Point of View (POV). It’s easy to understand, but difficult to master in fiction. Workshops have helped me get feedback on how I use POV in fiction, but it’s been a challenge for three years. I sometimes do things that went out of fashion in the past century despite being common in the 1800s, and the prevailing attitude was that I should stop.
I took that to mean I wasn’t doing them artfully enough, and they were bringing readers down rather than enhancing the story. These narrative techniques are far from obscure, but my fellow authors don’t much like them these days: third-person omniscient narrator, and intrusive narrator.
Your basic third-person narrator is like a camera: he presents a window into the story, objectively presenting the events and characters, and remaining as unnoticed as the glass in the camera lens.
Intrusive narrators break this seamless presentation. They step in front of the camera to deliver commentary on the story, and they might address the reader directly. It resembles when a character on film “breaks the fourth wall” and starts talking to the audience, except it isn’t a character. It’s the cameraman.
I suspected negative feedback on my narrator’s intrusions could mean readers didn’t like his personality or his voice. After all, if someone you like interrupts your story, it’s fun. Right? And if you felt that person was right there inside the story with you, then all the better.
So, step one: develop the voice. I experimented with a more relaxed, flowing voice for the narrator. I encouraged him to relish little details of the world he talks about, and spend more time zooming in on them. I challenged him to weave a spell with words that would draw the reader so far into events that when he spoke directly, or intruded, he would be a welcome guest, and the intrusion would feel like a natural extension of his presence.
I workshopped single-character scenes first, throwaways that didn’t even fit a specific storyline, and I started to get a groove going. The narrator discovered he didn’t need to intrude so often, and he was more subtle when he did. After a few sessions of trial-and-error, identifying exactly where readers felt too much telling rather than showing, the narrator found a zone of detail and tone where readers accepted him seamlessly.
But omniscience proved more challenging.
You can find dozens of articles on the web about third-person omniscient. They all boil down to the same thing: If your narrator can reveal the internal thoughts and feelings of every character, and see the scene from any character’s point of view, he runs a terrible risk of jumping around so often and so abruptly that he disorients the reader.
To go back to our camera analogy, the narrator who jumps from one character POV to the next is like the camerawork on Blair Witch Project: so jittery and spastic that it makes the viewer want to puke. The narrator runs around the story without any coherence, like the Blair Witch kids running through the woods in a panic. Sure, it’s art. But it makes you want to vomit.
What if you could switch character POVs smoothly and coherently? As an experiment, I imagined Martin Scorsese’s long, uninterrupted camera shots, such as the club entrance in Goodfellas. If I wanted my omniscient narrator to reveal multiple characters’ internal events, I needed to consider how to take the reader along with me on the camera’s ride through the scene. I needed a plan.
That meant deciding where the POV transitions, and knowing why, and getting crystal clear on a scene’s details. Plus, I needed to spend enough time with each POV so the reader would be grooving along, totally into the narrative, and not feel jarred by constant shifts.
Though I still find it challenging to do artfully, I workshopped a scene specifically asking folks to be critical of the POV shifts. The scene involves a human and a cat, and the latter can’t talk. So to get the kind of character contrast that dialogue would normally give, I use omniscient POV to reveal the differences in how the characters react to events. And when the man and the cat are involved in simultaneous but separate fights, POV directs the reader’s eye through the scene, from one fight to the other. Like a camera.
I expected the workshop to hate it. But no one batted an eye. Multiple people said the transitions happened so smoothly they didn’t even notice. I considered that a sign of success, and that a year of working on my failures had finally paid off.
As I worked on these things, one exercise made a huge difference. I saw a story excerpt in a workshop where it was clear to me that the author had no idea who the narrator was. The author did not understand what information the narrator had access to, or why he was conveying it, or what factors determined the narrator’s voice and tone.
I suggested this author write 1,000 to 2,000 words on the narrator of that story. I don’t think the author ever did it, and likely never finished the story, but I decided to put my money where my mouth was and take my own advice.
Before going to sleep that night, I cranked out 1,800 words on the identity and character of my fictional narrator. Who is he? What is his name? What is his relationship to the characters? What are his political biases? What are his personal beliefs? Is he truly omniscient, or is he limited by anything in his ability to understand his universe and tell you about it?
These are just a few of the questions I came up with, and you could add your own. What color are your narrator’s eyes? How many eyes? Is your narrator even human? What does your narrator NOT know?
These things usually go in a character bio, but if you treat your narrator like a character with a definite identity, and you put as much time into that identity as a character bio, something amazing happens.
You gain complete clarity about exactly who is telling the story, and why, and how. The effect on your prose is dramatic and transformative. In my case, I realized I had been inconsistent several times, and that was likely throwing readers out of the story. The inconsistencies showed up when the narrator gave the impression he was locked out of a character’s head he had previously been inside, and times where the narrator was wishy-washy instead of definite, such as saying “maybe” or “unlikely” instead of knowing for sure.
These were signs that I, as the author, was unclear about just what the narrator did and did not know. Getting clear on that solved many of my POV problems, because it eliminated confusion about the cameraman and what he was doing.
It also helped me in the voice development stage, because I could write from a solid, well-defined identity. It removed some of the burden of storytelling from me as an author and placed it on the shoulders of the narrator as a character. And anytime I wasn’t sure about one of the narrator’s statements, I could go back to what I had established about him to determine if he was being consistent or not.
Suddenly, freed from the lack of clarity that had plagued him, and given free rein to relish telling his tale, my narrator found a new level of eloquence. Not necessarily more words, but more beautiful words.