Monday, December 29, 2008


multiple point of view--a narrative design by which the details of a story are seen and reacted to by more than one observer; a pattern of the same dramatic event or subsequent events seen from the perspective of numerous witnesses. For a longer work (novel,novella, novelette) multiple point of view may be the most felicitous, allowing the writer to include widely differing variations on the theme, extending tension and suspense through the mere fact of the various narrators having differing opinions about the events the reader has seen and of the characters' opinions of what they mean. A significant advantage to the multiple approach is the potential for various of the narrators to be unreliable or naive, the reader being left to discover the results.

One of the oldest extant versions of multiple point of view, the so-called Rashomon Stories, relates an incident as seen from the point of view of several of the participants and close witnesses, complete with a trial presided over by judges bent on getting at the truth and including the summons of one of the witnesses (who had subsequently died) from the spirit world to testify. A splendid, more modern version of the multiple point of view as a source of fresh perspective may be found in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

Although multiple point of view is most commonly presented with a number of narrators represented by the use of the pronouns he or she, there is no convention or edict against using the pronoun I or, indeed, mixing the she, I, he. The major concern associated with the use of multiple view is that the reader always be able to identify the immediate narrator. Wilkie Collins has provided a substantial role model for this in The Moonstone, in which the differing points of view each get a separate chapter.

Point of time--the moment when any given moment of the story is taking place. It is represented by verb tenses. The preterit or immediate past tense is conventionally represented as now. “John woke up early this morning” is used to convey to the reader, Here is John, waking up now. If we want to suggest that John has already been up for a while, we’d introduce the auxiliary verb had and say, “John had been up earlier than usual this morning.” Using the “had” form indicates action completed in the past. The so-called present-tense form of narrative renders action through the lens of the “now” of all characters, thus “John gets up early this morning,” used to convey, Here is John, waking up now. Using the present-tense approach, you’d indicate past action with the direct past tense. “John got up early, remembering he has to be at work before the Boss, but even so, he has to rush to get ready.”

All point of view filters (persons) may be rendered in the present tense now or the conventional past tense now.

Whatever verb tense the author chooses, the contemporary narrative convention requires more than fifty percent to take place in the now; upwards of forty percent (backstory, past influences, memories) may take place in the past.

reliable narrator--a story teller who can largely be trusted to render a fair version of the events within a story, possibly extending to judgments about the behavior of other characters and the implications of their actions as well as his own. The reliable narrator is one for whom the reader is most likely to be concerned. The danger for the writer who has decided on the most reliable of his narrators is to then kick the unreliable or naive narrators with adjectives, adverbs, and verbs portraying them in the glare of a biased spotlight.

naive narrator--inexperienced, innocent, or impaired filters through which dramatic accounts are revealed. Their naivete often has no effect on their being likable to the reader. The presence of a naive narrator is often a signal of ironic intent on the part of the author; in the case of Don Quixote, the naivete and irony are declarations of satiric intent; in the cases of Huckleberry Finn in the eponymous novel, or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, their naivete about slavery leads each character to a moral evaluation of that practice and an opportunity to change--an opportunity each takes. Sam, the naive narrator of Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country, is old enough to be sexually aware. Her growth comes from her attempts to learn more about her father,who was killed in the Viet Nam war; in so doing, she discovers things about herself, her conscience, and her country, just as Huck Finn and Scout learned to leave their inexperience and innocence behind them. Benjy Compson, in Falukner's The Sound and the Fury, cannot change or learn; his brain has limited capacity. Nevertheless, his vision of events in the novel compels the reader to make comparison between Benjy and less intellectually challenged characters in the narrative, raising significant questions for the reader to ask and comparisons for the reader to make.

The real irony with naive narration appears when the beginning or intermediate writer uses the device to pursue a story about their belief that daddy and mommy must be doing a lot of wrestling at night because of the grunts and groans that come from their room; this trope compared with the seasoned writer using the naive narrator to take on a serious moral issue that has a grip on the human condition.

For more approaches yet to the naive narrator, consider George Orwell's Animal Farm, in which the narrator refuses to accept the implications of the fable being presented; consider also the narrator of Ring Lardner's extraordinary short story, "Haircut."


Kate Lord Brown said...

The naive narrator is a wonderful opportunity for clearsightedness and curiosity. Seeing things from a six year old's perspective (as opposed to a mother processing information from a child) was instructive in the last book. Spent a lot of time crouching/on my knees. Refreshing. I'm trying to remember the name of the gloriously noble and naive carthorse in Animal Farm. As a child it broke my heart when the pigs had him carted away.

Querulous Squirrel said...

The Things They Carried is one of my ten favorite books, for the very reason you mention, the multiple points of view of the same person from different perspectives in time or retelling. This is what I am trying to achieve in my own longer work, having a lot of trouble with maintaining consistency within each "retelling." I'm not sure how O'Brien does it. I thought of alternating past and present as well, to distinguish the voices. I think I need to study that book more closely, as a role model.