like door hinges that are well-oiled or they creak from age and rust. Today’s finest detail focuses on point of view. Before we do, however, let’s lay down a foundation.

Viewpoint is the place from which the reader views your story.

– Gary Provost, Beyond Style

As you are aware, before writing a book, a chapter, or even a scene, the writer has to make a choice on who will tell the story (and about whom). In making that choice, the writer may choose first-, second-, or third-person.

Imagine you are sitting at a table. There are two cups of coffee and an empty chair before you. If the story is told in the first-person point of view, then it will feel like your friend Sally is sitting down and telling you her story. “The other day I went down to pier,” she says, “and looking into the water, I saw the most freak-odd thing I’ve ever seen, I kid you not.” In this case Sally is telling you exactly what she saw and how it felt, using words (like “freak-odd”) that only she would use.

If the story is told in the second-person point of view, it might feel like a therapist is sitting down at the table, trying to make suggestions to your subconscious mind. “You are sitting at a bar,” he begins. “You like the music, the rhythm and pulse of it on your skin. You light a cigarette, not your normal brand, but the week has been long, the expenses high, and you had to settle for the Pall Malls instead of the Winstons.” And this may be why many readers don’t like the second-person point of view: they hate the feeling of being shrink-wrapped, told that they like red shoes with two inch heals when they really prefer a pair of sneakers, the laces untied.

If the story is told in the third-person point of view, then it might feel like Lois Lane is sitting down at the table, giving you the scoop on what her investigative reporting has uncovered. “Jonathan Rickards felt like it was the longest day of his life,” she tells you. “The boss said his work performance smelled so bad that it would take more than a can of Febreze to clear the air. And then Nicole, his wife, called to say that she’d had it. She was through and don’t bother coming home. She had changed the locks on the door to their house. Well her house, now.” Lois continues with the story, and how much you will eventually learn about Jonathan Rickards in this scene depends wholly upon what she has learned about him, and only about what he can see, hear or feel. We call this third-person limited.

In some cases, the narrator will have the details from everyone’s perspective, including how they think and feel, jumping from one person to the next in real time. In which case, it’s not Lois Lane sitting across the table and telling you a story, but rather someone with the ability to see all and know all. We call this third-person omniscient.

Sure this is a limited, not to mention a simplistic, discussion on point of view. Most writers devote whole chapters to the subject. I’m only working with a blog post, however, and don’t have the time or space to deal with it in detail.

In all cases, the choice made on the point of view is a big decision which comes with its own limitations.

The choice of narrative voice and point of view—who is speaking (and how) and through whose consciousness and emotional focus is the story understood?—will affect every other choice the writer makes in the story. In that sense, point of view is the writer’s most important technical choice.

– John Dufresne, The Lie That Tells a Truth

I believe there is a key component in the passage above: who is speaking (and how) and through whose consciousness and emotional focus is the story understood? Again, the choice of point of view narrows the scope of the story down to what any one character and thus the reader can possibly know, or in the case of the third-person narrator, what he or she can reasonably tell you as well. And this is where the work can fall short: a writer forgets that the narrator, or a character, can’t reasonably know this detail or that one. A first-person narrator, an Exxon executive sitting in his Houston, Texas office can’t possibly know that the Governor of Louisiana is right then in a secret meeting, discussing the short life of oil tycoons. Not unless he has the Governor’s mansion bugged. Or the lead character of a story told in third-person limited can’t possibly know what everyone else is thinking, not unless he’s clairvoyant.

As another example, here is something I read lately. The particular scene was told in third-person limited (i.e. our Lois Lane analogy) from the point of view of Johnny, a hit man for the mob. As the scene unfolded, the reader could only see what Johnny saw. Suddenly, there was a gun fight in the street. Everything was running smoothly until the writer typed down these words:

Johnny kicked [the gun] away quickly, stomped on Strazza’s fingers, breaking two of them…

At that point, I took a pause in the reading experience. Really? Two of them? How was it possible for Johnny to know for sure that he just broke two fingers. Did he have an x-ray machine? I don’t remember him having one. Maybe he’s not Johnny after all, but Superman, and has x-ray vision. If so, then why didn’t the writer tell me that from the beginning?

It’s a subtle thing, providing a detail that a character can't possibly know, and admittedly I’m being a bit snarky here, but I think it would have been better to write the following instead:

Johnny kicked it away quickly and stomped on a Strazza’s fingers. He heard a satisfying crack and smiled.

By writing it this way, the reader understands that something in Strazza’s hand just snapped. Whether it was one finger, two, or even three, it doesn’t matter. Strazza no longer has full functionality in that hand.

This is just one example. How about you? Are there cases where you've noticed a violation of POV? I would like to see them.

Other News:

It’s been a while since I last posted. Since then, my good friend Paige Von Lieber bestowed upon me the “Blog With Substance” award. Many thanks to her for that. Upon receiving this award, I’m supposed to share my blogging philosophy in 5 words: Writing Life from my Perspective. I hope that sums it up. I’m also supposed to give this award to 10 other bloggers. The problem with that, however, is I am not as dedicated to blogging as others these days. As such, I’ll give it out to other bloggers as I can think of them, a few usual suspects and two others I think you should consider for the edification they provide: Greta Igl’s blog, Linda Wastila's blog, Michael Larsen’s blog, Nathan Bransford’s blog, and Carol Benedict’sblog.

I finally finished the polishing job on “Simple”, a short crime story, which I’ve mailed off to one of the bigger print magazines. Fingers are crossed.

Currently working through the polishing of “Rule Number One”, another short story which has been on the shelf for a couple of years. Hopefully, I’ll have that one ready to go soon.

The plan at the moment is to have a small number of short stories out in submission while I start the actual revision of my novel.

Until next time…


  1. Stephen, great post, as usual. Thanks for recommending my blog.


  2. purdy good words. See another simple aspect of poetry, much easier to change the point of view.

  3. Congrats to you and your picks on your award!

    This is a great post. It is hard, when writing in 3rd limited, to avoid that sudden jump of the narrator putting in their two cents worth with the knowledge of broken fingers.

  4. Congrats on your award.

    I think second person is the hardest to pull off, and is very rarely needed. Close third and omniscient third are really easy to mix. Subtle changes can make all the difference in the world.