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Some Thoughts on How POV Works


NOTE: I apologize for posting this a little bit late, but I’m in Hanoi at the moment on business, and I’m swamped with meetings. I hope you will forgive both my tardiness and editorial clumsiness in exchange for some pictures of beautiful Hanoi (click on them to enlarge).

I haven’t written much about point-of-view before, probably because I find it so intrinsically wedded to voice that separating the two has always seemed pointless. But on the (long) flight to Hanoi, I read a couple Daniel Silva books (The Kill Artist and The Unlikely Spy) and his use of an omniscient narrator and shifting POV within individual chapters leapt out at me, and made me reconsider my somewhat flippant attitude.

People like to use metaphors to describe point-of-view: it’s where the camera sits, it’s the lens through which we see the story, etc. While such metaphors do have some descriptive value, I don’t think they’re actually useful for talking about how POV fulfills its function, which at its heart is to engage the reader and lock their attention on the story. Voice serves the same purpose (which is probably why the two concepts are so closely wedded in my mind), but POV can accomplish some goals that voice alone cannot.

The Selectivity of Fictional Description

All fiction is a description of made-up events taking place in fictional environments which the reader constructs in their imagination. When we write, we suggest the elements and images and actions that we want our readers to imagine. While we will never know what they really see in their mind’s eye, if we fail to plant some consistent images in the reader’s mind then we won’t have a story. Point-of-view is the tool through which we select the relevant facts.

Consider the story of Cinderella: if you strip away the stylistic elements, if you strip away the voice, if you strip away the characters, what you are left with is a collection of (fictional) facts which nevertheless have a point of view.

Fact: a young girl has a stepmother and some stepsisters. Fact: the stepsisters and the stepmother make the young girl work very hard. Fact: the young girl is unhappy. Fact: she wants to go to the prince’s ball, but her stepmother and sisters won’t let her. Fact: she goes anyway. And so on.

That brief set of facts, presented clinically and with no more panache than a grocery list, nevertheless has a point-of-view that is inherently sympathetic to Cinderella. It ignores the concerns of Cinderella’s stepmother or stepsisters. It ignores the concerns of the prince – at least, those which do not relate to Cinderella. It ignores the state of the kingdom’s economy, the country across the bay, or the weather. Those concerns are irrelevant to the story being told – and it is point-of-view that communicates which facts are relevant.

Subversion of known stories is almost always predicated on a shift in their point of view. The story of Cinderella might be a told from a perspective sympathetic to one of the stepsisters (as in Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister), or the stepmother, or the prince, or a palace servant. The tentpole events of the story might remain the same (the cleaning, the ball, the search, etc.) but the details through which the events are described – which in effect comprise the story’s content – would be totally different.

Subversion of narrative conventions likewise relies on a shift in POV. For example, the “gritty” fantasies of Glen Cook, Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, etc. subvert the tropes of heroic high fantasy by shifting their POV to the grunts in the mud on the front lines. But POV is more subtle than merely switching the focus of the reader’s sympathy.

The Relationship Between POV, Facts, Tension, and Theme

The facts of a story, and the point-of-view which selects those facts, are used to either give the reader the information necessary to understand the events of the story, or to draw the reader’s attention to the author’s thematic intent.

In Daniel Silva’s The Kill Artist, switching POVs between different characters informs the reader of facts unknown to other characters. This is a classic Hitchcockian technique for building tension: we might know about the trap awaiting our protagonist around the corner, but because they do not, the level of tension (and our engagement with the story) increases. Will our hero survive? Tune in next time!

On a thematic level, Silva uses POV shifts to give the reader a clearer picture of characters’ emotional states, which thematically serves to establish a certain degree of moral equivalence. Because these POV shifts occur within chapters and without clear textual markers, they introduce a greater narrative distance into the text which in turn contributes to a concomitant slowing of the story’s pace (quite frankly John Le Carré achieves a similar thematic and emotional effect less clumsily with less frequent POV shifts).

And while Silva relies on shifting the perspective of characters to draw the reader’s attention to his artistic goals, POV can use other devices as well. For example, one can imagine a retelling of Cinderella that maintains its focus on Cinderella’s concerns, that adheres to the tentpole events of the story, that is even told in a voice similar to the Charles Perrault story, but which draws the reader’s attention to Cinderella’s poverty, or her stepmother’s desperate desire for upward social mobility, or that otherwise suggests concerns with social class. The POV need not be mobile to achieve these effects: it merely needs to select for different facts or to draw attention to different details.

POV’s Relationship to Character and Voice

Most stories operate on both an external/physical level (character X does Y) and on an internal/emotional level (character X feels Z). On both levels, character is the common factor: when we read, it is the characters who engage and maintain our attention. And POV is the tool through which we tell the reader which characters are deserving of our attention.

I think the distant narrator is a dying breed: almost every narrator I can think of these days is a close narrator, either first-person (it doesn’t get any closer!) or close-third. There are good reasons for this, in particular because such close perspective engages our emotions more rapidly and draws us into the story sooner. But the point of view is the marker by which the reader learns who they should care about.

At the same time, combining POV’s selectivity with its focus on character presents an opportunity to deepen our characterization. POV selectivity is all about choosing and presenting the details that are most relevant to our narrative goals, but the details that we select can tell us a great deal about the character our POV is focusing on. Careful selection of details enables our words to serve double duty: to further the external/physical level of the story, and to deepen the reader’s understanding of the internal/emotional level. The surroundings, emotions, sensory details, etc. that we include express our character’s value system, priorities, attitudes, philosophy, etc. POV, in fact, is one of the strongest characterization tools.

And it is through POV’s relationship to characterization that it meets its natural partner: voice. If POV subtly communicates a story’s character(s), then the way in which that POV communicates – how its paragraphs are constructed, sentences structured, and the words selected – can rapidly offer the reader greater insight into the character. If we forget this fact, if we introduce a disconnect between our POV and the voice, we risk the plausibility of our characters and the cohesion of our entire story.

POV/Voice vs Accessibility/Pace

I’m never entirely sure which matters more to me – POV or voice – or which creates the other. It’s the kind of circular discussion that requires a bottle of whiskey and a late night under the stars, and which never gets resolved. I believe that POV and voice are both inherently in tension with a story’s accessibility and pace.

Shifting POVs may undermine the reader’s ability to invest in any one character (as in Silva’s The Kill Artist), which in turn weakens their ability to invest in the story. A POV which selects dense details for inclusion may overburden the reader with facts irrelevant to the story. A voice which is highly idiosyncratic and difficult to follow may decrease the reader’s willingness to decode and internalize it. And every time we ask the reader to do a bit more mental work, to store additional facts or decipher complex sentences, we slow the story’s pace.

But despite this tension, that doesn’t mean that there’s ever a single “right” way to approach POV: the “right” technique depends on our artistic goals for a particular story, and on the other techniques and structures we employ to achieve those artistic goals. Which while not particularly helpful in a prescriptive sense, hopefully offers some food for further thought.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks, Chris.

    Is this a case of serendipity, or were you inspired by this topic by the recent SF Signal Mind Meld (or did you get this idea from 4th Street?)

    August 9, 2012
    • I actually missed the recent SF Signal Mind Meld (it’s one of the many items in my feed reader’s “to-read” list), but the 4th Street discussion has been sitting in the back of my mind for the past several weeks. I actually hadn’t intended to write anything about POV, but reading Daniel Silva on the flight to Vietnam just pushed me over the edge. :)

      August 9, 2012

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