The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
Given the relationship between point of view and movement of character that Hills pointed out in the previous section, it may seem as if a rule has been laid down. In a sense I guess that’s true, but I think it’s less a rule of fiction than a fact. In any case, just because there’s an inviolate relationship between point of view and character movement, that doesn’t mean you have to slave your stories to that relationship from the get-go. As Hills notes:
But then, in good stories by good writers, one often sees a point-of-view method that started off “wrong” — or at least indirectly — being worked around to focus on the real consequences of the action.
Hills gives excellent examples from Hemingway’s The Killers, and A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, and D.H. Lawrence’s The Horse Dealer’s Daughter. If you want to see the focusing power of point of view first hand, it’s worth reading those stories and comparing his notes with your own experience as a reader.
Whether those particular authors specifically thought about exploiting the focusing power of point of view or not, the effect is still there because the point of view character is necessarily the vessel for movement that defines any story. You can fight it or go with it, but you can’t change that fact:
And as far as the writer is concerned, we’ve seen that even when an author has misconceived his story, and attempted to tell it from the point of view on an unmoved character, he often finds that things begin to change on him. Despite the author’s intentions, the point-of-view character will tend to occupy the center of his stage…
As a practical matter, the focusing power of point of view in fiction seems to be an artifact of fiction’s point-of-view flexibility. In first-person fiction, where the point of view is fixed to and never shifts from the narrator, the moved character and the point of view character are necessarily the same. It’s only when the multiplicity of third-person points of view come into play that the moved character and the point of view character have the potential to be confused by the author — particularly if there is a central character (Gatsby, say) who occupies neither role.
What’s at stake in all this is not simply the coherence of your work, but its force and effectiveness. If you want to write an epic third-person story that “bounces” between characters all over the globe you can do so with full confidence that story and reader will converge at the end on the point-of-view character. You can even write a “scenic” epic that avoids a point-of-view character or narrator all together, but in choosing to do so you leave storytelling power and effectiveness on the table. If storytelling is about movement of character, and movement of character is tied to point of view, and if the reader is going to impute point of view even if you try to withhold it, then you’re probably better off — particularly as a beginning writer — not fighting those connections.
Craft is not a constraint. As a writer you can always do what you want to do, but part of doing what you want to do is knowing the effect of the choices you make. In the same way that learning to draw cubes and spheres and perspective lines augments an artist’s work, even if that artist chooses to focus on pure abstraction, mastering storytelling craft gives you more ability to flex your writing muscles.
Next up: Monologues, and the Pathological First Person.
— Mark Barrett
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