2.09.2011

GUEST POST: Point of View - Which to Choose?

By: Jennifer Burke

Which narrative have you chosen? 

First person narrative

I like first person narrative. It enables me to relate my inner-most thoughts while also narrating the action. It is the simplest form of narrative, concentrating on a singular point of view, my point of view, as both the narrator and a character in the novel. I am telling you everything you need to know about events, aren’t I? I have no reason to lie.

I love unreliable first person narrators.

Second person narrative

You are tempted to write in second person. You like the sense of immediacy, of inclusion. You feel it puts you in the middle of the story:

Your boots pound on the asphalt as you are pursued into the alley. You sense he is close. You crouch behind the dumpster. You feel the blood pumping in your skull as you wait for the knife to descend.

You feel a sinking sense of realisation as you read it back. It doesn’t bring immediacy. How can it? You’re not being chased by a homicidal maniac. You’re reading a story. Also, you would never hide behind a dumpster because you’re not in America.* You’d hide behind a skip or an industrial bin.

Second person is useful for some things. You know rhetoric would fall flat without it. You can also use it in internal dialogue, for that sort of snarky voice that sometimes narrates your life: Second person? You must be joking! You realise that voice is right. Second person hasn’t done your story any favours. Italo Calvino, Iain Banks and Margaret Atwood might be able to do it, but it just makes you sound like a pretentious wanker.

Third person narrative

Third person is useful for novels with very large casts of characters. Sweeping historical dramas, epic fantasies and that sort of thing. If God has a point of view, this is it. Specifically, third person omniscient. Third person omniscient is where the narrator shares information that the character does not know. For example: Roland had twelve days left to live.

The more usual type of third person narrative is objective. Third person objective doesn’t know that Roland is allergic to bees until he blunders into the hive. It comes as a shock to Roland as well.

Jennifer Burke lives in a house that once had possums in the roof. She hates those possums.


*Tahereh's note: The lovely Jennifer Burke is from the equally as lovely Australia. 

16 comments:

maine character said...

Whenever a book on writing gets to point of view, it drags on forever in the dullest way, but this was perfect.

Great blog, by the way, and congrats on your contract!

Jen said...

Thanks, MC! I appreciate that!

Mary Vaughn said...

Short, understandable and to the point wish all writing instructions were written this way.

Thanks to both of you!

Sarah said...

I recently had to figure this one out--I actually started with first person and switched to third person. I'm already wondering if I'll need to switch it back. Great job laying it all out in such a succinct and useful way!

Matthew Rush said...

I want to write a novel in second person future tense. That way it will be sort of like half prophecy and half manifesto, because no one will read it unless it comes true.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Even with 3rd Omni, the reader can be let in on the fact that Roland's allergic to bees when he stumbles into a hive. Just because the narrator knows all doesn't mean he/she must share all at all times.

1st being the simplest POV to use is also subjective. I know people who would tell you that 3rd is the simplest because it's what they're used to reading.

1st is one of the easiest for newer writers to botch because they tend to filter everything through "I saw", "I heard", "I felt".

Mary Vensel White said...

The main issue with first person is that it's like sitting next to someone for a long bus ride...you have to like and/or be intrigued by the person to stay in your seat. Is the narrator in first person annoying? Too chatty? Too emotional? Too hip? I find it hard to read in first person unless I trust the person's judgment to some extent also.

RobynBradley said...

I love POV discussions -- and I love how tight this post is in its explanation of each. Want to know a wild POV? Second-person and third-person memoir: An Italian Affair by Laura Fraser (second) and Midnight Water by Gaylene Perry (third, and this is an Australian writer). There are others, both those two popped into my head.

Book Owl said...

I really liked this post! It was neat how you jumped from pov to pov as you talked about each one.

Leslie Rose said...

I just taught a POV lesson in my class today. I like yours much better. I'll be "borrowing" from you for the follow up. It's for the children.

Creative A said...

This post was win! :) Great job making this amusing, succinct, and accurate.

maine character said...

Anyone who'd like to read a funny, harrowing, and totally unique first-person account of the cyclone that hit Australia should scroll back a couple posts on Jen's blog.

Jeanne said...

Thanks for posting Jen's essay. I've been having trouble with understanding POV, and this illustrates it in a way that is crystal clear.

Second-person can work--"YOU" by Charles Benoit is a great example. You, the reader, are the protagonist, in a horrible moment, and the novel tells the story of how you got there through flashback.

Jen said...

Thanks so much for your comments, guys!

Jeanne, I know second person can work. When it's done well, it's fantastic. i just can't do it well!

And Matthew - I look forward to reading your manifesto when it comes true. Is it wrong that I am now imagining you as a sort of a Ming the Merciless god-emperor?

bfav said...

Great post. POV affects everything in a story. My favorite is 3rd person limited. So I'm not God, but I'm not sitting next to you on a bus either.

MacDougal Street Baby said...

I don't know why but for some reason I've always found myself writing in second person and I've definitely felt burdened by it. Just recently I switched to first person and the effects are night and day. Amazing what a simple shift can do to one's flow.

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