A monthly column of wit, insight, irreverance and inspiration by a published author and veteran of the publishing trenches.

The Ink-Stained Wretch

Don Whittington

October, 1999

Connecting With Your Reader

Part I of III


There is no more daring adventure in the world than to try and reach another mind through a work of fiction.  Imagine the writer as stranded on a desert island.  He stuffs his manuscript in a bottle and casts it into the mysterious sea never knowing who, if anyone, will ever read it.  The bottle washes up on some other island shore, and there a reader carefully takes the manuscript and attempts to read.  This reader, to whom the author is no more than a figment of the imagination, will do one of two things: (a) grow bored and toss the MS aside, or (b) grow so absorbed in the MS he travels all unknowing from his island to some distant land of the author's creation.  Together, the author and his reader share a communion unlike any other.  How does this happen?

A few ways.  But it begins by giving the reader a point of view.

Henry James called POV the "post of observation", the locus from which the reader views the story events. It is so critical to fiction that it is usually the first decision a writer makes when he starts a story. Much depends on whose eyes we use to see and deduce and judge.

Note that word carefully: judge. It is of primary importance.

Point of view in its strictest sense seems very simple. Every story is viewed from some vantage point. That vantage point can be as constricted as any human's, limiting the narrative voice to only those things which a given character can see, or it can be as limitless as Godís eye. That is the authorís choice. But human sight is not a mere mechanical process. Everything we observe, everything we hear, everything we taste, touch, smell, experience is filtered through a lifetime of phenomena and exotica, things which combine to create the individual human. That is to say, each of us.

Have you never been angered by a comment which the speaker thought innocent? Or saddened by a song because its meaning was special to you and you alone? So, too, your story people and particularly your point of view narrator or narrative voice. Just as we are all unique, so should our story people be unique.

What makes a character unique?  His emotional baggage.

Fiction differs first and foremost from other forms because it is about emotion.  Emotion imbues every reaction we can hope to have. Often it works on so subtle a level as to be invisible. That's okay. Every single line of dialogue should not be weighted with heavy emotional power. Nor should every paragraph of description. But much of it should be because that makes our fiction more dramatic.

The point is, the emotional core of a character has a direct effect on how he views the world.  Say you are an actor at the peak of your career.  You discover you have throat cancer.  An operation will save your life, but take your voice.  You are looking at a sailboat.  Describe the boat without once mentioning your illness, your career, your fears, your disappointment, or your resentment that you are about to lose everything: yet, let all these influence your description.  It might go something like this:

    "From my bench I see one lonely sailboat stranded at the marina.  Where are the other boats?  All out sailing at         once, being boats, daring the sea while this one vessel languishes from some owner's inattention?  Stupid waste.

    "For she's a fine twin-masted job, big enough to sail to India if you have the balls for it.  But no sails hug her timber; she is squared away, stripped even of the promise of voyaging.

    "Maybe I can find the owner and buy her from him.  Or maybe, if she's not for sale, I'll just kick his ass.  Maybe then he'll realize a sailboat without canvas is no damned good for anything."

This example is a little carried away for effect, but you see the point.  Viewpoint in fiction is so much more than simply what a character sees; point of view is also about what a given character—and only that character—could ever see in just that way.

It is true that plot, characterization, and felicity of expression all contribute to the reader's vicarious adventure in your made-up world (I admit here that you are the writer), but it is point of view which provides the bridge from the reader's island to your mind's new country.  It gives him a secure vantage from which to watch events unfold.  It can mean the difference between your reader buying into your story with all his heart and attention, or suddenly sitting up straight as he wonders if he remembered to pay the light bill.

You know the primary points of view already: the omniscient (or epic); the first person; and the limited omniscient.  There is a fourth POV called "dramatic" but anyone indulging in that style for novels is beyond the help of mortal man so I omit it with extreme prejudice.  Note that with each choice of POV most of our emphasis is on the minds and emotions of the characters.  The primary difference among them (for this discussion anyway:  there are plotting advantages to each, but that is a  subject for a different article.) is how much of this emotional and mental content you wish to share.  It is not simply (or only) about how you report the action.  After all, it is possible in all three POV's to describe every character's interaction with the physical environment.

Some say "viewpoint" instead of "point of view". "Viewpoint" is regarded by literary purists as a vulgar, illiterate construction, which may explain why it is preferred by almost all writers and editors.  In any event, it is one of the most misunderstood concepts in writing and the source of a lot of bad critique.  We all know what poor use of viewpoint is, don't we?  Some examples:

     Margot looked at them both and they both saw that she was going to cry.  Wilson had seen it coming for a long time and he dreaded it.  Macomber was past dreading it.

     "I wish it hadn't happened," she said and started for her tent.  She made no noise of crying but they could see that her shoulders were shaking…

Just whose head are we in here?  Sure, this is omniscient viewpoint, but aren't we supposed to avoid jumping around like this?  Or how about this example in first person:

     "She shook her head, not so much at me as at herself."


     "What girl?" but he looked at me with instant dislike and flushed.

Good God, who are these hacks?  How do they expect to ever get published?  The sinning authors above are both dead now, but if they were here I'm sure both Hemingway and Ross Macdonald would be touched by our concern for their obvious lack of skill.  The first example is from "The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber", a short story that has been anthologized more often than most of us will ever be published.  The second and third fragments are from Macdonald's The Underground Man, but they could have come from almost any of his novels.  He did this sort of thing all the time.

So what am I saying, that anything goes and God pity the timid?  Far from it.  One of the most interesting things I found in looking for exceptions to ordinary viewpoint technique was how very rarely it occurs.  I looked through dozens of books, anthologies, etc. and found only a few examples.  That convinced me —-as little else could have—- that proper viewpoint technique is critical in storytelling!

Which POV should we select as writers, and how do we know when to break the rules as Ross Macdonald does?  The answers are I don't know, and ditto.  I can go by what has been done before, but a technique acceptable in the sixteenth century will not necessarily endear me to the guy who just blew a quarter on my impenetrable novel at the yard sale.  However, the following suggestions make sense to me, and perhaps they will be of benefit to you.

 1- Pick a POV appropriate to your style, and one in which it is cozy for you to write.  Your comfort in a given POV will redound to your reader and contribute greatly to your chances of success.

 2- Pick a POV appropriate to the work.  Study other works of the type you want to write and emulate them if they are good and consistent with your goals.

 3- Whenever possible pick a POV which makes the creative task simpler.  Omniscient carries demands which first person does not, and vice-versa.

 4- Do not allow the restrictions of your chosen POV to get in the way of your story.  If your choice is to write some bulky, hideous sentence construction to make a point which could as easily be made with graceful simplicity by slipping viewpoint, then by all means slip the damned viewpoint.

 5- Break the rules whenever it advances the story and does not disturb the reader.  (How long is a piece of string, right?)  I don't think this can be taught, but it can certainly be analyzed.  Look at what you've done objectively, ensure that it advances the story, then see what happens if you do without the shift.  Ultimately, you must follow your heart, but I suspect that if the story can survive without the shift then you should ditch it.

So, what does all this have to do with islands and bridges and other sloppy metaphors?  How does point of view provide the bridge while other elements do not?  And did that writer guy ever get off the island?

Next time

Editor's Note: Don't miss this Part II: Characters, coming in November, and Part III: Action, in December.