Point of view describes not simply a type or aspect of storytelling, but the single most potent technique available for realizing your narrative goals. Nothing you decide is more important to the force and effect of your fiction that the point of view you choose for each story, and how well you execute that point of view.
In instances where I’ve actively deliberated point of view for a particular story I’ve tended to focus on authorial utility, and nothing furthers that cause more than considering the narrative territory I want to explore. While many of the words and concepts used to categorize point of view emphasize limitations and restrictions, it’s just as easy to adopt an authorial perspective that emphasizes each type’s advantages.
If you’re going camping for a week in the deep woods you’ll probably want to bring a tent. If you’re writing a story about a person’s most intimate life experiences you’ll probably want to consider first-person. If you’re off to climb a mountain you may want to bring a rope so you can go off the beaten path. If you’re writing about a decaying society you might want to consider third-person so you can freely travel throughout that world.
Here’s Hills on the tradeoffs inherent in point of view:
The basic idea is that once an author has indicated by some statement or some construction what point of view is being used in the story, then he is committed to some extent to maintain it. From the apparent limitations of this, certain advantages occur as well.
The biggest advantage — by far — is that your readers will not become confused about what’s happening as your story unfolds. Choosing and maintaining a point of view not only creates a conceptual order that helps you write, rewrite and edit, but it also shepherds the reader’s experience. In a first-person story a reader is never going to wonder what other characters are thinking because that’s outside first-person point of view — yet that limitation provides ample opportunity for tension and suspense. In a third-person story — and particularly one in which you’ve established authorial omniscience — reader interest in individual motives is to be expected, providing you with all sorts of opportunities for creating dynamic interest and conflict.
Despite the singular importance of point of view, and the general importance of maintaining point of view, it’s still important to remember that point of view serves an end other than itself. It is a variable, plastic technique, not a set of immutable laws:
The “rules” can be broken, of course, if the violation isn’t noticeable, or if enough is achieved by doing so; but to break the rules of point of view unwittingly, with nothing accomplished by it, is to harm the story foolishly…
Film and television fail spectacularly at first-person storytelling. The absurdity of the camera ‘talking’ to a character who is looking at the camera (and thus the audience) almost inherently destroys suspension of disbelief. By contrast, because the camera is endlessly portable both mediums excel at third-person storytelling. Do you need a quick cutaway of a bomb under a table that nobody in the scene even knows is there? No problem: the camera was born to be omniscient. (Interestingly, first-person works much better in interactive entertainment because the audience has control of the camera.)
You can better grasp the unique complexities of point of view in fiction by considering a conversation between two people. In film, TV or theater there is no possibility of confusion: you stand the characters up and let them have at it. In fiction, however, there’s no obvious audience perspective. Even if you write a dialogue in third-person omniscient you’ll have access to inner thoughts that no other medium can match — and the audience will know you have access. As a result there’s nothing preventing you from commenting on every inner thought in the entire conversation except your own authorial restraint and sensibility. Even if you choose first-person or third-person-restricted you still have the problem of providing access to one character while presenting the other in an objective manner, or subjectively through the other character’s eyes.
Hills takes a moment to contrast point of view in the short story with point of view in the novel, then touches on the ancillary manner in which point of view affects everything from tone to style to language and more. He then shows how point of view is inseparably connected to selection and emphasis:
Point of view also has a determining effect on the “closeness” and “distance” with which a story is recounted. Each of the four methods is thought to provide a different degree of closeness and distance…
It’s a lot to consciously think about if an author thinks about it at all. Still, as an exercise it might be useful to think of a very simple story, then imagine how that story would be told in each of the common literary points of view. I don’t think it would take long to see how considerable the differences are, and how much more powerful the best choice is.
Next up: When Point of View Is “Wrong”.
— Mark Barrett