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Exercise: A different view

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.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: February 9, 2003
Reposted on: March 27, 2005

Point of View (POV) is an integral part of writing, but one which is often misunderstood or misused.

What are the different POV options?

First of all, who is telling the story?

First-person: Told using "I" - the narrator is directly involved in the action (either as the protagonist, the main character, or as a secondary character witnessing and reporting the story - think of Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example.) Obviously, this narration is limited to what that one character knows, sees, or experiences (though of course, that character can, for example, obtain extra information from someone else.)

Second-person: Told using "you", trying to put the reader in the centre of the story. Seldom used, and even more seldom used convincingly. See Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City for an example of a successful novel written using second person.

Third-person: Told using he/she/they, by an external observer.

I am currently reading Stephen King's collection of short story, "Everything's Eventual". Some of the stories are in first person, some in third. For example, the opening story is about a man, paralysed by a snake bite, who is mistaken for dead and brought to the autopsy room. Another is about a man brought to an interrogation room in a South American dictatorship. The first story is told in first person, and would (in my opinion) be very hard to pull off in third person. Conversely, the second story is told in third person, which makes sense to me because it maintains the suspense as to whether the character makes it out or not. Think about how the choice of viewpoint would affect how these stories, and others, are told.

Next, how much does that narrator know or reveal?

Objective: the narrator sees the story from the outside, having no access to the thoughts or emotions of any of the characters, reporting only through dialogue and actions.

Limited: the narrator has full access to a single character, and knows all that this one character knows (but not anything this character doesn't know or experience.)

Omniscient: the narrator is god-like and can access all characters.

Note that different people use different names or descriptions for those POVs, and it's not always clear even using a single definition what POV is actually being used. In Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, the narration shifts from character to character between chapters (alternating between a group of sisters, with occasional insertions from the mother) - but each chapter is strictly told from the POV of that one character, and the other characters in the story (most notably the father) are only seen through those viewpoints. So is that story omniscient, or sequentially limited?

Each option has its advantages and disadvantages. Omniscient provides the most information, but can lose unity - the reader can be distracted by POV shifts, or feel less engaged because there's not as much emphasis on a single central character. Limited creates a stronger link with a single character, and can help the reader feel involved. Objective can be used to create distance, or to allow the reader more room for interpretation.

POV is covered in many writing resources, including Web sites such as http://www.qcc.mass.edu/booth/255/ptview/index.htm .

All too often, I suspect, writers don't ask themselves which POV to use, but simply start writing in whatever POV seems most appropriate at that moment. (I confess I do this - and like many writers, tend to default to a single POV in all my stories, in my case first person.) A potential problem here is that if the writer is not well aware of what POV the story is in, the POV may shift unexpectedly - from limited to omniscient, for example, or from first to third (note that many highly successful writers shift between first person and third person omniscient within the same story. Obviously, they get away with it, but it can be very distracting, and at times it feels like the author is cheating, playing sleight-of-hand games with the reader.) For example, there is no question about the popularity of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series - but many readers dislike her sudden switches between the dominant first person narration to third person.

So, which is the best POV to use? There is no rule, of course, and different POVs will work best in different stories. The best way to learn this is to experiment - which is the purpose of this exercise.

So here is the exercise:

Write the same scene twice, using two different POVs. Choose any two you want (no restrictions - if you want to try writing a scene in second-person omniscient, then go right ahead. You can even do both versions in first-person or third-person limited, but using different POV characters, though I suggest having two different ones from objective, limited, and omniscient.) The scene should involve a secret or hidden information - the POV you use will affect how that information can be revealed (or even *if* it can be revealed.)

Tell us the POV for each version, so critics can check how well you conformed to that POV.

You may find that the scenes diverge: because things are presented differently, our perception of the characters and of the scene may shift, so things may progress differently. This is fine, within the scope of this exercise.

Each version should be no more than 300 words.

Have fun!

Posted on: February 10, 2003

I guess I forgot to include instructions on what to look for when critiquing. It's not simply a question of saying "this version worked best" - it's not a contest, after all.

First off, when writing a critiquing, see how well the piece sticks to the stated point of view. For example, I've seen submissions labelled first person that slipped into third, and vice versa. Is the information consistent with the point of view used, if we're in a limited viewpoint? If in omniscient, are transitions between characters smooth or jarring?

Then, if one version works better, then *why* do you think it does, in this case? Remember - the goal is not to pick the best point of view; there's no such thing. The goal is to learn the differences, that advantages and drawbacks of each.

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: February 15, 2003

Wow, quite a week! I was thinking this might be a slow week, since this is a difficult topic, but people certainly rose to the challenge! The submissions have shown both the richness, and the complexity, of the various point-of-view choices.

Some of the submitters nailed their chosen POVs, others clearly were struggling more - I hope everyone learned something, though, which is the purpose of the exercise. (If we were all perfect writers, we wouldn't need this list, after all!)

Certainly, the submissions and critiques showed how many different ways there are to tell a story, and how the choice of POV can provide both opportunities and limitations, thus shaping how the story can be told and how it will unfold.

To be honest, my favourite submissions were the ones where the two versions came out different, showing a different picture (even if describing the same scene); in some of the submissions where the two versions were equivalent and presented the same information, I kept getting the feeling that the selected POVs weren't being exploited properly, that opportunities were being missed.

I hope we all learned something about POV, and that in future, even if we continue to have a favourite POV to use, we will give more thought to which POV to use for a given piece of writing (and having made that choice, that we will be better able to stick to it, and take advantage of the opportunities it offers.)

(Oh, by the way, I had forgotten about the distinction between reporter and participant POVs - I'll have to check up on those, as they address one aspect of point-of-view I have been struggling to find a way to express. If anyone has a good reference on those, I would love to know about it!)

Rhéal Nadeau

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.