Recognizing some significant gaps in my knowledge o’craft, I decided to give myself an at-home MFA (which is an awful lot like doing an at-home tooth whitening kit. Or an at-home Zumba workout. Or at at-home enema). More or less.
This month, enrolled in Point of Viewbies for Newbies, I reached toward my bookshelf and found The Art of Fiction, a (rather stuffy) craft book by David Lodge.
“The choice of point(s) of view from which the story is told,” David Lodge explained, “is arguably the most important single decision that the novelist has to make.”
Oh good. No pressure.
David (who, as it turns out, is not stuffy but British) explained that Point of View “fundamentally affects the way readers will respond, emotionally and morally, to the fictional characters and their actions.”
Fine. That was what Point of View did, but I wanted to know what Point of View was.
But book after book contained an iteration of this idea: Point of view is “who is telling the story.” That was typically followed by a discussion of First Person or Third Person narration, and the tossing around of phrases like “limited omniscient” and “third-person unified” and concluded with admonitions about the perils of multiple points of view.
These limited (from my POV) discussions of POV led me to believe either 1) authors were withholding information so they could beat me in writing contests, or 2) authors were as uncertain about Point of View as I.
Then a writer-friend directed me to David Jauss’ book, With All That Could Happen: Rethinking the Craft of Fiction Writing. When I stumbled upon his chapter, “From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance and Point of View in Fiction,” I knew I had found a friend. At least, an acquaintance. He, like the other David, seemed a little stuffy, (though he’s from Minnesota and Little Rock so there’s no excuse).
But no matter! This David wrote:
Authors “use point of view to manipulate the degree of emotional, intellectual and moral distance between a character and a reader.”
A-ha! Point of View was the technique writers used to keep characters and stories a certain distance from the reader.
For example, the child narrators in The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Tell the Wolves I’m Home maintain a somewhat distant Point of View, one that forces space between protag and reader. It’s that distance, among other things, that places these child-narrated stories in the genre of adult fiction.
Compare that narrative stance to that in Eleanor and Park and The Fault in Our Stars, YA novels, where the reader feels she is under the skin of these characters, breathing in and out as they do.
Check it. The first lines from Tell the Wolves I’m Home, narrated by fifteen-year-old June:
My sister, Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying. That was after I understood that I wasn’t going to grow up and move into his apartment and live there with him for the the rest of my life. After I stopped believing that the AIDS thing was all some kind of big mistake. When he first asked, my mother said no. She said there was something macabre about it. When she thought of the two of us sitting in Finn’s apartment with its huge windows and the scent of lavender and orange, when she thought of him looking at us like it might be the last time he would see us, she couldn’t bear it.
Compare that narrative distance to the opening lines from Eleanor’s first chapter in Eleanor and Park. Eleanor is about the same age as the girl, June, in the previous selection.
Eleanor considered her options:
1. She could walk home from school. Pros: exercise, color in her cheeks, time to herself. Cons: She didn’t know her new address yet, or even the general direction to start walking.
2. She could call her mom and ask for a ride. Pros: lots. Cons: Her mom didn’t have a phone. Or a car.
3. She could call her dad. Ha.
While first person narration typically pulls in the reader quickly and effortlessly, it’s Eleanor’s third person narration that plunks us right in the head of this girl. Look at the “Ha.” at the end of #3. Ha. One little word erases all distance.
Manipulating Point of View allows us to control reader-character closeness in the stories we tell. In some stories, we must play Chaperone at a school social, making sure character and reader never dance too close. In other stories, we must play Matchmaker, getting reader and character cozied up, nose-to-nose, from the get-go.
How do we know when to do what? Good question.
For the six months I’ve been working on this third book, I have sensed that, unlike my first two (still-unpublished) novels, there should be considerable distance between reader and narrator. So I am more of a Chaperone, making sure the reader doesn’t get too close to the characters. That’s partly because the story is set fifteen years in the future, and I want the reader to feel the space between Now and Now + Fifteen Years.
I also want the reader to feel the characters’ loneliness. These characters have created bubbles around themselves so they don’t have to experience the messiness of human connection. I want the reader to feel the effect of that bubble-building. I want the reader to see the characters, but not be allowed to touch them. I want the reader to want to press herself against the characters at a school dance, sway to throbbing music, but be thwarted by the Chaperone, the stodgy one over near the punch table, her steel gaze making connection impossible. I want the reader to hope that the Chaperone will step out for a moment, allowing reader and character to brush hands, brush lips, a brief brush. Just enough. Almost too much.
That’s our jobs as writers: to be both Chaperone and Matchmaker. And to figure out when to be which.
Need more examples? I found these novels helpful; some allow the reader to sit, snuggled up in the lap of the characters, while others keep the reader at arm’s length (or farther). What’s the effect? What does the writer gain or lose by selecting the particular narrative distance?
- The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald
- Atonement, McEwan
- Bee Season, Goldberg
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie
- Black Swan Green, Mitchell
- Middlesex and The Marriage Plot, Eugenides
- Plainsong, Haruf
- Bel Canto, Patchett
- The Lowland, Lahiri
- Counting by 7’s, Sloan
Your turn. What does POV mean to you? How have you used POV to manipulate distance in your stories. What effect does this distance have on the reader? Thoughts on at-home Zumba? Please share! Thanks for reading, and thanks for being such good teachers.
Photo compliments of Flickr’s Michele.