Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Who's Telling the Story?

 When starting a short story or a novel, one of the first decisions you must make is how the story is going to be told, this is the point of view. You have a few different choices each with their advantages and disadvantages.

First person
This is probably the easiest for new writers. In first person, one of your characters is telling the story. Usually it’s your main character (protagonist) or another major character who is affected by the events in the story. The story is told using “I”. Look at the example:

I never liked Refilwe. She had an air of superiority about her that clashed with my practical sensibilities. I looked at her as she came toward me and knew it was not going to be good.

A first person point of view brings the reader close to the story and the narrator, but the writer is confined to the thoughts and feelings of the character telling the story. Events that take place when the character is not there pose a problem the writer needs to find a way to deal with.

Third Person Omniscient
Third person uses “he” or “she”. There are three main types of third person.
In third person omniscient the writer knows all. She can move in and out of her characters’ thoughts. This gives a lot of freedom but creates a distance between the reader and the story because they never feel too close to any particular character. Also the writer needs to be careful not to move in and out of character’s minds too often so that the reader becomes lost. Here’s an example:

He looked at her and thought- not my type- and turned back inside.

She thought if he was taller I’d marry him in heartbeat. It was only later when they found a way to bring their divergent thoughts together.

Third Person Limited
In third person limited the writer still writes using “he” or “she” but confines herself to a single character. This point of view ends up having many of the same problems as first person. Here’s an example:

He never liked pumpkin. It was so soft and mushy in his mouth reminding him of things he didn’t like to be reminded of. Still, it was impolite not to eat it considering she’d cooked it and all.

Third Person Objective
In third person objective, the writer only reports what happens. Action and dialogue is covered, but there is no going inside characters’ heads. The writer does not know what the characters are thinking about what is happening. It will be only through what is seen and heard that the characters’ thoughts will become apparent. Here’s an example:

He lifted the spoon, heaped high with orange pumpkin to his mouth, and then hesitated. He looked at her across the table and smiled. She smiled back. Then he ate the spoonful in one go, no chewing. After it was gone he exhaled.

Second Person
Second person is the least common point of view and probably the most difficult. In this case the writer uses “you”. In second person, the reader becomes one of the characters. It is the writer’s task to convince the reader that the events are happening to them. The other way second person is used is when the writer is writing the story to another character in the story. Look at this example:

You step off the bus and look around as if you’d never seen the place before. Maybe you forgot what home looked like, but home didn’t forget about you. You pretend not to hear Rre Modise say, “Now we’re in for it” when he sees you.  You walk up the road, greeting no one, your step sure and solid.

Second person is often used in experimental writing and is often in the present tense. It is difficult to write in second person but often has quite a profound effect if done well.

(This first appeared 10 August 2012 in my column It's All Write in The Voice newspaper)