Point of View for Creative Fiction Writing Help (page 3)
Point of View for Creative Fiction Writing
Who is telling the story you are writing? It's an important choice because it dictates what kind of information the narrator knows, and it reveals the window through which you must tell your story to your readers.
Will your story be told in the first person? For instance,
I had a little lamb who followed me to school one day. I didn't have time to take my lamb back home. I thought I could just tie him up between the hedges until recess. Most of the other kids tried to help me keep it a secret from the teachers, but I knew that if Jack Pratt found out, he would try to get me in trouble.
Perhaps you'll tell it in the second person.
You have a little lamb who followed you to school. You think to tie the lamb up between the hedges until you can take it back home at recess. You see your classmate Jack Pratt sizing things up. You know he's going to make trouble.
Or maybe you will tell the story in the third-person limited where the narrator can tell the story only through one character's eyes.
Mary had a little lamb who followed her to school one day. Embarrassed, she tried to hide the lamb between the hedges, but the smirk on Jack's face told her that her secret wasn't going to stay secret for long.
There's another choice. You can tell the story in the third-person omniscient. This way, the narrator can see from more than one character's point of view.
The day that Mary's lamb came to school is a day that everyone in town remembers clearly, but with very different opinions on the matter. For Mary, the incident has always been a source of great embarrassment. She maintains that she had no knowledge that the lamb was following her, but only her mother and her teacher believe her to be innocent.
You can also choose to tell the story in multiple points of view. In section one, you can tell the event as Mary sees it through a third-person limited narrator, in another section the way the lamb sees it, and in a third, the way Jack sees things.
Chapter One: "It was amazing to discover my lamb had followed me to school," Mary told her classmates, "I know that if my lamb could talk she'd say how much she wants to learn to read and write. She'd ... "
Chapter Two: Truth be told, I was just kind of on autopilot. I wasn't really thinking about it. I regretted following her as soon as I saw the door to the brick building. I didn't want to go inside. I didn't...
Chapter Three: The day that Mary's lamb came to school I was already in trouble with my dad. He was missing three dollars from his wallet and he figured I'd taken them. He told me that he'd punish me in the evening when he came home from work. I needed something special for myself, something to make me feel better, and getting Mary in trouble seemed like the perfect thing...
If you've done the preceding exercises, you have already adopted a point of view. It really isn't possible to write without one. However, understanding more about the choices you have in points of view and experimenting with them will lead to understanding which of them will ultimately provide the most opportunity for you in developing your story. And it will help you remain consistent in writing from the point of view you choose. Even if you are convinced that you want to write in the first person, doing a variety of point of view exercises can help you realize more about your characters.
If you are writing personal essays or memoir, experimenting with various points of view in exercises will help you realize more about your situations and your perceptions and you can then figure out how to best evoke them by using the point of view you have adopted. Also, although in memoir we expect the "I" to tell the story, we can accomplish interesting results employing second or third person.
Samples of the Different Points of View
In most first-person fiction, like The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, readers believe the "I" speaker who guides them through the world of the story and they want to know how things will turn out for the narrator because they have developed empathy for him.
One day last summer my friend Rahim Khan called from Pakistan. He asked me to come see him. Standing in the kitchen with the receiver to my ear, I knew it wasn't just Rahim Khan on the line. It was my past of unatoned sins.
A second person point of view, as in Jamaica Kincaid's story "Girl," can create a sense of poignancy and urgency.
Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don't walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off.
The use of the implied "you" in the story makes us feel the frustration of not being able to escape narrow thinking. Kincaid's story evokes the way that the speaker is held prisoner by the cultural opinions of others, and we get a glimpse into the impact on girls of such a way of thinking passed vehemently and without reconsideration from generation to generation. This second person form is thought by writers to be tricky because the "you" command is off putting, but in skillful hands and in short works it is often compelling.
Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is an example of the use of a third-person limited narrator who can see through the eyes of one character and tell us the character's attitudes, values, and needs.
Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him feel too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean shirt.
Seeing the world from the perspective of the old man makes us feel close to him though we remain at a distance looking into his life being described by someone else.
Jane Austen's novels, such as Pride and Prejudice, use the third-person omniscient point of view to have us become acquainted "objectively" with many characters. This omniscient narrator knows what all the characters think, feel, and want.
He addressed himself to Miss Bennet, with a polite congratulation; Mr. Hurst also made her a slight bow, and said he was "very glad;" but diffuseness and warmth remained for Bingley's salutation. He was full of joy and attention. The first halfhour was spent in piling up the fire, lest she should suffer from the change of room; and she removed at his desire to the other side of the fireplace, that she might be further from the door. He then sat down by her, and talked scarcely to anyone else. Elizabeth, at work in the opposite corner, saw it all with great delight.
When tea was over, Mr. Hurst reminded his sister-in-law of the card-table—but in vain. She had obtained private intelligence that Mr. Darcy did not wish for cards; and Mr. Hurst soon found even his open petition rejected. She assured him that no one intended to play, and the silence of the whole party on the subject seemed to justify her. Mr. Hurst had therefore nothing to do, but to stretch himself on one of the sofas and go to sleep. Darcy took up a book; Miss Bingley did the same; and Mrs. Hurst, principally occupied in playing with her bracelets and rings, joined now and then in her brother's conversation with Miss Bennet.
Multiple points of view are used less frequently but can be intriguing when the characters have very different knowledge or perceptions. An example of using multiple points of view is Audrey Nifffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, in which the author uses alternating first-person narrations to tell the story of a couple in which the husband has a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel unpredictably. Here Clare goes to meet her future husband, whom she has already spent much time with, but Henry, in his lifeline, has not yet met Clare.
Clare: The library is cool and smells like carpet cleaner, although all I can see is marble. I sign the Visitor's Log: Claire Abshire, 11:15 10-26-91. I have never been in the Newberry Library before, and now that I've gotten past the dark foreboding entrance I am excited.
Later in the same chapter, the point of view moves to Claire's husband:
Henry: It's a routine day in October, sunny and crisp. I'm at work in a small windowless humidity-controlled room on the fourth floor of the Newberry, cataloging a collection of marbled papers that has recently been donated.
The third person limited narrator can also employ multiple points of view by alternating various individual's points of view. In this case, the writer must be sure to invent a pattern for the reader to identify that he or she is consciously changing point of view or the book will confuse and lack cohesion. William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury employs third-person limited multiple points of view. Each of the book's four parts is told through the eyes of a different member of a Southern family in decline. The four parts of the novel relate some of the same episodes as seen from a different point of view and thus emphasize different events in those episodes.
In some stories, the narrator, usually in first-person but sometimes in thirdperson limited, is unreliable. By choosing a narrator who can't or won't view events through a wider lens, the author helps the reader see the irony, humor, or pathos in situations. Mark Twain's Huck Finn (www.PageByPageBooks.com/Mark_Twain/Adventures_of_Huckleberry_Finn/index.html) is one example of an unreliable first person narrator—he doesn't understand the implications of what he views in the people and society around him.
He kept me with him all the time, and I never got a chance to run off. We lived in that old cabin, and he always locked the door and put the key under his head nights. He had a gun which he had stole, I reckon, and we fished and hunted, and that was what we lived on. Every little while he locked me in and went down to the store, three miles, to the ferry, and traded fish and game for whisky, and fetched it home and got drunk and had a good time, and licked me. The widow she found out where I was by and by, and she sent a man over to try to get hold of me; but pap drove him off with the gun, and it warn't long after that till I was used to being where I was, and liked it—all but the cowhide part.
It was kind of lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing, and no books nor study. Two months or more run along, and my clothes got to be all rags and dirt, and I didn't see how I'd ever got to like it so well at the widow's, where you had to wash, and eat on a plate, and comb up, and go to bed and get up regular, and be forever bothering over a book, and have old Miss Watson pecking at you all the time. I didn't want to go back no more. I had stopped cussing, because the widow didn't like it; but now I took to it again because pap hadn't no objections. It was pretty good times up in the woods there, take it all around.
The story of the main character in Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (www.pagebypagebooks.com/Ambrose_Bierce/An_Occurrence_At_Owl_Creek_Bridge/) provides an example of an unreliable narrator in the third-person limited point of view. Peyton Fahrquhar is being hanged and during this time he believes he has fallen into water, freed his hands of the ropes that bind them, and made his way to his home, his wife, and children.
He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort!—what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake. "Put it back, put it back!" He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire, his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!
In fact, by the story's end, we understand that all of this was going on inside the character's imagination as the rope tightened.
Think of a moment of conflict in a story (or a memoir) you are writing.
- Write this moment through the protagonist's eyes in first person.
- Next, try the second person in a series of commands the protagonist is giving readers so they can imagine following or retracing the character's actions during the event.
- Then write the same scene in third-person limited.
- Try the third-person omniscient approach with an impartial narrator telling about everyone involved.
- Then try multiple points of view in which different characters in the scene each alternate telling the story in first person; next, try using third-person limited that switches from one character to another.
- Finally, if you'd like to do this, try writing the scene as if your narrator is unreliable—maybe he or she isn't always unreliable, but in this particular moment there may be something he or she doesn't know or want to know that makes the way the character sees events unreliable. Think of what might happen next that will let the reader know the problem with the character's way of viewing things.
You might find it challenging to create points of view that really feel different, and you might also find it challenging to stick to the points of view you are experimenting with, but that's part of learning this aspect of fiction writing. The differences can be subtle, but mastering point of view helps you create the right texture for your stories. The use of dialog can help you out here. When you write dialog into your paragraphs, think about whether you are writing inner thoughts and if the narrator you have chosen is privy to those thoughts. Think about whether the words in the dialog are ones the narrator would have said or heard in the point of view you are adopting.
Here's an example from the story I've hijacked from Syd Field's student, the one about the daughter who takes her mother home from the mental hospital, refusing to follow the doctors' treatment suggestions:
I took Mama home that very day. I couldn't stand to think of her naked and wandering the halls after shock treatment like the patient I'd seen wandering the halls before the doctors could close the door to their office. They tried to tell me that the patient had taken her clothes off herself because her skin tingled and she was uncomfortable. Whatever. I believed then that I could offer my mom better help at home. I thought I'd learn about vitamin supplements and nutritious food. I thought together we could beat her depression. I felt certain about that.
You look past the doctors' open office door and you see a naked middle-aged woman screaming in the hallway. You see she's wearing only her glasses and they're askew from the way she's flailing her arms.
"She's taken off her clothes herself; the staff didn't do that," they tell you. "She's trying to keep her sensitive skin from bothering her too much." You can't believe what you are hearing. You bolt for the waiting room, grab your mother's coat and then her arm. You hope she can run at least half as fast as you remember when she was running five miles a day. You hope there's a cab at the clinic doors. You hope she'll like the guest bed in your apartment, remember the quilt she'd given you when you went to college. You experience a rush of adrenalin you hope will stay with you for months.
Sally sat in the doctors' office at a small conference table. The two doctors who had been treating her mother for the last six days sat next to one another. With their blue eyes and white coats, they reminded her of albino rabbits she had kept as a child. She wanted to bolt right then, right out the door facing her. What were they going to recommend that she would listen to anyway? She rehearsed her departing lines as they spoke about shock treatment having come a long way in the last five years. And then she heard a sudden scream from the hallway. A woman stood outside the office door, completely naked, arms flailing, glasses askew on her face. That was enough. Sally grabbed her purse and ran toward the waiting area where her mother sat. She was not going to let her mother stay under these doctors' care one moment longer.
Sally was already seated at the round conference table when Dr. Hemmer and Dr. Preen entered the alcove off the waiting room. The two were forced to take seats facing the wall while Sally could see out into the hallway. The doctors didn't like this arrangement; they didn't feel in control. And for good reason. Sally was already thinking of her departure. She would get up, primly bid them, "Good afternoon," and run to her mother, who sat a few yards away in a grey and pink upholstered waiting room chair. Before she got her chance, however, the three of them heard a scream from the hall. Sally saw the naked woman, arms flailing and glasses askew, before the doctors could swivel their heads in her direction and offer their excuses.
Multiple points of view: first person
Sally: I am not staying in this place one more second. But I'm afraid Mama isn't going to be able to walk with me out to the entrance and I don't want to ask for a wheelchair. I'm afraid they won't bring one to me. I'm afraid they'll do everything in their power to make us feel weak, to make us feel we have to stay here.
Mother: Depression hurts. That's what the ads say. It does. It's a killer. I can't lift my legs an inch or two from the floor before they ache. I can't stand the rubbing of my slacks against my skin. What do they give you in here anyway that makes everything hurt more?
I have learned from the passages I wrote that each point of view encourages me to visualize the scene I am writing a little differently. In the end, I must choose a point of view that will best serve the story I want to tell. Since I think I want to tell a story about how this young woman accepts the caregiver responsibility but will not listen to authority and has to find out whether her idea for her mother was a good or a bad idea, I will most likely choose the third-person limited or first person point of view. But I know that I will stop frequently to play with points of view to see what else I can learn about my character and the situation before writing in the point of view I've adopted for the story.
Reread each of the scenes you created in this exercise. Which point of view seems to tell the story in the most appealing and engaging way to you? Write more from that point of view.
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