How many times have you heard this around the workshop table: “Why don’t you consider a new point of view?” (Actually, the term used more often is “POV” because it sounds a lot cooler, I suspect.)
Everyone then agrees that a new POV might help matters, including the writer, who knew something was wrong and is now relieved to have a likely suspect.
But here’s a dirty little secret about POV: It doesn’t matter nearly as much as most of you think it does. What do I mean by this? I mean that POV problems are usually symptomatic of more fundamental concerns, such as not knowing who your protagonist is or why you’re telling his story.
Is Almond suggesting that POV doesn’t matter? No, Almond is not. (Even Almond isn’t that stupid.) Of course POV matters.
To cite a famous example, in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald chooses a first-person narrator (Nick Carraway) who is close enough to the key events to describe them, but distant enough to interpret their meanings. He sympathizes with Gatsby and admires his achievements, but recognizes his folly. In fact, his intense and tragic identification with Gatsby is the unspoken emotional subject of the novel.
In her novel Persuasion, Jane Austen provides a remarkable third-person omniscient POV. Although much of the story is told from the perspective of Anne Elliot, Austen skillfully draws back and provides us the thoughts and actions of other key characters. She chooses this more distant POV because she’s dealing with an ensemble cast, and needs to be able to reveal motives and events unknown to Anne.
Lorrie Moore employs the often-dissed second person in “How to Become a Writer,” a story about an alienated young woman bumbling toward a literary career. The effect is miraculous: The reader feels directly implicated in our heroine’s struggle. The imperative voice initially underscores her psychological fragility, but later makes us recognize her resilience.
In each of these works, the authors have used the same essential criterion: Does the chosen POV bring us closer to the turmoil of the fictional world in question? That’s really the only question that matters.
Let me go a step further. What matters when it comes to POV isn’t what pronouns are being used, but what emotional posture the author has taken toward his characters, and what sort of narrative latitude the author desires.
Consider “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” by George Saunders. As he often does, Saunders uses an extremely close third-person POV. So close, in fact, that most of the story scans like a first-person account. We’re lodged inside the mind of a lovesick, middle-aged barber who lives with his mother and still lusts after women like a teenager.
This close third-person establishes an intimacy with our hero. We can’t help but share his doubts and longing. And yet, in a couple strategic spots, Saunders uses the third person to pull back and present the barber from a sudden distance. The effect is bracing. Not only are we gently reminded of our tendency to dismiss strangers, but we’re abruptly reminded that we’re hearing a radically subjective story.
The trick to finding the right POV is striking this balance between intimacy and perspective. You want readers to care about your characters and understand how they experience the world. At the same time, authors have to present their own insights, either through direct exposition, ironic revelation or by shaping the story in such a way that the protagonist is forced to confront the truth as the world imposes it.
OK, that all sounds well and good, but what about when POV goes wrong? So far as I can discern, there are three major mistakes. The first (and most common) is head hopping. This is when you jump back and forth between different characters’ thoughts and feelings. For example:
Jack stared at the hill, which looked to him steep and uninviting. He felt punky, anyway. Jill thought the hill looked inviting. Great, she thought. I’ll bet there’s a spring at the top.Oh Christ, Jack thought, following Jill’s gaze. Is that a spring? Knowing Jill, she’ll want me to fetch a friggin’ bucket of water.
The problem with this passage — aside from it being astonishingly lame — is that we don’t know who to care about. This isn’t to say that you can’t switch POV in a story or a novel. You most certainly can. But you risk spreading the reader’s compassion too thin. You also risk confusing readers, who use POV to orient themselves. This is why I strongly advise against switching POV within a particular scene, and for the most part, within short stories.
Nonetheless, every time I teach a workshop, I receive at least one story in which the POV drifts between multiple characters. Why do writers do this? Because it’s a way to avoid probing too deeply into the emotions and psychology of any one character. But that’s precisely what readers want, especially from short stories, in which you have far fewer words to evoke the pressing internal drama.
There are exceptions to this rule, of course. In his remarkable short story “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien uses the third-person plural (they) to emphasize the collective fear, confusion and duty felt by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. But he also slips into the third-person singular when dealing with individual characters, particularly the central figure in the story, Lt. Jimmy Cross. He does this so gracefully — and with such empathy — that the reader barely notices.
When I see manuscripts in which the POV bounces around, the reason is almost invariably because the author hasn’t figured out who matters to him the most. This same problem gives rise to a second misstep: choosing the wrong POV character. By “wrong” I mean a character who has very little at stake.
Back when I edited The Greensboro Review, I read a submission narrated by a girl whose best friend’s mother had cancer. She was able to provide a fairly dispassionate account of the events. But there was never a strong sense that the narrator herself was in any emotional danger.
This isn’t to say that the POV character has to be a central figure in the plot. (Remember Nick Carraway.) But he has to be invested — whether consciously or not — to the extent that the story feels urgent coming from him.
The third no-no is a more technical concern. Often, I’ll receive a story in which the POV character tells us something he couldn’t possibly know. A few years ago, one of my students gave me a story in which a blind narrator describes — in blushingly explicit detail — a ménage à trois at a crowded fraternity. When I asked the writer how this could be, he explained that the narrator had “like, highly attuned hearing.”
We should all hear so well. This mistake usually occurs when the POV is first person, or a close third person. It’s a sign that the author probably needs to choose a more distant POV, one that allows him greater latitude. Either that, or he needs to equip his blind characters with supersonic hearing.
1. TRY WRITING A SHORT SCENE (200 words at most) involving at least two characters and using first-person singular. Rewrite the scene in:
- Second person
- Third person, close from each character’s POV
- Third person, distant
2. READ YOUR FAVORITE SHORT STORY AGAIN, paying special attention to the author’s use of POV. Now consider how the author has balanced the need for intimacy versus latitude.
3. TAKE A LOOK AT YOUR LATEST STORY DRAFT. If it’s written in first person or close third person, rewrite a few pages from a more objective POV. If the story is written from an objective POV, choose the character you care about most and rewrite it from his or her POV.
4. IF YOU’RE STRUGGLING WITH THE QUESTION OF WHO YOUR POV CHARACTER SHOULD BE, find a scene that includes the major characters. Now write this scene from the perspective of each one.