Point of view, perspective, and narrative distance: these aren’t difficult concepts, but they do trip up writers. Jarring switches in point of view or a character’s sudden omniscience are mistakes that imply you’re a novice.
Who narrates? How much does the narrator see and know? What perspective, including biases and blind spots, does the narrator bring? How close is the reader to the narrator, and how close is the narrator – we’re talking psychic distance here – to the story? These decisions are generally embedded in a narrative from the very first sentence.
Every author works differently, and for most of us, the process shifts from project to project. These days, I don’t generally begin a story until I hear the narrative voice. When I first began my novel Cold Spell, I heard sixteen-year-old Sylvie loud and clear. The novel began like this, in first person:
Kenny promised a new start at the glacier, where the wind blew mean and cold off the ice. You’ll love it, he promised my mother, and being eager to love, she believed him.
As the novel began to take shape, I felt it needed to be told from three points of view: sixteen-year-old Sylvie, her mother Ruth, and Kenny’s mother,
Lena. For a long time, Sylvie’s portions
stayed in first person, reflecting my strong connection to her, along with the
fact that she’s sixteen, an age that favors a certain amount of
self-absorption. Ruth and Lena narrated from the third
But as the novel came together, the shifts from first to third person began to feel lopsided. It’s not that such a thing can’t be done – Jayne Anne Phillip’s award-winning Lark and Termite is a great example – but I wasn’t achieving the intimacy I wanted with each of the three characters, and adjusting the point of view seemed one way to balance things out. Early readers concurred. Now the novel begins like this, still with Sylvie, but in third person:
I am a poem, Sylvie once thought, swollen like a springtime river, light swirled in dark, music and memory. Then her father ran off and her mother became obsessed with a glacier and she realized this was what happened to girls who believed themselves poems, poems in fact being prone to bad turns and misunderstandings.
In shifting from first to third person, no intimacy is lost. Third person can in fact allow for more latitude with voice and perspective, including self-insight. Sylvie herself wouldn’t have said “poems in fact being prone to bad turns and misunderstandings.” She’s sixteen, and that’s not how she talks.
Consider how the process works in reverse, when the change is from third to first person. “Changing POV like this involves a great deal more than simply turning all the she’s into I’s,” explain Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter in What If? “The author must step out from the middle and let the I’s voice speak for itself.” There’s much to be said for the power of a strong, sustaining voice, rendered in the first person. But first person can also the most limiting of the point of view options. You can only tell what one character experiences, and it must be through her own set of filters, in her own voice.
I’ve had plenty of misadventures with point of view and perspective during my years in publishing. It felt like my first novel, A Distant Enemy, wrote itself, and it happened to be in third person, from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old boy. Buoyed with unearned confidence, I decided I’d be strategic with my second novel, which began with an idea instead of a voice: I’d write about a girl’s experience in the wilderness. I drafted and redrafted the whole novel a couple of times before my editor, the venerable Virginia Buckley, pointed out that it wasn’t the girl’s story after all. Before it was all said and done, I wrote four different versions of Out of the Wilderness, each with a different point of view: girl first, girl third, boy first, boy third. You might say I’m a slow learner.
We build intuition about point of view, perspective, and narrative distance through careful reading, awareness, and flexibility - a willingness to revise. As we grow in skill and confidence, it becomes easier to juggle pov, perspective, and distance. It took me a good long time to get comfortable, for instance, with the limited use of second person as part of a narrator’s voice, and with multiple points of view. In Cold Spell, the narration shifts completely in the final scene, as does the tense, and the characters aren’t referred to by name as they approach the glacier:
You feel it first in the dry sucking wind that shivers past shadows, empty and defiant, the air mean and low, siphoning warmth, the ice a large and perpetual testimony to cold. Two figures creep toward it, dwarfed by raw-edged mountains that chew at the sky, the illusion of ice so close you could reach out and feel the wet melt of it under your skin as you press as if for a pulse.
“The closing scene is especially masterful in this regard,” says one of my readers.“Taking Brody's and Sylvie's names out renders them both as the anguished, grasping, not-yet-fully developed characters we know so well AND spiritual archetypes.” Commenting on the multiple points of view in the novel, this same reader says, “I love the way you weave together the overlapping voices of the characters--a narrative technique that can easily come across as gimmicky, but that you manage beautifully.”
While multiple viewpoints can add layers of tension to a narrative, there are other pitfalls besides the gimmick. “A novel dominated by point of view often lacks the feeling of space and freedom, of security in the world, that permits the reader to transcend themselves, to grow and change by living for a period in the narrative,” notes Rachel Cusk.
A more dire pitfall is what author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford terms head jumping. “Whatever perspective you choose,” Bransford says, “it has to be grounded. The reader has to know where they are in relation to the action so they can get their bearings and lose themselves in the story.” He likens point of view to a camera, noting that writers need to be mindful of the potentially jerky, dizzying effect of swapping perspectives within a scene.
Like so much else in writing, your skillful handling of point of view, perspective, and narrative distance earns you the trust of your readers, proving that they’re in capable hands, and that the narrative you’ve fashioned through a wild, messy, hair-pulling process now flows confidently in all its aspects.
Try This: In What If?, Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter suggest you write in 550 words or less about an early memory, something that occurred before you were seven years old. Use the first person and the perspective of a child. Keep the distance tight by not analyzing, reflecting, or interpreting. Let the narrative speak for itself. Then write about the same incident in no more than two pages, this time with the distance created by time, and an adult perspective, in either first or third person.
Check This Out: What If? by Bernays and Painter offer a multitude of exercises for the fiction writer, on beginnings, memory, characterization, perspective, dialogue, plot, story elements, resolution, transformation, and mechanics. There’s even a section on games, and another on learning from the greats. With each are student examples.