Point of view is a notorious stumbling-block for inexperienced writers who aspire to create a work of art. Like any art-form, prose fiction should exude a spirit of freedom, yet stay away from arbitrary whim. In creating literary art, point of view is indispensible.
One thing at at time
It is quite a challenge to draw readers into the ‘world’ of a story within a few paragraphs. You are easily tempted to tell all they need to know at once. Don’t do it. Relate one thing at a time.
Now, not one single ‘thing’ in a story—a face, an action, a landscape, speech—can ever be told from all angles, or from no angle at all. We may compare fiction writing to the shooting of footage for a movie-to-be, and this footage depends on the stance or the movements of a camera. Camera movements should not be random: they help build up tension, convey moods, establish the pace of events, enhance an atmosphere, and…exclude unwanted elements.
In The Last Emperor (1989), Vittorio Storario, Bertolucci’s camera man, had to avoid or hide Beijing’s current skyline while shooting the vast inner courts of the Forbidden City, where officials of the Imperial bureaucracy had convened to salute the new three-year-old ruler of China. The grandeur of this ‘historical’ scene would have been shattered, had audiences glimpsed one of Beijing’s modern highrises nearby.
Developing a point of view belongs to the basic skills of narration. Point of view helps enhance your story’s consistency on sentence and paragraph levels, and it renders the tale vivid. By virtue of the point of view, we do not merely get an account of what transpires; we aren’t merely told things; we get a sense of things happening to people. We see events and human responses unfold before our very eyes—the more so while distractions are excluded from view.
In 2046, a movie by Wong Kar Wai released in 2004 at the Cannes festival, we observe (or hear) goings-on through slits, half-closed doors, shady hallways, cracks in floorboards through which the teardrop of a spurned lover falls; only occasionally are we treated to panoramas of futuristic cityscapes – endless trains sleekly meandering though and around multi-storey edifices, in stark contrast to those murky Macao streets where the hero spends his time combating boredom. A recurring scene consists of one or two of the main characters on a balcony; but as those scenes are shot from a low angle, the balcony seems to float in mid-air, with a neon sign suggesting the sleazy hotel where the protagonist, a hack writer, resides. In brief, the work of art that is 2046 hinges on the camera’s points of view and angles of vision. Regard your pen (or cursor) as language’s equivalent of a camera, guiding a reader’s mental eye through rooms, boulevards, alleyways and even the inner worlds in your story. At times, scenes can be skipped, fast-forwarded, or yield to flashbacks. Anything goes, provided you follow the narrative’s logic.
In movies, people who operate the camera (or cameras) are of no consequence to the film itself. Vittorrio Storario has no part of the last emperor’s world. Literary points of view, on the other hand, do not merely comprise angles of vision; they include the person or character who sees and hears whatever sound and fury the pen is coughing up; in brief, they include the narrator(s) and the inner world of the character (or characters) whose thoughts, feelings, and observations are directly evoked. Words in a story or novel, though written by the author, embody the act of narration, hence suggesting the—silent or vociferous—presence of a narrator. Unlike the flesh-and-blood writer, slaving away at his PC, the narrator partakes in the fictional set-up. Whether or not the real world is “a tale told by an idiot”, we can be sure that a fictional world is a tale told by at least one narrator.
Narrators reveal themselves by the pronouns they wield in their narrative. The narrator is the one who says “I”, “he”, “she”; rarely “you” or “we”. The narrator either enters the scene or remains behind the screen; he may have access to the mind of all characters, one character, or none, when he—who also says “he” or “she” in the telling—restricts himself to ‘objective’ rendering of what is visibly and audibly happening.
A narrator who remains behind the screen, will by definition always say ‘he’ or ‘she’—never ‘I’, lest he ruin the illusion. Of course pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’ do not refer to the narrator; they refer to characters. By the same token, pronouns in speech uttered by the characters do not reflect the narrator’s stance; dialogue sprinkled with I’s and you’s exceeds the confines of the narrator’s perspective: it expresses thoughts, feelings, and observations of the speaker(s).
For this reason, dialogue enables the writer to add colour and depth; and to circumvent limits imposed by the point of view. However, make sure that the dialogue is part of the scene, and embedded in the narrative. Characters engaged in dialogue may utter all sorts of outrageous things while the narrator is powerless to prevent them from doing so. This opens up opportunities for drama and suspense, not to mention that spirit of freedom—without, however, ruining the fictional ruse.