POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 3: external narrators
Are you Showing too much?

POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 4: moving point of view and other stories

This is Part Four of a four-part series. Part One: the basics is here, Part Two: internal narrators is here, Part Three: external narrators is here

MOVING POINT OF VIEW: how to do it

Obviously you can just switch from one limited viewpoint to another: a double-line space, or a new chapter, and as long as the first sentence or two grounds the reader, so that (even unconsciously) they sense that we're not in the previous point of view, and where we are instead, that's fine.

But what if you want to use the usual, "traditional" technique of a narrator who has access to more than one consciousness, and/or to a "god's-eye" point of view, and can move between them at will? At some point you have to think about how to do it without the reader getting confused or bored. This is where so many writers trip up, and I assume why so many of the more narrow-minded teachers and editors tell you not to do it. But it's not complicated, and it's not difficult to get right.

What usually goes wrong is that the narrative is fairly deep in Ben's point of view as he sits sulking in the corner, scorning his horrible family in detail and wondering if the dog has found his stash of weed under the sitting room carpet. But the writer then realises that some bits of plot need to be caught up with, and "head-hops" out, to tell us what Aunty Mary thinks of Ben's Motorhead tee-shirt, or that Uncle Joe's having a heart attack in the kitchen. The writer then drops us straight back into Ben's ruminations. At the best it just means we feel a bit lost, as the connection we felt with Ben is broken, but then we have to pick it up agin. Feeling a bit lost, with no connections, makes the world and the characters less vivid... and a reader who doesn't feel the world is vivid is likely not to bother to pick the book up again. At the worst we don't know what's going on.

The other thing that goes wrong is that the writer just hops us from head to head, sentence after sentence, so the reader has no special emotional involvement with any one character. We never have the chance to experience the world of the story as that character does; no way to get to know them as a rounded, vivid person; no sense of what matters or doesn't; no real emotional centre to our experience of the story. It's like watching a film made of constant, jittery cutting between different actors; we even have trouble remembering who's who, because memory remembers things better when they have emotional content, and we certainly don't care about any of them.

There's a full post here, exploring lots of different ways to move point of view, so for now this is just a quick survey of the most straightforward way. It's easy to deal with if you understand psychic distance. If you don't know what I'm on about, please follow that link, and then come back here.

All you have to do, if you want to change point of view, is to make sure that you don't teleport us from deep inside one mind - personality, voice, point of view - straight to deep inside another. Make use of the different stages of psychic distance to take us in stages out of that head to something external about them, then show us the new character, show us something external about the next character, then go inside their head.

So here is a demo of moving point of view (rather crude, for the sake of clarity, not to mention space), borrowed from that fuller post.

Oh, God, he'd slept through the alarm! John scuttled to work in a fluster and wedged himself into a lift. Alan followed him in, and they travelled in silence. At the twenty-third floor, Alan got out murmuring that he had to drop in on HR, but actually he went to the canteen. There were mornings when only a double hot chocolate with extra cream made the prospect of the day bearable, especially when it included a meeting with cretinous George.

Notice how we start inside John's head - we know because it's coloured with his voice - and then move outwards, before moving in stages towards Alan, and then into Alan's head:

  • Oh, God, he'd slept through the alarm! This is rooted deep in John's point of view because it's not only John's experience, it evokes his voice and take on experience by using free indirect style.
  • John scuttled to work in a fluster and wedged himself into a lift. This is all about him, and evokes his feelings (scuttled, fluster), but we're a little further out because it's not necessarily his voice: it may be the narrator's choice of verbs.
  • Alan followed him in, This is still John's experience, from within his circle of consciousness. But, there's no special evocation of John's feelings and, crucially, it shifts the reader's attention away from John towards Alan.
  • and they travelled in silence. At the twenty-third floor. This could be any of John, narrator or Alan: we're in the palce where they are all experiencing the same external facts: a place where the circles of their consciousness all overlap. And don't forget that simple information like this can be evocative: the silence between the colleagues, the fact that the building has more than twenty-three floors...
  • Alan got out murmuring that he had to drop in on HR. We're still in the overlap where the narrator, Alan and John's consciousness all cover. But it shifts the reader's focus towards Alan's actions, and evokes something of his character-in-action (murmuring). But it's not strongly locked into his point-of-view, because it's not coloured by his voice or take on things.
  • but actually he went to the canteen. We're still experiencing Alan from outside his head, but we've left John's circle, because John's stayed in the lift and can't know this.
  • There were mornings when only a double hot chocolate with extra cream made the prospect of the day bearable: Now we're further into Alan's consciousness, with his feeling and perhaps unspoken thoughts, but it's still consistent with the narrator's voice.
  • especially when it included a meeting with cretinous George. And here's Alan's voice coming in loud and clear in free indirect style: we're right inside his consciousness, with his voice and his take on his experience of George, as we were with John's at the beginning.

And finally, although I don't believe in rules, I do think that rules-of-thumb can be handy, so here are three which can make it easier to work successfully with a moving point of view:

1) don't expect the reader to cope with too many viewpoint characters. Remember that a viewpoint character is the reader's representative in the story: it's through them that we experience it and our experience will be conditioned by who they are. So think hard about which characters to give your narrator access to. Two or three or four would be a good place to start, as well as the neutral, god's-eye-view of the narrator (but see 3) below)

2) apart from moving outwards to god's-eye-view, don't change a viewpoint character more than, say, once a page (and as above, don't change between too many). And change for a real reason - which probably means you'll change less often than that. Think hard about why you want to change, and what the effect will be on the reader's emotional and mental engagement with the story and the important characters. Don't switch to avoid a minor awkwardness of plot; only switch if there's real reason of character-in-action and story, which will make the scene and the novel better and stronger and more vivid .

3) the more present the narrator is, the more explicitly they're in control, the more viewpoints you can use, and the more often you can shift. This is one very good reason for using a privileged narrator, rather than locking the narrative into a single point of view, and then abruptly jumping into another for a new chapter, say. A strong narrator's voice (even if they're not explicitly a character, or a teller of tales) can integrate a more complex collection of elements into a seamless-seeming narrative than when you depend purely on characters' points-of-view to colour the narrative, and have to switch between them. Think about my memoirist, in Part Two: internal narrators (ii):

I was three when their disagreements over politics - specifically Appeasement - caused my parents to divorce. All I remember is my father telling my mother that she should trust in Herr Hitler. Like so many of his generation he was haunted by memories of the First World War, and Hitler at that date was still taking care to show nothing but good will towards Britain...

Here, the narrator - the memoirist - can unify in a single sentence a three-year-old's eye, an adult understanding of her parents, and a wider explanation of the politics of late 1930s Europe. They're all drawn together under the umbrella of a single voice and consciousness. You may not choose to do that. But it's worth remembering, as you work out what you do want to do. Why not write a novel with a narrator like this?

This last rule-of-thumb does demand that you've got to grips with handling psychic distance, and almost certainly free indirect style, since the close-in distances are hard to do without it. It's easy enough to tell (inform) the reader about Aunty Mary's doubts and Uncle Jim's secret pain down the left arm and Ben's worry about the weed in three sentences, but you can only really do it by staying out at a bland, level-2 sort of psychic distance. For us to get involved with - "care about" in writerly shorthand - your characters, you need to be exploiting the deeper-in distances so that you're really evoking their consciousness in the reader. And if you're going right in, it's simply not possible to switch so often or (unless you're a really remarkable writer) so widely.

 A WORD ABOUT SECOND PERSON NARRATIVES: "YOU"

In English, we use second person - "you" - in two ways, and neither of them are, conventionally, much use for fiction, but they do have their place. There's also a third way that "you" turns up in narrative.

The first "you" is addressing someone: "Do you get up early?" Imagine a narrator of a story about a break-up: I assume you go downstairs first thing in the morning, probably earlier these days now that I'm not there to urge you to stay in bed. You open the back door for the dog, and forget that it was me who gave him to you... You're most likely to meet this as "interior monologue", when we're admitted to the character-narrator's thoughts, as s/he talks to another character.

The second kind of "you" is what the grammaticians call "generic you": the casual, colloquial way of saying "one".  Or it can even mean "I", at least by implication, as in "It's true that if you get up early in the morning then ..." Or in a narrative: You go downstairs in the morning and she isn't there; you go to feed the dog and he's gone; you go back to bed, and it's empty, because she's left. It's so common in ordinary conversation, and it's likely to crop up in narratives which make a lot of use of stream of consciousness. But I used to say that it's very, very hard to use well in fiction, although. And then I read Joseph O'Connor's Ghost Light, which is largely written in the voice and point of view of Molly Allgood/Maire O'Neill, J M Synge's great love. Much of the narrative of Molly's later life is in this kind of second person, and it's utterly wonderful. But it's a very, very hard trick to pull off, and works largely because Molly's voice, as a character, is so strong. And also because she's slightly mad.

The third time "you" shows up is when the narrator addresses the reader (rather than, as in the first example, another character): Anne left on Monday. On Tuesday evening John changed the locks. Well, what would you have done? Or are you the kind who clings on to every relic of the past? John, you'll have realised by now, wasn't that kind of person at all. On Wednesday he put all Anna's clothes on the bonfire.The narrator isn't quite "breaking the frame", as David Lodge puts it The Art of Fiction: the narrator isn't breaking the contract of fiction whereby we all write, read and behave as if this story really happened, even though we all know it's made up (and the narrator of a non-fiction narrative could say the same thing, of course.) But in addressing the reader as "you" the narrator is, if you like, making itself present, explicitly as the teller of the story.

For an interesting discussion of the sort of effects that second person can have, see this excellent post over on Chuffed Buff Books.

AN EVEN SHORTER WORD ABOUT FIRST PERSON PLURAL NARRATIVES: "WE"

This is even rarer. In one sense, "we" represents an internal narrator which is a group rather than a single person: this narrator has an immediate and subjective take on what they're telling, but in a way which avoids a single narrator taking responsibility for their actions and their storytelling. Why might they choose to do that? Or not be able to help doing that? Jenn Ashworth uses "we" in Fell, for reasons that were partly inspired by Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides. Click through to Jenn's discussion of how and why she wrote Fell this way.

WHAT ABOUT TENSE: PAST OR PRESENT?

An internal narrator has a different relationship to the events they're narrating - they were there - from an external narrator, who wasn't there. And that is true of time, as well as space. A narrator telling the story from after it's finished - narrating in past tense - is also in a different place from a narrator telling the story while it's still happening - narrating in present tense. So, decisions about tense are intertwined with decisions about internal or external narrators, and I have a whole blogpost here, which unpicks what's involved.

AND THAT'S IT

This series has come out quite long, but I hope it's clarified things, even if it hasn't simplified them: as you'll know by now, on This Itch of Writing creative writing truths are rarely pure and never simple. The main thing to remember is that the three keys to handling point of view and narrators are a) understanding the basic idea of what a point-of-view is, in writing, b) thinking of the narrator, however neutral and invisible, as a separate entity from the characters, and from you as the storyteller, and c) working with psychic distance.

My main point-of-view posts:

POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 1: the basics : what point of view is, what a narrator is, and why it matters

POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 2: internal narrators : character-narrators who narrate in first person

POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 3: external narrators : limited, switching and privileged point of view in narrators who narrate in third person

POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 4: moving point of view and other stories : how to work with a moving point of view, second-person narrators and other stuff

HOW TO MOVE POINT OF VIEW : not just between chapters, but in a single sentence. And why (as long as you do it well) no one can tell you it's not allowed.

CIRCLES OF CONSCIOUSNESS : a more useful and sophisticated way of thinking about point-of-view and psychic distance, and how to use it to best effect

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