Narration and Point of View (PoV) is a creative writing device, in addition to characterisation, dialogue, and scene-setting.
Narration refers to the process of telling a story
PoV refers to the perspective from which the story is told
Narrative modes range from omniscient narration to first-person narration
PoV applies to creative works: short stories, novels, narrative non-fiction, and poetry, which encourage the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ (Coleridge).
Writing from a particular PoV requires skill, consistency, and a conscious decision so as not to confuse the reader. Generally it’s not a good idea to switch PoV within a chapter, or without a clear physical break (line break or ornament). Even then, take care not to ‘head hop’ (see later).
Imperative that the writer’s voice remains intact
B.: The ‘show, don’t tell’ rule (see later)
First-person narration: events relayed to the reader through a central character’s eyes (e.g. Dickens’ Pip in Great Expectations; Nick Carraway in Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby; Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye).
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly in school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child.
Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita
First person narration is limited to the narrator’s PoV; the author needs to master the character’s ‘voice’.
Second-person narration: ‘you’; uncommon in fiction. Makes a character of the reader. For example, Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City opens with:
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this in the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.”
By using this writing style, the audience is drawn in to the story immediately and becomes a part of the action.
Third-person omniscient narration uses third person pronouns and the narrator is ‘all-knowing’ – moves freely through time and place and has access to all characters’ thoughts; ‘fly-on-the-wall’ narration. Omniscient narrators are NOT characters in the story, or equated with the writer’s voice; they’re like a voice-over in film. For example, Jane Austen’s opening lines in Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
Popular in the 19th century novel; Dickens, Tolstoy and Tolkien also commonly employed third-person omniscient narration.
This voice should remain distant from the characters described. For example:
Omniscient narration: Stephen felt unsure of how to act. He had last seen her on the day of her wedding, a day that was painfully awkward for him. He noticed that she had hardly aged. Although it was ten years ago, the sight of her now recalled all the humiliation and sorrow of their parting.
Third-person limited narration: Stephen faltered. What was he supposed to do? He remembered again the day of her wedding, and all the pain that went with it. When was it, ten years ago? Looking at her now – How could she not have aged? – brought back all the humiliation and sorrow of their parting.
In third-person limited narration the technique of ‘free indirect speech’ is used – the character is ‘thinking aloud’. BUT:
Beware of ‘head-hopping’ – entering the minds of multiple characters in close proximity; becomes confusing for the reader, e.g.
Lucinda knew he hadn’t been honest with her. Damn him, she thought; these last few years have been a complete waste of time, and she wasn’t getting any younger. She turned away. Bryan felt her rejection keenly. How could he make her believe that he was telling the truth? If only he knew what he had discovered in his inbox, but Lucinda wasn’t about to tell him.
Third-person limited narration (or third-person sympathetic narration): narration usually attached to a particular character, allows the reader more access to this character’s thoughts.
This is the most common narrative used today, e.g. Hemingway’s Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which tells the story from Harry’s point of view.
Advantages: opportunity to play with dramatic irony; helps to create suspense; not as expansive as omniscient narration; not as claustrophobic as first-person narration; gives readers greater access to a main character’s thoughts without needing to master the character’s voice to the same extent as first-person narration.
‘Stream of consciousness’ narration tries to mimic the character’s thought processes as closely as possible; it is more concerned with recreating a sense of the character’s impressions and perceptions, often without punctuation. For example:
“—Kesey has Cornel Wilde Running Jacket ready hanging on the wall, a jungle-jim corduroy jacket stashed with fishing line, a knife, money, DDT, tablet, ball-points, flashlight, and grass. Has it timed by test runs that he can be out the window, down through a hole in the roof below, down a drain pipe, over a wall and into thickest jungle in 45 seconds—well, only 35 seconds left, but head start is all that’s needed, with the element of surprise. Besides, it’s so fascinating to be here in subastral projection with the cool rushing dex, synched into their minds and his own, in all its surges and tributaries and convolutions, turning it this way and that and rationalizing the situation for the 100th time in split seconds, such as: If they have that many men already here, the phony telephone men, the cops in the tan car, the cops in the Volkswagen, what are they waiting for? why haven’t they crashed right in through the rotten doors of this Rat building–“
Tom Wolfe: Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
N.B. the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule: show what the characters are like, don’t tell; author needs to create scenes that demonstrate aspects of the character’s personality; don’t spoon-feed the reader with details of characterization and scene creation. Each reader brings their own history, memories, experiences and opinions to the story; this harnesses the power of a strong and interesting narrative.
& & & & &
IAN TENNENT’s Writing Tips
Ian Tennent, the author of Zululand Snow and Zululand Gold,
contributed the following articles to Write Now, the SAWC newsletter: