Thursday, November 04, 2004

The point of view, part 1

In yesterday’s post about Mayhem I spent some time considering the point of view from which the story was told. And it occurs to me that there might, perhaps, be some value in giving readers of this blog the benefit of such other knowledge about the use of viewpoint as I have acquired over the years.

In theory, a good working knowledge of viewpoint should be of value to any young, as-yet-unpublished writer who happens to stumble across these pages; and the discussion may also be of general interest to those who are no more than enthusiastic readers of fiction.

Fortunately, it so happens that, about a year ago, I completed a book about the technique of the short story which contains a chapter on viewpoint. In due course the book will published through my own small press, Kingsfield Publications, but for a variety of reasons I just haven’t got around to it yet. What follows is therefore a slightly modified version of chapter 6 of my forthcoming book.

I can’t claim that it is all easy reading. Viewpoint is a complicated technical matter, and like all technical matters it requires concentration and some thought.

Today I begin with an introduction to the subject of viewpoint; and over the next few days I shall discuss each of the major options from which a writer can choose when deciding how to tell a particular story.


This chapter considers the problem of how to choose the best point of view for telling your story. And if you don’t really understand what I’m talking about in that first sentence, then don’t worry, because all will be made clear to you by the time you have read to the end of the chapter.

Over the past fifty years or so, I have read more or less every book that I could lay hands on which appeared to shed some light on how to write fiction (about 400 of them, all told). These analyses have varied from abstruse academic works at one end to crude ‘how to get rich quick by writing a novel’ manuals at the other. The books at either end of this spectrum tend to be useless. The valuable ones are somewhere in the middle.

As a result of this research I am in a position to give you the benefit of all that accumulated wisdom. The content of this chapter is therefore not so much the fruit of my own genius, but an amalgam of the thinking of all the great fictional theorists, expressed (I hope) in simple and clear language.

It may be useful if I mention here the names of some of the most valuable thinkers on this particular aspect of story-telling, so that you can read their discussions yourself, if you so wish.

First, I need to mention Thomas H. Uzzell, author of Narrative Technique (first published in 1923 and long since out of print). In that book, Uzzell writes extensively about the various possible points of view for relating a short story. Uzzell’s early ideas were refined some thirty years later when he considered full-length fiction, in his book The Technique of the Novel. In the remainder of this chapter I shall make extensive use of the principles which Uzzell sets out in both his major works.

A more recent viewpoint theorist is Albert Zuckerman, whose book Writing the Blockbuster Novel is essential reading for anyone who intends to tackle the longer form of fiction. (Don't be put off by the catchpenny title.) Al Zuckerman is one of the most successful literary agents in New York, and as it happens he was my own agent for about fifteen years. In 1980/81 I worked closely with Al when I was writing a thriller called No Holds Barred, so I have personal experience of the insights which he can bring to a writer’s work.

Mention of Al Zuckerman's book remins me that the best books on fictional technique are those written by literary agents. This is not really surprising because agents are the people who earn their living by actually selling books to publishers, and it is therefore very much in their interests to think hard about what makes a book tick. Agents who have written useful books on writing fiction include Paul R. Reynolds, Malcolm MacCampbell, Scott Meredith, and Carole Blake.

As mentioned above, I have also sought help from the academic writers on the subject of viewpoint – though the academics are, as usual, much less helpful than the more down-to-earth practitioners.

Academics, by and large, consider that they are letting themselves down if they write anything which can be understood by the ordinary reader. They don’t feel they’re doing things right unless their prose is well nigh incomprehensible.

You might read, for example, a work by Gerard Genette, entitled Narrative Discourse. In that book, Genette identifies three types of prose, which he refers to as non-focalised, internally focalised, and externally focalised. The terminology is not what you might call instantly clear, is it? So, what is Genette actually talking about?

Well, when you dig down through the layers of obfuscation, you discover that what Genette calls non-focalised fiction is simply a story told from the point of view of the classic omniscient narrator (of whom more below). Internally focalised prose is a story told from the point of view of a particular character. And an externally focalised story is one which is told in the Hemingway manner, with an account of the events being given from the viewpoint of one of the characters, but without any comment or thoughts from that character.

The analysis which Genette gives us is interesting, up to a point, and useful, up to a point. But, for the record, it is an incomplete and faulty analysis. What is more, Genette offers us a discussion which is couched, like most academic discourse, in obscure language; reading the thing is damned hard work, and in the end you discover that it’s scarcely worth the trouble, because other writers have set out the same ideas with greater clarity.

Other academic writers who have dealt with the question of viewpoint include Wayne C. Booth (The Rhetoric of Fiction), and Tzvetan Todorov (The Poetics of Prose). Wade through these stodgy tomes if you wish, but you won’t find anything there which tells you more than is contained in the rest of this chapter. And you will find that my description – even if I do say so myself – is a great deal easier to follow than the output of the academic elite.

It is high time we got down to business.

In the good old days, writers on the art of fiction would limit themselves to advising you that there were two ways – and only two ways – in which you could tell a story. You could either write it in the first person, or in the third person. Either you wrote: I opened the door and walked into the room, where I fell over a dead body. Or you wrote: He opened the door and walked into the room, where he fell over a dead body.

It must have been nice to live in such simple, untroubled times. Today, of course, we know that things are not that simple. Dear me, no. So let me end this brief introduction to the subject of viewpoint in fiction by saying that there are three principal points of view from which a story may be told. Three principal ones, and many possible variations upon those three. The first of these three viewpoints is the omniscient.

And for details of that, tune in tomorrow.

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