by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. What's Your Point is one in her series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.
"Whose Story Is It, Anyway?" —Lenard-Cook
Entire books have been written about point of view, and for good reason: No aspect of fiction writing determines your story’s success or failure more. You can have terrific ideas, dynamic characters, a riveting plot, and compelling settings, but if the narrative is told from the wrong point of view (or points of view, which we’ll get to in a moment), it can fall flat on the page.
Whose Story Is It, Anyway?
Let’s pretend this is a classroom. I’ll be the teacher. I’m standing in front of you, looking out at the students seated in their tidy rows of desks. This is my point of view, and what and whom I see are very different from what my students (I’ll call them Belle, Rob, and Suzi) are seeing. You there, Belle: You’re in the front row. Not only do you see me sitting on the desk, you can see the words I’ve scribbled on the chalkboard behind me. From where he sits by the door, Rob sees only the hair that keeps falling over my eye as I talk, while over by the window, Suzi’s not looking at me at all, but outside, where she sees the trees, hanging listless in this hot July.
We may be in the same room, but we each would tell the story of this particular moment in this particular classroom in a different way. I might write about the way each student is engaged or not engaged (see above). Belle might tell you what I am wearing, the animated way I speak, what I said to her just before class began. Rob might focus on what the fact that my hair keeps obscuring my face says about me. And Suzi, looking at those trees, might be in flashback, remembering another summer, far, far away. Here we are, all in the same room at the same time, and yet, depending on who’s telling the story, there is a different story for each point of view.
"One way to determine who will tell your story is to decide who will be changed. . ." —Lenard-Cook
Exercise Your Points of View
When you are writing a story that is based in fact, your initial inclination will be to tell the story from your own point of view, even if you were incidental to the “real” story. So here’s a not-so-secret secret: This “real” point of view is usually the least interesting way of telling the story. What to do?
One thing to try is this simple writing exercise: Take a scene you’ve written from one character’s point of view and rewrite it from another character’s point of view. This exercise works particularly well with a scene that’s based in fact, such as a conversation you had with someone else. When you write the scene from the other character’s point of view, that character cannot know what the original narrator is thinking. Nor will that character think the same way. In fact, his thoughts will be very different from the scene’s original point of view character. Students who have tried this exercise often report that is a breakthrough one. Try it yourself and see.
One way to determine who will tell your story is to decide who will be changed by the events that unfold. Who, for example, is changed in The Great Gatsby? Well, yes, Gatsby’s dead at the end of the novel, but his point of view has remained static. The character who has changed is Nick Carroway, the young narrator who tells us Gatsby’s story. Same with Moby Dick. Captain Ahab doesn’t change (except that, as Gatsby, he dies). The whale doesn’t change. Only Ishmael, our narrator, has his world-view altered by the events that unfold.
Look at these two examples another way. What kind of novel would The Great Gatsby be if it were told from Gatsby’s point of view, or Daisy’s? Gatsby might go on and on about unrequited love, while Daisy’s narration would be a whirl of tennis, cocktails, and hairstyle choices. If Captain Ahab told us about Moby Dick, we’d get all sorts of reasons that damned whale deserves to die, but with none of the narrative distance Ishmael offers us.
Master novelists have much to teach us about point of view, such as that great novels, like those above, are almost always written from one point of view. And yet, once we understand point of view, our next temptation is to write from more than one. (I’m guilty of this. It’s so much fun!) Agents and editors discourage this practice because they know that the strongest narratives are filtered through one dynamic, distinct point of view.
"Master point of view and the rest will come easily." —Lenard-Cook
Through Your Eyes Only
Are there exceptions? Of course there are. Tolstoy moves back and forth between two narratives in both War and Peace and Anna Karenina. (But have you read these novels? If not, you should. They have a great deal to offer contemporary writers.) Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin are primers on multiple point of view. But look at some other contemporary masterworks (all highly recommended, by the way). What’s their point of view, and how does the narrator in each of these novels change?
In Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions, college professor David Zimmer learns to love again after his wife and sons are killed in a plane crash. In Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, writer Grady Tripp’s life develops an antic plot far better than that of the book he can’t seem to finish. In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, teenaged Christopher John Francis Boone must move beyond a world limited by his autism. In Sue Miller’s While I Was Gone, happily married Jo Becker must repair the damage done when her past returns to upset her contemporary life. In Carol Shields’s Unless, writer Reta Winters must re-examine her world-view when her insular world is invaded by the demands of the much larger world.
The final word? Master point of view and the rest will come easily.
About Lisa Lenard-Cook Lisa Lenard-Cook’s novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, October 2003) won the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel, was selected as a 2003 Book of the Year by the Pima County (Arizona) and Cincinnati Public Libraries, and is a Book Buzz selection of the Ramsey County (Minnesota) Public Library. Her newest novel , Coyote Morning, is published by UNM Press. Lisa taught writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado throughout the 1990s, and now writes and teaches in Corrales, New Mexico. Visit her website, www.lisalenardcook.com for information about upcoming classes, appearances, and for writing inspiration.