Viewpoint, tense, and narrative distance

This week I’m taking us on a tour of something which gets taken for granted: viewpoint. Viewpoint, in a nutshell, is the perspective through which your story is told, the eyes observing what happens.

Most would say there are three types of viewpoint, but to make things easier I’m going to say there’s four. Bear with me. You’ve got first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient. Yes the last two are both third person, but they’re markedly different. Let’s take a look at each, before taking a quick glance at tense and lastly narrative distance.

 

First person

This is the viewpoint of ‘I’.

“I picked up the sword. I chopped off his toes.”

First person has a present narrator, guiding us through the tale—what they see, think, feel. It’s perhaps the most intimate of all viewpoints, the reader sharing the mind of your point of view (POV) character.

H.P. Lovecraft was a big fan of the first person form, and in my view, was a master of it. The manner in which he tells his tales makes the narrator feel almost invisible. Rarely does he use the word ‘I’. On page one of chapter one of The Call of Cthulhu for example, ‘I’ is used just three times. Prose riddled with a repetitious word of any kind, ‘I’ one example, can disrupt a reader’s flow.

 As with all viewpoints, there are pros and cons. Here’s a few pros:

  • The intimate nature of this approach makes it easier to build empathy between the reader and your character. This can be particularly helpful if your character is something of an anti-hero.
  • For the reasons set out above, it’s immediately immersive for the reader, the story grabbing them by the collar and pulling them into the action.
  • If your story focuses on characters, it’s a great way to shine that stage light right on them.

 

A few cons, to keep things balanced:

  • The narration of the tale is limited to that character. So for example, it may be disruptive for the reader to be told the thoughts of one character, when the tale so far has been through the eyes of another. Your POV character ought instead to infer thoughts and feelings from the body language and facial expressions of others. Unless your story is about mind reading, in which case disregard this entire paragraph.
  • When writing with ‘I’ it can be easy to slip into your own voice as opposed to the characters’. Stay vigilant!
  • It can be tempting to over-indulge in thought or emotional reflection at the expense of moving the story forwards.
  • If your POV character isn’t particularly likeable, engaging or charismatic the reader may lose interest.
  • As mentioned above, try to avoid peppering a piece with ‘I’s’. If you’ve got a lot of them, you could try re-arranging sentences to remove them or altering words.

 

 

Second person

 The second person is the form you’re reading now—the ‘you’s’. The narrator addresses the reader directly, which also gives an intimate feel. It’s quite unusual to see in fiction. It’s a popular form in blogs, for example, because it makes for a more engaging read. I hope.

Literary agent Noah Lukeman in his book on writing The First Five Pages states that “it’s extremely stylistic and nearly impossible to keep up for more than a page or two.” Sol Stein, master editor, in his book On Writing recommends just shelving this approach altogether (in fiction).

 

Third person limited

Also referred to as third person subjective, this viewpoint tends to be the default for many writers. 1984 by George Orwell, a very relevant book at the moment, way ahead of its time, is an example of a story written in first person. George R.R. Martin uses it in all books of A Song of Ice and Fire, so too does Raymond Feist in The Riftwar Cycle novels, James Barclay in The Chronicles of the Raven series … we could list until nuclear warfare ends the world, which may not be far off, but we’ve all got better things to do.

Third person limited is similar to first person in that the story follows the perspective of one character, allowing the reader to step inside their mind. Prose is written in the form of ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘they’, with the tense mainly past, though present sometimes too. Here’s a couple of examples:

“James ceased his commentary as something caught his eye. He turned abruptly, reached out, and yanked a small boy away from Borric’s horse. James lifted the boy off the ground and looked him hard in the eyes.”

Prince of Blood, Raymond Feist.

 

“Jon blew out the taper he carried, preferring not to risk an open flame amidst so much old dry paper. Instead he followed the light, wending his way down the narrows aisles beneath barrel-vaulted ceilings.”

A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin.

 

Here’s a few advantages to using this viewpoint:

  • If you enrich your tale with numerous, interesting and unique viewpoints it’ll serve the story well. It gives you a wider scope to world-build, develop conflict and tension. In busy scenes, such as battles, different viewpoints give you the ability to explain how things are developing across the scene, not just in one section, all the while exploring different emotions and reactions.
  • Everyone loves a character that grows from a nobody into a hero, and this perspective is a great way to take the reader on that journey.
  • It’s the preferred approach by many contemporary writers and publishers.

 

 And the disadvantages:

  • As with first person, the narration is limited to your POV character. Behaviour can be observed, but thoughts not known.
  • Linked to the above, knowledge is restricted to your POV character. For example, if your fantasy huntress has spent her entire life in the woods, with no knowledge of civilization, the narration would seem a bit odd if cities were described.

 

 

Third person omniscient

As with third person limited, the story is still about ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’, but the narrator tells the reader the thoughts and emotions of all, or a large number, of characters. It can be quite a demanding approach, but in the right hands works tremendously. Tolkien was a fan. He tended to stick to the POV’s of a handful of characters—Sam, Frodo, Aragorn (to name a few)—though dips into the minds of others too. I’d say he falls into the realm of the in between. A blend of both. Adrian Tchaikovsky is another (fantastic) writer who I’d say adopts the same approach. A mix of the two is very useful when describing scenes, places or characters, then once description is done, return to your POV characters.

So why do I keep this and third person limited apart? It’s the styles in which they are written. Omniscient follows an all-knowing narrator, whereas limited follows the tale of one or a few characters. If anything, limited lies closer to first person.

The advantages:

  • You can describe your world without restraint, because you are god and you know all. It does not matter if your protagonist has never been somewhere, you can describe it down to the last detail.

 

The disadvantages:

  • It can get quite demanding exploring the thoughts of all or a group of characters. Your story may go from a hundred thousand word piece to a series of encyclopedic volumes. To address this, pick just a handful, like Tolkien.
  • Stories told in this form are regarded as quite slow.
  • According to Penguin Random House, its fallen out of favour with some publishers, mainly because it’s quite an old fashioned style. Tchaikovsky proves otherwise, mind.
  • One of the biggest drawbacks is that this viewpoint tends to ‘tell’ the story, instead of ‘show’ it. See my blog post on showing v telling here.
  • The narration can have something of a cold and distant feel, with little emotional depth and weak ties to characters.

 

 

A few tips on viewpoint from the editors

Lukeman recommends sticking with one viewpoint until reaching a line break. Switching from first to third person within the same passage can be confusing for a reader. He’s very much against switching viewpoint at all, but says that “if you feel compelled to switch, at least do it in a place that will make it less disorientating for the reader.” He asks too why do you feel compelled to switch? Most times it’s down to the POV character lacking something and encourages you to spend more time working on that character.

Related to the above point, Sol Stein says, “The choice of point of view is yours, but once you’ve decided, be sure that you stick to it as if your reader’s experience of the story depended on it. Because it does.”

Which should you use? Stein recommends the one you feel most comfortable with. Try them all, and see for yourself. “… if your work isn’t satisfying you, you can always put the draft aside and re-write it from another point of view. If you’ve used third person, try first.”

 

 

Tense

A few brief points on tense. Past and present be the main weapons of choice. Past involves a narrator telling the story after it’s already finished. H.P. Lovecraft was a big fan of this—individuals who experienced or witnessed something disturbing, retelling their tale with perfect recall. Past is regarded as the easier of the two to write.

Present tense involves a narrator telling the story as it happens. This approach gives a sense of immediacy—things are happening now. It’s not as common as past tense, mostly because it’s seen as quite difficult to maintain at length. Short forms of fiction suit it very well, though plenty of novels have been written in such a way.

 

 

Narrative distance

At last we arrive at our final destination, narrative distance. This term was coined by John Gardner in his book The Art of Fiction. It means how close you take the reader into the character’s mind, or into the story. You can think of it like the zoom of a camera. How much can be seen through the lense? You can move it in and out, focusing on small things, or widening the scale out to see the broader scene. Here’s a few examples:

 

“It was winter of 1858. A large man stepped into the blizzard.” The language here is quite vague; we’re quite distant from the character.

 

“Henry hated snowstorms.” This is a bit closer. Not only do we have a name, but we’ve learned something about this chap named Henry.

 

“God, how he hated these snowstorms.” This is closer still. Not only do we know he hates snowstorms, we’re wondering why he hates them so much.

 

“Snow. Under his collar, inside his shows, freezing his miserable soul.” Now we’re staring Henry right in the face. We’re in his head, feeling how he does.

 

The closer the better, but ultimately it’s your decision.

 


I hope you’ve found this post helpful. Your feedback is always most welcome!

Looking ahead to the next few weeks, I’m going to be looking at things common to many fantasy worlds which take inspiration from medieval times, namely weapons, armour and battle tactics. Subscribe to receive new posts by email, and in a few weeks’ time you’ll receive a free copy of Ducks, a flash fiction piece, which tells the tale of a young girl named Inia, and the day her life changed forever. Or does it? You’ll find out the answer in Magpie, the novel to come.

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