“Point of View”, I’m discovering, is one of the harder elements of fiction writing to master. I’ve grown very sensitive, over the past few months, to how POV is used in short stories and in novels, and to what seems to be more or less officially called “POV drift”: that is, when the point of view in a short story wanders from one person to another. For example:
I looked at my hands and wondered how they got coated in blue ink. Then I looked up at Shari, who gazed back at me with a sense of foreboding.
In this case, the highlighted element is an example of POV drift: we’ve temporarily drifted out of the narrator’s head and into Shari’s. The narrator cannot know what Shari is thinking or feeling or sensing (unless one or the other of them is a telepath). A friend of mine refers to this sort of thing as “head hopping”.
A more subtle variation of POV drift happens when we see a character from an outsider’s perspective, when the story has up to that point been told strictly from a third-person limited point of view. For example:
Joe looked at his hands; how did they get so blue, he wondered? Then he looked at Shari, his face pale with agony.
In this case, the POV drift occurs in the second part of the second sentence; if the entire story has been told from Joe’s point of view and we’ve been deep in his thoughts the entire time, then to describe what his face looks like this is a bit of drift. It’s as though we’ve suddenly been thrown out of Joe’s head and are now looking at him from outside instead of inside.
All of this is difficult enough for writers to master. I keep coming up with questions of my own: how much can a person describe his own external appearances, and under what circumstances?
I looked up at him with that look of befuddlement which comes when you are overwhelmed with new information.
This example comes from Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods. You’re temporarily out of the writer’s head and seeing him from the outside; and yet this scene was written directly from Bryson’s own experience. Is this an example of acceptable POV drift?
In spite of all of this complexity, I do find point of view relatively easy; when critting stories by other beginning writers, I am frequently amazed by how much head-hopping and POV drift occurs. And even more amazed when I point it out to the writer only to have him or her respond, “What do you mean by point of view?” I usually recommend to them the book Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, which contains an excellent discussion of this question.
Complicating all of this, though, is the notion of “narrative distance” which I’m only just beginning to comprehend as a concept. In a single story, there can be times when it’s entirely appropriate to be deep in the head of a particular character; and other times when it’s more appropriate to be outside that character’s head. To draw a cinematic analogy, there are times in a movie when closeup shots are appropriate and times when a wider shot is appropriate. A closeup shot — a deeper POV — gives us better insight into a character, while a wider shot — a more removed POV — gives us a better, more objective view of the action. This can lead the writer to a terrible quandary: at what time is it appropriate to be deep inside the character’s head, and when is it appropriate to be outside?
Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is told from deep inside the narrator’s head; given the Chief’s schizophrenia, it is therefore impossible to know whether the entire story happened as described, or whether much of it was delusion. It worked for Kesey, but for other stories, that very deep 1st person POV may detract from the story if the character’s thought processes are untrustworthy; in this case, a third person limited POV may be called for, with varying depths to show both the level of the character’s insanity as well as a more objective view of the action. That’s just a single example of how appropriate narrative distance can really monkey up the notion of point of view.
Writing is much more difficult than I had imagined in my youthful days of exuberant imagination. But a good story, well told, is its own reward.