About Me

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Point Of View: Selected Quotes and One Author's Perspective

The following quotes are excerpted from Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Sixth Edition (Longman, c2003):


"Point of view is the most complex element of fiction. Although it may be labeled and analyzed, it is finally a question of relationship among writer, characters, and reader." ~ Janet Burroway

"An author's view of the world will ultimately be revealed by the way that author manipulates the technique of point of view. However, the reverse does not hold true... Rather than think of point of view as an opinion or belief, begin instead with the (concept) of 'vantage point.' Who is standing where to watch the scene?" ~ Janet Burroway

"In establishing the story's point of view, you make your own rules, but having made them, you must stick to them... Beginning writers of prose fiction are often tempted to shift viewpoint when it is both unnecessary and disturbing." ~ Janet Burroway

"Third- and second-person stories are told by an author; first-person stories, by a character." ~ Janet Burroway

"In the third person, all the characters will be referred to as he, she, or they. In the first person, the character telling the story will refer to himself or herself as I and to other characters as he, she, or they. The second person is the basic mode of the story only when a character is referred to as you. When one character addreses 'you' in a letter or monologue, that narrative is still told by the 'I' character... Only when 'you' becomes an actor in the drama, so designated by the author, is the story or novel written in second person." ~ Janet Burroway

"In choosing a point of view, the author implies an identity not only for the teller of the tale, but also for the audience." ~ (For example: the story can be told to the reader; another character or characters; the self, as in a diary or a journal; or told as an interior monologue or as stream of consciousness.) ~ Janet Burroway

"A reader's experience of fiction is influenced by person, tone, distance, reliability, and other aspects of point of view." ~ Janet Burroway


These quotes come from Alice LaPlante's The Making of a Story ( Norton, c2007):

"One of the most common ways to break with point of view conventions is to be telling the story from one point of view, and then suddenly shift to another... In general, once you establish your point of view, you're going to want to stick with it. The point isn't to follow some esoteric rule, but to avoid jolting your readers out of the story. When such a jolt occurs, some would argue that there is a point of view error that needs to be fixed. But while this might be the case some, or even most of the time, you can read stories-- good stories-- in which the point of view shifts... In such cases, we assume that the author felt it important enough to risk jolting the reader to get some additional information into the text. Does it work? Does the author get away with it? Only the reader can say." ~ Alice LaPlante

"Second person is one of the more complex points of view, and it is rarely used. In second person, the narrator speaks via a 'you,'-- who can be one of four types of characters. (1) The 'you' is actually an inverted form of first person... (2) The 'you' refers to a specific character, so that the piece, in effect, becomes a monologue addressed to a person or persons... (3) The 'you' is a direct address to the reader... (4) The 'you' can also, occasionally, be an attempt to turn the reader into an active character in the story..." ~ Alice LaPlante

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If you've noticed that Burroway and LaPlante are in disagreement about what can properly be identified as second person, you are correct; but both authors agree writing in the second person is an experimental technique that is rarely employed. The contemporary authors who use it usually confine it to shorter pieces, because the technique, in a longer piece, can fatigue the reader, and interfere with reader identification.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It took me a while to master point of view in my own fiction writing. I had an intuitive sense of characterization, description, and dialogue, and that has served me well. In terms of novel writing, beyond point of view, it is plot and overall story structure I have yet to master, though I've largely succeeded in all the elements, including significance, in my shorter works. What I need now, is time-- to write, and to only write. And I do not have it. I have to see a novel through from conception through development and completion, and only then, after revision, can I judge how well I can do.

In my most recent novels, I write in close limited third from multiple points of view (for those who don't know the technique, that is not a shift, because the rule is followed that only one point of view is employed for each scene, and that within that scene, the point of view does not shift). For me, one of the fascinations in telling a tale, is that, for each character, as in life, the truth is a difference of perception. Ah, but there is right and wrong, and for every story I write, there is a heroine and a hero, and there is a villain (sometimes an aspect of the self).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Sing Us A Song For Me: Billie Joe Armstrong shifts point-of-view to great effect.

Billie Joe Armstrong
NME Magazine
June 6, 2009
Interview Excerpt


Someone searched on the phrase: poetic techniques in the song 21 guns by greenday. At the time, I had no answer for them, but they found my site, anniekwrites, through the key words in the search. They stayed for a minute or two, and maybe clicked the link to hear the song in a live performance. It got me thinking about impressions I’d already gleaned, pertinent for the writer, any writer, of prose, poetry, or song lyrics. Billie Joe Armstrong breaks the rule; he shifts his point of view.

One minute he’s in third person, the next it’s first, or it’s the second person, “you,” or the understood you, as in a command, sometimes all in the same song, or in the same sentence, and there are the layered elements of tone, narrator reliability, and distance. And nobody minds it, because it makes you feel included, and he readily admits, every song he writes, from a male or a female perspective, starting with the multiple points of view expressed in the concept album American Idiot, and continuing with 21st Century Breakdown, with its two major characters, is him. Often, when he uses the second person “you,” it’s almost like he’s talking to himself.


In the June 6, 2009 British music magazine, NME, Billie Joe Armstrong is interviewed by Hardeep Phull. On page 10, Phull asks Armstrong:

The characters on 21st Century Breakdown are extensions of you, aren’t they?

“I think it’s 100% me. It’s just different names. Those songs could be ‘Billie’s Inferno’ or ‘Viva La Billie Joe’ (laughs). The character thing came almost by accident during recording. There’s a yin/yang element to them- it’s a little bit schizophrenic in a lot of ways.”

Doesn’t that worry you - that you’ve written an album that’s 100 percent you and yet it’s two different people?
“Yeah, and one’s a man and one’s a woman! What does that say (laughs)? I think it’s more down to creativity. When you put names and characters to it, it gives it flesh and blood… it means so much more than if the songs were all obviously me.”


Whether he knows it or not, Billie Joe Armstrong works to achieve what all good writers do: to translate his personal visions and demons onto the page through his characters, so that every word is accessible, without compromise, and essential to the piece.

Because of its emotional content and lyrical melody, the song, 21 Guns, is one of my favorites on 21st Century Breakdown, but it is not the best constructed of the songs in terms of poetic technique. In 21 Guns, Armstrong asks a series of questions and gives the listener an answer. This is an example from the third stanza and then the repeating refrain:

Did you try to live on your own
When you burned down the house and home
Did you stand too close to the fire?
Like a liar looking for forgiveness from a stone

(incredible musical interlude, before powerful refrain)

One, 21 guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight
One, 21 guns
Throw up your arms into the sky
You and I

The “You and I.” That’s when you learn he’s talking about a version of himself, and not an abstract concept. That’s why I call 21 Guns a song about relationships.

In the closing stanza before the final refrain, Armstrong starts out in the second person “you,” and in the third line, brings in the concept of the first person, “I.”

When it’s time to live and let die
And you can’t get another try
Something inside this heart has died
You’re in ruins.

Of course, you could consider it as a discourse, where he’s interjecting, as a third person omniscient observer, “Something inside this heart has died,” but I prefer to think of it in a first person context, and that he’s talking about his own heart. But, then, why doesn't he say "my heart"? (Because he wants you to feel included, the mark of a master writer, the ability to convince the listener to identify with the characters. And he wants you to know he's been in the same place, emotionally, so you can identify with him, the performer.)

(And if I haven’t thoroughly confused you yet, Green Day fan or bewildered reader, just remember, this is only my opinion, not a critical analysis. I write prose and poetry, but sadly, I was never an English major.)

When I was a ninth grade student, we were asked to analyze Paul Simon’s lyrics in songs like Sounds of Silence and Like A Rock. I still have that essay somewhere. It was a useful exercise, not because I learned to analyze the construction of the songs as poetry, but it gave me the opportunity to think about what the songs meant to me, and what I thought the first person character in I Am A Rock was really feeling when he said, “and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.” (I got an “A” on the essay.)

Ultimately, what a song (or a story or a poem) means to you is more important than any literary technique. But, as a choice from 21st Century Breakdown, 21 Guns is probably about the only song on there you could analyze for a high school class, though the title song from the album is probably the most ambitious in terms of technique.

Poetic technique in 21 Guns? There’s some slanted rhyming going on. There’s a stanza structure and a refrain. Lines repeat for emphasis. But the power of the song is in its performance. The words and the melody and the voice are ready companions, and there is no reason they should stand alone. Sung and played in the Key of F, in every note of 21 Guns, there is emotion and there is resonance.

© 2009 Annie King