Imagine a grand old stained glass window in a grand old house. It is imposing, arresting, defining. From the wooden trim surrounding the window, to the pieces of colored glass held by the snaking, soldered cames, every aspect of the window shrieks of mastery. As futile as it may ultimately be, you are so possessed by what you see that you decide to communicate your amazement to others through inherently feeble words. And so you begin to write….
As long as I have been writing — and that is now a very long time — I cannot think of any aspect of craft that has caused me more consternation than point of view. And here I mean point of view broadly, across all mediums and writing types. Whether fiction or nonfiction, the choice of point of view is not only critical to the effects you aim to achieve, but often seems inherent in the original conception. So much so, in fact, that at times you may not stop to consider whether the point of view you have chosen is the best point of view to use.
I mention this because I recently went through a frustrating period in which I had to deconstruct a complex nonfiction argument that originally seemed self-evident. When I revisited what I had written, however, I realized — after pages and pages of failed revisions, beseeching questions and aggravated comments — that I had instinctively adopted the wrong point of view. What I had originally said was that because the issue at hand was poorly defined, the people advocating for that position were objectively wrong. What I needed to say was that while the issue at hand was narrowly correct, the people advocating for that position were effectively blinded by that truth.
In the first instance the point of view I adopted meant that I wrote myself into a logical corner from which I could not extricate myself. In the second instance the point of view I adopted opened up all of the logical avenues I wanted to discuss. As for what it cost me to belatedly come to that realization, that was a few weeks of complete insanity as I went around and around restating and reformulating the arguments I made, without once stepping back and questioning the authorial point of view from which i made them.
That said, I’m not convinced that I could have reasoned my way to the proper point of view in advance. In fact, I think there are times when the only way to find the best point of view in fiction or nonfiction is to make an educated guess and get to work. And no, it’s not fun if you go down the wrong path and have to back up, but from that work you will likely be certain about your final choice.
If you’re relatively new to writing you have probably only wrestled with point of view at the higher levels, including choosing between first-person and third-person in fiction or nonfiction. It’s probably also best to stick with one point of view or the other in a given piece, both to keep your writing on track and to avoid confusing the reader. At some point, however, you may find yourself struggling with everything from the overarching conception of a work to a specific passage or chapter, and then you may profit — as I ultimately did — from questioning any assumptions you made about point of view.
And by way of example, consider again the grand old stained glass window in that grand old house. When you were imagining that window, were you outside the house looking in, or inside the house looking out? Because I’m willing to bet it was one or the other, even though you didn’t think about it at all.
— Mark Barrett