Last month, I announced my next writing project will be fiction. The book will be published by Waterbrook Multnomah (Random House) this fall.
Writing fiction has proved to be a much more difficult experience than writing non-fiction. I had no idea how many layers and levels of re-writes and edits a short novel would require. Neither did I begin with a full understanding of the techniques for writing fiction.
Maybe you’re like me. You like reading novels, and you have thought about writing one of your own.
As you get started on your book, you’ll instinctively sense that some things work and don’t work. But you won’t know why. At least, that was the case for me. I knew something was wrong with a section here or there, but in order to pinpoint the issue, I needed to brush up on some fiction-writing techniques.
In the next few weeks, I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned during this process.
The Crucial “Point of View”
Today, we will look at a crucial element of fiction-writing: the “point of view” for a specific scene.
At first glance, you may think I’m referring to the perspective of the author, the belief systems authors put forth in their work. That is not what fiction editors and writers mean by “point of view.” Instead, POV refers to the scene at hand and the character through whom we are experiencing the moment.
Think of it like a movie, where you place a camera somewhere in the room. From what perspective will the scene’s action be shown?
Different Points of View
There are various ways of determining the point of view for a scene, but they can be summed up in three basic approaches.
The omniscient approach operates within the point of view of the narrator. The video camera sees everything. By taking the identity of the “omniscient narrator,” you can write about things in a scene that your main characters are completely unaware of. You take in the whole scene with a God-like perspective.
Many writers in the past have utilized the omniscient point of view in their fiction. Joyce Carol Oates, George Eliot, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (who actually paused the narrative of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to preach to her readers!) told their stories from the narrator’s perspective.
The upside to using the omniscient point of view is that you gain additional perspective on the scene. You are not “trapped” in anyone’s head or limited by the horizon of any of your characters.
The downside is a loss of intimacy. Your reader takes in the scene, but it’s harder to get to know the people present. What you gain in information, you lose in personal touch.
The first person approach is written from the perspective of the main character. The video camera is built into the glasses of the main character, so that the narrator and the main character are the same person. The reader experiences everything in the book from the perspective of the main speaker.
Marilynne Robinson used this technique to stunning effect in Gilead, a book written from the perspective of a dying pastor. She opens the book this way:
“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.”
The upside to using the “I” point of view is that your reader gets to know the main character by seeing everything through his or her eyes. When the main character is interesting, readers will keep turning the pages.
The downside to writing fiction in first person is that many characters are not strong enough to carry the whole narrative. Readers begin to feel trapped inside the head of one person. In their helpful book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King explain:
“What you gain in intimacy with the first person, you lose in perspective. You can’t know or write about anything your main character couldn’t know, which means you have to have your main character on the spot whenever you want to write an immediate scene. This can limit your plot-development possibilities.”
The third-person approach chooses a central character for each scene and envisions the action through the “point of view” of that character. Whenever you need to shift to another character’s point of view, you can insert a linespace and start a new scene from the perspective of the other person in the scene.
It’s safe to say that most fiction books today use this approach. It allows the writer to provide perspective beyond the eyes of one character, while at the same time fostering a certain amount of intimacy by bringing us into the thoughts of the main characters.
Because I’m new at writing fiction, I chose the third person approach for my book. I designed each chapter as a scene, and then I determined where the video camera would be, (which character’s point of view would dominate the scene).
As an example, an early scene in my upcoming book features three men from three different generations discussing the role of passion and balance in life and theology. The dialogue is the dialogue. It’s not going to change depending on point of view.
But who is the character through whom I want the reader to experience this scene?
– Will it be the twenty-something college graduate undergoing a crisis of faith? (If so, then the scene will be interpreted through the eyes of a guy who feels a little out-of-place, like he’s “in over his head” in this conversation because of his youth and inexperience.)
– Will it be the middle-aged lawyer who directs the choir at church? (If so, then the scene will be interpreted through the eyes of a man who is a close friend to the elderly man, and who is genuinely curious about the young guy in the room.)
– Will it be the homebound retired pastor? (If so, then the scene will be interpreted through the eyes of a man who is accustomed to passionate conversation and who seeks to make the young guy feel at ease.)
The way you determine which point of view to use is by figuring out whose inner thoughts are most important for this scene.
- Who does the reader need to get to know here?
- Whose emotions will be most intense, most vulnerable?
- Whose perspective will shine the most light on the POV character as well as the other people in the scene?
Determining the point of view for a character is one of the basic lessons I learned in writing fiction. Before you start on your own novel, read a few fiction books and notice how the authors handle the POV.