Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The point of view, part 5

Below is the final post in my series on the choice of viewpoint in fiction.

Choice and consistency

I appreciate that by now you may have the impression that choosing the best viewpoint to use for a short story (or a novel) is a decidedly tricky business. But it isn’'t really.

If you are planning to write a story at all, then you will presumably have some sort of an outline in mind. Have a look at that material, and as often as not you will find that the ‘best’ viewpoint pretty much suggests itself. The choice is frequently instinctive, and may well be dictated, or at least suggested, by the nature of the material.

However, at some stage it will probably be wise to take a look at your ‘instinctive’ decision on viewpoint, and decide whether it really will provide the best method of telling the story.

If you get stuck, and aren’'t quite sure which viewpoint to use, then here is a series of questions which will enable you to reach a decision.

1 Are you going to use the omniscient viewpoint, which enables you to enter the heads of any and all characters if you so wish, – or are you going to write from the point of view of one major character, or one minor character?

2 If you are using the major-character viewpoint, or the minor-character viewpoint, are you going to write in the first person or the third person?

3 Whichever viewpoint you choose, are you going to describe external and visible events only, or are you going to describe the internal thoughts and feelings of any of the characters?

4 If you are writing in the third person, are you going to provide ‘author comment’? Are you going to give the reader strong indications of how she should react to the characters and events, or are you going to let the events speak for themselves, with the reader coming to her own conclusions about who is good or bad, right or wrong?

5 If you are writing in the first person, is that narrator going to try to influence the reader about who is good or bad, right or wrong? Or, again, is the reader going to be given a neutral, objective account of events, and be left to form her own conclusions?

6 If you are writing a first-person account, is that going to be a truthful account of what happened, or not?

7 In the major- and minor-character viewpoints, does the narrator come to correct and sensible conclusions about what he observes? Or does he come to false (and perhaps tragic or comic) conclusions?

To repeat, you may not always find yourself needing to work through this checklist in any conscious way, because the answers to the questions listed above will often be implicit in the material that you have already developed. Nevertheless, it can sometimes help you to strengthen what material you have by thinking about some of these possibilities.

As for consistency in the use of one viewpoint – well, that is a matter of personal choice and taste. I myself make it something of a point of honour to stick rigorously to the selected viewpoint. Genette, on the other hand, argues that strict observance of this rule is unnecessary.

Will anyone complain if you do vary the viewpoint? Suppose, for example, you are writing a story from the major-character viewpoint, in the third person. If, for a paragraph or two, you forget to be consistent and suddenly tell the reader what a minor character is thinking, – are your readers going to feel upset?

Probably not, is the honest answer. Most readers won’'t even notice. At least, not consciously. I am inclined to think, however, that readers will notice such a shift of viewpoint unconsciously, and that is why I avoid it.

My advice is that you should choose, consciously and deliberately, to write each story from one particular viewpoint and then stick to it.

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