Oh, dear, how long has it been since my last post? Three weeks? Sorry about that—things got busy. But anyway, here we are again, and it’s time to talk about point of view.
When I’m assessing a manuscript, along with plot and character I have to think about the question of point of view—or more accurately, the questions of point of view, because there are two aspects to it. Firstly, there’s the question of which character is telling the story. Secondly, there’s the question of how it’s being told.
Who’s telling the story?
As I read through a manuscript, I make a note of which character is telling me the story in each scene—or which characters are. Can I tell from the text who’s eyes I’m supposed to be looking out of? Do I stay inside this person’s point of view consistently, or are there points where I slide behind someone else’s eyes—and if so, when and why? If there’s no clear answer to the question of why, maybe revise the text to stay in the same point of view all the way through.
Is the point-of-view character telling me things they could plausibly know, or does the extent of their knowledge ring false? Are they a reliable or unreliable narrator? What are the gaps in their knowledge, and how to do those contribute to their story, and their reliability (or lack thereof)? And of course, are they the best character to be showing me this scene? Sometimes, as writers, we try to protect ourselves a little during difficult or complex scenes by retreating—hiding in the point of view of a character who’s detached, or unaffected, or who wasn’t even there and gets told about things by a third party. Sometimes these are good dramatic choices that build suspense or contribute to character development, but sometimes…sometimes there’s a better character to tell that story, and if you want your work to have the greatest impact, you need to find them.
How is the story being told?
Another thing I pay close attention to when I’m assessing a manuscript is which ‘person’ it’s in. Does it use first-person narration, in which your narrator tells the story directly to your reader using ‘I’? Or is it in the second person (‘you’)* or the third (‘he/she’)? Are there parts of the narrative that are in first person and parts that are in third, and if so, are the rules for when you use first person and third person clear and consistent?
If you’re using third person narration, is it third person limited, or third person omniscient? Are you looking out through the eyes of a character in the story, just at a little more distance than you would in first person? That’s third person limited, and it’s the most common form of narration in fiction today, especially genre fiction. If, on the other hand, your point of view is that of an external observer—not a character in the story, nor even yourself, quite, but a distinct point of view that can see everything, know what characters are thinking, and even comment on the action, then that’s third person omniscient, the favourite technique of writers like Jane Austen and George Eliot**. Neither is any better or worse than the other, but they are distinct techniques with distinct rules, so it’s best to figure out which you’re using and why, and keep it consistent throughout your book—and, of course, be prepared to swap to a different technique if you realise there’s a stronger way to tell your story.
Next up—I hope, next week!—dialogue, description and exposition. See you then!
*This is rare, but not unheard of; it tends to work better in short stories than in novels, though, because it does put a bit more strain on the reader than the more familiar first and third person narration.
**Though not so often recognised these days, and sometimes derided as ‘head-hopping’. Good third person omniscient is nothing like the kind of ‘head-hopping’ that results from losing track of where your point of view is, however, because the point of view in third person omniscient always remains with the detached, external observer.