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5. Point of view and voice

5.1 What is point of view?

Think back to high school English.

Don’t panic, we won’t focus on the ‘high school’ part, just the ‘English’ part.

You may remember being taught different tactics for writing point of view. Point of view is one of the main considerations in how you tell a story. While you as the writer know everything, it doesn’t mean the story is best told with the reader knowing everything. What would be the point of reading from the first page to the last? By not seeing/knowing what every character sees you are able to increase the tension of a narrative and give the reader a chance to bond with your protagonist/s through ‘shared experience’.

Of course there are strategic moments when authors break out of their main character’s point of view, and enable an increase in tension or an extra layer of emotion. However, these are generally controlled breakaways, something to be used sparingly and not like a salt shaker over chips.

Point of view is who’s narrating your story and it comes in a choice three primary flavours:

  • First person (I, me)
  • Second person (you)
  • Third person (they, she, he)

Third person is further broken down into two major types as discussed below.

 

5.2 A framing device

Point of view is a kind of ‘frame’ through which your story is told. It shapes the structure and mood and tells us something about the narrator, our ‘guide’ through this narrative. Depending on who is telling the tale, the essence of the story—and how the reader experiences it—can change.

Before you begin writing even your first sentence, you need to determine who is doing the telling and how much information is available for that narrator to reveal.

Even if your narrator is not an overt character, with a name and a visible role in the story, the reader will pick up a sense of who is doing the telling, something we will explore in a little more detail when we talk about ‘voice’.

 

5.3 Examples: Point Of View

First person:

I turn back the way I came, and as I make my way past fences and fancy letter-boxes, carports and garages, paved terraces and blue swimming pools, I must frequently swerve to avoid the huge dustly leaves, from monsteras and umbrella trees and the like, that hang over footpaths. How relieved I am to turn a corner and see, at the end of the next block, ‘the big white corner house with the Poinciana trees’.

 — Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

Second person:

This very course you’re now reading is written in second person. A lot of instructional-type prose is. You probably haven’t read many stories second person, though. That ‘instructional’ style can come across as quite confronting, even bossy, when a reader expects storytelling.

The exception to this is in gaming. Interactive fiction is a term that covers any story design where readers choose from multiple pathways. As a way to emphasise the reader’s control of the story, second person has become the default point of view of interactive fiction, from web-based story games all the way back to ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ from the late 1960s. Of course, it’s no accident that second person suits a form of writing where the reader literally must follow a set of instructions.

Nevertheless some writers have made a virtue of it:

A question for you, Mrs. Campbell: were our pastels ever new? No one I have met who was educated in Queensland at this time could EVER remember seeing a new box of pastels. Every pastel was a fragment. A stump. By the time the bits of pastel came to us in their horribly grubby box, all of them looked the same—like little black-brown goat’s turds. That’s exactly what they looked like, Mrs. Campbell.

— Dear Mrs. Campbell’ by Gary Crew

Third person, omniscient:

Omniscient is the classic all-seeing, all-knowing point of view. You, the author, report on anything that’s happening including what the characters are thinking and feeling. This style is useful for stories with large casts, and various settings.  But all stories still require intimacy and immediacy at some point.

 ‘Every man in the western suburbs who resembled the phantom picture was subjected to long scrutinising looks.  These men went home and looked at themselves in the mirror, saw no resemblance whatsoever.  In the evening, in bed, they wondered if they should change something about their appearance in the morning or would that seem suspicious.  It would turn out they didn’t need to bother. People would soon have something else to think about.  Sweden would become a changed nation.  A violated nation.  That was the term constantly used: violated.’

— John Avidje Lindqvist, Let the Right One In

Third person, limited:

The easiest way to think about the third person, limited point of view is to imagine your narrator as a camera.

As a camera, your narrator can only capture objective events. You can’t get inside characters’ heads and tell reader what they’re thinking. You must show their thoughts and emotions through their behaviour and actions.

There is one exception. You may choose a single character as your ‘camera operator’. For your point of view to remain limited, you must restrict yourself to that one character’s feelings and thoughts. Everyone else must be shown objectively. In this way, third person limited acts similarly to first person, just with ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of ‘I’.

‘Reggie had never actually had a close encounter with a one-year-old child before, or indeed any small children, but what was there to know?  They were small, they were helpless, they were confused and Reggie could easily identify with all of that.  And it wasn’t that long ago since she had been a child herself although she had an ‘old soul’, a fortune teller had told her.  Body of a child, mind of an old woman.’

—  Kate Atkinson, When Will There Be Good News?

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5.4 Choose wisely

So, how do you go about making this important decision about your work, especially when you’re starting out? Many writers consider which point of view will work best for a story right from the outset alongside character and structure. Other writers have a kind of ‘default’ setting, a preferred point of view that feels comfortable.

Below is a table of the features and considerations for each point of view, which may help you decide what works best for you and for your story.

Mode Features Considerations
First Person –my, I
  • Generates intimacy between reader and narrator – easy for reader to empathise with ‘I’ statements
  • Gain great sense of the character
  • Intimacy creates a heightened sense of tension, there’s no distance between the story and its teller
  • May be easier to find the right voice, if you know your narrating character well
  • The readercan only know what the narrator knows
  • Cannot experience events or ideas outside their viewpoint
  • It’s more difficult to withhold information – unless your narrator is‘unreliable’(see below)
  • The reader will question how the narrator came to tell the story(i.e. you can’t kill your narrator)
  • Relies on your making the right choice of narrating character
  • Hard to find the right voice if you don’t know your character yet
Second Person –you
  • A different intimacy, the reader is being directly addressed
  • ‘You’ may be another character, especially in an epistolary story
  • Some readers find it confronting and exhausting!
  • It can be self-conscious and draw the reader’s attention to the writer
  • Very difficult to maintain well in long-form work
Third Person –they, he, she Omniscient
  • All-seeing, all-knowing
  • Great for large casts and various settings
  • So common as to be close to invisible to the reader
  • Takes away some of the mystery
  • Might be considered the ‘vanilla’ of point of view
  • So common as to be close to invisible to the reader
Limited
  • Still using ‘they’, but told via a single character’s experience or a neutral ‘camera’-like narrative
  • Like a camera, unable to go inside characters’ heads (or, rather, one at the most)
  • More intimate than Omniscient, but more distant than first person
  • Less access to information, must rely on characters’ actions and behaviour in order to reveal their internal thoughts and feelings
  • Like first person, relies on your making the right choice of narrating character
  • Like first person, hardto make the right choices if you don’t know your character yet

5.5 Changing point of view

Although point of view is an important decision for your story, it’s not set in stone. There’s nothing wrong with starting out using one point of view and, in a later draft, deciding another will work better. It is painstaking, especially for a long form work, but far from impossible.

Point of view may also switch within the narrative itself. Writers may employ this device to allow the reader to see multiple perspectives, to affect the narrative’s overall pace, or to achieve the right aesthetic. It is also a means to avoid the disadvantages of any one approach detailed above. But be warned, this technique is not a cheat. In fact, it’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to pull off successfully, even for experienced writers. A change in point of view has to happen for good reason and has to be convincing enough that the reader is left in no doubt at any time who is doing the narrating.

If you’re tempted to take this path, first ask yourself: does your story really need these different points of view in order to be told? Not many do.

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5.6 The unreliable narrator

The unreliable narrator is one whose trustworthiness is compromised and the reader is unsure whether they’re telling the actual truth or a truth that puts them in a better light. The unreliable narrator can be used with a first person or limited third person point of view.

The unreliable narrator is such a classic device that some of the earliest examples of ‘the novel’ itself—Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes from 1605 or Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy from 1767—feature narrators who cannot be trusted.

  • The pícaro: a narrator who exaggerates and brags
  • The madman: a narrator who has mental illness—delusions, hallucinations, or paranoia—and may or may not have insight into their own condition
  • The clown: a narrator who does not take the job of narrator seriously and consciously plays with conventions, truth and the reader’s expectations
  • The naíf: a narrator whose perception is immature or limited through his or her point of view
  • The liar: a mature narrator of sound cognition who deliberately misrepresents the story, often to obscure an unseemly or discreditable past

 

5.7 Activity: Point of view

Think about how your choice for point of view dictates how your story unfolds and how changing point of view can drastically alter it. Trying out different points of view is an excellent way to consider how different viewpoints and in what case one view point might be better than another.

WHAT TO DO

Remember that last scene you wrote when we were talking about character? The one with only dialogue and no narrator?

Guess what? We’re going to put a narrator in now.

Take the existing dialogue and rewrite it as a narrative: get inside the characters’ heads, describe the setting, provide more detail. It’s your choice how much of the original dialogue you want to keep. Use the table of features and considerations above to help guide you. The focus of this exercise is to concentrate on allowing the scene to now unfold as your narrator sees it:

  • First, write in third person, omniscient
  • Then, write in first person

Was one approach easier or more natural than another? How did changing point of view influence how you went about telling the story? Did you feel the constraints of one or another? Were there details you could or couldn’t reveal, depending on who was telling the story?

While you as the writer ideally know everything, it doesn’t mean the story is best told with the reader knowing everything and your point of view determines how and when the story’s information is revealed.

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5.8 Voice

Closely related to point of view is voice. The key to a great narrative is a strong voice, which comes from a great narrator through which to experience the story. It should be appropriate to the setting and characters (it should not jar with these) and it will tell us about our narrator and his/her view on the world. Find that unique voice and it will lift the quality of your book from good to great.

But voice also comes from you: your particular way of describing the world and how that is reflected in the choices you make for telling the story. Even if using a point of view from a character, you will still approach the story like no one else.

No two people will tell the same story in the same way. At the heart of this difference is voice. It might be thought of as the ‘texture’ of your writing. It’s the unique thing you bring to the page, or the stage or the screen that no one else can.

Your narrator’s voice can come in many different flavours depending on personality and style: sparse, comedic, conversational, formal, musical etc.

 

5.9 Tense 

Part your consideration of voice is determining the tense in which your story will be told. Tense has a huge influence over how a reader experiences your story, especially its pace and sense of urgency.

Tense can be broken down into many different types, but for the purposes of storytelling, only two are especially relevant.

  • Past tense: Instills a sense of confidence that the narrator has full knowledge of what has happened, and can reflect on its meaning.
  • Present tense: Has a sense of immediacy; we experience the events as they happen.  It can also feel unstable, which can be a good or bad thing depending on your intention.

Tense is worth taking some time to consider before you commit to writing, especially in longer forms. This is because changing your mind later on is painstaking work.

 

5.10 Examples of voice

Sparse:

‘This is what I remember. My lips were cut. I bit down on them when he grabbed me from behind and covered my mouth. He said these words: “I’ll kill you if you scream.” I remained motionless. “Do you understand? If you scream you’re dead.” I nodded my head. My arms were pinned to my sides by his right arm wrapped around me and my mouth was covered by his left.

He released his hand from my mouth.

I screamed. Quickly. Abruptly.

The struggle began.’

— Alice Sebold, Lucky

Hymnal/Operatic:

‘Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.’

— Homer, The Iliad

Conversational:

‘Now that I am dead I know everything. This is what I wished would happen, but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true. I know only a few factoids that I didn’t know before. It’s much too high a price to pay for the satisfaction of curiosity, needles to say.

Since begin dead – since achieving this state of bonelessness, liplessness, breastlessness – I’ve learned some things I would rather not know, as one does when listening at windows or opening other people’s letters. You think you’d like to read minds? Think again.’

— Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

Comic:

I’m just a boy, I keep telling them. A common footpad.

No one believes me. Which shows that (a) they’re a suspicious lot, and (b) not as stupid as they look. But still, it would be nice if someone believed me just once. It’s partially true: I’ve been working as the cook’s boy (although working is a very strong word) for this group of robbers and thieves, but I’m actually a girl. And I’m a map. The map.

Well, maybe not the map in the greater, more universal sense, but the map for which this lot are looking. They just don’t know they’ve got it. Or, they didn’t until yesterday afternoon when I tried to dodge under the Boss’s arm (strictly speaking, he’s a Robber Bridegroom but that’s a bit of a mouthful every time you address him) as he tried to swipe me for some infringement and grabbed my shirt. The damned thing’s so old it’s got no strength left in the weave. The moment pressure greater than a summer breeze got hold of it, it tore and left me in all my small-breasted, seventeen year-old glory as an object of unhealthy interest for the merry men.

— Angela Slatter, “Lost Things”, Sourdough and Other Stories

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5.11 Finding the right voice

So, if voice is something that comes from your character and, ultimately, from within you, how is it that some voices might be considered ‘wrong’ and others ‘right’?

Actually, the words we use typically are not ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ but ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’. Voice, like every other feature of narrative we cover in this course, should ultimately serve the story. A voice, whether in the narrative or in dialogue, should never distract the reader from your depth of characterisation or meticulous plotting or rich setting. An inauthentic voice works against the story, jars the reader, and at its worst becomes disruptive and irritating.

So, how do you find the right voice for each individual story? Finding the right voice relies on considering the below points:

  • Who is your character?
  • Where is their story taking place; what kind of world is this?
  • When is their story taking place?
  • What is their outlook on life?
  • What is the story they are trying to get across? What’s most important to them?
  • Is the narrator the character with the highest stakes? If not, why not?
  • Is the voice consistent with both story/world and character constraints?

The difficulty in getting voice to work—particularly in fixing one that’s not working—is that the whole concept is elusive and can seem subjective.

A good voice emerges so naturally from the story that a reader may barely notice it. A great voice may draw attention to itself, but in a way that’s indispensable to the narrative. As readers, we all prefer some voices to others, even if we’re not conscious of it.

But crimes against voice are not just a matter of taste. They happen when the writer tries too hard to be ‘writerly’ and adopts an unnatural tone. They happen when a writer doesn’t know his or her characters well enough. And they are especially clear when a writer forces his or her opinion into the narrative. It’s great to have something to say (it’s why we write), but a story is not an op-ed. Your opinion, your extensive research, your clever turn of phrase, your politics, and your jokes must be relevant to the story. If they’re not, you’re getting in the way and your reader will notice.

 

5.12 Detecting problems with voice

The easiest way to detect a red flag in the voice of your story is inconsistency. The tone and texture of the writing will veer off course if you lose focus on the narrative. Characters or narrators that break off the story suddenly to launch into a rant are a classic indicator that something has gone awry in the voice department.

Problems with voice can be difficult for writers to detect in their own work, especially early on. Recruiting an ally, someone who can test read (or ‘beta’ read) your work is a good defence against such subtle problems in a text. Your beta reader does not have to be someone with writing or editing skills, just someone who will be honest in their appraisal. A good skill for early writers is to point your beta reader towards parts of the story you’re unsure of, to ask for specific details of what they liked and what they didn’t, and to listen carefully to their responses. Phrases such as ‘I didn’t get…’, ‘It didn’t sound right…’, or even ‘What happened when…’ might be clues that the story’s voice may need some work.

 

5.13 Exercise: Finding the Right Voice

In most cases it is your character that will be the determining factor in ‘finding’ the voice for your piece. This is rarely affected by the choice of first or third person point of view (though first person point of view can make the character feel ‘closer’ and you may find using it helps you get a handle on character/story voice faster). The best way to get a feel for how diverse characters would describe a scene differently is to describe the same scene from the point of view of multiple characters. This exercise will help you view a scene from different character backgrounds. Make sure you pay special attention to the types of metaphors and similes different characters would use, and the types of senses that would be important to them (e.g. sound is important to a criminal who mainly works in the dark, sight and colours capture a child’s attention etc.).

WHAT TO DO

First, choose one of the three scenarios below:

  • Eating a meal
  • Looking out a window to a winter morning
  • Lying in bed trying to get to sleep

Then, create the scene in one paragraph using each of the following voices:

  1. A melancholy elderly woman or man
  2. An angry criminal (male or female) awaiting sentencing
  3. A young child with allergies

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