Friday, June 4, 2010

Busted: Authors caught using deep point of view effectively

Point of view is arguably one of the most important aspects of craft in the writer’s tool kit. Memoirs and essays would be pointless without it. Point of view pervades a journalist’s best quotes, energizes speeches, builds character and conflict in fiction, and makes history worth reading about. If I didn’t have a point of view worth considering, you wouldn’t bother reading this post.

Unlike the musician, choreographer, painter, or cinematographer, the author has the tools to allow the reader full access to the inside of his character’s experience: the wounds to his soul, the yearnings of his heart, the quaking of his muscles, the contents of his stomach. All of this contributes to the way the world of your story looks through his eyes.

Perspective sunk deep into the experience of a colorful or unusual individual can create the difference between an average reading experience and one that is pure delight. Best-sellers in very modern genre make good use of it.

Consider Jennifer Weiner’s chick lit novel, Good in Bed, written from the perspective of a fat woman who discovers her ex is writing about their love life in a nationally distributed sex column.

Or Marc Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a mystery about a dog’s murder told from the perspective of a boy with autism who must parse out truth while having no natural nose for deception.

In seeking out a few excerpts to share from authors caught doing this right, I chose two examples that take “deep point of view” to the extremes—to brilliant results.

The first is from Lori Lansen’s The Girls, a novel told in the alternating points of view of conjoined twins. It begins:
I have never looked into my sister’s eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I’ve never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I’ve never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I’ve never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I’ve never done, but oh, how I’ve been loved. And, if such things were to be, I’d live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so exponentially.

The second is from Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, a tale told convincingly from a dog’s point of view. It begins:
Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question. I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around in my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences. And that’s why I’m here now waiting for Denny to come home—he should be here soon—lying on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor in a puddle of my own urine.

The craft isn’t new. Point of view is as old as the written word, and has been used to great effect throughout history. I still get chills reading the opening line of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” written in 1843: “True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” In each of the above cases, the depth of the point of view alone was enough to make the book un-put-downable.

Point of view informs the style of writing and the voice of the character. It will determine the plot points that make sense for your story. It will determine the relevance of your description, since setting details and character traits noted will only deepen the point of view.

And a carefully orchestrated journey that allows your character to see the world through new eyes by book’s end—an evolution in point of view—is the very definition of a satisfying read.

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weakness? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Kathryn - this is a wonderful explanation of a particular intense point of view. I'm smack dab in the process of revising a first draft told in first person. And as such - found this very helpful. I will print out this last to use as inspiration as I go. "And a carefully orchestrated journey that allows your character to see the world through new eyes by book’s end—an evolution in point of view—is the very definition of a satisfying read."

  2. I found this enormously helpful. Great explanation. Terrific examples.

  3. Wonderful post -- and very timely for me and a manuscript I'm working on (my own).

    Straight From Hel

  4. Excellent article, with great examples. It's so important to move deeply into our characters, to see through their eyes when we write. If it doesn't move us, how will it move our readers? Thank you!

  5. I enjoyed reading that post. I love stories told in the first person. They seem so real and whether it is an animal or a person, you are with them from the first word. If you have time, I invite you to read chapter one of my story 'Bertie's House. You'll find it in my profile. It has a Blog of its own.
    Blessings, Star

  6. Thank you for this. It helps a lot.

  7. I'm also a fan of novels written in first person. When you compare that intimate POV to a third person omniscient narrator (The Scarlet Letter, for instance), it's easy to see how much closer we get to the first-person character.

  8. When reading your post, Kathryn, a book I bought some years ago came to my mind: A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. The book starts with Columbus and ends with Clinton, but different from most history books, it describes the history as seen from the position of ordinary people, not the kings and presidents. Maybe this was a little bit off the topic of your post, but it's a great book >:)

    A People's History of the United States

  9. Thanks for this explanation and the wonderful examples. This is very inspirational for all writers.


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