I attended a CraftFest panel yesterday, as part of the warm up for ThrillerFest. Thriller writer David Morrell talked about point of view, that element of the craft that has bedeviled so many writers.
David Morrell has been in the business for 37 years, so he knows a thing or two about writing. You probably know who he is. If not, go read about him on his website. (I will briefly note that in addition to be an enormously successful writer of thrillers, David was also a professor of American Literature at the University of Iowa for many years.)
What follows are David's thoughts, which I hastily scribbled down. I only captured the basic details of what he said and not much of the flavor. (He accompanied his discussion with many examples drawn from literature, including an impressive number of memorized quotes.) POV seems like a basic aspect of writing, but it's amazing how many authors still get it wrong.
Point of View
The decision of which POV to use when writing a novel is one of the most important a writer can make. POV is one of the fundamental tools of writing and must be chosen wisely. Regardless of which POV you choose, you should do so deliberately, knowing why you chose it and what you're doing with it. The wrong choice of POV can doom a project.
- Written from the POV of the narrator, in the "I" form.
- When used properly, the first person is "a glory." But alas, it is usually not used properly.
- First-person is especially popular with new writers, because it seems so easy -- you just write like you're talking, right? Wrong. That's the pitfall. If you write like you talk, like you're telling a story orally, your writing will probably fail.
- The first person makes it easy for writers to fall into common mistakes:
- it's wordy and rambling (just like the stories we tell orally)
- it's too easy to tell, not show
- it tends to rely almost exclusively on the sense of sight, leading to writing that is flat and one-dimensional
- Morrell notes: It is not the writer's job to make the reader see what is going on, but to make the reader feel what is going on.
- It's usually logically inconsistent -- Why is this narrator taking the time to sit down and pen a 300-page account of his/her life. Does that make sense?
- Some of Morrell's favorite books (Farewell to Arms, Rogue Male, Gatsby) are in the first person, but if you're going to do it, you'd better have a damn good reason and you'd better know what you're doing.
- To paraphrase Henry James, it's a "trap for the unwary."
- However, if you can pull it off, it can be brilliant.
Third Person Omniscient
- The all-knowing voice, a story told from a god-like perspective.
- Classic example: Dickens' Tale of Two Cities ("It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.")
- A style of storytelling that takes a historical perspective -- this is what happened, this is what people thought and felt and did.
- This was the standard form for much of the 19th century.
- It tends to lead to a story that is slow; not immediate. The story is told rather than being dramatized. Thus it can be hard for the modern reader to appreciate.
- Today, it is old-fashioned and seldom used except in parody.
- The "you" tense. (E.g., "You walk down the street, not knowing what you're going to find around the corner.")
- Largely experimental and only used for a very specific kind of story.
- Used by McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City to show the character's drug-addled state.
Third Person Limited
- Told through one character's viewpoint, seeing just what that character sees and thinking just what s/he thinks.
- Can switch POV away from that character, but the story should only be told through one character's viewpoint at a time.
- The POV usually breaks between chapters, but can be done within chapters. However, the writer should give the reader a visual indication that POV is being changed -- just skip down a few lines or give some other form of break.
- 3rd person ltd is the most often used POV and the one that, by default, is the best choice for most stories.
- [I'm sure David had more to say on this topic, but he ran out of time.]
Bottom line: In Morrell's judgment, most first-person novels could be improved by a shift to the third person. First person is very hard to do -- harder than third person limited -- and should only be done with great care by the writer, and only when the story demands it. Otherwise, especially for new writers, they're probably better off going with third person.
For more of David Morrell's thoughts on writing, check out his excellent book The Successful Novelist.