Friday, May 4, 2012

Busted!—Edward Stewart Caught Telescoping POV

In order to gain access to your character’s deep thoughts and feelings, you must work from a first person point of view, right?

Not necessarily.

Third person POV allows you to see the big picture, yes, but it also provides all the telescoping necessary to zoom in for interior thoughts and feelings. Those deep perspectives can even color the nature of the prose.

Let’s take a look at an excerpt from Edward Stewart's 1978 novel, Ballerina, chosen for the way Stewart so seamlessly tightens his lens from a wide establishing shot, to the character's immediate actions, and all the way into her unspoken thoughts. These contiguous paragraphs are taken from the first page of the novel. Stewart writes in the third person, but as you read, think: How would these passages differ if written in first person?

Paragraph 4: The big picture (wide angle) 
The last bell sounded. Stragglers came drifting back to their seats. At two hundred and fifty dollars a ticket, you didn’t hurry. The theater was packed with society, ballet potentates, celebrities. Conversation buzzed like a hive of excited hornets. 
Wow. Not one change necessary for first person. 

Paragraph 5: Actions specific to character (zooming in)
The house lights dimmed. Anna pulled in her knees to let people squeeze past. A jeweled dowager glanced at her curiously, probably wondering why she was alone, why she’d spent intermission in her seat. 
By swapping in a few pronouns, you could easily switch this to first person.

Paragraph 6: Interior thoughts (deep focus) 
I’ll tell you why, Mrs. Whoever-you-are: because it’s taken me a lifetime to get this far, and I’m not taking any chances on slippery stairs or falling chandeliers. This is the moment I’ve lived my life for, and I’m damned well going to stay alive for it. 
Here Stewart has fully entered the psyche of the character. Again, no change needed. 

Whether in third person or first person, this telescoping technique will add depth and shading to your story. It can work against expectation: third person can telescope in for the deep POV so prevalent in today’s fiction, and first person can telescope out to provide relief from living non-stop in someone else’s head.

With this tool at your disposal, you need not base your POV adoption on a desire for deep POV or psychic distance. What else can help you determine the best POV? Consider:

  • The way POV can contribute to meaning. In Ballerina, Anna is “watching” to see if her daughter can make it in the dance world in a way Anna herself could not. Utilizing third person POV, we are watching as well—and, watching Anna watch. 
  • How many points of view will you require to tell your story? Multiple first person POVs—say, beyond two—can be difficult for the reader to track. Jodi Picoult, in My Sister’s Keeper, employed so many first person points of view—seven!—that the publisher used different typefaces to help cue the reader. Yet it worked, because Picoult’s story benefitted from the way her characters shared, in their own words, how they were personally impacted by the story events. 
  • The feel of the story. Is this a big story, with plot powering up in segments all over the world (told best in third person, perhaps, or in first person through the eyes of a detached narrator)? Or is it an intimate character study, whose copious interior monologue would seem to hijack the book if told in third person?
  • Does the protagonist die? That’s hard to pull off in the first person (although I tried in an eighth grade short story, lol, by cutting suddenly to the sheriff’s POV). 

There are many reasons to settle on a certain POV, and as storyteller, the prerogative is yours. If you practice telescoping your point of view, however, as Stewart demonstrates here, you’ll be able to tell your story more effectively, no matter what your choice.

How did you decide the POV for your work-in-progress? 

Kathryn Craft is an author of women's fiction and memoir who specializes in developmental editing 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 weaknesses? 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. I would think of this as zooming in and out rather than "telescoping," which would seem to imply compression of depth, but... Well-crafted post as always, Kathryn.

    Dave Eggers elegantly pulled off a first-person narration in You Shall Know Our Velocity that started after the narrator had already died. Jack Hillgate's The Jew with the Iron Cross is in first-person but interweaves chapters in third-person. In the hands of such excellent writers, almost anything can work.

    I have used first-person POV in short stories, but for the more complex threads of full-length fiction, I much prefer third-person storytelling spiced with the kind of zooming in to inner dialogue you illustrate. I do find that indirect quotation of inner thought sometimes works better in a predominantly third-person account than switching to direct report of the character's thoughts. It depends.

    As a reader, I do find the old-style device of setting inner dialogue in italics off-putting. I would rather see plain roman font with the narration itself crafted with sufficient elegance for the reader to comfortably know when they are inside someone's head and when they are above the action.

    --Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)

  2. I personally love the fact that with 3rd person you can see all aspects of the story - like in movie form from the POVs of different people and some narration.

  3. Excellent post, Kathryn, and the examples help so much to illustrate what you are saying. I write primarily in third person and like to be able to take it to the deepest level of interior thoughts. Like Larry, I am finding that the technique of putting thoughts in italics is going by the wayside in my writing. It works in some places where it is actually a bit of internal dialogue, but not for long bits of thoughts, and certainly must be kept to a minimum.

  4. My latest WIP is in first-person ... and, while it can be challenging to cover the scope of the plot, I'm rather enjoying telling the story from one character's POV ... hold it, hold it, this starting to sound alarmingly like a serious thought ... brain starting to freeze ... uhlpp ...

  5. Kathryn, the timing of your post is least for me. I need to tweak the third person POV of the main character in my suspense novel. This helps a lot.

  6. Great examples. I find it easier to write in third person, but I recommend to my students and clients, if they're having trouble getting into the emotion and depth of the character, to write the scene in first person. Then they can switch back to third.

  7. I started out writing third person but found it like a stumbling block for me, I'm much more comfortable in first.

  8. Okay, knee-deep in a new novel project and just checked in now to see who posted on BRP today. Doh!

    Larry, my zooming and telecopying is always greatly enhanced by my hand motions—I needed a video on this one! I pretend I'm holding a camera and rotate the lens to the desired place. There! No need for technical camera language. ;) Thanks for setting me straight.

  9. Larry and Maryann: In Stewart's original text, the tight focus paragraph in the character's voice (paragraph 6) is in italics—which I removed. You're both right that it is a dated, most-times unnecessary technique.

    I think he used it here, though, in the opening, to uphold the number one priority of an opening: to orient more than confuse. Since the reader is just orienting to the POV when he slips into first person, the italics help establish consistency. But italics should be used minimally. I've seen their use for this purpose predominantly in YA these days.

  10. LM and Traci: Love your disparate comments. LM, you may just right "that kind of 3rd person book," where as Traci is currently writing a story that demands first person. We must listen to our comfort zones, yes, but we must also listen to the work.

  11. Christopher, I am most honored that you used your ration of serious thought for the month in your comment on my post. ;) Writing in first person is indeed challenging but the creative mind thrives on constant challenge. You go!

  12. Pat: Isn't it funny how we sometimes need someone else to reflect back outs own wisdom? Glad I could hold up the mirror at the right time.

  13. Heidi, I totally agree with you, although this suggestion is anathema to writers who believe the process should be quick and easy. Experience shows that taking time to journal in the character's voice saves you time in the long run, instead of wasting it. It's like our characters are willing to spill only if you give them some quality one-on-one time!

  14. Great post, as always, Kathryn. I've learned a lot from you and hope to continue learning more.

  15. This is excellent. Thank you.

  16. For Steel Rose, I chose Alexis, Yeron, and Laurel for POV characters because they are the main players. Especially Alexis since she's the heroine.
    I've heard about deep focus versus distant POV. Which are likely to engage the reader?

  17. Thanks, Lucas.

    And Anonymous: All of the craft surrounding deep POV is for the very purpose of engaging the reader. You can read more about it in my three-part BRP post starting here:

    We've had many fine posts on the topic: just type "Deep POV" in our search bar!

  18. Thanks for the help. I'm still struggling to write anything that is not told from the POV of a child. Yes, I understand there may be a reason for this.

    Janet R.

  19. Janet: That's one of the huge challenges in genre hopping! Maybe taking some time to write a violent scene among your characters, or a sex scene, would help you make the jump?


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