Practice-W Exercise Archives
Exercise: POV distancing
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Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: Sun, 8 Apr 2001
Point of view is one of the trickiest concepts a writer can deal
and one offering a multitude of choices.
What is point of view? The first questions are:
Sometimes, these are the same person, but not always. More a bit later.
The person telling the story is the narrator (or narrators, there can
more than one.) The person (or persons) experiencing the story is (are)
the point of view character(s). All of these may be different people
from the protagonist - the principal character around who the action
- who is telling the story?
- who is experiencing the story?
The next question is:
We often hear of third-person POV, first-person POV, even the
second-person. We also hear of omniscient or limited POVs. What do
these mean, exactly?
- how is the story being told?
In first-person narration, the speaker uses "I", and is in some ways
present in the action. The first-person narrator can be the point of
view character, or even the protagonist. First person is normally uses
a limited viewpoint - the narrator has access to certain information,
but is not a mind-reader or a psychic. This narrator can experience
some events, observe others, or find out about yet others in indirect
ways - hearing confidences from other characters, having access to
papers or letters.
A good example: the Sherlock Holmes stories use a first-person
narrator, Dr. Watson - not the protagonist, but a close witness to the
events. Dr. Watson, obviously, doesn't know everything - only what he
sees and understands for himself, and what Holmes explains to him. This
allowed Conan Doyle to control what information he released to the
In third-person, the narrator is outside the action. This can be
on the sidelines of the action, or can be no one real, just a voice
through which the story is told. Many stories nowadays use this
impersonal, narrator, often in an effort to present the story
How much does this narrator know? Some narrators know everything:
every single characters knows, things, feels, wants. This gives us
omniscient third-person. in contemporary writing, the narrator often
only has this insight for a single character: limited third-person.
Is that it? Not quite. The next question is
Let's assume we're using limited third-person POV; we still have a
choice. The narrator can ride along in the POV character's head,
sharing in every thought and emotion, or the narrator can stand far
away, watching from a distance and reporting thoughts and emotions as
facts rather than sharing them. (The first case brings us close to
first-person narration, one step removed.) For example:
- how close to the point-of-view character is the narration? In
other words, what is the distance between the narrator and the
Ralph had enough of this. Why couldn't this guy
shut up? Ralph just
wanted to go home, and this guy wouldn't let him.
as opposed to:
As John spoke on about civilized behaviour, Ralph
kept twisting in his
chair, looking toward the door, glancing at John only
when there was a
pause in the words. Ralph thought of his own little
place, where he
felt safe, where he wanted to be right now.
So the narrator can be "riding along" in the POV character's head,
can be sitting at the distance; the first would tend to create more
immediacy, the second to be (or claim to be) more objective.
(Another form of distance is reliability; can we trust the narrator?
the narrator not fully aware, or even lying? Note that even in
first-person narration, there can be distance between narration and
actual events, if the narrator is lying or mistaken. This is the
"unreliable" narrator approach, and deserves an exercise of its own.)
Which brings us to our exercise:
Write a scene in limited-third-person point of view, dealing with a
crisis or other emotionally-loaded situation. Write it twice, once very
close to the POV character's feelings and thoughts, once with much
greater distance (but with access to those thoughts and feelings.) Each
scene should be under 200 words.
Examples of the situation:
Optional: explain when you would prefer to use the first, and when the
second would be more effective.
- John has been called into his supervisor's office to be told
fired if his performance doesn't improve immediately.
- Jane, whose best friend has just been murdered, hears a
noise in her house at night.
Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Sun, 15 Apr 2001
Point of view is a difficult concept at times, since it covers so
aspects of narration. This week we focused on one such aspect, the
degree of distance between the narrator and the point-of-view
I think we've seen both the difficulties of this, and the value it
have (though the format of the exercise didn't allow the full effect to
emerge, I may resubmit a modified version of this exercise at a later
Obviously, moving the narration closer to the POV character makes it
easier for the reader to associate with that character. On the other
hand, a more distant point-of-view can enhance mystery or provide more
This week, the submissions tended to have only one significant
character, so in general the closer POV worked better to bring us
to that person. If I do modify the exercise, I will specify that there
have to be two or more characters present, with one being the POV
character; I think in that case we would see how a more distant POV
might be of greater value in some cases.
Even without this change, I think the exercise did demonstrate how
careful use of distance can change the effect of the same scene, and
advance the plot in a different way or at a different speed.
Good work, everyone!
Web site created by
Rhéal Nadeau and
the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.