Allowable Exceptions: Struggles with Point of View, Part 2

In our last episode, Jonathan — not content with shrouding his observations in charitable silence (charitable to the readers, I mean) — blathered on about various ways that point of view can be violated. Today, I’m (notice the point of view switch) continuing my theme, but with a focus on some of the ways I’ve seen writers try to get around the limitations of point of view in order to communicate information that the characters don’t know. So sit back for a snooze, and be prepared to wake up when our (more interesting) regular contributors return…

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Last time, I mentioned the use of multiple point of view characters. This can work well if you’re telling a story that centers around more than one person. It can also backfire. Recently, I had a conversation with a family member — an avid reader — who had abandoned a book after several initial chapters, each from a different point of view character. It just required too much investment for her to keep reading, especially since each time she started to get interested in one character’s storyline, the author switched to a different character.

This was a book that has been much praised by other readers, from what my niece said. So evidently the strategy worked for some readers — but not for all. There are always trade-offs. Not to mention the fact that a lot of the time, the information we want to share with readers isn’t in anyone’s head, so switching points of view won’t do any good.

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Prologues. Some people hate them, and/or consider them a copout. Chris Bigelow, my editor on No Going Back, made me integrate my prologue into Chapter 1 — to its improvement. But there’s a reason why they’re favored by many writers, especially in sf&f.

Actually, now that I think about it, there are at least two advantages of prologues. One is that they can help establish a sense of scope — like starting with a panoramic view before zooming in on a specific scene. And they can communicate important information, either direct from the mind of the narrator or from a different point of view character from the one who is the focus of most of the story. That’s the strategy I’m trying for the novel I’m currently working on. (I wonder how long it will be before someone makes me take it out?)

A related technique is the strategic zoom-out: less defensible from a strict perspective of narrative story structure, but by golly, it can work. Here’s one of my favorite examples from one of the masters:

The Mountain standing ominous and alone had looked taller than it was…. Already Sam was more than half way up the base, and the plain of Gorgoroth was dim below him, wrapped in fume and shadow. As he looked up he would have given a shout, if his parched throat had allowed him; for amid the rugged humps and shoulders above him he saw plainly a path or road. It climbed like a rising girdle from the west and wound snakelike about the Mountain, until before it went round out of view it reached the foot of the cone upon its eastern side….

A gleam of hope returned to him. They might conquer the Mountain yet. “Why, it have been put there a-purpose!” he said to himself. “If it wasn’t there, I’d have to say I was beaten in the end.”

The path was not put there for the purposes of Sam. He did not know it, but he was looking at Sauron’s Road from Barad-dûr to the Sammath Naur, the Chambers of Fire…. Often blocked or destroyed by the tumults of the Mountain’s furnaces, always that road was repaired and cleared again by the labours of countless orcs. (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter III: Mount Doom)

Tolkien pulls this off (in my opinion) partly through the paragraph break and clear acknowledgment of point of view switch (“He did not know it”), but mostly through the sudden elevation of tone (“it” versus “The path,” “put there a-purpose” versus “put there for the purposes of Sam”). I also don’t think it would work so well if he did it very often. Most of all, I notice that (as with prologues) it seems to work best because it’s not just a way of dropping in information, but also provides an interesting (temporary) change of stylistic texture and level of story narrative. Yet I can imagine readers who might find this not effective, but irritating. Nothing works for every reader.

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And then there’s the strategy of backing away from individual points of view entirely and instead employing a narrator who knows everything and can simply tell the readers what the author wants us to know. It’s an old-fashioned way of writing a book, but can still be effective, as (for example) the Lemony Snicket books demonstrate. Again, though, it’s my sense that this can easily backfire if the narrator’s voice isn’t as interesting and distinctive as Lemony Snicket’s.

Readers nowadays (so I speculate) are used to feeling an immediate connection between themselves and the characters they’re reading about, with no barrier or only the most transparent of barriers in between. That’s why point of view has become such a big deal. They’re (we’re) likely to be unhappy about giving that up unless they (we) get something in return. Lemony’s a good trade: quite possibly the most interesting character in the book, if “character” is the right word. I don’t think it would work as well if the only reason the narrator existed was to communicate information to the readers, without that distinctive and delightfully lugubrious voice.

All of which suggests that using a narrator may not make point of view issues go away so much as it simply gives you another point of view to worry about. What does the narrator know, compared to the author, the reader, and the various characters? What does the narrator share, and when? How reliable is the narrator? What’s the narrator’s attitude toward the reader and/or the characters? Coy? Amused? Indulgent? Indignant? It all makes my head hurt. (Not a hard thing, given that I woke up with a headache this morning. I do a lot of my blog writing on mornings when I wake up with a headache…)

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There are probably as many different ways of trying to get around point of view issues as there are of pretty much everything else in writing.

Something I’ve recently become more aware of due to the temptation to use it myself is the unaccountably wise or perceptive character who somehow knows things he/she shouldn’t, which are — somehow — always right. This is an insidious one. Strictly speaking, it’s not even unrealistic, since we do believe that people can have perceptions that are unaccountably accurate — whether you attribute it to ESP, promptings of the spirit, or the simple subconscious working of the mind. But it can easily become a copout — and reduce the reader’s sense of tension by putting certain sources of information beyond question or doubt. Probably a good rule of thumb (I tell myself) is that if the primary reason I’m tempted to do this is because it makes things more convenient for me as a writer, I shouldn’t do it.

(Along these lines, I have to admit to particularly liking the scene in My Neighbor Totoro — a movie I greatly enjoy for many reasons, not least a certain physical resemblance to the title character — where the granny-figure is wailing away about the little girl being dead, and turns out to be completely wrong. Because, you know, wise old grannies aren’t always right about the things they can “feel.” Just saying.)

In fact, I notice that this seems to be a common theme running through all these different strategies and work-arounds: you can pull it off, if you have a good reason outside of simple convenience: if what you’re doing heightens character interest or dramatic structure, or makes sense within the logic of the story. And even then, you may not get away with it.

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I’d close this with some ringing words of wisdom, but really, I’m still more in the stage of admiring the problem. Consider this, then, as my invitation to chime in with your own thoughts, as I have done at such great length with mine…

About Jonathan Langford

Hi! I'm the coordinator for the AML blog, a critic and reviewer of Mormon literature and sf&f, and an aspiring creative writer with one published novel. To contact me about the AML blog, email jonathan AT langfordwriter DOT com.
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One Response to Allowable Exceptions: Struggles with Point of View, Part 2

  1. “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” have been among my favorites for forty years, and this year they all once again served as the “bedtime story” in my household (although now the roles are reversed, and my 27-year-old son reads aloud to me, to put me to bed). But this time around I found myself to be a bit less forgiving of Tolkien’s POV and other gaffes (probably because I’d just spent the past four years slaving over a hot stove, cooking up my own first novel). I think “The Hobbit” is by far the better written part of the saga.

    The best example of POV management that I can think of right offhand is Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” It should also be required reading for those who want to write in the first person singular (and if they want to use dialect). I grew up listening to Hans Conried narrate an unabridged audio book edition published on 16 2/3 RPM records. First-person and dialect writers should check their works against this gold standard: if reading their manuscripts aloud doesn’t evoke an effect similar to that of Conried’s reading of “Treasure Island,” they’ve got some fixing to do.

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