Sunday, December 12, 2010

How to Save a Ton of Narrative Headache

“If you jump into a story without considering the implications of the viewpoint you’re liable to discover that your writing becomes harder as you go along” (David Morrell, Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, p. 91).

Morrell recommends considering questions and weighing the pros and cons of four viewpoints before writing far. I’ve distilled his advice to writers.

Whose story is this?

Who can best reveal absolutely essential information? One character? Two? A few?

Which point of view allows you to get to the depth of your story?

Third person omniscient


Narrator is all-aware.

He or she can describe the sweeping flow of history as easily as intimate thoughts of the heart of any character.

Reader can see into the mind and emotion of any character.


We live in a skeptical age.

Readers question what narrator has the ability described above.

Arriving at no satisfactory answer, readers determine the story is made-up, a sham.

They refuse to suspend belief and story is abandoned, unread.

Third person limited


Truer to life.

Specific and immediate.

Because it is limited it can reflect a story’s theme: the limitations of individual perspective.


If the viewpoint character doesn’t know it, the reader doesn’t know it.

Morrell prefers this viewpoint.

“If you’re good at role-playing, if you can imagine you are inside a character, if you can think and feel with that character and make your readers share those thoughts and feelings, you can trap your readers and make them feel they’re in the story instead of merely reading it” (p.99).

Second person


Can dramatize a character’s trauma.


Character who addresses the story with second person has disassociated from self, which distances readers.

Distance between character and reader can be overcome by using present tense, thus the reader is simultaneously taken out of and drawn into the story.

This is a difficult point of view to sustain for the length of a novel but can be sued effectively for shorter fiction.

First person


Effective for narrators who are self-deluded, liars, fools, insane or psychologically traumatized.

Brings the reader directly into a narrator’s agony.

Narrator doesn’t understand the true nature of what he or she is saying; reader has the pleasure of discovery.

Story is as interesting as the character telling it.


Encourages writers to jabber and neglect details of sound, smell, taste and touch.

Tendency to rely almost exclusively on sight details.

If the narrator is one-dimensional, the reader has nothing to discover and the story seems a string of I-I-I statements.

Writer must find a reason for the narrator to record his or her story.

Tendency to summarize and explain; harder to dramatize.

Removes suspense: reader knows the narrator survives the story’s conflict.

First person is the most trapped of viewpoints.

Morrell advises looking for every reason not to use it since it is difficult to sustain for the length of a novel.

Choose first person only if no other viewpoint will work because the viewpoint cannot be separated from the plot. (Think Huck Finn.)

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