This article is by Dr John Yeoman.
I knew I had to kill the wizard that night. Sure, I felt bad about it. Hadn’t he always been my buddy? But he shouldn’t have fooled around with my wife.
Every new story writer knows the difference between first and third person narration. Don’t we?
The first person voice ‘I’ has power and immediacy. The narrator can convey his or her innermost feelings and intentions directly to the reader. Try changing the voice in the passage above to the third person: ‘He knew he had to kill the wizard, etc’. It loses its power. It’s awkward.
The third person voice is the newbie’s choice. It’s far easier to use than the first person. There’s no constraint on the Point of View (PoV). The narrator can be privy to every secret (although omniscience is optional).
But the writer who never ventures beyond the third person is like a mountaineer who falls in love with climbing walls.
Of course, you’ll avoid the second person, won’t you?
As for the second person, the direct address to the reader (‘you’), be careful. We – or you? – can see its perils in Calvino’s experimental novel If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979).
Watch out: it is surely a method of involving you gradually, capturing you in the story before you realize it – a trap. Or perhaps the author still has not made up his mind, just as you, reader, for that matter, are not sure what you would most like to read[.]
And so on, ad taedium. The repetition of you, you, you is like a flurry of punches to the stomach.
Readers do not like being punched in the stomach and WalMart does not stock experimental novels.
The peril of accidental PoV shifts
If we keep our PoV consistent – either first or third person – all should be well. But to shift the PoV by accident is as easy as blinking. For example:
a. The implausible observation
I glided across the lake, my hands about the dragon’s neck, my golden hair undulating behind me.
Unless the narrator lay on her back, how did she know what her hair was doing?
b. The micro-shift from thought to description
His broken sword be damned, he began the speech of his life.
The first clause is the character thinking, the second is the narrator’s description of the character. To fix this, we have to rejig the sentence: ‘Regardless of his broken sword, etc’.
True, the first version has more colloquial energy but it jars. Too many micro-shifts, in and out of character, and the story loses credibility.
c. Implausible knowledge
If you’re writing in the first person voice ‘I’, it’s easy to forget that your character – unlike yourself – is travelling blind. Don’t gift them with implausible knowledge or prescience.
I knew that the old castle held more secrets than had ever been told.
How did s/he know that?
Little did I think that this would be the most terrible day of my life.
Unless you’re writing the whole story as one big flashback, blatant foresight doesn’t work.
A simple way to give the reader information that the first person narrator could not have known, is to enlist the help of minor characters. Use reported speech.
“You’ve never been to John o’Groats, young man.” My landlady fussed over me. “You’ll need strong boots and thick woollen socks, new longjohns and a lot of string vests. Look, I’ve made you a list.”
Now the reader knows something that the narrator didn’t know before – the tip of Scotland in winter is a chilly place.
Minor characters can also foreghost some future key event. At the time, the narrator might not catch the significance of their casual remarks but the reader does.
“Don’t venture near the sea cliffs after dark. Weird things live there. And many a silly man has lost his life, going for a midnight walk.”
Now the reader knows that the ghoulish cliffs of John o’Groats will play a fateful role in the tale to come.
d. Continuity gaps
What’s wrong with this scene shift?
I looked upon the cityscape of Manhattan for the last time.
‘I hate these Florida summers,” my wife said.
A radical shift of location is, literally, a shift in the PoV. Make the continuity clear:
We’d flown down the night before and opened up our old beach apartment.
It takes just a sentence or two. Otherwise, you’re implying that aliens abducted your characters and dropped them into their new setting without explanation or apology. The reader thinks: ‘Duh?’
How many (legitimate) PoVs can you have in a story?
IMHO, that’s about all that can be handled in a short story of up to 6000 words – or, for that matter, in a 100,000-word novel. Newbies typically recruit a cast of thousands. Any more than three and the reader loses track, even if s/he is provided – in a long novel – with a list of dramatis persona.
A tip: if you’re going to switch PoVs deliberately, give each narrator a unique voice.
For example, Lady Alice uses short sentences, blunt words, simple thoughts. Young Sarah is a romantic: her phrases bounce, her language gushes. Lord Somniver has a taste for learned words, dependent clauses, long cerebrations. (Caution: a little of that goes a long way…) And so forth.
Can your reader detect a PoV shift simply by the subtle modulations in your narrators’ language? It’s the hardest thing to achieve, unless you descend to caricature.
But if you can pull it off – and the reader knows at once who’s speaking without further clues – congratulate yourself. You have the craft skills of a Tolkien!
About the Author:
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at www.writers-village.org/academy-intro.