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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.

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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).


  1. Great quotes. I love thinking about point of view. The unnecessary shifting/jarring is so very disturbing for the reader but the author who can smoothly shift POV--oh what a lovely thing. I'm thinking Woolf and LeGuin here, of course.

    As for time, sigh, it is what we all need. Fight for yours.

  2. Hi Brigindo,

    When I first started writing fiction, I jumped from "one head" into another, thinking that was what I wanted to achieve, but it was only because I didn't know any better. Now, I recognize point of view (POV) shifts, instantly, in my work and others, and I am always in control.

    Both of the people I quoted point to times when an author, purposely, shifts point of view, and that when handled well, if it works for the reader, it works.

    In most of my novels in progress, the reader is asked to be in the "heads" of two major characters, one at a time. In my most recent novel-in-progress, my goal is for the reader to identify with four major POV characters, so I hope I can achieve it (and find the time to achieve it).

    Thank you for your encouragement!

  3. I love the quotes. Brigindo is so right. I'll add James Joyce and Faulkner as two more "must study" writers for learning point of view.

    As a writer, point of view has always been the hardest thing for me. I'm better than I used to be, but I think it has to do with maturity...being able to disconnect the writing from "myself" and see it as a reader would. Even so, I still make mistakes.

  4. Hi Julie,

    Point of view is definitely tricky. In some ways, I liked it when I could show both people's thoughts within the same scene, but I realize that works real well when you're the one creating the scenario, to understand how the characters are feeling, but not when you're trying to follow the passage as a reader. Of course, there's the omniscient point of view, where jumping from mind to mind, along with "authorial intrusion" is permissable, but, in general, I don't like using omniscience or reading it. I've been meaning to read Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury, for lessons in Point of View. And Joyce, well... from what I've sampled, that's a commitment to someone else's dream, I think, though I've enjoyed it. I owned a copy of Ulysses for a million years, and I finally gave it away, unread.

  5. Making the rules is easy but sticking to them gives me trouble. But I was thinking about making the rules. How that is such a great driving force for many authors. I for one love to make the rules. For once.

  6. Hi Lori,
    I guess the idea is that if you know the rules, it's okay to break them, for a reason, and if it works for the reader. I do know that understanding point-of-view has helped me to shape my fiction and make it stronger.

  7. I just had another thought, maybe the real idea is that you understand, not "the rules," but how to employ various techniques to achieve different effects.

  8. Hi! I've come across this site while trying to find out any definitve rules about point of view shifts. Would you be able to clarify something for me?
    I've been told that if I wish to use a pov shift, I need to have a scene break. Is that right? That seems more jarring than a shift within the same scene...

  9. Hi Cal,

    Based on every writing guide I've read, with every shift in point of view, you start a new scene or a new chapter. One of the advantages is that it helps you, as the writer, focus your work, and it helps the reader both to identify with your point of view character, and to follow your story. The two writing guides I've mentioned in this post, are excellent sources of information about every aspect of writing, including point of view. They're probably available in your local library.

    I wrote a bibliography of writing guides you might want to take a look at: http://anniekwrites.blogspot.com/2009/03/recommended-books-on-craft-of-writing.html You can copy and paste this link, or click on the word "bibliography" in the labels on my sidebar.

    Of course, like both Janet Burroway and Alice La Plante say, if you are in control of point of view, and if you have a good reason to shift it, as long as it works for both the story and the reader- there are no rules.

    One word of advice, not knowing anything about your work: If you're finding that you are shifting point of view frequently between two or more people, and scene breaks are therefore awkward, you might want to try telling the story or chapter from only one point of view, and see how that works. (In other words, maybe your breaks are not true scene breaks, but a device you'e using to show you've changed point-of-view. You want to make sure it's really a full scene with a beginning, middle and end, told through a point of view character.)

    I'm sorry if I'm not making much sense! I'm pretty tired right now. I hope this helps.

  10. Hi Annie,
    thanks for the response! It's a great help. I use shifts now and then in writing, but I'll certainly look at them more carefully in the future.
    Thanks again!