Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

How to Write a Point of View

In the entry on Rule Four of Duncan's Ten Rules-- PoV is not a communal steadicam -- I covered the basics of how an omniscient narrator can collapse to an amnesiac narrator, how multiple third person limited can collapse to muddled third person limited. But there I focused on theoretical pros and cons -- freedom versus restraint, detachment versus immersion -- and gave only a broad demonstration of the corrosion into headhopping that tends to happen when writers just don't know the difference and therefore blithely ignore fundamental protocols like the section break. What that post dealt with was essentially just how you can end up colouring outside the lines simply because you don't realise they're there.

There are gnarlier issues with the boundary between ON and 3PL though. Often it's not so much a matter of your story being firmly on this side or that, radically breaching its own protocols by blundering across the divide, colouring outside the lines; rather it's a matter of using techniques that point us to the other side of that line even if they don't themselves cross it. Many techniques are not strictly speaking breaches in X approach but so strongly signal Y approach that indiscriminate use will kneecap whatever PoV you're aiming for, bring it crashing down into a crawling wreck of a narrative, dragging its limp legs behind it. It might pretty much struggle its way to where it's headed, eventually, but it's not going to do so well. And really, you can't rely on the reader not to just gaze down coldly at this limp-limbed ruin, raise the Desert Eagle of disinterest, and just put the pathetic fucker out of its misery with a bullet in the brain.

You need to know the subtler signals of omniscience and limitation too then, understand how even the slightest difference in phrasing can point the reader at this PoV approach or that. For demonstration material, let's take the end product of the post on paragraphs, because it's a good clear example of omniscient narration -- what with the free-roaming god's eye viewpoint opening on an empty stage, a scene of a desert rat on a dusty trail, sans characters, only then bringing the protagonist galloping into frame. And because by adding one line we can also make it a good example of where bad signposting can confuse even such a straightforward example. So:

Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the daily struggles of its dismal life. It scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub, through the sort of barren wastes all too common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... darted for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing under the weight of their clashing riders.

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, the rogue lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow.


Now there's an almost cinematic shift of frame that resets the context of the whole desert trail scenario, casts it as the vision of a character. One can almost imagine the movie expression of this, perhaps a black blur of rider filling the frame in that last instant, maybe a jerk of camera up to the horses, an unfocused fraction of a second just long enough to subtly signal sight through a scope -- and cut. And high on a ledge, the rogue lowers his spyglass... with the scene of battle visible beyond and below him, of course, to smooth the jump, snap us out to this new position in the narrative without a lurch of disjunction. Here, we could do something similar with a little "overlooking it all" or suchlike slipped in after "cliff," but it's not really necessary, I'd say, the shift less jarring in narrative mediated by words than it would be in the more direct ersatz experience of images.

Anyway, note that in this shift, the perspective remains that of outside observer. Now our focus is on the rogue, but he is no more the PoV than is the desert rat. The whole scenario of the opening paragraph has been rendered his experience, to all intents and purposes, and yet the narrative remains that of an omniscient narrator. The next line might well see that rogue's reaching hand stayed by the king of thieves who stands behind him, a wily rakish protagonist that all of this is only intro for. We would not be derailed by this shift of focus because this is omniscient narrative. With a well-crafted ON approach, the capacity to pull this sort of maneouvre is one of the advantages in the writing, one of the pleasures in the reading.

With a well-crafted ON approach, the omniscience allows even for that rogue's name to be given, without any loss of the sense that it's an outside observer conjuring him for us:

Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the daily struggles of its dismal life. It scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub, through the sort of barren wastes all too common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... darted for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing under the weight of their clashing riders.

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, a rogue by the name of Tal Duknan lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow.


The rogue's name is given, but the way it's given is by no means insignificant. He is still a rogue -- not a particular rogue, just one. Registering in our imagination first as a rogue, he is primarily that, even though the ON then tells us in passing that his name is Tal Duknan. The fact that he is conjured as a stranger and only then introduced by name is a signal indeed not to forget that this is omniscient narration. Let's call this technique delayed naming. The sneakier effects of such a signal should be clear if we bring the king of thieves into frame now:

Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the daily struggles of its dismal life. It scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub, through the sort of barren wastes all too common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... darted for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing under the weight of their clashing riders.

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, a rogue by the name of Tal Duknan lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow. Rising from a crouch behind him, a king of thieves stayed the rogue's hand.


There is another signal in that delayed naming, no, simply in the fact that it is a naming? We may have brought the king of thieves into play but we're not really inclined by this to take him for protagonist, quite the opposite. The PoV may not be that of the rogue, but that he is named while the king of thieves is not quietly tells us that the story is his. One could now name that king of thieves and carry on the tale with him as the lead, but that would render this bad signposting. What one really wants, if that's the case, is this:

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, a rogue lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow. Rising from a crouch behind him, a king of thieves known across Norgolia as Black Raq Skarrion stayed the rogue's hand.


Or, to show the power of that simple subtle "by the name of," the power of delayed naming as a way to introduce the rogue as a plot-relevant but subsidiary character, this:

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, a rogue by the name of Tal Duknan lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow. Rising from a crouch behind him, Black Raq Skarrion, king of thieves notorious across Norgolia, stayed the rogue's hand.


That simple difference in the manner of introduction makes the king of thieves trump the rogue, establishes that he is to be the focus of the story. He has been granted immediate naming, and that tells us he's more important. Switch it around and we invert the signalling, change the protagonist:

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, Tal Duknan lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow. Rising from a crouch behind him, a king of thieves known across Norgolia as Black Raq Skarrion stayed the rogue's hand.


Now, consider the botching that will occur if we don't make this distinction, if we use delayed or immediate naming with both.

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, a rogue by the name of Tal Duknan lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow. Rising from a crouch behind him, a king of thieves known across Norgolia as Black Raq Skarrion stayed the rogue's hand.

Or:

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, Tal Duknan lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow. Rising from a crouch behind him, Black Raq Skarrion, king of thieves notorious across Norgolia, stayed the rogue's hand.


In both cases, the narrative is firing signals at odds with each other. We're unsure if we're meant to shift our attention from the rogue to the king of thieves, which of them we ought to be following.

With the former, it's possible that this is the point, that these two are a double act, Skarrion and Duknan, Tal and Black Raq. Perhaps the very point of using the ON approach is to maintain a balance between our Butch and Sundance. If so, don't underestimate the power of that little flourish of delayed naming in the intro; in signalling ON, it is signalling the PoV you need if these two are to remain on equal footing in their scenes together.

With the latter, the immediate naming of both is riskier. Do this with a whole D&D style ragtag band of adventurers, and the absence of ON signposting, the presence of protagonist signposting all round, is liable to muddle our whole reading. Turn from these two to another two -- a barbarian prince and an apprentice sorceress, say -- introduced again with immediate naming, and you're dropping the reader into an ensemble cast you better have the skills to handle. You better be able to maintain that ON approach without slipping into third person limited.

The capacity to undermine an ON PoV with even such a simple thing as immediate naming can be better illustrated if we go from the familiarity of "Tal Duknan" versus "a rogue by the name of Tal Duknan" to the downright intimacy of a single name:

Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the daily struggles of its dismal life. It scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub, through the sort of barren wastes all too common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... darted for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing under the weight of their clashing riders.

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, Tal lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow.


Now we're playing with fire. Here the familiarity of immediate naming becomes the intimacy of casual naming, and it's "casual" naming in more ways than one: the name itself is casual, the first name used among friends and family, the name by which the character thinks of themself; and the use of it is casual in the narrative, off-hand, as if no introduction is required. This is a signpost not just of protagonist status but of viewpoint.

With one sentence, one word in that sentence, we've pulled the rug out from under the omniscient narrator and out from under the reader's feet. Suddenly, we're on that ledge with a character we know as well his friends and family, a character we know as well as himself. Suddenly, there's a huge signpost of casual naming pointed clearly at third person limited. That's all very well if Tal is indeed the protagonist. Everything up to then could indeed have been his vision through the spyglass so there is no breach of PoV here. But if you're about to bring on Black Raq as the wily rakish protagonist, this is going to bite you in the ass.

Rendering that whole desert scenario as something seen by a character is also a signal of 3PL, as we can bring out by making this fact clear from the get-go. Even drawing back from casual naming to immediate naming, notice how the framing impacts the reading:

Tal Duknan peered through the spyglass at the scene below. Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the daily struggles of its dismal life. It scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub, through the sort of barren wastes all too common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... darted for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing under the weight of their clashing riders.

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, the rogue lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow. Rising from a crouch behind him, Black Raq Skarrion, king of thieves notorious across Norgolia, stayed the rogue's hand.


Blithely oblivious to the impact of these signals, one might imagine that this is fine for a narrative in which the king of thieves is to be the protagonist. We've introduced a relevant secondary character by name, because he's a sidekick, but it's not like we're more familiar with him than with Black Raq. We haven't had a single thought from the rogue, and that switcheroo of having a subsidiary character briefly the centre of attention before we bring out the hero -- that would work in a movie so it should work here, right? Tal reaches for an arrow, a hand comes in to stop him, and the focus swings round to reveal Black Raq Skarrion rising dramatically, with a flourish of cape. We can just carry on with a description of Black Raq now, right? And we can have him think something to establish that he's the hero, yes?

No on all counts. Regardless of the equivalent immediate namings, the framing of the setting within his experience in that opening line binds us to his PoV. It doesn't nail us to it, just lashes us loosely, but the binding is more than secure enough that jumping to Black Raq now will jar. The description of him will read as Tal's vision. Even backstory woven through that description will read as Tal's knowledge. The omniscient narrator is undermined sufficiently that entering Black Raq's thoughts will more likely read as a breach of 3PL than as ON in action. Such framing, especially in an opening, is strong enough as a signal that even if we did not name the rogue at all in that opening line, it would be awkward even to tack on some omniscient insight into Skarrion's attitude to Tal at the end of the last line:

The rogue peered through the spyglass at the scene below. Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the daily struggles of its dismal life. It scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub, through the sort of barren wastes all too common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... darted for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing under the weight of their clashing riders.

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, the rogue lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow. Rising from a crouch behind him, Black Raq Skarrion, king of thieves notorious across Norgolia, stayed the rogue's hand, smiled to himself at his friend's impetuous nature.


This isn't a breach per se. It isn't colouring outside the lines. The clash of signals pointing in different directions is arguably just about subdued enough that many a reader will gloss over it. But the effects of such dissonance are cumulative. And these aren't the only signals to watch for.

Free indirect style is another technique liable to slip in where a writer doesn't have a good handle on the way a signpost may point to 3PL or to ON. With just one word, for example -- "damn" -- we can turn "the sort of barren wastes all too common in the Norgolian Empire" into another prime signal of 3PL. We can render it a reflection of a character's thoughts/attitudes written into the narrative itself:

The rogue peered through the spyglass at the scene below. Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the daily struggles of its dismal life. It scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub, through the sort of barren wastes all too damn common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... darted for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing under the weight of their clashing riders.

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, the rogue lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow. Rising from a crouch behind him, Black Raq Skarrion, king of thieves notorious across Norgolia, stayed the rogue's hand, smiled to himself at his friend's impetuous nature.


In the original, the "all too common" evaluation is subtle enough that it can read as normative. The omniscient narrator judges the wastes to be that way simply because everyone does, anyone would. That "damn" makes it a distinct attitude in its commitment and in its cussing. In context, we're going to read it as the rogue's. In an ON approach we might well solve the somewhat expository thrust of that sentence by directly reporting this as an attitude: "the sort of barren wastes he considered all too damn common in the Norgolian Empire." But eliding the "he considered" weaves that attitude into the narrative itself. This is free indirect style and it renders the desert trail scenario as experienced by the rogue every bit as much as the framing does. More, even. Now it's replete with an affective response to the scenario.

What if we use immediate naming to cement it just a little more? What if we give it a little more of the omniscient quality by referencing him as "Tal Duknan the rogue"? What if we describe him raising a hand as if to reach for an arrow, a description that begs the question of who is making that judgement?

Tal Duknan the rogue peered through the spyglass at the scene below. Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the daily struggles of its dismal life. It scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub, through the sort of barren wastes all too damn common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... darted for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing under the weight of their clashing riders.

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, the rogue lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, raised a hand as if to reach for an arrow. Rising from a crouch behind him, Black Raq Skarrion, king of thieves notorious across Norgolia, stayed the rogue's hand, smiled to himself at his friend's impetuous nature.


Does it feel like a bona fide breach yet? Does it feel like we've started colouring outside the lines? It might not, but give it a few pages of this and a reader will likely be starting to feel at very least... unsettled. The more you mix signals -- with 3PL framing here, omniscient insight there -- the more a tension between the two will develop. Where 3PL framing should make the story more immersive, it will instead read as neglect of the omniscient narrator's scope. Where omniscient insight should allow us to engage equally with a Tal and Black Raq partnered like Butch and Sundance, it will read instead as a curious disconnection from both, a failure to ever truly moor us in either's third person limited PoV. Even without significant breaches, the result will be weak, a narrative wearing the blinkers of 3PL and viewing everything from the distance of ON.

The ultimate result is likely to be free of breaches only because it ceases to have a distinct approach to breach. Throw in an "unaware of the furrowing brow on the face looking over his shoulder" at the end of the second last line, and this early in the narrative the conflict of signals is likely to just leave us wholly unsure what PoV this narrative is meant to have, whether a coherent approach has been decided on at all. Appreciating how important these signals are can make all the difference, allow you to craft a narrative with a clear and powerful PoV from the first line, whichever approach you go for.

There is, of course, more to it than just third person limited versus the omniscient narrator, but it's a bit outside the province of a Writing 101 post like this to get into the technicalities of a narrative, say, in which the "outside observer" narrator's PoV is so backgrounded it all reads like fast-cut multiple third person limited, until you pull a deliberate twist and reveal the whole damn thing to be a second person omniscient account by a character inside the worldscape. (And you thought "Escape from Hell!" was just a shamelessly pulpy Carpenter pastiche. Feh!) No, I'm just out to give you a basic grounding in how to write a PoV here. And with first person the constraints are pretty self-evident, so it's third person I see mostly botched in the manuscripts I critique, where the result is all too much like that last example above, when it should be like this:

Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the daily struggles of its dismal life. It scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub, through the sort of barren wastes all too common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... darted for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing under the weight of their clashing riders.

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, a rogue by the name of Tal Duknan lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow. Rising from a crouch behind him, a king of thieves known across Norgolia as Black Raq Skarrion stayed the impetuous rogue's hand. An arched eyebrow from Raq was met with a mock-innocent shrug from Tal.


Or like this:

Tal peered through the spyglass at the scene below. Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the daily struggles of its dismal life. It scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub, through the sort of barren wastes all too damn common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... darted for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing under the weight of their clashing riders.

High on his rocky ledge of cliff, Tal lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow only to feel a hand grasp his wrist. Rising from a crouch behind him, a king of thieves known across Norgolia as Black Raq Skarrion arched an eyebrow at the impetuous rogue. Tal gave him a mock-innocent shrug. What? He was a rogue, after all.


These are, it should be obvious, the openings to quite different stories.

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