My personal goal in taking a close look at Hills’ book is to show how the lessons it contains apply to all forms of storytelling, and how those lessons are useful to writers at all skill levels. You can follow the literary trail Hills blazes all the way to rarefied art if you want, but it’s not necessary. If you love writing genre fiction or simply want to write from the heart, nothing Hills talks about will preclude you from doing that. Yet the quality and effectiveness of your work will almost certainly improve.
This short section is a case in point. If every would-be and established writer were to read only these few pages, fictional false starts and ponderous wanderings would plummet. Here’s the first graph:
Beginning writers often choose to tell their story from the point of view of a character who is not central to the action — a “bystander,” so to speak, “a friend of the hero,” or something like that, not directly involved. This is thought to make exposition easier: the reader is able to learn the facts of the situation along with the narrator. But the need for exposition is seldom sufficient to make up for the sense of consequencelessness that often results from uninvolved narration.
There are multiple points of view you can adopt that allow readers direct access to your central character’s thoughts: first-person, third-person restricted, third-person omniscient, and so on. If you want no intermediary between reader and character, first person is the best choice. If you want to include the thoughts of others, or even your own authorial comments, a variant of third-person offers that functionality without granting point of view to an in-story intermediary. Despite all these vital choices, however, authors — and particularly novice authors — keep giving point-of-view to characters that are of little or no narrative consequence.
Personally, I think the reason authors reflexively give point of view to a distanced observer is because that’s how they get themselves into their fiction. In the old days (think Dickens) you could simply address the reader directly, from the authorial heavens, but those days are pretty much gone. Today, if you’re a witty, hipster writer and want to comment on all the failed souls around you, you give point of view to a witty hipster so she can comment on all the failed souls around her including the main character of the story. From the point of view of the hipster writer this is riotously cathartic and empowering, while from the reader’s perspective the point-of-view character is often an unnecessary distraction.
Still, there are obviously plenty of successful works that follow this paradigm, including The Great Gatsby. If the method works for Fitzgerald, can’t it work for you? Hills addresses that question in a subsequent section, but the short answer here is that you can do anything you want as long as it achieves the intended effect. The problem with presenting a story through an objective, disinterested or present-but-emotionally-removed narrator is that the choice is rarely a considered one.
Its axiomatic for Hills that choice of method in storytelling should be driven by intent and craft. Yet I don’t think many authors — and particularly novice authors — stop to ask how their goals for a story can best be achieved through point of view. Separating the point of view character and the central character in a story is like hiring a reporter to present a story about something you experienced. There might be reasons to do so, but nine times out of ten the result will be more compelling and convincing if you tell the story yourself.
There are people who insist that point of view choices are inherently right or wrong (Hills mentions editors and teachers specifically) but they’re wrong. You can do whatever you want:
…there are no “rules” of writing. Things are “done” the way they are done for reasons, and if the reasons don’t exist and there are better reasons not to, then they aren’t done that way.
If you’re tempted to present a story through the eyes of an observer, the question is not whether that choice is right or wrong, but whether it’s right or wrong for that story. Until the critics get hold of your prose you’re the only person who can answer that question.
Next up: The “Question” of Point of View.
— Mark Barrett