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Exercise: POV distancing

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: Sun, 8 Apr 2001

Point of view is one of the trickiest concepts a writer can deal with, and one offering a multitude of choices.

What is point of view? The first questions are:

  • who is telling the story?
  • who is experiencing the story?
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 be 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 revolves.

The next question is:

  • how is the story being told?
We often hear of third-person POV, first-person POV, even the occasional second-person. We also hear of omniscient or limited POVs. What do these mean, exactly?

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 reader.

In third-person, the narrator is outside the action. This can be someone 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 neutral, impersonal, narrator, often in an effort to present the story objectively.

How much does this narrator know? Some narrators know everything: what 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

  • how close to the point-of-view character is the narration? In other words, what is the distance between the narrator and the POV character?
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:

   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, or 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? Is 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:

  • John has been called into his supervisor's office to be told he'll be fired if his performance doesn't improve immediately.
  • Jane, whose best friend has just been murdered, hears a suspicious noise in her house at night.
Optional: explain when you would prefer to use the first, and when the second would be more effective.

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Sun, 15 Apr 2001

Point of view is a difficult concept at times, since it covers so many aspects of narration. This week we focused on one such aspect, the degree of distance between the narrator and the point-of-view character.

I think we've seen both the difficulties of this, and the value it can 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 date.)

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 objectivity.

This week, the submissions tended to have only one significant character, so in general the closer POV worked better to bring us closer 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 can 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.