Monday, November 17, 2014


Beginning- and intermediate level writers often overlook the one thing advanced writers and sophisticated readers take for granted, those three capital letters POV, which stand for the basic filter through which story is experienced, point of view.

Come to think of it, literary agents and editors give serious thought to POV, secure in the knowledge that it is even more important to the outcome of a story than the turn of a plot point, and on the same level as such staples as well-articulated characters with compelling choices to make, and take-no-prisoners dialogue.

Here's why the professionals are so focused on POV:  Advanced writers and serious readers know the implications inherent in the two critical questions, Who's telling the story? and Why?

In the seven or eight hundred years since the narrative we recognize as the novel has been around, the narrative filters have evolved.  Novels that once began with Prologues or scene-setting descriptions now begin right in the middle of some action showing principal characters in action.  A perfect example awaits us in the opening paragraphs of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, a historical novel set at the time of Henry VIII of England.

"'So now get up.'

"Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard.  His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out.  One blow, properly placed, could kill him now."

The subtitle on the cover tells us this is book one of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, but unless we are up on our Tudor history, we have no real sense yet of who Thomas Cromwell ( 1485-1540) was nor of his significant political presence during the English Reformation.  From reading the first words of Wolf Hall, we encounter a vivid introduction to Cromwell as he is being brutally beaten by his drunken father.  We'd look in vain for any authorial presence; Ms. Mantel knows to leave the story to the participants.

 The point is this: The writer of a novel in the twenty-first century is the least possible choice for the job of narrative filter.  Contemporary conventions call for the story to come from the characters.  Authorial intervention is right up there on the list of deal breakers along with chatty, conversational dialogue, lackluster characters, and too many distractions away from story.

Many books with sloppy editing or, worse, self-published books with edits provided by so-called editorial specialists, make it all too easy to point out the exceptions.  But literary agents and the shirt-sleeves editors of the major publishers are the equivalent of bouncers; they are the gatekeepers of narrative convention.
No one gets past the slush pile with a story told by the author.  From here on, the story comes from the first person I, the third person she or he, or the multiple point of view, exemplified by Wilkie Collins' archetypal 1868 mystery, The Moonstone,  or Jim Harrison's 2007 venture, Returning to Earth.

There is also the omniscient point of view, where, unlike the multiple point of view, with its focus on one point of view per scene or chapter, the narrative moves from character to character, often within the same scene, in an effect Literary Agent Toni Lopopolo calls "head hopping."  The Irish writer, William Trevor, uses this approach in all his short stories and novels.  He is so effective in its use that unwary writers believe it is an easy technique to master.  But the gatekeepers are on the job.  Writers with less than sterling sales records on previous work are apt to have their manuscripts returned the moment the first incident of head hopping is noticed.

In addition to the "person" points of view, there are also the reliable (trustworthy) narrator, say Ishmael, who tells the story of Moby Dick, and the naive narrator, exemplified by the clueless butler, Mr. Stevens,  in Kashuro Ishiguro's 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day.

Nothing is as daunting to the beginning and intermediate writer as point of view, which seems so simple at first blush--until specific violations are pointed out.  At this point, the writer decides, "I know.  I'll tell the story in first person."  This tortured logic leads us back to the question right after "Who's telling the story?"  That question is "Why?"  The answer to that question is also loaded with implication.

Why did F. Scott Fitzgerald chose Nick Caraway to tell the story of Gatsby?  Why did Herman Melville chose Ishmael to tell Moby Dick?  Why did Willa Cather chose Jim Burden to tell the story of his Antonia in My Antonia?  Why did Mark Twain chose a thirteen-year-old boy to narrate Huckleberry Finn?  Why did Bobbie Ann Mason chose a fifteen-year-old girl to narrate her novel, In Country?  Why did Zadie Smith use multiple point of view in White Teeth and NW?

These are not trick questions.  There is a significant, saving-grace reason for each choice.  (Hint:  Ishmael was the only survivor of Moby Dick.   He had to survive in order to help convey the fiction that the story did take place.)  

Accomplished writers may not have read all these titles, but they will see the reason for the choice of the narrative filter in each of the titles they have read.  They will likely have read at least half these titles already--more than once.  But that is another matter.

To the beginning writer, POV may seem like a variation on a theme of Pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.  To the committed writer, it is a serious business, as serious as Mozart learning the sonata form, of Bach investigating key signatures, of Mary Cassat mastering flesh tones, and Alexander Calder understanding the implications of placement and balance.  POV is a technique that must be understood, them mastered, if there is to be any chance of getting beyond the gatekeepers

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