“Aprende las reglas como un profesional, para
entonces poder romperlas como artista”
(“Learn the rules like a pro, so you
can break them like an artist”)
As writers, we all use, challenge, reject, or alchemically transform these elements in a variety of ways for a variety of artistic purposes as we create, develop, and evolve–in an ongoing way–our own unique writing voices.
Specific, sensory (“concrete”) detail re-creates the real earth, the real world, on the page, for the reader, through the use of the five senses.
These sensory details are the only way that we humans experience the earth, and the creation of these details are what turn a blank page into strawberries, the barking of a dog, rose petals falling into a pond, steam rising from coffee, the scrape of a chair, the feel of too-tight shoes, the taste of oranges.
Those details then lead to the consciousness of the person(s) experiencing them, which leads to specific character or poetic narrator, which leads to narrative thought, action, dialogue, description–and essential artistic work.
Many writers use the phrase “showing vs. telling.” We prefer “sensory language vs. abstract language,” but they mean the same thing, and we’ll use the traditional words and phrasings here.
“Showing”: the details do the work of communicating the fictional earth to the reader. “Telling”: abstract language interposes the author’s narration between the senses and the reader.
Consider Janet Burroway’s famous example, the difference between:
Debbie was a very stubborn and completely independent person, and was always doing things her way despite her parents’ efforts to get her to conform. Her father was an executive in a dress manufacturing company, and was able to afford his family all the luxuries and comforts of life. But Debbie was completely indifferent to her family’s affluence.
Showing (through detail)
One day Debbie brought home a copy of Ulysses. Mrs. Strum called it “filth” and threw it across the sunporch. Debbie knelt on the parquet and retrieved her bookmark, which she replaced. “No, it’s not,” she said. “You’re not so old I can’t take a strap to you!” Mr. Strum reminded her. Mr. Strum was the controlling stockholder of Readywear Conglomerates, and was proud of treating his family, not only on his salary, but also on his expense account. The summer before he had justified their company on a trip to Belgium, where they toured the American Cemetery and the torture chambers of Ghent Castle. Entirely ungrateful, Debbie had spent the rest of the trip curled up in the hotel with a shabby copy of some poet.
Through specific detail, we have a much clearer understanding of the abstract words “stubbornness,” “independence,” “indifferent,” and “affluence.”
The author doesn’t tell us how to feel; she shows us through detail, and allows us as readers to decide for ourselves what we think about the characters.
Or as John Updike wrote, “It’s the writer’s job to put real people on the page. It’s the reader’s job to judge them.”
Consider another example of the difference between showing (specific, sensory language) and telling (abstract language), from Thomas Mann’s “Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man”:
It was a narrow room, with a rather high ceiling, and crowded floor to ceiling with goodies. There were rows and rows of hams and sausages of all shapes and colors—white, yellow, red, and black; fat and lean and round and long—rows of canned preserves, cocoa and tea, bright translucent glass bottles of honey, marmalade, and jam. I stood enchanted, straining my ears and breathing in the delightful atmosphere and the mixed fragrance of chocolate and smoked fish and earthy truffles. I spoke into the silence, saying: ‘Good day’ in quite a loud voice; I can still remember how my strained, unnatural tones died away in the stillness. No one answered. And my mouth literally began to water like a spring. One quick, noiseless step and I was beside one of the laden tables. I made one rapturous grab into the nearest glass urn, filled as it chanced with chocolate creams, slipped a fistful into my coat pocket, then reached the door, and in the next second was safely round the corner.
The author could have had the narrator tell us: “I was poor, and not used to seeing so much food, so even though I was afraid I might be caught, I stole some.” Instead, we’re able to see the details through the character’s eyes, and make those discoveries (the poverty, the hunger, the willingness to steal) ourselves.
We’re shown, not told: i.e., we experience directly, not distantly. We experience through the senses, not through an author’s interposed abstractions.
Without specific, sensory detail, we don’t enter the fictional earth that is being created. With specific, sensory detail, the fictional world can become as real to us as the world that we ourselves inhabit.
Another example: the first paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
This world is a fictional construct. While inspired, perhaps, by reality, it does not really exist. What really exists are black words on a white page. But through detail, we believe that it exists. In the parlance of fiction, the accumulation of these details causes us to suspend our disbelief, and believe that what is being relayed to us is “real,” in terms of the self-contained earth of the story.
Or the first part of Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Colonel”:
What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On
the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
The details–the coffee, the sugar, the moon, the bars on the windows–create a world that exists on the page, that exists, so much so that when the horrific shows up, later in the piece, we feel it inside ourselves as much as if it were happening to us.
Or consider, finally, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Setting includes the time frame(s), the geographical environment(s), the human-built space(s), and the cultural norm(s) our characters find themselves within.
One can think of “setting” as a character’s contexts.
Without the contexts of these settings, our characters cannot exist. They have nothing to react against, toward, or with.
Just as fish, for example, exist within the water that surrounds them, our characters exist within their contexts, whether or not they’re aware of this at any given moment in time,
Let’s imagine a character who is fifteen years old, say. Still growing into her body, she’s somewhat awkward physically—tall, and gangly, let’s say, always tripping over her own feet and knocking things over. Let’s make her nearsighted, in love with the violin and being outside, and afraid of heights and abandonment.
This exact same character will have completely different stories—she will make different decisions, different things will happen to her and she will take different actions in response—if her contexts/settings are in 1888, or 1923, or 1954, or 2003, or 2235 and ir if her geographical setting is Brooklyn, or Dar es Salaam, or the Scottish countryside, or Mumbai, or Atlantis.
Or if she grows up in an apartment complex, or has no permanent home/shelter, or lives on a sprawling estate.
She will also have a different story based on her particular cultural, religious, or family settings.
Even if she’s the same character in each setting we give her.
The choices available to our characters, and the events that happen to our characters, are inseparable from our characters’ contexts.
As James Baldwin wrote, “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”
Our characters exist in their settings, whatever those are. They can react against their contexts, certainly, or react toward or with their contexts, but our characters’ settings exert pressure and influence on them, whether or not the characters are aware of it.
In fact, in many ways—depending on where you fall on real-world “fate vs. free will” or “nature vs. nurture” conversations—these contexts, these settings, are just as much a part of the character as the character themselves.
James Joyce’s characters are bound and defined by the Dublin of their times; the characters of Gabriel García Márquez inextricable from the nascent Colombia of their times.
Consider specifically the influence of the settings and contexts of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” or Isabel Allende’s “The House of the Spirits.”
Consider how much Dorothea Brooke’s life is shaped by the contexts of her “Middlemarch” era and the choices that available to her.
Indeed, we can take any book off the shelf, open it to any poem, essay, or story, and find that this holds true in any work of literary art.
Whenever we’re leading a workshop critique session—on any level, whether working with beginning or experienced writers—there is a reason that setting is the second thing we discuss, following only sensory detail, and coming before character.
The context a character enters or exists in, and their reactions to it, is, in many ways, often the story itself. I humbly suggest to you the work of Jane Austen, Mary Oliver, Leo Tolstoy, Raymond Carver, Terry Tempest Williams, Tracy K. Smith, Katherine Mansfield.
Let’s look specifically at the first paragraph of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Garden Party,” the first paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” and the complete short story by Rick Bass, “Choteau,” in terms of how setting influences character.
The story “The Garden Party” concerns two very different settings: one setting in which the relatively wealthy live, and one setting in which the relatively poor live. Contrast this paragraph:
And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.
With this one:
Now the broad road was crossed. The lane began, smoky and dark. Women in shawls and men’s tweed caps hurried by. Men hung over the palings; the children played in the doorways. A low hum came from the mean little cottages. In some of them there was a flicker of light, and a shadow, crab-like, moved across the window.
Filtered through the intimate third-person consciousness of the main character, Laura, the setting, the context, the atmosphere of the wealthy is contrasted with the setting, the context, and the atmosphere of the poorer setting.
We experience with her the process of crossing the “broad road” between the two.
And we see how the lives of the characters who live in each place are shaped by the context in which they live. Their options are different; their actions are different.
The story itself involves Laura’s crossing into a “lower” setting (in the story “lower” taking on both literal and metaphorical aspects) and its influence upon her.
For a reversal of this type of story, using these types of settings, consider Cinderella, or Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper,” or such financial rags- to-riches stories like the work of Charles Dickens or Esmeralda Santiago. These stories often involve a thematic discovery (as in “The Garden Party”) that real wealth comes from within, but those thematic elements are dependent upon the character reacting against their setting: the setting must still exist in order for these discoveries to be made.
Rick Bass’s short story “Choteau,” from his story collection “The Watch,” begins like this:
Galena Jim Ontz has two girlfriends and a key to Canada. It’s the best hunting in North America, up the road, past the entry gate, where he has this key. The tiny dirt road going into Canada hugs a mountain face on one side, and the sheerest of cliffs on the other. Driving it, if you dare, you can look down and see the nauseating white spills of rapids in the Moyie River. There’s not a dead-end sign or anything to warn when you first get on this road, and you follow it straight up the mountain, around a few bends, then—as if climbing into the clouds—always, you keep going up, and the smart people who somehow find themselves on this road will stop and park, and get out and walk, if they want to see what’s ahead (no place to turn around: you have to suck in your breath and back down, stopping to throw up sometimes—the jeep, or truck, slides when you tap the brakes, rolls on the loose gravel, acts as if it’s going to take you over the edge and into space beyond; sometimes it does, and you can see wreckage on the rocks below). But Galena Jim guns his old black truck up the road without a care, and when he gets to the heavy crossbar gate with the padlock on it, no sign differentiating the United States from Canada, just a gate, he gets out and opens it with his key, and we drive through, and then he gets out again and locks it behind us, and we’ve left northern Idaho and are in a new country, pioneers, it seems, hunting in a country that has never been hunted.
This ain’t Tokyo, 1884. Or wartime Europe, the Australian Dreamtime, or Buenos Aires on New Year’s Eve, 1999.
I’ve used the word “inextricable” several times to describe how characters move through their settings, and the context of this story—the isolated Yaak Valley of Montana—is inextricable from the characters and their actions throughout the story.
Galena Jim steals a mixer. He scoops out galena (a shiny sulfide material):
He drove down the sidewalks of the little town of Yaak—a mercantile on one side of the street, and the Dirty Shame Saloon and a few houses on the other side—and with the cement mixer growling and tumbling, sloshing all that mixture around inside—lights coming on, from the cabins along the road—he poured galena sidewalks for the town, on either side of the new road that was coming through, and when he was finished with that he drove around and around in circles in the center of town, pouring a town plaza, right in the middle of where the road would be coming, so that it would have to fork left and right around this slick blue circle. And Dickie McIntire, the owner of the saloon, came out and with the snowplow on his truck graded and leveled both the sidewalks and the little plaza-circle, and by the time the sun was coming up, the men of Yaak were building a gazebo out of lodgepoles in the center of the large blue circle, and Jim and Nancy and I had returned the cement mixer and gone home and were sleeping hard.
There aren’t but twenty or so people living in the valley, and we all liked the new sidewalks and the new plaza, and felt they were at least what the road crew owed us for the inconvenience of the new road and the people it would bring—and so no one said anything on Jim, although he had poured a little strip of the galena mixture all the way up to his cabin before returning the mixer—and then, even after the crew started back to work on the road, working for several more weeks, bits and chunks of galena were still falling out of the shaker, being poured out onto the new road, and now, at night, in places all along the new Yaak River Road, your car or truck headlights will pick up sudden, flashing blue-bolt chunks and swatches in the road, blazing like blue eyes, sunk down in the road—the whole road glittering and bouncing with that weird blue galena light, if you are driving fast.
In this scene, we see Jim’s independent thought, his willingness to act outside not only the law, but also social norms. We see the affection the town feels for him, and also sense Jim’s understanding of what the town really wanted, whether or not it was legal. We see his sense of peacefulness with himself (or sense of tiredness!) in his ability to immediately go to sleep after this adventure, and we see the sort of semi-legendary figure he has become.
Now, all these abstractions (affection, understanding, acting outside the law, peacefulness, etc.) could be represented in different ways in different contexts. Jim could have been placed in Chicago, 1929; or the Yukon Territory, 2002; or on a Martian settlement, 3244; but the way his character would come through in those contexts would take on different aspects; different specific, significant details.
Any story is unique to its specific time and its specific place.
I will finish here with a final set of paragraphs from “Choteau,” and will use the world “inextricable” for a final time: note how inextricable the characters’ actions are from the settings in which they find themselves.
Jim says that in the absolute dead of winter—during the Wolf Moon of January—trees splitting, exploding like fireworks all over the valley, and deer and elk freezing in their tracks, frozen in upright positions, standing out in the bright white meadows like statues, with no place left to go, just frozen, finally, from the great cold—he and Nancy will get so cabin- fevered, so out of their minds and rage-crazy that they could kill each other with swords, if they had to. When they start feeling that rumble coming on, that low, slow kick in the back of their heads and between their ears— the itch starting up—then one of them will go lock the guns in the barn and throw the key into a snowdrift, where it will not be found until spring thaw; and then, when their hate for each other, and for everything, for the entrapment of the cabin, can no longer be stood, but when stepping outside might be fatal—lung-searing, at a wind chill of seventy below—they put on these huge red inflatable child’s boxing gloves—“Rocky Boppers,’’ they are called—and with these monstrously oversized balloon-fisted gloves, they’ll stand in front of the fire and just let each other have it, whaling away, pounding and pounding on each other, jabs and hooks and uppercuts, all of it, fighting for over an hour sometimes, fighting until they can’t stand up; collapsing then, exhausted, as if drunk, in front of the fire, where they will fall asleep, into the deepest of sleeps, with a dream hoop over the mantel, until the fire dwindles and Jim must get up and take the balloon gloves off and go outside and get another log for the fire.
Jim’s a tough man, a little on the short side, but heavy, about 170, 175 pounds. Still, I wouldn’t like to be on his end of it when Nancy gets crazy (though I can hardly imagine it, I have to go by what Jim tells me), because she’s taller than he is, has pretty good reach, and is in such good shape. I have to say that Jim isn’t.
I’ve been skiing with Nancy in December, when the snow is still soft and fresh and the woods are silent, and we’re looking for feathers for her wreaths; and I can tell she has to hold back, to keep from leaving me behind without even thinking about it. She’s the best damn skier in the valley, and sometimes when I look out my breakfast room window, even if there is a heavy snow falling, I’ll see her go trucking by, with a determined, wild, happy look on her face, and a Walkman strapped to her hip: lifting those skis and leaning forward and digging in with the poles, just flat-out racing, jamming to her old sixties and seventies rock and roll; escaping the winter, escaping her love for Jim, escaping everything.
Character & Point of View
Just as sensory detail creates the world of the setting, it also creates our characters. In the world, we experience one another through what we can see, what we can hear, what we can smell, what we can touch, what we can taste (generally in intimate relationships only!)
Character is revealed through these details, and as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, character is revealed through action–to which I might add, character is revealed by action, description, dialogue, and consciousness/thought.
How do our characters behave in the world around them? What choices do they make? Are they generous or stingy? In what circumstances? Are they introverted or extroverted? How do these play out through specific detail in their lives? Based on the character’s personality, expressed through action, dozens of stories are available in any given day of their lives, as they navigate the world around them. What conflicts, however minor, do they experience throughout the day? How does this affect them? Besides physical action, a way to reveal character is to show the after-effect of an action. For example, what kind of car does a character drive, if at all? How do they decorage the rooms of their living space? What kind of job do they have? What do these choices show?
How does the character wear their hair? Their clothes? How does she stand up? How does he walk? While contemporary fiction relies less on extensive descriptions than in the past (consider James Joyce’s description of Gabriel Conroy in “The Dead”: “He was a stout, tallish young man. The high colour of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his forehead, where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes. His glossy black hair was parted in the middle and brushed in a long curve behind his ears where it curled slightly beneath the groove left by his hat”), the well-placed detail can serve to reveal depths of character through the seemingly most minor details.
How does the character speak? What syntax does she use? When does he tell the truth? When do they lie or obfuscate? Does she speak in different ways to different people? How? Why? When does he accidentally says things aloud that he didn’t mean to? When do they talk on the phone?
Depending on the points of view we select in our works, the inner thoughts of our characters may or may not be available to us. If they are, it’s a rich trove of character exploration. What do they think about the people they know; the things they do; the things that happen to them? What memories do they have? What hopes and desires for the future do they have? Further: what aspects of the character’s consciousness are known to them, vs. unknown to them?
First-Person Point of View
A story is told in the first person when it is a character who speaks. As Janet Burroway notes, the character may be the protagonist, the “I” telling “my” story, in which case that character is a *central* narrator, or the character may be telling a story about someone else, in which case he or she is a *peripheral* narrator.
The central narrator is always, as the term implies, at the center of the action; the peripheral narrator may be in virtually any position that is not the center. She may be the second-most important character in the story, or may not be involved in the action at all, but merely placed in a position to observe (the classic example being Nick Carraway in “The Great Gatsby.”) The narrator may characterize herself in detail or may remain detached and scarcely identifiable.
In James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room,” the narrator, David, is a *central* narrator, in that he stands at the very center of the action that he describes. He drives the actions, and is also affected by the actions of the other characters. In Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” on the other hand, the un-named *peripheral* narrator often almost completely disappears as the focus is kept outward—on the residents of the town.
From Janet Burroway: “That a narrator may be either central or peripheral, that a character may tell either her own story or someone else’s, is both commonly assumed and obviously logical. But the author and editor Rust Hills, in his book ‘Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular’ takes interesting and persuasive exception to this idea. When point of view fails, Hills argues, it is always because the perception we are using for the course of the story is different from that of the character who is moved or changed by the action. Even when a narrator seems to be a peripheral observer and the story is “about” someone else, in fact it is the narrator who is changed, and must be, in order for us to be satisfied by our emotional identification with her or him.”
In addition to questions of centrality or peripherality, we as writers also need to know the distance from which the narrator is telling the story. Is the “I” looking back at an event five, ten, fifteen, fifty years in the past? Is the “I” presenting the story to the reader immediately as it’s happening? Or the next day? Or the next week? What is the temporal distance between the story and the telling of the story?
For example, in “Moby-Dick,” immediately after the famous line of “Call me Ishmael,” we get: “Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” We understand that time has elapsed between the events and the telling of the events, and that the narrator has had time to reflect on, and shape, the experience.
In the same way, “Gryphon,” by Charles Baxter, is narrated by a young student, but only after a period of years have passed. “The story needed, I thought, to have a sense of looking-back,” Baxter says. “I felt that a student could not tell the story as a student,” he says.
Other first-person narratives, such as certain sections in Tobias Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life,” use techniques in which the narrative is presented to us through closeness, as opposed to distance. We get the events that happen without reflective distance, making them more immediate, how things are experienced in the moment.
In addition to questions of centrality/peripherality, and narrative temporal distance, is the question of consciousness and perspective.
“The thing to recognize about a first-person narrator,” Burroway notes, “is that because she or he is a character, they have all the limitations of a human being and cannot be omniscient. The narrator is confined to reporting what she could realistically know.”
These are the risks inherent to a first-person narration. John Gardner, in “The Art of Fiction,” puts a more negative spin on this concept, noting that the first-person point of view “locks us in one character’s mind, locks us to one kind of diction throughout.” Being restricted to one consciousness and one form of diction can also be an advantage, however. Because the narrating character will have one unique way of speaking, first-person narration, more than any other point of view, also has the potential to capture the rhythms of how we as humans generally talk with one another, in a wide variety of colloquial styles.
Using “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” as an example, first-person narration allows us easier access to colloquialisms and distinct patterns of speech outside more generally accepted “written” patterns of speech; e.g., “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.” Etc.
The first-person narrator, in other words, allows us the use of language that, while also possible in a third-person narration (as we’ll see later on) can be directly presented colloquially.
In addition to questions of centrality/peripherality, narrative temporal distance, and diction/voice, in a first-person narration, because every other character is interpreted through the perspective of the first-person narrator, we understand that when the narrator is describing another character (or an action or sequence of actions), that we’re learning just as much about the narrator as we are the other characters.
As Burroway writes: “Although the narrator may certainly interpret actions, deliver dictums, and predict the future, these remain the fallible opinions of a human being. We are not bound to accept them as we are bound to accept the interpretations, truths, and predictions of the omniscient author.”
In this excerpt from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel “The Descendants,” for example, the narrator of the first-person novel, Matt King, describes his youngest daughter, Scottie:
I hope she can’t tell that I’m appraising her and that I’m completely worried by what I see. She’s excitable and strange. She’s ten. What do people do during the day when they’re ten? She runs her fingers along the window and mumbles, ‘This could give me bird flu,’ and then she forms a circle around her mouth with her hand and makes trumpet noises. She’s nuts. Who knows what’s going on in that head of hers, and speaking of her head, she most definitely could use a haircut or a brushing. There are small tumbleweeds of hair resting on the top of her head. Where does she get haircuts? I wonder. Has she ever had one before? She scratches her scalp, then looks at her nails. She wears a shirt that says I’M NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL. BUT I CAN BE! I’m grateful that she isn’t too pretty, but I realize that could change.
In this scene, while we’re ostensibly learning about the character of Scottie, we’re learning just as much about the narrating father, as we see Scottie through his perspective. We’re also learning about the relationship (or lack thereof) between the two, which then continues to play out for the subsequent pages of the novel.
First-person, therefore, while it has limitations to the author in terms of perspective, and risks myopia in its point of view, also provides the advantages of exploring—deeply—one consciousness.
First-person consciousness has given rise to such classic and memorable characters as Bone from “Bastard Out of Carolina”; Marx Marvelous from “Another Roadside Attraction”; Juan Preciado from “Pedro Páramo”; the shifting first-person narrators of “As I Lay Dying,” “The Sound and the Fury,” and “The Poisonwood Bible”; and many, many, many others, including the multi-layered first-person narration of “Wuthering Heights,” and, from other novels, such characters you’ve probably heard of as Holden Caulfield, David Copperfield, and Jane Eyre.
While the first-person narrator in fiction is not the author, often the author directly inserts their own self into the novel, as well, in a first-person way. Consider Tom Robbins’s novel “Still Life With Woodpecker,” in which Robbins frequently interrupts the novel to describe his process of writing it, down to the color of the typewriter on which he’s typing the manuscript. Or Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses,” in which the author reveals himself mid-book to one of his characters as the creator of the entire fictional world in which the character inhabits. (The character finding himself disappointed that God-the-author is so bespectacled.)
Other than these examples of the intrusion of the author, in fiction, we understand implicitly that the “I” is a fictional entity, not the author: that Huckleberry Finn is not Mark Twain; that Bone Boatright is not Dorothy Allison; that Holden Caulfield is not J.D. Salinger.
As writers, writing a first-person character means constantly being attuned what the character would think or feel in a given situtation, and not ourselves as the writer. What are their joys and fears, not our own? What are their ambitions, loves, moments of shame, memories, etc.
It is even possible to utilize the first-person narrator plural, “we,” as William Faulkner does in “A Rose for Emily; Chang-Rae Lee does in “On Such a Full Sea” and Joshua Ferris does in “Then We Came to an End.” Using “we” as a narrative strategy is useful when you need some kind of a group perspective: the disadvantage is in how infrequently people engage in groupthink. (Or is it really that rare?!)
Other first-person-narrative forms can be expressed as a written or spoken story, reportage/journalism, confessional forms, interior monologue, apologies, stream-of-consciousness narrations, a monologue, oratory, or journal/diary or letter-writing.
In “The Color Purple,” for example, we experience the narration of the narrator, Celie, through both journal entries and letters, as in:
For over a month I have trouble sleeping. I stay up late as I can before Mr. start complaining bout the price of kerosene, then I soak myself in a warm bath with milk and epsom salts, then sprinkle little witch hazel on my pillow and curtain out all the moonlight. Sometimes I git a few hours sleep. Then just when it look like it ought to be gitting good, I wakes up. At first I’d git up quick and drink some milk. Then I’d think bout counting fence post. Then I’d think bout reading the Bible. What it is? I ast myself. A little voice say. Something you done wrong. Somebody spirit you sin against. Maybe. Way late one night it come to me. Sofia. I sin against Sofia spirit. I pray she don’t find out, but she do.
Because of the first-person voice, we hear Celie’s voice directly in a way that in third-person narration, is only possible through indirect discourse.
The first-person point of view also allows us almost transparent seamlessness between interior thought and exterior action/observation in a way that third- person narrations sometimes require certain technical elements to navigate. A disadvantage, however, is if the reader senses artificiality in how much setting, for example, the narrator is noticing. Explication of the narrator’s surroundings, which the writer may need in order to advance the story, for example, has to be part of the narrator’s unique voice, or the reader is pulled out of the story itself, the weaving of which John Gardner calls “the vivid and continuous dream,” and which other writers or critics call “the willing suspension of disbelief.”
Navigating the divide between what the narrator would realistically notice and think, vs. what the author needs to get across to the reader is where many first- person narratives sink or swim.
In addition to the perspective of the narrator on a character (as we saw with Matt King and Scottie King in “The Descendants,”) handling setting and space, in a first-person narration, shows the character of the narrator as much as it does the setting itself. In the work of Raymond Carver, in such stories as “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and “Cathedral” we find that the setting and the way the settings are described (the character, in other words) are inextricable from one another. See also Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” and Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” for examples on how a character moving through their setting heighten the reader’s awareness of both. In “Recitatif” we see the outside world change as the character’s perspective changes. Similarly, in “A Farewell to Arms.”
The term “literature of witness,” a term developed by the poet Carolyn Forché, is also a powerful form of first-person narration.
“We are accustomed to rather easy categories,” Forché writes. “We distinguish between “personal” and “political” poems—the former calling to mind lyrics of love and emotional loss, the latter indicating a public partisanship that is considered divisive, even when necessary. The distinction between the personal and the political gives the political realm too much and too little scope; at the same time, it renders the personal too important and not important enough. If we give up the dimension of the personal, we risk relinquishing one of the most powerful sites of resistance. The celebration of the personal, however, can indicate a myopia, an inability to see how larger structures of the economy and the state circumscribe, if not determine, the fragile realm of the individual. We need a third term, one that can describe the space between the state and the supposedly safe havens of the personal. Let us call this space ‘the social.’” she writes.
Forché gave this overarching perspective of the “social” the label of “witness,” in which the narrator bears witness to an events or events, and where the success or failure of the story is perhaps whether or not the *reader* is changed, as opposed to the *narrator* being changed. In many cases, the narrator has *already* gone through a change, and is now presenting the same inciting information to the reader, who then find within themselves the possibility of growth and change based on what they have learned.
“First-person always strikes me as an intimate choice,” says the poet Kim Addonizio. “When someone says, ‘Let me tell you something that happened to me,’ I’m usually ready to pull up a bar stool and listen. First-person says: Here I am on the page. It’s a seductive position for a writer to take. On the other hand, especially if you happen to be working closely from life— say, writing about something that actually happened to you, that you are thinly disguising—first-person may keep you from thinking of your “I” as a character, distinct from you. It might be helpful, in that instance, to try third-person for your story, to get a little distance—and then, maybe, switch it back. Finding the voice of your story, and your character, is sometimes a hit-or-miss proposition, so anything you can do to fool around with your stance, keeping things open as you explore, can help you find the one key that will ultimately unlock that voice.”
The Unreliable First-Person Narrator
Because everything in a first-person story is interpreted through the eyes of the narrator, the story happens in the space between the “actual” events/settings of the story and how these are specifically filtered through the eyes of a specific narrator.
As Burroway writes: “Although the narrator may certainly interpret actions, deliver dictums, and predict the future, these remain the fallible opinions of a human being. We are not bound to accept them as we are bound to accept the interpretations, truths, and predictions of the omniscient author.”
Sometimes writers push this dynamic even further and create a narrator who is deliberately designed to be untrustworthy in their narration of the tale. Maybe you want a narrator who is lying for some purpose. Or a narrator who is untrustworthy as the teller of the tale because of emotional, intellectual, financial, moral, educational, experiential and/or physical reasons (this list could probably be expanded further) that are specific and organic to the story.
As Burroway describes, to the extent that the narrator displays or betrays such overt perspectives, she or he is an unreliable narrator, and the author, “without a word to call her own in these first-person narrations,” must let the reader know that the teller of the tale is not to be trusted.
These narrators include such famous narrators as Ishmael from “Moby-Dick,” Yunior de Las Casas from “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and other stories, the un-named narrator of “Fight Club,” Oskar Matzerath from “The Tin Drum,” Forrest Gump of the eponymous novel, and the narrator of Eudora Welty’s short story “Why I Live at the P.O.,” to name just a few.
In these narrations, we see the full story that the author is creating, despite the limitations of the narrator, and very often, the limited perspective of the narrator (or what is withheld by the narrator) is as interesting as the action of the story: the shape of the story *becoming*, in many instances, the story itself. From Burroway again: We mistrust every judgment that these narrators make, but we are also aware of an author behind the scenes that we *do* trust.
“The unreliable narrator—who has become one of the most popular characters in modern fiction—is far from a newcomer to literature and in fact predates fiction,” Burroway writes. “Every drama contines characters who speak for themselves and present their own cases, and from whom we are partly or wholly distanced in one area of value or another. So we identify with Othello’s morality but mistrust his logic, trust Faust’s intellect by not his ethics.”
The difference between a reliable narrator and unreliable narrator is not a defining line, but a spectrum, she says. “It is possible for a narrator to be reliable in some areas of value and unreliable in others. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a famous case in point,” she says, noting that Huck is trustworthy in details of action and movement down the Mississippi River, and untrustworthy in areas of morality.
As these examples suggest, the unreliable narrator always presents us with dramatic irony, because we always “know” more than she or he does about the characters, the events, and the significance of both.
The subtleties of authorial distance are such that it is possible to indicate unreliability through virtually any point of view. If, for example, you have chosen a limited-omniscient third-person view point including only external observation and the thoughts of one character, then it may be that the characters’ throughts are unreliable and that he or she misrepresents external facts. Then you must make the reader aware through tone that you know more as writer than you have chosen to present.
Tom Bailey, in “Writing Short Stories,” notes that “first person is by its very nature subjective.”
“The speaker is the subject, even if the story seems to be about someone or something else,” he writes. “All characters have particular manners of speaking, distinctively voicing their understanding of the world. What they say—and how they say it—is who they are. They are drawn for us not so much from physical descriptions but from what they choose to tell us and the words they use to describe what they see.”
And this shifting platform of reliability/unreliability simply means that we as writers are allowing the narrator to be who they are. Like us. Human.
From Bailey: “We can guess a lot from the way people talk and when we choose to tell a story from the first-person point of view, it is our job as writers to be as true to the person speaking as possible. It isn’t about us. And now matter how much we may be interested in what [Raymond] Carver, as a writer, maybe have to say about ‘Cathedral,’ he can’t simply interject his own commentary—not if he wants to remain true to the narrator of the story. This is the narrator’s story. When the narrator wonders aloud to his wife if he might take the blind man who is coming to visit them bowling, we are getting a big hint of who this character is, complete with all his limitations and contradictions.”
Permit me a little bit of a digression here, about the possibility of *shifting* unreliable narrators. The following is from a writer named Jim Lewis writing about Juan Rulfo’s famous novella “Pedro Páramo”:
(This the novel that Gabriel García Márquez said he had *memorized.* Jorge Luis Borges said it was one of the greatest books written in any language.)
Lewis writes: “[The novel] begins, ‘I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me. And I had promised her that after she died I would go see him.’ First person, past tense, a perfectly lucid and concise setup. It doesn’t last long. As the narrator—his name is Juan Preciado—approaches the outskirts of town, he’s joined by a burro driver who mentions that Pedro Páramo is his father, too; together they enter town, and everything changes.
“To begin with, Comala seems half disintegrated, like a newspaper that’s been left out in the rain; and the people who live there are melancholy and diffident. A woman, a man, a priest: They’re given names but left otherwise undescribed. They bring Preciado into their homes, but their homes are empty, and all the time they talk and talk, telling stories about the town, its history, its sorrows and scandals, and most of all about “. They all have stories about Páramo, a bad man, a cacique, a rapist, a thief.
“Peculiar things start to happen on the page, things I’ve never seen in a book. The tenses switch back and forth, past to present and back again, sometime in the space of a single paragraph, until time itself becomes senseless. The stories begin to refract, shatter, and rebuild; pronouns multiply—I, he, she, you, stumbling over each other. Dialogue and thoughts are left unattributed. The perspectives shift from internal to external and back again, from Preciado to Páramo to Páramo’s childhood love, Susana San Juan. ‘This town is full of echoes,’ one character says. ‘It’s like they were trapped behind the walls or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk, you feel like someone’s behind you, stepping in your footsteps. You hear rustlings. And people laughing. Laughter that sounds used up. And voices worn away by the years.’ And why? Because—the reader realizes this about the same time Preciado does—all these people are dead.
“Soon enough (very soon, for the entire novel is only 122 pages in the English translation) Preciado is dead as well—from grief, it seems, or fright—but the book just keeps going, sustained by the babble of ghosts. They speak in unattributed dialogue, interrupting one another, overlapping, addressing one another; and every so often the fog of voices lifts, and a third-person narrator, clear as a 19th- century novelist, steps in—though in context his voice is every bit as disorienting as the others. Out of this babble emerge tales of love, of cruelty, of poverty and misfortune, of the revolution and the succeeding Cristero Revolt; and then Pedro Páramo is killed by one of his many bastard sons—Abundio, the burro driver from the beginning—and, just like that, the book is done.”
I quote from Lewis at length, because of this notion of allowing the organic needs of the story to dicate not only tense and point-of-view speaker, but also to call into question the very concept of narrative “reliability” vs. “unreliability.”
Each of the constantly shifting deceased narrators in “Pedro Páramo” could be seen as unreliable, since they are ghosts telling stories that we understand to be only their perspectives.
However, it is the landscape of “Pedro Páramo” that is what is unreliable to the initial narrator, not the voices themselves. So, another interesting concept to try as a writer is to place reliable narrators into situations/landscapes that are themselves unreliable, not necessarily the narrators.
Where does one end and another begin? Who makes the judgment as to whether the narrator is unreliable or reliable? How do we as readers make these judgments? In many ways, the answers to these questions frame and create the story as much as the events in the stories themselves.
Stories that are famous examples of the traditionally accepted unreliable narrator include Miranda July’s “The Swim Team,” and Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.”
In “The Swim Team,” the number of omissions that the narrator suggests (why *was* she in the town of Belvedere? What is her real name, what did she really do with her time?) implicates the reader with the boyfriend to whom the narrator is writing. The narrator challenges us to, unlike him, get to a place where we’re hearing her emotional truth of the story, as opposed to caring about the literal truth.
In “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” the unreliability comes from the narrator’s perpetually drugged perspective: a perspective that allows the narrator to frame things in new ways, forcing the reader to see things they may (or may not be) familiar with in new ways. Notice how this point of view allows moments in the story that perhaps wouldn’t be possible any other way.
Third-Person Point of View
The third-person point of view is commonly divided according to the degree of knowledge, or “omniscience,” the author assumes. Since this is a matter of degree, these subdivisions are only an indication of the variations possible on the spectrum, but are generally divided into the following:
- Third-person Omniscient
- Third-person Limited
- Third-Person Observational (what many writers call Third-Person Objective)
As an author you are free to decide how much you know, and very early in the story signal to the reader what degree of omniscience you have chosen.
Third-Person Omniscient Point of View
The omniscient point of view, sometimes referred to as the editorial omniscient author because she or he tells us directly what we are supposed to think, has total knowledge. You can:
- Objectively report what is happening
- Go into the consciousness of any character
- Interpret for us that character’s appearance, speech, actions, and thoughts, even if the character themselves cannot do so
- Move freely in time or space to give us a panoramic, telescopic, microscopic, or historical view; tell us what happened elsewhere or in the past or what will happen in the future; and
- Provide general reflections, judgments, and truths
In all these aspects, we will accept what the omniscient point of view tells us. If this viewpoint says that Rickie is a good woman, that Jerome doesn’t really understand his own motives, that the moon is going to explode in four hours, and that everybody will be better off for it, we will believe you.
For example, in the first scene of “War and Peace,” Leo Tolstoy, as omniscient author, describes Anna Scherer:
To be an enthusiast had become her social vocation, and sometimes even when she did not feel like it, she became enthusiastic in order not to disappoint the expectations of those who knew her. The subdued smile which, though it did not suit her faded features, always played around her lips, expressed as in a spoiled child, a continual consciousness of her charming defect, which she neither wished, nor could, nor considered it necessary to correct.
In two sentences, Tolstoy tells us what is in Anna’s consciousness, what the expectations of her acquaintances are, what he looks like, what suits her, what she can and cannot do, and he offers a general reflection on spoiled children.
While most frequently used in novels, which generally assume a greater range of characters and time periods in which the author needs the freedom to roam wherever they want, the third-person-omniscient point of view is also used in many short stories.
“Kew Gardens,” by Virginia Woolf, for example, is a master class in the omniscient point of view.
The story opens like this:
From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end. The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour. The light fell either upon the smooth, grey back of a pebble, or, the shell of a snail with its brown, circular veins, or falling into a raindrop, it expanded with such intensity of red, blue and yellow the thin walls of water that one expected them to burst and disappear. Instead, the drop was left in a second silver grey once more, and the light now settled upon the flesh of a leaf, revealing the branching thread of fibre beneath the surface, and again it moved on and spread its illumination in the vast green spaces beneath the dome of the heart-shaped and tongue-shaped leaves. Then the breeze stirred rather more briskly overhead and the colour was flashed into the air above, into the eyes of the men and women who walk in Kew Gardens in July.
This point of view assumes the mantle of omniscience: we are not in the point of view of a character: we are in the point of view of an all-knowing author, but we don’t know that in this section. Indeed, at this point, we could be in only one point of view, and that point of view could be one of the characters themselves. We move on to:
The figures of these men and women straggled past the flower-bed with a curiously irregular movement not unlike that of the white and blue butterflies who crossed the turf in zig-zag flights from bed to bed. The man was about six inches in front of the woman, strolling carelessly, while she bore on with greater purpose, only turning her head now and then to see that the children were not too far behind. The man kept this distance in front of the woman purposely, though perhaps unconsciously, for he wished to go on with his thoughts.
After giving us these external descriptions of the man, Woolf then puts us directlyinside the man’s thoughts, as an omniscient author can do:
“Fifteen years ago I came here with Lily,” he thought. “We sat somewhere over there by a lake and I begged her to marry me all through the hot afternoon. How the dragonfly kept circling round us: how clearly I see the dragonfly and her shoe with the square silver buckle at the toe. All the time I spoke I saw her shoe and when it moved impatiently I knew without looking up what she was going to say: the whole of her seemed to be in her shoe. And my love, my desire, were in the dragonfly; for some reason I thought that if it settled there, on that leaf, the broad one with the red flower in the middle of it, if the dragonfly settled on the leaf she would say ‘Yes’ at once. But the dragonfly went round and round: it never settled anywhere–of course not, happily not, or I shouldn’t be walking here with Eleanor and the children–Tell me, Eleanor. D’you ever think of the past?”
We get the man both internally (his thoughts) and externally (his dialogue). Woolf then provides Eleanor’s dialogue, but not her interior thoughts. As an omniscient narrator, she has simply chosen not to go into Eleanor’s consciousness, but she could have, without breaking the contract between writer and reader. At this point, we are in a third-person-limited point of view: the author has (so far) only selected one consciousness to inhabit.
Note, in this subsequent paragraph, the physical point-of-view that Woolf assumes:
“They walked on the past the flower-bed, now walking four abreast, and soon diminished in size among the trees and looked half transparent as the sunlight and shade swam over their backs in large trembling irregular patches.”
As omniscient narrator, Woolf could have simply continued traveling along with them, but she kept her “camera,” if you will, rooted in place, and we watch the family “diminished in size” as it walks away among the trees. The omniscient point of view can choose to be anywhere, and will generally select whatever provides the most insight into each character and tension among characters.
Woolf then goes into an observation of the character of a snail. We don’t get the snails’ thoughts, but we easily could, without missing a beat.
Two new characters then come into Woolf’s chosen point of observation.
“This time they were both men. The younger of the two wore an expression of perhaps unnatural calm; he raised his eyes and fixed them very steadily in front of him while his companion spoke, and directly his companion had done speaking he looked on the ground again and sometimes opened his lips only after a long pause and sometimes did not open them at all. The elder man had a curiously uneven and shaky method of walking, jerking his hand forward and throwing up his head abruptly, rather in the manner of an impatient carriage horse tired of waiting outside a house; but in the man these gestures were irresolute and pointless. He talked almost incessantly; he smiled to himself and again began to talk, as if the smile had been an answer. He was talking about spirits–the spirits of the dead, who, according to him, were even now telling him all sorts of odd things about their experiences in Heaven.”
While most of the next scene is revealed to us only externally, Woolf also permits herself, as omniscient narrator, to go into the consciousness of one of the two characters briefly, when she writes, “But William caught him by the sleeve and touched a flower with the tip of his walking-stick in order to divert the old man’s attention.”
She allows herself here the knowledge of why he is doing what he is doing, not just the what, and has now stepped into the consciousness of two characters, not only one—a hallmark of the omnsicient point of view, which can go anywhere, and do anything.
Two new characters, both women, are then presented.
“Like most people of their station they were frankly fascinated by any signs of eccentricity betokening a disordered brain, especially in the well-to-do; but they were too far off to be certain whether the gestures were merely eccentric or genuinely mad.”
Woolf allows herself their thoughts, here. Later on in the piece, she writes:
“Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed and were enveloped in layer after layer of green blue vapour, in which at first their bodies had substance and a dash of colour, but later both substance and colour dissolved in the green-blue atmosphere. How hot it was! So hot that even the thrush chose to hop, like a mechanical bird, in the shadow of the flowers, with long pauses between one movement and the next; instead of rambling vaguely the white butterflies danced one above another, making with their white shifting flakes the outline of a shattered marble column above the tallest flowers; the glass roofs of the palm house shone as if a whole market full of shiny green umbrellas had opened in the sun; and in the drone of the aeroplane the voice of the summer sky murmured its fierce soul. Yellow and black, pink and snow white, shapes of all these colours, men, women, and children were spotted for a second upon the horizon, and then, seeing the breadth of yellow that lay upon the grass, they wavered and sought shade beneath the trees, dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere, staining it faintly with red and blue. It seemed as if all gross and heavy bodies had sunk down in the heat motionless and lay huddled upon the ground, but their voices went wavering from them as if they were flames lolling from the thick waxen bodies of candles. Voices. Yes, voices. Wordless voices, breaking the silence suddenly with such depth of contentment, such passion of desire, or, in the voices of children, such freshness of surprise; breaking the silence? But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air.”
The omniscient point of view is a “god”like point of view: nothing internal or external is off-limits; the author allows themself the ability to go anywhere, and the knowledge of everything.
Third-Person Limited Point of View
The third-person-limited point of view is similar to a first-person narration, in which the author selects one consciousness to inhabit. Instead of “I,” the pronoun merely switches to a “they,” “she,” “he,” or any other pronoun you’re working with.
However, that mere switch is enough to immediately allow the author *two* perspectives, not just one: the perspective of the character and the perspective of the outside point of view.
So, unlike the the first-person point of view in which the story can only presented from the viewpoint of the character, the third-person-limited point of view can be presented from both inside and outside the viewpoint of that character, allowing us the ability to see the story from a wider angle. Some scenes may be filtered through the character’s perspective; other scenes can be directly relayed to the reader by the author.
The difference between third-person limited and third-person omniscient is that the author restricts themself to two consciousnesses, instead of having the complete freedom to go into any or all.
This point of view is particularly useful for the short story because it very quickly establishes the point of character or means of perception. The short story is so compressed a form that there is rarely time or space to develop more than one consciousness (although, as we just saw in “Kew Gardens,” it is possible to do so: every writing “rule” can be broken.)
The story “Miss Brill,” by Katherine Mansfield, is a master class in how to most effectively utilize a limited third-person point of view.
The story begins like this:
Although it was so brilliantly fine—the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques—Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur.
Mansfield immediately signals to us as readers that we are inside the consciousness of a character whose name is Miss Brill, as we know she is “glad” that she had decided on her fur. So we are not only getting what is happening, but what this particular character feels about it. Mansfield has not yet confined herself to this point of view—we wouldn’t be startled, in other words, if she then went into another point of view—but we are keyed in right away to expect at least the particular point of view of Miss Brill.
This is often called “free indirect discourse”: the ability of the author to slip in and out of the character’s way of thinking—i.e., the specific and unique way that a character thinks, as opposed to how the author is writing the story.
The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again a leaf came drifting—from nowhere, from the sky.
Although the phrase “but when you opened your mouth” suggest that we are in a second-person narration, here the technique is being used as the general “you.” We don’t know, right in this moment, whether that judgment is coming from the narrator or the character, but in this moment, we accept the perspectives of either and both.
Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again. She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth powder, given it a good brush, and rubbed the life back into the dim little eyes.
In a third-person-limited point of view, we are completely inside the consciousness of the character: inside her sense of touch, inside her sense of sight and smell.
She felt a tingling in her hands and arms, but that came from walking, she supposed. And when she breathed, something light and sad—no, not sad, exactly—something gentle seemed to move in her bosom.
We get, in other words, not only the sensory details of the point-of-view character, but also her thoughts. We get not only the “tingling,” but her intellectual thoughts on the tingling, her internal dialogue with herself.
There were a number of people out this afternoon, far more than last Sunday. And the band sounded louder and gayer. That was because the Season had begun. For although the band played all the year round on Sundays, out of season it was never the same.
This is Miss Brill making that judgment, not the author.
It was like some one playing with only the family to listen; it didn’t care how it played if there weren’t any strangers present. Wasn’t the conductor wearing a new coat, too? She was sure it was new.
In addition to staying in her thoughts, every now and then it’s a good idea to signal to the reader that we’re in a particular consciousness. As in, “She was sure it was new,” which could be handled any number of ways, i.e.: “It was new, she thought.”
Putting in the occasional “she thought,” “she felt,” “she decided,” keeps us aware that we are in a third-person story, not a first-person story, because the different between the two is that the author can step out of the third-person point of view if necessary to show the character from the outside.
In a first-person point of view, we are limited to the consciousness of the character only. (Which is also why, so often, stories written in the first-person will include letters, photographs, or other ways of showing the first-person narrator from the outside.)
He scraped with his foot and flapped his arms like a rooster about to crow, and the bandsmen sitting in the green rotunda blew out their cheeks and glared at the music. Now there came a little “flutey” bit–very pretty!–a little chain of bright drops. She was sure it would be repeated. It was; she lifted her head and smiled.
We continue to experience the park and the music through her thoughts: not objectively but subjectively through her senses. Later on:
Oh, how fascinating it was! How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play. Who could believe the sky at the back wasn’t painted? But it wasn’t till a little brown dog trotted on solemn and then slowly trotted off, like a little “theatre” dog, a little dog that had been drugged, that Miss Brill discovered what it was that made it so exciting.
The slight movement here, from Miss Brill’s consciousness to the outside narrator (making an explicit note that these are things that Miss Brill is discovering) gives us both character and narrator, both internal subjective observation from Miss Brill and external objective observation from the narrator. Mansfield here is using the full powers of the third-person-limited point of view to build her character from all angles.
We understand and accept that we are are both completely inside the consciousness of 1) both Mansfield as author, when she wants to step out of the character, and 2) the character of Miss Brill when we are inside the character.
They were all on stage. They weren’t only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday. No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there; she was part of the performance after all. How strange she’d never thought of it like that before!
We are inside her thoughts.
The band had been having a rest. Now they started again. And what they played was warm, sunny, yet there was just a faint chill–a something, what was it?–not sadness—no, not sadness—a something that made you want to sing. The tune lifted, lifted, the light shone; and it seemed to Miss Brill that in another moment all of them, all the whole company, would begin singing. The young ones, the laughing ones who were moving together, they would begin and the men’s voices, very resolute and brave, would join them. And then she too, she too, and the others on the benches–they would come in with a kind of accompaniment– something low, that scarcely rose or fell, something so beautiful–moving. . . . And Miss Brill’s eyes filled with tears and she looked smiling at all the other members of the company. Yes, we understand, we understand, she thought–though what they understood she didn’t know.
The line “it seemed to Miss Brill” is another reminder that we are in the third- person, not the first.
The final, powerful, moments of the ending I won’t go into here, other than to note how we don’t get the thoughts of the boy, the girl, or the baker, for instance: they are all seen from the outside, as we are locked (deliberately, on Mansfield’s part) inside the point of view of Miss Brill herself.
Third-Person Observational Point of View
The third-person-observational point of view is most commonly called the “third- person-objective” point of view. I prefer “observational” as opposed to “objective,” because I don’t know how objective people—even writers—really are.
As an observational/objective author, you step outside of *each and every consciousness* and restrict your knowledge to the external facts that might be observed by an observing human being: the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
In the almost-obligatory example “Hills Like White Elephants,” for instance, Ernest Hemingway restricts himself to what a simply observing spectator might see—without any direct revelation of the characters’ thoughts, except in how it is manifested through their external sensory details.
In other words, when you use a third-person-observational point of view, you are merely reporting from the outside, and not going into *any* person’s thoughts, which can only interpret through their dialogue and their actions.
Third-person-observational/objective is in this way most akin to journalism and reportage.
In the famous opening paragraph of the story, we have the observational author providing us with the setting:
The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.
Here, the judgments made, “It was very hot,” for instance, are things that any person reporting on the scene would be able to say. But the person reporting becomes invisible: we aren’t in a first-person story, in other words, but in an invisible observational point of view.
“What should we drink?” the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.”
Notice, here, that we are *outside* her consciousness. We don’t know how character feels about the heat, or her partner, or anything else, except through what could be observed by a bystander, watching.
“It’s pretty hot,” the man said.
Here, we only know that the man feels that it’s hot out, because he’s just said, “It’s pretty hot.” We’re outside his thoughts; we’re merely observers.
The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glass on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
We don’t know what “the woman” is thinking. We don’t know what “the man” or “the girl” are thinking. We only know what we can observe, and we can guess what they are thinking by observing their actions.
The rest of the story continues in this way, and is worth re-reading with an eye toward the complete exclusion of the reader from the interior thoughts of the characters. All is famously revealed through both dialogue and through the not- dialogue. Not only what is said: but what is *unsaid*.
To conclude, the three third-person points of view, are Third-Person Omniscient, Third-Person Limited, and Third-Person Observational/Objective. These exist on a spectrum, not as definite points, and are fluid, based on your specific needs as an author for a specific story.
A final note: once the author has established the point of view they are using, it constitutes a kind of contract with the reader. If we are in a third-person-limited story for nine-tenths of the story, and at the end we suddenly jump into another conscousness, the reader will feel that the contract has been broken.
Point-of-view shifts are possible, of course, but should be signaled to the reader to expect them. Generally the error is that the writer goes from limited to omniscient without letting the reader know this will be happening.
Stories that make this POV shift well include “Why Don’t You Dance,” by Raymond Carver, and “Runaway,” by Alice Munro, among many others, and are worth looking at for how the writers signal early on that these shifts will be happening.
The 2,787-word story “The Boarding House,” by James Joyce, uses an omniscient narrator that, at different points in the story, puts us inside the viewpoint of three difference characters: the characters named Mrs Mooney, Mr Doran, and Polly, giving us a total of four different perspectives: each of the above-named characters, as well as the outside omniscient viewpoint.
What I want to look at is why each viewpoint is necessary, how the shifts are accomplished, and how the story would be different if we stayed within the consciousness of a single character.
First, to recap the story: Joyce opens “The Boarding House” with an establishing paragraph that “tells,” rather than “shows,” in order to quickly, within a single paragraph, give us background information and set us squarely within the world of the story.
Mrs Mooney was a butcher’s daughter. She was a woman who was quite able to keep things to herself: a determined woman. She had married her father’s foreman and opened a butcher’s shop near Spring Gardens. But as soon as his father-in-law was dead Mr Mooney began to go to the devil. He drank, plundered the till, ran headlong into debt. It was no use making him take the pledge: he was sure to break out again a few days after. By fighting his wife in the presence of customers and by buying bad meat he ruined his business. One night he went for his wife with the cleaver and she had to sleep at a neighbour’s house.
This paragraph establishes an outside, omniscient third-person viewpoint. We are not inside Mrs Mooney’s consciousness at this moment: neither in her thoughts nor in her sensory perception. And yet because of the authority of the third-person omniscient narrator, we also know that, at any moment, we will be able to enter any consciousness that the author so desires.
(Cross-reference this story with Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill,” to see the difference between an omniscient point of view and a limited third-person point of view. In “Miss Brill” the opening descriptions of the world of the story are filtered through the consciousness of Miss Brill. In the opening paragraph of “The Boarding House,” the world is not filtered through the consciousness of Mrs Mooney, but from the outside voice.)
This paragraph also seems to violate our usual “show don’t tell” rule, in which writers are encouraged to let the reader experience, on a sensory basis, the world of the story, as opposed to being narrated into it. While such expositional openings were common up through the 1920s, contemporary literature, with its increasing focus on minute moments, uses them more infrequently: film, on the other hand, uses such narrative openings all the time, in order to quickly get the reader caught up to the opening point of the story.
The second paragraph of “The Boarding House” continues the omniscient voice; still continued from the outside:
After that they lived apart. She went to the priest and got a separation from him with care of the children. She would give him neither money nor food nor house- room; and so he was obliged to enlist himself as a sheriff’s man. He was a shabby stooped little drunkard with a white face and a white moustache white eyebrows, pencilled above his little eyes, which were veined and raw; and all day long he sat in the bailiff’s room, waiting to be put on a job. Mrs Mooney, who had taken what remained of her money out of the butcher business and set up a boarding house in Hardwicke Street, was a big imposing woman. Her house had a floating population made up of tourists from Liverpool and the Isle of Man and, occasionally, artistes from the music halls. Its resident population was made up of clerks from the city. She governed the house cunningly and firmly, knew when to give credit, when to be stern and when to let things pass. All the resident young men spoke of her as The Madam.
The point of view making the judgment that Mr Mooney is a “shabby” man, as well as a “stooped little drunkard,” and that Mrs Mooney is an “imposing” woman, as well as cunning and firm, continues to be this outside, “telling” perspective. This gets into what we call tone: one hundred different judgments could handle the descriptions of these two characters in one hundred different ways, based on what the author wants us to see. We don’t have an observational/objective voice here, where we simply observe their actions; we are being directly “told” by the narrating voice what to think about each of them.
After another establishing background paragraph, introducing the two children, Jack and Polly, we are more carefully introduced to the character of Polly, still from the outside:
Polly was a slim girl of nineteen; she had light soft hair and a small full mouth. Her eyes, which were grey with a shade of green through them, had a habit of glancing upwards when she spoke with anyone, which made her look like a little perverse madonna […]Besides young men like to feel that there is a young woman not very far away. Polly, of course, flirted with the young men but Mrs Mooney, who was a shrewd judge, knew that the young men were only passing the time away: none of them meant business. Things went on so for a long time and Mrs Mooney began to think of sending Polly back to typewriting when she noticed that something was going on between Polly and one of the young men. She watched the pair and kept her own counsel.”
Through four paragraphs we have, so far, the equivalent of a Shakespearean prologue, or the voice-over from a film, with a omniscient narrator serving as a guide, bringing us into this created world not only to show us the world, but also to interpret it for us.
In the fifth paragraph, we stay on the outside:
Polly knew that she was being watched, but still her mother’s persistent silence could not be misunderstood. There had been no open complicity between mother and daughter, no open understanding but, though people in the house began to talk of the affair, still Mrs Mooney did not intervene. Polly began to grow a little strange in her manner and the young man was evidently perturbed. At last, when she judged it to be the right moment, Mrs Mooney intervened. She dealt with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat: and in this case she had made up her mind.
We get the conscious thoughts of both Polly and her mother: Polly “knew she was being watched,” and Mrs Mooney “judged it to be the right moment” but at no point are we inside either of these two consciousnesses. We don’t, for instance, know how Polly feels about being watched, nor how Mrs Mooney feels about watching her, or the process of how she makes up her mind. We are still in this outside viewpoint.
At the same time, we are told, by the omniscient narrator, that Mrs Mooney deals with “moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat,” which is a callback to the beginning of the story, where we learn that Mrs Mooney was a butcher’s daughter. The use of this detail uses parts of her individual consciousness, about the way Mrs Mooney thinks, in order to present this information to us, adding to the richness of her character, but does not (yet) give us the immediate experience of being part of her thoughts themselves.
In paragraphs six and seven, we move into the sensory details of Mrs Mooney’s consciousness, and from there we move into her thoughts themselves: “It was a bright Sunday morning of early summer, promising heat, but with a fresh breeze blowing. All the windows of the boarding house were open and the lace curtains ballooned gently towards the street beneath the raised sashes. The belfry of George’s Church sent out constant peals and worshippers, singly or in groups, traversed the little circus before the church, revealing their purpose by their self-contained demeanour no less than by the little volumes in their gloved hands. Breakfast was over in the boarding house and the table of the breakfast-room was covered with plates on which lay yellow streaks of eggs with morsels of bacon-fat and bacon-rind. Mrs Mooney sat in the straw arm-chair and watched the servant Mary remove the breakfast things. She made Mary collect the crusts and pieces of broken bread to help to make Tuesday’s bread-pudding. When the table was cleared, the broken bread collected, the sugar and butter safe under lock and key, she began to reconstruct the interview which she had had the night before with Polly. Things were as she had suspected: she had been frank in her questions and Polly had been frank in her answers. Both had been somewhat awkward, of course. She had been made awkward by her not wishing to receive the news in too cavalier a fashion or to seem to have connived and Polly had been made awkward not merely because allusions of that kind always made her awkward but also because she did not wish it to be thought that in her wise innocence she had divined the intention behind her mother’s tolerance.
Mrs Mooney glanced instinctively at the little gilt clock on the mantelpiece as soon as she had become aware through her revery that the bells of George’s Church had stopped ringing. It was seventeen minutes past eleven: she would have lots of time to have the matter out with Mr Doran and then catch short twelve at Marlborough Street. She was sure she would win. To begin with she had all the weight of social opinion on her side: she was an outraged mother. She had allowed him to live beneath her roof, assuming that he was a man of honour and he had simply abused her hospitality. He was thirty-four or thirty-five years of age, so that youth could not be pleaded as his excuse; nor could ignorance be his excuse since he was a man who had seen something of the world. He had simply taken advantage of Polly’s youth and inexperience: that was evident. The question was: What reparation would he make?
Through free indirect discourse—the process of revealing a character’s thoughts through third-person narrative text—we find ourselves in the above paragraph, paragraph seven, completely within Mrs Mooney’s thoughts. When we get the sentences of It was seventeen minutes past eleven: she would have lots of time to have the matter out with Mr Doran and then catch short twelve at Marlborough Street, we are fully in her mind, no longer on the outside. We understand her plans and her thoughts through the way she thinks, not through the way the omniscient point of view thinks.
Where stories often succeed or fail on principles of point of view is this: when we are inside the mind of a character, are we inside that character’s voice, or still in the voice of the author. Each person has their own unique way of seeing the world. Their own references and memories; their own patterns of thought. The more closely we, as writers, can listen to the specific and unique thought-patterns of our character, the more we bring them to life on the page, separate from ourselves as authors.
From paragraphs nine and ten:
She counted all her cards again [not literal cards: her arguments she’ll use with him] before sending Mary up to Doran’s room to say that she wished to speak with him. She felt sure she would win. He was a serious young man, not rakish or loud-voiced like the others. If it had been Mr Sheridan or Mr Meade or Bantam Lyons her task would have been much harder. She did not think he would face publicity. All the lodgers in the house knew something of the affair; details had been invented by some. Besides, he had been employed for thirteen years in a great Catholic wine-merchant’s office and publicity would mean for him, perhaps, the loss of his job. Whereas if he agreed all might be well. She knew he had a good screw [brain] for one thing and she suspected he had a bit of stuff put by [funds].
Nearly the half-hour! She stood up and surveyed herself in the pier-glass. The decisive expression of her great florid face satisfied her and she thought of some mothers she knew who could not get their daughters off their hands.
All of this is firmly inside her consciousness. We are seeing the world through her eyes, and are inside her thoughts. The text reflects the pattern of the way she thinks, allowing us to hear her thoughts directly, although the story is written in the third-person.
In paragraphs eleven and twelve, however, we have our second consciousness shift. In the way that we moved from the omniscient narrator to the inside of Mrs Mooney’s thoughts, we now move from her consciousness to Mr Doran’s:
Mr Doran was very anxious indeed this Sunday morning. He had made two attempts to shave but his hand had been so unsteady that he had been obliged to desist. Three days’ reddish beard fringed his jaws and every two or three minutes a mist gathered on his glasses so that he had to take them off and polish them with his pocket-handkerchief. The recollection of his confession of the night before was a cause of acute pain to him; the priest had drawn out every ridiculous detail of the affair and in the end had so magnified his sin that he was almost thankful at being afforded a loophole of reparation. The harm was done. What could he do now but marry her or run away? He could not brazen it out. The affair would be sure to be talked of and his employer would be certain to hear of it. Dublin is such a small city: everyone knows everyone else’s business. He felt his heart leap warmly in his throat as he heard in his excited imagination old Mr Leonard calling out in his rasping voice: Send Mr Doran here, please.
All his long years of service gone for nothing! All his industry and diligence thrown away! As a young man he had sown his wild oats, of course; he had boasted of his free-thinking and denied the existence of God to his companions in public-houses. But that was all passed and done with . . . nearly. He still bought a copy of Reynolds’s Newspaper every week but he attended to his religious duties and for nine-tenths of the year lived a regular life. He had money enough to settle down on; it was not that. But the family would look down on her. First of all there was her disreputable father and then her mother’s boarding house was beginning to get a certain fame. He had a notion that he was being had. He could imagine his friends talking of the affair and laughing. She was a little vulgar; some times she said “I seen” and “If I had’ve known.” But what would grammar matter if he really loved her? He could not make up his mind whether to like her or despise her for what she had done. Of course he had done it too. His instinct urged him to remain free, not to marry. Once you are married you are done for, it said.
Without any warning or introductory paragraph we have moved immediately into Mr Doran’s thoughts and sensory perceptions. Crucially, we have also moved into his thought patterns, no longer those of Mrs Mooney. We’re inside his fears, his hopes, his histories and memories.
While he was sitting helplessly on the side of the bed in shirt and trousers she tapped lightly at his door and entered. She told him all, that she had made a clean breast of it to her mother and that her mother would speak with him that morning. She cried and threw her arms round his neck, saying:
—O Bob! Bob! What am I to do? What am I to do at all?
She would put an end to herself, she said.
He comforted her feebly, telling her not to cry, that it would be all right, never fear. He felt against his shirt the agitation of her bosom. It was not altogether his fault that it had happened. He remembered well, with the curious patient memory of the celibate, the first casual caresses her dress, her breath, her fingers had given him. Then late one night as he was undressing for she had tapped at his door, timidly. She wanted to relight her candle at his for hers had been blown out by a gust. It was her bath night. She wore a loose open combing-jacket of printed flannel. Her white instep shone in the opening of her furry slippers and the blood glowed warmly behind her perfumed skin. From her hands and wrists too as she lit and steadied her candle a faint perfume arose.
We have moved, at this point inside his memories, and we are experiencing the world of the story the way he experiences it, through touch (“caresses,” “breath”) sound (the tapping at the door, “timidly,”) sight (her sees her jacket, her “white instep,” the “furry slippers,” her skin, her hands, and wrists, the candle) and smell (the “faint perfume.)
When entering a character’s consciousness, all these details put us into the mind and the body of that character: similar to the movement into Mrs Mooney’s consciousness, the world of the story is no longer being narrated by an outside voice, but within the characters themselves.
Going down the stairs his glasses became so dimmed with moisture that he had to take them off and polish them. He longed to ascend through the roof and fly away to another country where he would never hear again of his trouble, and yet a force pushed him downstairs step by step. The implacable faces of his employer and of the Madam stared upon his discomfiture. On the last flight of stairs he passed Jack Mooney who was coming up from the pantry nursing two bottles of Bass. They saluted coldly; and the lover’s eyes rested for a second or two on a thick bulldog face and a pair of thick short arms. When he reached the foot of the staircase he glanced up and saw Jack regarding him from the door of the return- room.
Suddenly he remembered the night when one of the music hall artistes, a little blond Londoner, had made a rather free allusion to Polly. The reunion had been almost broken up on account of Jack’s violence. Everyone tried to quiet him. The music-hall artiste, a little paler than usual, kept smiling and saying that there was no harm meant: but Jack kept shouting at him that if any fellow tried that sort of a game on with his sister he’d bloody well put his teeth down his throat, so he would.
This is the final moment in which we’re inside Mr Doran’s consciousness, and the story, using white space, then moves us to the third and final character of consciousness, Polly:
Polly sat for a little time on the side of the bed, crying. Then she dried her eyes and went over to the looking-glass. She dipped the end of the towel in the water- jug and refreshed her eyes with the cool water. She looked at herself in profile and readjusted a hairpin above her ear. Then she went back to the bed again and sat at the foot. She regarded the pillows for a long time and the sight of them awakened in her mind secret, amiable memories. She rested the nape of her neck against the cool iron bed-rail and fell into a reverie. There was no longer any perturbation visible on her face.
She waited on patiently, almost cheerfully, without alarm. her memories gradually giving place to hopes and visions of the future. Her hopes and visions were so intricate that she no longer saw the white pillows on which her gaze was fixed or remembered that she was waiting for anything.
At last she heard her mother calling. She started to her feet and ran to the banisters.
—Come down, dear. Mr Doran wants to speak to you. Then she remembered what she had been waiting for.
The story ends inside her consciousness.
The unusual structure of “The Boarding House” takes us from 1. the establishing, outside narrative point of view, to 2. Mrs Mooney’s consciousness, to 3. Mr Doran’s consciousness, to 4. Polly’s consciousness.
Once we’ve left one point of view for another, we don’t return to the previous character at any point in the story.
So, how do point-of-view shifts work—and when and why would we use them?
Let’s consider the overall plot of “The Boarding House.”
A woman, Mrs Mooney, financially charge of her own life, runs a boarding house. Her daughter, Polly, is sleeping with one of the boarders. She is determined to have the boarder marry her daughter. She meets with each one individually, and succeeds in persuading the boarder to do so.
Any number of points of view would serve the story in a different way. Were we entirely in the perspective of the mother the entire time, we miss out on the internal fears and hopes of both Bob and Polly, and it becomes exclusively the mother’s story (indeed, a later Joyce story, “A Mother,” stays entirely inside the point of view of a mother attempting to get her daughter paid properly for her singing) and the story becomes about a mother setting her daughter’s future.
Were we entirely in the point of view of Bob, throughout the story, then “The Boarding House” becomes the story of a man convinced to be married through fear (of the mother, of losing his job, of physical violence from Polly’s brother.)
We were entirely in the point of view of Polly throughout the story, then the story becomes the story of a nineteen-year-old trying to decide what she feels about marriage, and change. (And an earlier Joyce story, “Eveline,” is entirely about this, entirely in the nineteen-year-old’s point of view.)
Using all perspectives, in 2,787 words we have a story that is able to encapsulate all of these different stories into one.
Point of view shifts can fail as often (perhaps more often) as they succeed. Consider this paragraph that I have just made up:
He ran into the room late, his collar feeling sticky with sweat. The dinner party had already started. His grandmother, seated, as always, at the head of the table, stared at him. He was such a disappointment, she thought.
The shift here is sudden and wrenches the reader from the first consciousness (whoever the “he” is) into the second (the grandmother.) We do want the grandmother’s disapproving response (in this hypothetical situation) and so the scene would be just as (perhaps more) effective if it were re-written:
He ran into the room late, his collar feeling sticky with sweat. The dinner party had already started. His grandmother, seated, as always, at the head of the table, looked at the antique clock, and looked at him. ‘You can take your dinner in the kitchen,’ she said.
We still have the disapproval, but we see it from his point of view, through her actions and her dialogue, without needing to go into her consciousness in this moment.
A good rule of thumb that is often suggested is to stick with one point of view per scene—i.e., once a scene has begun, to not change viewpoints until a next scene, but this rule is broken all the time in any number of artistic ways.
Every good story teaches us how to read it, as we read it.
“The Boarding House” teaches us to read it by letting us know to expect that the viewpoint shifts only between paragraphs, and the individual paragraphs will maintain one of point of view.. The writer’s contract with us as reader is that each paragraph or scene will have only this one viewpoint.
The guideline for making POV shifts work is to simply find the story’s artistic way to cue the reader as to how and for what purpose viewpoint shifts will be working in your story.
For example, In the Raymond Carver 1,617-word short story “Why Don’t You Dance?” we are given three characters: “the man,” “the boy,” and “the girl.” We go into the minds of two of them: “the man,” and “the girl.”
How the viewpoint shifts work: Carver separates sections of the story using white space, and in each section we only go into one consciousness—either his or hers.
For what purpose do we have these viewpoint shifts at all: The story is about his loss, and her attempt to understand him and his actions. Because the story belongs to both of them, in a sense, we get both of their perspectives. Her perspective serves as the final moment in the story: her failure not only to understand him, but even to be able to explain to other people—or herself—why she finds it so important to understand him.
For another example, the Katherine Mansfield short story “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” focuses on two sisters, Josephine and Constantia, and we get both of their viewpoints.
We move back and forth from consciousness to consciousness without warning or setup.
For what purpose?
The story concerns the shared experience of the two sisters as they deal with the death of their abusive father, and also emphasizes their closeness. In some points of the story, they even share the same thoughts, so the frequent point of view shifts sometimes move into the third-person-plural “they thought,” as their shared experiences are so similar.
Because of the brevity of the short story, POV shifts in a third-person short story are very often unnecessary. Character can be revealed just as easily through actions or dialogue, without moving from one consciousness to another. However, sometimes writers want the ability to make that POV shift, and we need to artistically communicate our contract with the reader, so that when the POV shift arrives it is organic and natural to the story.
There is a scene in Toni Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye” in which two young girls— Claudia and Frieda—walk across town to see their sort-of friend Pecola, at the house where Pecola’s mother, Pauline Breedlove, works for a white family.
Up to this point in the novel, we as readers have seen Pauline Breedlove predominantly through the eyes of the young girls—particularly through the young narrator of Claudia. The girls respect Pauline Breedlove; are partially afraid of her.
Toni Morrison’s move, in this passage is to change the viewpoint of Claudia and Frieda in a life-shattering way. The perspective through which they—and, perhaps more importantly, we as the readers—see Mrs. Breedlove undergoes a shift, leading to change in the characters—and change in the readers.
The scene opens with Claudia and Frieda arriving at the house (and is narrated in the first-person from Claudia’s point of view.)
Mrs. Breedlove stuck her head out the door and said, ‘What’s going on out here? Pecola, who are these children?’
‘That’s Frieda and Claudia, Mrs. Breedlove.’
‘Whose girls are you?’ She came all the way out on the stoop. She looked nicer than I had ever seen her, in her white uniform and her hair in a small pompadour.
‘Mrs. MacTeer’s girls, ma’am.’
‘Oh, yes. Live over on Twenty-first Street?’
‘What are you doing ’way over here?’
‘Just walking. We came to see Pecola.’
‘Well, you better get on back. You can walk with Pecola. Come on in while I get the wash.’
Through the use of the respectful “ma’am”; through the way the children immediately answer the questions, as though on trial; through the way they call her “Mrs. Breedlove”; we see Pauline Breedlove’s status in relation to the narrating Claudia and her friend, Frieda.
Notice also that Mrs. Breedlove is standing above them on the stoop, creating a visual position of power, as well. And notice that the command Mrs. Breedlove gives them: “Well, you better get on back. You can walk with Pecola. Come on in while I get the wash,” is immediately obeyed.
The girls step into the kitchen, which Morrison describes as “a large spacious room.” And stepping across the threshold, into this room, the narrator of Claudia finds herself in a brand-new world, described like this: “Mrs. Breedlove’s skin glowed like taffeta in the reflection of white porcelain, white woodwork, polished cabinets, and brilliant copperware. Odors of meat, vegetables, and something freshly baked mixed with a scent of Fels Naphtha.”
Claudia is in a new world here, in which the new (to her) power of whiteness enters her through many different senses. Notice the two references to the color white, almost introducing the character who is about to arrive.
As the scene progresses, Mrs. Breedlove leaves the children to go get the wash, disappearing behind “a white swinging door.” A new character enters:
Another door opened, and in walked a little girl, smaller and younger than all of us. She wore a pink sunback dress and pink fluffy bedroom slippers with two bunny ears pointed up from the tips. Her hair was corn yellow and bound in a thick ribbon. When she saw us, fear danced across her face for a second. She looked anxiously around the kitchen.
‘Where’s Polly?’ she asked.
The familiar violence rose in me. Her calling Mrs. Breedlove Polly, when even Pecola called her mother Mrs. Breedlove, seemed reason enough to scratch her.
‘She’s downstairs,’ I said.
‘Polly!’ she called.
‘Look,’ Frieda whispered, ‘look at that.’ On the counter near the stove in a silvery pan was a deep-dish berry cobbler. The purple juice bursting here and there through crust. We moved closer.
‘It’s still hot,’ Frieda said.
Pecola stretched her hand to touch the pan, lightly, to see if it was hot.
‘Polly, come here,’ the little girl called again.
It may have been nervousness, awkwardness, but the pan tilted under Pecola’s fingers and fell to the floor, splattering blackish blueberries everywhere. Most of the juice splashed on Pecola’s legs, and the burn must have been painful, for she cried out and began hopping about just as Mrs. Breedlove entered with a tightly packed laundry bag. In one gallop she was on Pecola, and with the back of her hand knocked her to the floor. Pecola slid in the pie juice, one leg folding under her. Mrs. Breedlove yanked her up by the arm, slapped her again, and in a voice thin with anger, abused Pecola directly and Frieda and me by implication.
‘Crazy fool…my floor, mess…look what you…work…get on out…now that…crazy…my floor, my floor…my floor.’ Her words were hotter and darker than the smoking berries, and we backed away in dread.
The little girl in pink started to cry. Mrs. Breedlove turned to her. ‘Hush, baby, hush. Come here. Oh, Lord, look at your dress. Don’t cry no more. Polly will change it.’ She went to the sink and turned tap water on a fresh towel. Over her shoulder she spit out words to us like rotten pieces of apple. ‘Pick up that wash and get on out of here, so I can get this mess cleaned up.’
Pecola picked up the laundry bag, heavy with wet clothes, and we stepped hurriedly out the door. As Pecola put the laundry bag in the wagon, we could hear Mrs. Breedlove hushing and soothing the tears of the little pink-and-yellow girl.
‘Who were they, Polly?’
‘Don’t worry none, baby.’
‘You gonna make another pie?’
‘Course I will.’
‘Who were they, Polly?’
‘Hush. Don’t worry none,’ she whispered, and the honey in her words complemented the sundown spilling on the lake.
As Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola exit from this world of white power back into the familiar world of sunset, their previous way of seeing the world has also faded, replaced with something new. The girls—and we as the reader—have seen the character of the strong Pauline Breedlove replaced by, and reduced to, “Polly,” through the gaze of a little white girl.
The girls have been exposed to American racial, social, and economic power in this scene, and they—and we—are changed, as a result, now seeing the world differently, seeing the status of power—and their own role, as well—clearly and sharply, and intimately.
Changing a character’s perspective on something that they thought they knew is a powerful way to create character change. When a character sees themself in a new way, or sees another character in a new way, it leads to change both in the character, and the reader: a shift after which nothing can go back to the way it was.
This doesn’t mean a change in point of view from character to character, but a change in perspective while keeping the same point of view. At no point do we move from Claudia’s consciousness, but her own perspective changes.
But what happens when a character sees their own self in a new way, not just someone else? And what if that new perspective causes an irrevocable change to their self-image?
Returning to Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Miss Brill,” discussed above, but looking at it here through the lens of a perspective change on the self: “Although it was so brilliantly fine—the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques—Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur.”
Mansfield here is signalling to us as readers that we are inside the third-person-limited consciousness of Miss Brill, as we know she is “glad” that she had decided on her fur. So we are not only getting what is happening, but what this particular character feels about what is happening. The emotion of the story will be closely linked with the emotion of this character: while we are not in the first person, we are close to it as we can get. We will feel all the deliciousness of life that Miss Brill feels.
This is often called “free indirect discourse”: the ability of the author to slip in and out of the character’s way of thinking—i.e., the specific and unique way that a character thinks, as opposed to how the author is writing the story.
The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again a leaf came drifting—from nowhere, from the sky.
This is not the author speaking, despite the third-person narration. This is Miss Brill’s most intimate thoughts.
Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again. She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth powder, given it a good brush, and rubbed the life back into the dim little eyes.
In a third-person-limited point of view, we are completely inside the consciousness of the character: inside her sense of touch, inside her sense of sight and smell.
She felt a tingling in her hands and arms, but that came from walking, she supposed. And when she breathed, something light and sad—no, not sad, exactly— something gentle seemed to move in her bosom.”
The character is having a beautiful day. She is happy, out in the public, enjoying the world.
There were a number of people out this afternoon, far more than last Sunday. And the band sounded louder and gayer. That was because the Season had begun. For although the band played all the year round on Sundays, out of season it was never the same.
And later on:
Oh, how fascinating it was! How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play. Who could believe the sky at the back wasn’t painted? But it wasn’t till a little brown dog trotted on solemn and then slowly trotted off, like a little “theatre” dog, a little dog that had been drugged, that Miss Brill discovered what it was that made it so exciting.
They were all on stage. They weren’t only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday. No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there; she was part of the performance.
…and it seemed to Miss Brill that in another moment all of them, all the whole company, would begin singing. The young ones, the laughing ones who were moving together, they would begin and the men’s voices, very resolute and brave, would join them. And then she too, she too, and the others on the benches–they would come in with a kind of accompaniment– something low, that scarcely rose or fell, something so beautiful–moving…And Miss Brill’s eyes filled with tears and she looked smiling at all the other members of the company. Yes, we understand, we understand, she thought– though what they understood she didn’t know.
Everything is beautiful; she feels part of this beautiful world, experiencing it through many different senses—and then everything changes:
Just at that moment a boy and girl came and sat down where the old couple had been. They were beautifully dressed; they were in love. The hero and heroine, of course, just arrived from his father’s yacht. And still soundlessly singing, still with that trembling smile, Miss Brill prepared to listen.
‘No, not now,’ said the girl. ‘Not here, I can’t.’
‘But why? Because of that stupid old thing at the end there?’ asked the boy. ‘Why does she come here at all—who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?’
‘It’s her fu-ur which is so funny,’ giggled the girl. ‘It’s exactly like a fried whiting.’
‘Ah, be off with you!’ said the boy in an angry whisper. Then: ‘Tell me, ma petite chere—’
‘No, not here,’ said the girl. ‘Not yet.’
The character, Miss Brill, suddenly sees herself through the eyes of the two kids. She sees herself suddenly as old, undesirable. Someone to whom the boy can speak dismissively, disrespectfully (“Ah, be off with you!”) And it isn’t as if the girl protects her: indeed, the girl making fun of the fur coat almost seems to be what hurts Miss Brill the most.
On her way home she usually bought a slice of honey-cake at the baker’s. It was her Sunday treat. Sometimes there was an almond in her slice, sometimes not. It made a great difference. If there was an almond it was like carrying home a tiny present—a surprise—something that might very well not have been there. She hurried on the almond Sundays and struck the match for the kettle in quite a dashing way.
But to-day she passed the baker’s by, climbed the stairs, went into the little dark room— her room like a cupboard—and sat down on the red eiderdown. She sat there for a long time. The box that the fur came out of was on the bed. She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.
The metamorphosis is complete. The two punk kids have become a kind of mirror in which she sees herself in a new way, shattering her self-conception.
Sometimes this change manifests itself only internally (Claudia now sees the world differently), as we see with Miss Brill, that internal change leads to external actions (she returns home and puts the fur away.)
Having a perspective change through external change is another way that characters change.
“Axotl,” by Julio Cortázar begins (I am using my own translations of the original Spanish here):
There was a time in which I thought a lot about axolotls. I would go to see them at the aquarium of the Jardín des Plantes and stay for hours looking at them, observing their immobility, their obscure movements. Now I am an axolotl.
Although we are given the entire plot in the first paragraph—that the first-person narrator is going to physically metamorphosize into an axolotl—it is still a surprise, later on in the story, when it occurs.
Following the first paragraph, he describes learning about axolotls. That they’re the larval stage of a species of salamander.
That they were Mexican I knew already by looking at them and their little pink Aztec faces and the placard at the top of the tank. I read that specimens of them had been found in Africa capable of living on dry land during the periods of drought, and continuing their life under water when the rainy season came. I found their Spanish name, ajolote, and the mention that they were edible, and that their oil was used (no longer used, it said) like cod-liver oil.
He begins to go every morning, “at times morning and afternoon.” including some afternoons. The aquarium guard “would smile perplexedly upon taking the ticket.”
We watch as the narrator puts his face to the glass (“at times the guard coughed inquietly,) and see the obsession with axolotls gradually overcome him completely, until he is there nearly every waking hour.
We are never told why this obsession is so strong, making us think of both literal and metaphorical reasons. Is the narrator losing his mind? Or, like the characters of Gabriel García Márquez’s stories in “Strange Pilgrims” is the narrator finding himself isolated in Europe, attempting to re-connect with his roots? Is he trying to find common humanity with the axolotls?
I was afraid of them. I think that if it hadn’t been the feeling of proximity of other visitors and the guard, I wouldn’t have dared stay alone with them. ‘You eat them with your eyes,’ the guard said, laughing; he probably supposed me a little crazy. What he didn’t realize was that they were slowly devouring me with their eyes, in a cannibalism of gold. Away from the aquarium I had only to think of them, and it was like they were influencing me from a distance. I started going every day, and at night I imagined them immobile in the darkness, slowly putting out a hand which immediately found another. Perhaps their eyes could see at night, and the day for them continued indefinitely. The eyes of axolotls have no lids.
The narrator watches until he turns into one himself:
I was seeing from very close up the face of an axolotl immobile next to the glass. Without transition, without surprise, I saw my face against the glass, instead of the axolotl I saw my face against the glass, I saw it outside the aquarium, I saw it on the other side of the glass.
While the consciousness has remained the same, the point of view has changed.
He returned many times, but he comes less now. Weeks pass without his showing up. I saw him yesterday, he looked at me for a long time and left brusquely. It seemed to me that he was not as interested in us any more, that he was obeying a habit.
The consciousness—now in the character of the axolotl—is observing the human through the glass, in the same way that the human was observing the animal:
Now, I am definitely an axolotl, and if I think like a man it’s only because every axolotl thinks like a man inside his rosy stoneness. I believe that all this succeeded in communicating something to him in those first days, when I was still he. And in this final solitude, to which he no longer comes, it consoles me to think that maybe he’s going to write about us, that, believing he’s imagining a story, he’s going to write all this about axolotls.
The character is now seeing the world in a new way, from the point of view of an axolotl, not a human, which causes a change in the reader, as well. It asks us to engage in an extended meditation on human and animal consciousness. What is the dividing line between the two, if any? Are the things we do (going to the aquarium, for instance) free choices that we make, or simply animalistic “habits,” as the narrating axolotl suggests.
While this change of perspective is extreme, it is similar to the passage in “A Bluest Eye” in that the narrator of “Axolotl” is simply seeing a once-familiar character (in this case, himself) in a new way, causing in this case both external (physical change) as well as internal (awareness or perspective) change.
Whether the sudden change in perspective comes about in how one character sees another character, as in “The Bluest Eye”; in how a character sees themself, as in “Miss Brill” (leading to a change in actions); or whether it comes through the external, physical change of a character, as in “Axolotl” (the external change leading to a change in internal perspective), having a character in a situation where either their perspective or their physical condition changes both reveals and deepens character and advances plot.
Changes in how we see others. Changes in how we see ourselves. Physical or geographical changes. Who among is, Andre Dubus asks, in his treatise on writing “The Habit of Writing,” isn’t multiple stories every day? Our perspective as humans is constantly changing, leading to change in ourselves: which, when applied to our characters, leads to story.
Second-Person Point of View
The first- and third-person perspectives are the most commonly used literary forms, but the second person, “you,” although not used as often, has advantages not available to the other points of view.
1) It creates intimacy between the reader and the character, forcing the reader to identify more closely as the character.
2) It allows the voice of the author to enter the story directly,talking to a “you,” which also creates intimacy between the author and the character.
3) It allows for the “command” form.
Intimacy Between Reader and Character
The “you” that the author creates can be a general “you” or a very specific “you.” Consider the difference between: “You enter the room,” and “Wearing your best friend’s too-tight jeans, you enter the room.”
The first of these allows the reader to imagine themselves entering any room as their own unique selves. In the second example, a character is being created. It is still a “you,” and still creates the intimacy between reader and character, but also builds the “you” character as unique and specific to themselves, as well.
Another example: a section from Tom Robbins’s novel “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.”
“If you could buckle your Bugs Bunny wristwatch to a ray of light, your watch would continue ticking but its hands wouldn’t move.”
The “you” involved here is a generalized reader; the passage is written in the stance of an omniscient author delivering a general “truth.” This is not yet a second-person story, in the same way that if the author wrote, for example, “Reader, I married him,” the author is speaking directly to the reader, not to a character.
We are in the second-person only when the author speaks to the character, not the reader.
So when Tom Robbins turns to address his central character—Sissy Hankshaw— the basic mode of the narration becmes that of the second person.
“You hitchhike. Timidly at first, barely flashing your fist, leaning almost imperceptibly in the direction of your imaginary destination. A squirrel runs along a tree limb. You hitchhike the squirrel. A blue jay flies by. You flag it down.”
The author is simply observing Sissy Hankshaw, and yet his direct address to her makes it easy to move into her consciousness: “Your thumbs separate you from other humans. You begin to sense a presence about your thumbs. You wonder if there is not magic there.”
It isn’t just Sissy Hankshaw that is feeling these feelings: it is also us as the reader, being told directly by the author what to feel. Through the second-person form, the distance between ourselves as reader and the personality of the character has narrowed.
In addition to happening to the character, this is all happening to you, directly. Even as the “you” character is developed into a character of their own, there is still a close identification between the reader and the character.
Allows for the Voice of the Author to Address the Character
In another Robbins novel, “Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas,” the entire novel takes place using the “you” address, and the author, Robbins, goes into and out of the mind of his main character at will.
In the Jay McInerney novel “Bright Lights, Big City,” this “you” address serves as a similar effect, that of an omniscient narrator directly following a “you” around and telling that “you” what “you” are doing.
This not only helps the reader identify with the character, but also puts the author and character into close relationship, as well.
For example, in the second-person you as author can write, “you don’t notice that the older man on the subway car is watching you,” as well as “you notice that your hands are shaking, but you don’t know why.” In other words, in the second person, you as author are omniscient (if you want to be) but your character is not: they have all the limitations that any human has—and you can move between omniscient and limited modes as best suits your artistic purpose for a particular moment or a particular scene.
Allows for the Command Form
Indeed, some writers move so closely into their character’s consciousness that the story takes on the attributes of an author directly telling the character what to do, in the style of self-help, how-to, or instruction manuals. I.e., how to become a writer, for instance.
Lorrie Moore’s famous short story “How to Become a Writer”:
First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/ missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age—say, 14. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at 15 you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire. It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain. Count the syllables. Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair. She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots. She’ll look briefly at your writing then back up at you with a face blank as a doughnut. She’ll say: ‘’How about emptying the dishwasher?’’ Look away. Shove the forks in the fork drawer. Accidentally break one of the freebie gas station glasses. This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters.
The command form is when you as author directly order your character to do something. It’s also a way delete some of the extraneous “you”s that can weigh down a story, and a way to narrow the intimate distance between author and reader even more.
And notice how many “you”s the command form takes out of story, by comparing the following paragraph (the real one, from Moore’s story) and one in which the “you”s are put back in:
Real (command form):
In your high school English class look at Mr. Killian’s face. Decide faces are important. Write a villanelle about pores. Struggle. Write a sonnet. Count the syllables: 9, 10, 11, 13. Decide to experiment with fiction. Here you don’t have to count syllables. Write a short story about an elderly man and woman who accidentally shoot each other in the head, the result of an inexplicable malfunction of a shotgun which appears mysteriously in their living room one night. Give it to Mr. Killian as your final project. When you get it back, he has written on it: ”Some of your images are quite nice, but you have no sense of plot.” When you are home, in the privacy of your own room, faintly scrawl in pencil beneath his black- inked comments: ‘’Plots are for dead people, pore- face.”
Non-command form (standard second-person address):
In your high school English class [you] look at Mr. Killian’s face. [You] decide faces are important. [You] write a villanelle about pores. [You] struggle. [You] write a sonnet. [You] count the syllables: 9, 10, 11, 13. [You] decide to experiment with fiction. Here you don’t have to count syllables. [You] write a short story about an elderly man and woman who accidentally shoot each other in the head, the result of an inexplicable malfunction of a shotgun which appears mysteriously in their living room one night. [You] give it to Mr. Killian as your final project. When you get it back, he has written on it: ”Some of your images are quite nice, but you have no sense of plot.” When you are home, in the privacy of your own room, [you] faintly scrawl in pencil beneath his black- inked comments: ‘Plots are for dead people, pore-face.’”
You see the difference! Moore continues in the command form, and at the same time builds a unique “you” character. This is not a character that the reader can just put themselves into, this is a well-rounded character will all the unique personality characteristics and foibles that most of us have and that our characters have to have!
Take all the baby-sitting jobs you can get. You are great with kids. They love you. You tell them stories about old people who die idiot deaths. You sing them songs like ‘’Blue Bells of Scotland,’’ which is their favorite. And when they are in their pajamas and have finally stopped pinching each other, when they are fast asleep, you read every sex manual in the house, and wonder how on earth anyone could ever do those things with someone they truly loved. Fall asleep in a chair reading Mr. McMurphy’s Playboy. When the McMurphys come home, they will tap you on the shoulder, look at the magazine in your lap and grin. You will want to die. They will ask you if Tracey took her medicine all right. Explain, yes, she did, that you promised her a story if she would take it like a big girl and that seemed to work out just fine. “Oh, marvelous,’’ they will exclaim.
As Tom Bailey notes, one of the disadvantages (and advantages!) of the second- person form is that because it is less-often used, it calls attention to itself as a technique, especially at the beginning of the story.
Why is the author doing this? The reader will ask, at the outset.
As the writer, you have two choices: work to make this technique invisible as the story progresses (which it becomes, once the reader accepts it) or use that technique-visibility to your advantage by bringing it directly into the story. In Moore’s story, for instance, she is aware that she is writing a fictional story about a “you” who is learning to write fictional stories, for instance:
The next semester the writing professor is obsessed with writing from personal experience. You must write from what you know, from what has happened to you. He wants deaths, he wants camping trips.
She is able to play with that, and throughout the story makes comic choices in which a good writer (the author, Moore) writes about someone who is probably a worse writer (the character.)
About the second you write an elaborate story of an old married couple who stumble upon an unknown land mine in their kitchen and accidentally blow themselves up. You call it: “For Better or for Liverwurst.”
About the last you write nothing. There are no words for this. Your typewriter hums. You can find no words.
Except Moore is finding the words—it’s just the character, the “you,” who isn’t!
Reasons to write a story using the second-person “you” include creating intimacy between the character and the reader, creating intimacy between the author and the reader, and having the ability to create the “command” form.
There is another reason to use the “you” form: creating intimacy between characters in having one of them talk directly to the other.
A little past the halfway point of Toni Morrison’s novel “Sula,” Nel discovers that her husband, Jude, has slept with her closest friend, Sula.
Nel’s point of view has been in the third person. But in this paragraph the narrative moves from third person limited (we are inside Nel’s mind at the beginning of this paragraph) into a “you” address from Nel to Jude directly.
(While not technically the “second-person point of view,” which requires that the author be writing to the you, the address here, moving from third-person limited to a second-person address between Nel and Jude, heightens the intimacy between the characters.)
He left his tie. The one with the scriggly yellow lines running lopsided across the dark-blue field. It hung over the top of the closet door pointing steadily downward while it waited with every confidence for Jude to return. Could he be gone if his tie is still here? He will remember it and come back and then she would…uh. Then she could…tell him. Sit down quietly and tell him. ‘But Jude,’ she would say, ‘you knew me.’ All those days and years, Jude, you knew me. My ways and my hands and how my stomach folded and how we tried to get Mickey to nurse and how about that time when the landlord said…but you said…and I cried, Jude. You knew me and had listened to the things I said in the night, and heard me in the bathroom and laughed at my raggedy girdle and I laughed too because I knew you too, Jude. So how could you leave me when you knew me?
The “you” address makes the pain of the situation more intimate to us as readers, and puts us so close to Nel’s consciousness that we feel that betrayal intimately, the way she is feeling it. Consider the difference between “Jude, You knew me.” vs. “She thought about how he knew her.”
The “you” address is historically the voice of love addresses: romantic, spiritual, friendship, as in Rumi: “Oh Beloved/take away what I want./Take away what I do./Take away what I need./Take away everything/that takes me from you and hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands, of other examples.
E.J. Levy’s short story “Theory of Dramatic Action” is a love story between the “you” character and a third-person character that stretches out over three self-labeled “acts.” It draws out the “you” address over a longer story than anything we have looked at so far.
The opening of the story: “In the last three months, your cat has died, your car has died, your marriage ended. In the last three months, you have lost 10 pounds, a job, a city, a state. Now as you drive a UHaul across the vast stretch-marked belly of the continent, on your way from Colorado to start film school in Ohio, you try to locate a feeling to go with these events. But your life feels like a silent movie, the strange weight of absence heavy in the air around you. What comes instead of grief is blankness, the late-night-TV fuzz of the brain, as if you had simply tuned in at an inopportune moment and must now wait out the morning when regular programming will resume. You narrate your way across the country, imagining yourself the heroine of some B-grade movie or a road-trip flick. Faster, Pussycat, Kill, Kill, you say as you floor it to pass a semi on your left. You think of yourself in the second person, in the present always tense.”
The author is doing a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge, here, in this first paragraph, stepping out of the story slightly to acknowledge the gimmickry of the second- person address to the reader. “You think of yourself in the second person” is a way of both announcing and playing with the unusualness of the form itself, and “the present always tense” line puts a new spin on what we typically think of as simply “present tense.”
You want to be a screenwriter, maybe work in Hollywood. You admire the films of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges, Bergman and Godard, and you imagine that your appreciation for the work of others qualifies you for something, mistaking taste for chops. You flatter yourself that you have an eye. An eye for an eye. You can spot talent, which maybe means you have some.
But as you drive toward the storm-strained horizon of Nebraska, you wonder if all you really want is a more dramatic life. Something other than this ordinary pain you’ve felt for months, that constant dull ache, like a pulled muscle in the heart.
The narrative then switches from the “pure” second-person point of view to the “command” form: in addition to helping delete the many extraneous “yous” of a second-person story, this technique insinuates the author more directly into the life of the “you” character:
Your first quarter in graduate school, sign up for Screenwriting, Eng 625. The teacher will be a red head, tall and gaunt, she will be fashionable, she will be glam, she will be pretty and talk fast. She will have dated many of the new directors you admire. She will have worked in what she calls ‘The Industry’ for years. When you mention Hollywood, she will stop you. ‘No one calls it Hollywood,’ she says. ‘Don’t ever call it that. And never call a secretary a secretary, they are Executive Assistants. Next month they will be Agents. They are your Best Friend. Without them, no one will ever read your script.’ She is 28, an age at which one speaks in capital letters, with certitude. (You are 30 now and were never 28. You were never 29. You were never sure.) Take notes on everything she says.
In addition to the author’s awareness that the “you” address calls attention to itself, and the author’s explicit acknowledgement of her use of the present tense, she uses capitalized words as a way of calling attention to the act of the writing itself, and, she will also integrate an explicit acknowledgement of the story’s overt three-act structure:
Your first day you will learn about the structure of dramatic action, or what your instructor calls the Three Acts. […] What makes for dramatic action, your instructor tells the class, is a powerful need meeting an equally powerful obstacle. That, she says, is drama. Dutifully copy down into your notebook the diagram of dramatic action she scrawls across the chalkboard. It will have a Hook, a Plot Twist (I), a False Resolution, a Plot Twist (II), a Climax, a Denouement. Act I, Act II, Act III.
In this way, the author, Levy, is creating the form that she will use to walk the character through. Second person, as a point of view, already calls attention to itself when used in a story, and Levy is simply pushing that envelope, bringing the character overtly into the structure of the story she is writing itself.
Backstory is also built through this second-person address:
As you write down the heading False Resolution, you think of the life you have left behind, the life you shared with your now ex-lover. The house you built together in the mountains outside Boulder, the vows you made, the hopes you had, your resolution to see this relationship through, to have kids, a steady salary, a life you think now you could not possibly have led. Still, you long for it sometimes. For love. Stability. For resolution in the midst of these irresolute days.
Domesticity is something that you crave from time to time, like McDonald’s, but it does not suit you. Does not go down well. Like the McDonald’s you ate on your way to class, it makes your throat dry, you find it hard to swallow, which is why you left your ex- after four years together, after building a house, left a woman you loved but could not live with. The ordinariness of your life together depressed you, the laundry bin domesticity of it, the day-in-day-out canned corn and peas kind of love you shared. You found yourself wondering if this was all there is; you found yourself looking for options like stocks.
This is a common technique in second-person point of view writing: the author directly telling the character who they are, and what kind of person they are. Consider this example from Jay McInerney’s novel “Bright Lights, Big City.”
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of
the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.”
Or from Italo Calvino—talking directly to the reader!
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller.’ Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise…
Or, returning to this story, from E.J. Levy:
Your ex- was convinced that you were in love with your friend Erin, to whom (you often said) all the B-words apply: Beautiful, Brilliant, Buxom (Bitch, your ex- often said). The two of you met in an art history class in college, and though you rarely meet you talk a lot by phone.
In the second-person address, we can see how authors will very often tell the characters their personalities and backstories, with the reader listening in .
The climactic scene of this story—where the “you” character decides against sleeping with or othewise pursuing in any way her Greek professor—presents us with the character’s moment of decision. After this scene, the story ends:
Walk home alone under street lamps, the sidewalk spattered with the shadows of leaves, the sky above you black but full of promise. Take comfort in the knowledge that once upon a time people charted their course by nothing more than this, by these faint but still discernible stars.
On an impulse that night, fly to Erin. First, by commuter jet to Chicago, then by proper plane. There will be stopovers. No delays. You will make all the necessary connections. There will be people to direct you to your gate. You will not need to read the signs. You will be full of hope, will take it on faith that she will be there, waiting for you, with open arms, believing briefly, fervently, though you know it only happens in the movies, that yours will be a Happy Ending.
So we add, in addition to 1. using the second-person “you” address to create intimacy/identification between the character and the reader, 2. using the second-person “you” to create intimacy between the author and the reader, and 3. using the second-person “you” to create the “command” form; the following—4. the ability to use the second-person “you” as a way for the author to explicate the structure of the story itself, and comment on its artificiality as the author walks the character through the world of the story, and 5. the ability of the author to use the second-person “you” as a way of “telling” the character directly their own backstory and personality, in order for the reader to eavesdrop.
The possiblities for “5,” here, the ability to comment on the artificiality of the story itself, are fairly endless, and open up a lot of creative possibilities across both fiction and nonfiction, i.e., “You never expected to be in an story: you never expected to be on lockdown, trapped in a library.” Or, “You wake up unaware that in six hours you will be sitting on your best friend’s bed, holding her hand, her husband’s closet empty.” Or, “By the mid-point of this story, you will find yourself wanting to be back here at the beginning, sitting in the café, sipping tea.”
The possiblities for “5” are also open and endless: “You’ve always been the kind of person who changes your own oil, bakes your own bread. You prefer candles to fluorescent lighting; books to screens. Your favorite possession is your bicycle with the basket, full of flowers, preferably.” Or, “You’re never in this library, not since your partner told you it was where she ran from her parents that afternoon. But today, you find yourself walking the book aisles, touching their spines, wondering where she sat, waiting for her cousin to pick her up.”
The second-person is one of those often-freeing techniques that can get us into new work and emotion we might not have been able to access any other way.
Conclusion to Character & Point of View
As we can see, the many, many choices available to us include first-person (reliable/unreliable); third-person (omniscient, limited, objective/observational), and second-person. Within those choices are a number of other choices to do with distance between the author and the character’s consciousness, and whether we shift point of view throughout a piece or stay within one perspective.
Plot, Structure, & Pacing
Let us define “plot.” With apologies to E.M. Forster: a story is the overall effect of the artistic rendering of some or all of these inextricable craft elements: sensory detail; setting; character and point of view; plot, structure, and pacing; tone, and style; visual presentation; our title; and our theme(s).
Plot, therefore, is simply one of the many elements that come together to create the story.
The plot is the sequence of character actions in a story, in whatever order that sequence is written.
As Janet Burroway describes it: “A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.”
The dictionary, of course, gives us these definitions of “plot”—1., “The main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence” and 2., “a plan made in secret by a group of people to do something illegal or harmful.”
We’ll confine our discussion to the first of these two definitions, as our focus is on writing stories, and not twirling sinister mustaches! And to simplify it even further: plot is simply the actions and the results of the actions of the characters in a story.
To repeat: plot is simply the actions and the results of the actions of the characters in a story.
Actions of some kind generally must be in a story, in whatever form these actions take: action is a story’s character-driven, human engine: without it, our stories won’t move. What do the characters want, and what happens as a result of their actions in trying to get what they want?
Actions have consequences, and that is plot.
Some writers, perhaps, put too much into plot; some writers, perhaps, too little. Your belief in the importance of plot in a story helps define your personal taste and personal aesthetic in the stories you choose to read—and to write. But:
This “human engine” is often the action or introspection that keeps us reading. In poetry, it often takes on intellectual form, in which a narrative “I” compares real- world features—peaches in a tree, a birthday cake (or what poet and translator John Balaban calls the “ocean of the actual”)—to a human emotion or intellectual problem (what Balaban calls the “pearl”: the poem itself.) This can also be a feature of prose, but prose stories tend to give a character something external to pursue as opposed to an internal intellectual problem. Prose also tends to put external obstacles into a character’s path to prevent them from getting what they want, as opposed to the lyrical introspection that is a hallmark of poetry.
However, this is not always the case: consider Stephen’s wanderings along the beach in “Ulysses,” or the philosophical musings of Levin in “Anna Karenina,” among many others.
In other words, plot can be the flimsiest of gossamer threads, or be composed of massive, life-altering scenes taking place over many years. Plot can be anything on the spectrum of scale.
In Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway,” for example, the character Clarissa Dalloway goes to buy flowers in London, in June. A seemingly small action, yet this simple beginning drives an entire novel of memories and feelings and spins off her emotions about Peter Walsh, her emotions about Lady Bruton, the internal struggles of the veteran Septimus Warren Smith, and dozens of other emotional journeys within these characters over the course of the novel.
Plots can also be maximalist. In Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” for instance, Napoleon invades Russia, covering a massive canvas. In Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto,” terrorists take over an embassy. “The Grapes of Wrath” covers mass migrations of people, represented through the Joad family. Novels and even short stories by Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, James Michener, and hundreds of other writers can span centuries, multiple landscapes, and the actions of dozens, if not hundreds, of characters.
Going the other way again, consider Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” which is a (one-sided) conversation between mother and daughter. Not something that would appear on the evening news, but to the characters themselves, it is the entire world, despite the seeming quietness of the “plot.”
And this is what is important. Going back to Burroway: plot is a “series of events” fueled by character emotion. Plot is the actions that the characters engage in.
It isn’t the size or grandeur of our plots that matter: what matters is that, whatever the plot, that the human emotion be real, and important, to the characters who are feeling it. This naturally causes what we call in creative-writing-speak: “something must be at stake.”
For “something to be at stake,” the character needs to want something, and that want needs to be connected to their core self or self-perception. The reader needs to know that the outcome of the story will affect either the character’s internal or external world, in a very real way.
For this to happen, our characters need to want and feel something, which translates to what readers will feel. What keeps us writing? What keeps readers reading? These are the stakes of the story.
Plot arises naturally from character. What would a character naturally do in a given situation, and what is the natural result of those actions?
Sometimes, we attempt to cheat, and create artificial plots, in order to build our stories around something that we think is compelling. But these actions run the risk of feeling artificial, with no corresponding human emotion.
We’ve all read stories or novels in which we simply couldn’t bring ourselves to care about the characters, their issues, or the story itself.
We’ve all said, at some point, “who cares,” and then put the story down.
Sometimes it’s the fault of language—but more often it’s the false note of false emotion: that the characters are simply puppets or actors, without anything really at stake: that the events of the story won’t affect the character internally or externally in any real way.
As John Gardner writes, “This is perhaps the chief offense in bad fiction: we sense that characters are being manipulated, forced to do things they would really not do.”
On the other hand, we’ve all read stories that felt so real that we felt the emotions deeply within ourselves. These stories touch us and stay with us.
Deborah Poe’s story “Aluminum” and Terry Tempest Williams’ story “An Unspoken Hunger” both show how plot arises from character.
First, the 301-word story “Aluminum.”
The story is divided into two voices, helpfully presented in both standard text (the voice of the first character) and italicized text (the voice of the second character.)
This visual arrangement, in a story that creates its own grammatical rules, asks the reader to read the story on the story’s own terms; this visual arrangement allows each voice to fully stand out.
Notice what the first character wants, and what they are willing to do to try to get it.
Notice what the second character wants, and how they attempt to get it.
Notice the gaps in space, and time, in how the event(s) is/are related. And notice how in the first voice, we are hearing the external voice “oh brittany baby” and in the second, we are overhearing internal thoughts: “i laid real still.”
These juxtapositions, this awareness that it is character that is important, not necessarily the inciting events themselves, is what creates the human engine, the human feelings, that make up the plot—which lead to the events that happen. Plot following, and being closely tied, to character.
What can you determine about the character of the first speaker, through the words that are spoken? What can you determine about the character of the second character, based on her thoughts? How do these conflicting characters lead to the events that occur?
In the 77-word short nonfiction essay “An Unspoken Hunger,” by Terry Tempest Williams, we continue to see how plot arises from character.
Here is the essay in its entirety:
It is an unspoken hunger we deflect with knives—one avocado between us, cut neatly in half, twisted then separated from the large wooden pit. With the green fleshy boats in hand we slice vertical strips from one end to the other. Vegetable planks. We smother the avocado with salsa, hot chiles at noon in the desert. We look at one another and smile, eating avocados with sharp silver blades, risking the blood of our tongues repeatedly.
In this subtle first-person narrative, we’re presented with two characters. The “want” of each is given immediately, both in the title, and in the very first five lines of the story. There is “an unspoken hunger.” The obstacle to this hunger— what? We don’t know. We don’t know why they can’t satisfy this hunger, and we don’t know whether it’s literal or metaphorical. We can guess, and this unknown, and this guessing, pulls us through the story.
Plot is the human engine of the story, fueled by characters wanting something, not being able to get it, and how they go about trying to get it. It is important to our stories that these wants, and obstacles, arise naturally out of character. These plots can be a slim or as large as necessary to serve as our story’s engine. It’s not the scale that matters: what matters is the presence of real human emotion.
Tension and Conflict
Tension, or what some writers call “conflict,” or what some writers simply call “something troubled” or “unsettled,” is what pulls us as writers—and our readers—into and through the story.
Tension is what generates plot; tension is what gets our characters moving into the events of the story.
If we have characters who want nothing, who need nothing, who are completely satisfied in every way, our stories—no matter how strong the language—run the risk, generally speaking, that they will eventually stop moving.
As Janet Burroway writes: “Only trouble is interesting. This is not so in life. Life offers periods of comfortable communication, peaceful pleasure, and productive work, all of which are extremely interesting to those involved. But such passages about such times by themselves make for dull reading; they can be used as lulls in an otherwise tense situation, as a resolution, even as a hint that something awful is about to happen; they cannot be used as a whole plot.”
We need tension, conflict, something “unsettled,” in order to give breath to our stories. Further, something emotional must be at stake.
A person standing in line at the bank to withdraw money, and finding the line moving slowly, has a conflict, but little emotion at stake. However if they have their eight-year-old daughter—say—with them, and only an hour left until their visiting hours with her are over and they have to return their daughter to their ex-partner—say—and the daughter really wants to go to the county fair first…
A character wanting something, with an obstacle or obstacles in the way, with emotional stakes also at play, no matter how big or how small—this is what gives our stories conflict/tension, and is how we generate plot.
However, if these tensions, these conflicts, feel artificial, this artificiality stops the story even more quickly than no tension.
Instead of taking characters and forcing them into artificial tension, a better method is, as a writer, to closely observe the hundreds of tensions and conflicts that face every human, every day. And let this become our story, since our characters are no different.
“Who among us,” the fiction writer Andre Dubus once asked, in “is not a story, or several of them, every day?”
Seemingly minor events can fuel character tension in our writing.
I say seemingly because it’s in our daily lives, in the quotidian minutiae, that character is often revealed.
Not everyone is presented with the opportunity to rescue a child from a burning building (for example) but everyone is presented daily with dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands, of small events, of interactions with other people, and/or internal and external struggles and conflicts.
How do our characters act, interact, and react to these situations?
“It’s important to realize that the great dangers in life and literature are not necessarily the most spectacular,” Burroway writes. “Another mistake frequently made by young writers is to think that they can best introduce drama into their stories by way of muggers, murderers, crashes, and monsters, the external stock dangers of pulp and TV. In fact, all of us know that the most profound impediments to our desire usually lie close to home, in our own bodies, personalities, friends, lovers, and families. […] More passion is destroyed at the breakfast table than in a time warp.”
Jamaica Kincaid’s abovementioned 685-word short story “Girl,” which originally appeared in the June 26, 1978 edition of the New Yorker and later in her inter-related collection of short stories “At the Bottom of the River,” is anthologized frequently, usually in terms of how it uses voice.
I want to look at the story, however, in terms of how it uses tension/conflict.
The story is one paragraph (and one sentence) only, written as an admonition from a mother to a daughter.
The tension in the story derives from the disconnect between the mother’s perception of her daughter with the daughter’s own self-perception, presented as a series of how-to commands from the mother to the daughter.
“Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry”.
Tension is generated immediately: why is this character ordering the other about, we wonder. What is the relationship between the two?
don’t walk bare-head in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum in it, because that way it won’t hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?
Tension builds from the specificity of detail: mixed in with advice that any mother might give her daughter comes advice specifically designed for this specific daughter, meaning that her character arises even though we only hear her voice twice, otherwise hearing only the voice of the mother: “on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don’t sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions;”
We, as readers, don’t know the objective “truth” of the tension: we don’t know if the mother’s perception of her daughter is accurate or not.
All we know is that the mother sees both life and her daughter in a certain way, which brings the mother’s character to light. This also reveals (somewhat opaquely) the daughter’s character (we are nearly completely in the point of view of the mother throughout this story).
We see how conflict is generated from how characters act and react when presented with “seemingly” small, everyday things.
Richard Bausch, in an interview in which he discussed re-writing, discusses the importance of these kinds of conflict in a story.
“I want all the artifice to disappear; I want everything to disappear except these people in their trouble, whatever it is. And it is always some kind of trouble because that is the province of the human story, and news of the spirit in narrative can only arrive through the abrasions of conflict. Conflict, which scrapes the barnacles from the soul and lays it bare.”
To repeat! Conflict, which scrapes the barnacles from the soul and lays it bare.
When our characters get into tensions, into conflict, it allows us to see them, for who they are, or who they could be. It allows us to see them change (or not).
Returning to “Girl”: this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming;” the mother says to the daughter: “this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease; this is how you iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease; this is how you grow okra—far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants.
In the final clauses of “Girl,” we hear the daughter’s voice, for only the second time in the story, in the second clause here: “always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?”
And the story finishes on those beats. The conflict is clear and sharp. The conflict remains unresolved.
We’re often taught that a story equals [Conflict (Want + Obstacle) Leads to a Crisis, Leads to a Resolution.] In “Girl,” however, there is no crisis moment (moment in which at least one character has to make a decision). There is also no story resolution (outcome of crisis moment.) There is only an extended, elongated conflict—which is enough not only to start the story, but bring it to its middle, and bring it to an end.
The classic old way of thinking about tension/conflict was: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Nature.
Moving past this sort of outdated language, it remains a useful device for oversimplifying the myriad numbers of conflicts that our characters can experience during a given day—each one of which could spin off into any number of stories, poems, or novels.
Conflict can happen within a person, internally; or can happen outside of a person, externally (whether that conflict happens with other people, or with natural or human-built elements.)
David Romtvedt’s 316-word poem “Shelter” uses all three types of conflicts: a person facing internal conflicts, a person facing external conflicts with another human, and a person facing external conflicts with either human-built or natural elements.
(While the poem uses line breaks, in my analysis of the poem, I won’t be using line breaks just for the sake of simplicity.)
The poem begins:
When I was a boy the neighbor across the street built a bomb shelter for three thousand dollars.
What this seemingly simple sentence does is set the personal time frame (when I was a boy), the national time frame (an era of fear of nuclear war) and establishes the narrator’s (and, by extension, the narrator’s family, since the narrator is only a “boy,”) awareness of money, another conflict.
One evening while watering his lawn he told my father about the air filter and chemical toilet, the water purification system and dried food. He said in a nuclear war all of us would come running to him, begging to be let into his shelter. But he’d be firm. There was room for only his family. If others tried to force their way in, he’d shoot them.
The conflict created is, first, a hypothetical conflict, “if others tried to force their way in, he’d shoot them,” yet by the neighbor bringing up this hypothetical physical conflict, he is creating, between himself and the narrator’s father, and actual emotional and mental conflict between the two of them.
While this section establishes conflict between the two neighboring men, it also establishes an internal conflict within the narrator (his awareness here not only the possibility of nuclear war, but the possibility of being shot) and a conflict between the narrator himself and the neighboring man, who is—albeit hypothetically—threatening to shoot him and his family.
There in the yard I pretended to play with some stinkbugs on a mulberry tree and run around in the fading heat, but really I listened. My father said nothing. Like others, he wanted to protect his family. But who could tell if a hole in the ground would? And even I knew he didn’t have three thousand dollars.
Conflicts in only this short section: 1, the narrator listening while pretending not to; 2, the father feeling like he isn’t protecting his family; 3, the father not sure how to best protect his family; 3, the internal conflict over lack of money; 4, the existing conflict with the neighbor.
Let me reiterate: that is four conflicts in only fifty-nine words!
“Conflict” is simply the word we give to any number of the hundreds of things each of us as humans face in every given day. Meaning: in any given day, there are hundreds of stories we could derive from the very simple—yet humanly meaningful—conflicts that we face.
As writers, we do not seek necessarily to resolve conflict. We seek to keep it on a slow burn in order to continue to fuel our stories. Our interest is in using conflict in order to explore the human experience.
Let me say it again: as writers, we do not seek necessarily to resolve conflict. We only need it as fuel for our stories.
Notice where the author goes next:
Sometimes in the summer, after I’d gone to bed, when the air was still very warm, the neighbor would go outside and fire his rifle at the stars. The sound of the shot came through the walls of my room. I closed my eyes and saw the bomb shelter we didn’t have.
The author, Romtvedt, slows down, here. We are in the narrator’s room, listening as the neighbor fires his rifle at the stars. We experience these moments through sight, through feel (“when the air was still very warm,”) through sound, through the narrator’s “mind’s eye”: “I closed my eyes and saw the bomb shelter we didn’t have.”
The writing, by using the personal sensory details of the narrator’s experience, makes us think about abstract, universal themes like fear, paranoia, how neighbors do or do not get along, about the kind of character of someone who fires a rifle at the sky, about what it’s like to feel powerless, as a young person. The poem finishes:
My father outfitted our bathroom with a box of canned soups and large jars of water. Sitting on the toilet I faced the box and wondered how a bathroom could be a bomb shelter. Twice we all went in there together to practice. We turned out the light and tried not to collide. Mama slept in the bathtub, Papa on the floor beneath the sink, Sister and I, facing each other, our legs tucked behind the toilet bowl. Time passed and we forgot our precautions. One day the water and canned soups were gone. But even now when I sit on a toilet I see that stuff. And when I hear a sharp noise, it’s the neighbor shooting the stars.
We don’t know what, ultimately happens between the neighbors (although we can assume there was no nuclear war!) We don’t know how this conflict between the two neighbors was resolved, if at all. We know that the father overcame his conflict of not having a bomb shelter (and wanting one) by creating a sort of facsimile in the bathroom. But this is the only “resolved” conflict of the story.
We don’t need to resolve our conflicts, but we do need them, to drive the story, so that we can explore the various facets of our characters, both discovering them and revealing them.
In our stories, character change can be macro or micro—or non-existent. A character can change from beginning of the story to the end, or change several times during the story, or not change at all.
Character change can further be defined as decision or discovery.
In the traditional structure of a short story: a character or characters must want something, there must be obstacles preventing the character(s) from getting whatever it is that they want (whether those obstacles are internal or external), and at some point the character must make a decision (crisis moment/climactic scene), after which something will have changed (resolution), whether that something is internal or external.
The problem is, sometimes our characters and our stories don’t always wish to follow these rules. In Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” for instance—or, famously, in such James Joyce stories as “Clay” or “Two Gallants”—characters end, in the story, right where they began, experiencing no change. These stories don’t have crisis moments, and nothing necessarily changes on a “macro” level from beginning to end.
However, even within stories in which there is no overarching “macro” change in the character, each of our characters makes (or refuses to make), throughout the story, many different smaller decisions. And each of these decisions, no matter how small, leads to some kind of change. Through character action and dialogue, everything in a story is constantly changing, in constant motion, even if there is no overall major change.
In addition, even if the characters don’t change from beginning to end on a “macro” level, it is the reader who changes. We are not the same people after reading “Girl,” or the work of Joyce. We see the world differently. We have changed.
We have lived literally inside of someone else, and we therefore now have more empathy than we did before. We now see the world in a different way, through different perspectives: through eyes that are not our own, through taste that is not our own, through ears that are not our own, on skin that is not our own, through a nose that is not our own.
So any of the traditional story structure points can be played with, artistically, depending on what the story itself is trying to do.
A character goes into a store: external change; a character exits a store: external change. And all of these changes offer the possibility of moments of internal change.
Janet Burroway, citing Claudia Johnson, writes that the concept of “change” breaks down into two parts: decision and discovery.
“[A]ll human turning points are moments of either discovery or decision,” Burroway writes. “Deeds and accidents are necessary to both drama and fiction, but the moment of change for the characters involved is the moment at which she decides to do something, or he discovers that the accident has occurred. […] Likewise, revelation is a stunning moment of drama, but the change in the characters occurs when one decides to reveal and the other discovers whatever has been revealed.”
Chapter 10 of the novel “White Dog Fell from the Sky,” by Eleanor Morse, shows this interplay between decision and discovery, as two characters—in this very short chapter—make a number of decisions and discoveries about one another, from which there can be no return.
Chapter 10 takes place between Alice and her husband: here it is in its entirety (the novel itself takes place, mostly, in Botswana during the era of South-African apartheid, and concerns the intertwined lives of the major characters.)
Near the beginning of this chapter: “Putting his arms around her in bed, Lawrence said that they’d be stronger for this. He seemed more animated, more present than he’d been in months. ‘Will we?’ she asked.”
We have four decisions (four changes, four actions) here.
- Lawrence puts his arms around her (a decision on his part).
- Lawrence tells her that they’ll be “stronger for this” (a decision on his part).
- Lawrence seems more animated, more present, to the narrator (a discovery on her part).
- She asks, “will we?” (a decision on her part).
Each and every one of these four changes between the two, these decisions or discoveries (whether action or dialogue), reveals and advances character.
Indeed, very often one character’s decision leads to another character’s discovery. When one character acts, the other learns something new: and may or may not respond, as we see in this next section:
Once she’d loved his face, the penetrating aqua eyes, shyness in their depths, the scar under the left one that he’d gotten as a boy, running pell-mell into the branch of a tree. She’d loved his mouth. She’d loved his bashful uncommunicativeness, how she’d had to tease words out of him, the way he neglected his socks until the holes grew so large, three toes came through. She’d loved his old-fashioned sense of honor, at least she did when she believed he possessed it. Now, she didn’t know who he was.
This is a major moment of discovery for the character. She is discovering how her feelings for him have changed. She isn’t making decisions, in this moment, but the change inside her is coming from the discoveries she’s making.
(Sorry about all of the italics!)
In the following dialogue exchange between the two, each makes a decision in how they talk to the other person, which results in continued change between them:
He began again. ‘What I mean is I’m not stopping you from seeing someone yourself—if you wanted to.’
“I don’t need your permission,” she said coldly. “It’s already been offered, and I turned it down.’
She’s making a decision (her reaction through speech) in reaction to his decision: and both of them make discoveries about not only the other person, but about themselves.
‘Who was it?’ She wouldn’t tell him. What she found unforgiveable was the way his eyes dilated with excitement when she threw out that piece of information. How dare he? She picked up her pillow and moved into the spare room.
A moment of discovery, here, for her: “What she found unforgiveable,” leading to a moment of decision: “She picked up her pillow and moved into the spare room.”
Her decisions (actions) continue, as do his:
She hunted around for sheets and dragged them out of the closet. When she lay down on the bed, the sheet felt cool for a moment, and then it turned hot. Out the window was a remote sliver of light, a wedge of new moon shining in all its blank indifference.
She heard Lawrence get up, and then the sound of truck wheels crunching over gravel.
She was stunned, humiliated. Until now she’d told her herself, okay. This is normal, this is modern. But now, sobs erupted that couldn’t be stopped.
Character change, in this slim chapter, is obviously very overt. But notice the number of decisions that each makes, and the number of discoveries that each makes. Also notice the macro change that takes place from beginning of the chapter to the end: they have split up.
This macro change is precipitated by the number of micro changes (decisions and discoveries) throughout the chapter.
Structure & Pacing
Structure and pacing are how we choose to advance our plots. Generally speaking, we can think of his as how we handle time.
On a macro level, do we move forward in time, as a chronological march? Or do we move around in time from the past, to the present, to the future, back to the present?
Beyond simply chronology (this happened, then this happened, then this happened) Some writers use the Alice Adams method of ABDCE, in which A stands for Action, a compelling scene that opens the work of art and draws the reader into the story. B stands for Background, in which we learn where the character(s) came from, and who they are. D stands for Development, in which these characters from the background back to the present moment, and then forward. C represents the Climax, in which at least one character must make a choice, of some kind. E stands for Ending, which is the result of the decision(s) that the character(s) made.
Other writers, like Alice Munro, think of fiction in a different way:
“A story is not like a road to follow […] It’s more like a house,” Munro has said. “You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows […] You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It has also a sturdy sense of itself, of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.”
Other writers, like Justin Torres, have used simple chronology in which we go backward in time: from Point D to Point C to Point B to Point A, with the goal being to discovered how we ended up at Point D.
How we handle pacing within these macro structures also becomes a hallmark of our unique voice. Are we using scene to tell our stories, and putting scene next to scene, or are we rendering events at a distance, using techniques of summary? How and when are we mixing the two? When are we moving quickly (“Twenty years later,”) and when are we moving slowly: (“He waited outside the house, trying to get up the courage to knock. Inside, he could hear them finishing dinner: plates were being put into a dishwasher, the television was being turned on.”)
Voice, Style, Mood, & Tone
Voice is generally the voice of the narrator (who is not necessarily the author), style is the voice of the author in a specific work of art, mood, is the emotional tenor of the work, and tone is the attitude of the author toward their subject matter.
In a second- or third-person work or art, the “voice” is that omniscient or limited narrator who, doyyy, narrates the goings-on. The voice can take on the aspects of each character’s own distinct voices, or it can be unique to the narrator overall–and anywhere in-between!
In a first-person work of art, voice is the simply the voice of the first-person narrator. When a story is told by a first-person narrator, the “voice” of the story is also the “voice” of the character themself. And how the narrator tells their story tells us much about the narrator and the narrator’s world as do the other elements of the story: its sensory detail, setting, character, plot, conflict, and so forth.
“Blind people got a hummin jones if you notice”—so begins Toni Cade Bambara’s story “My Man Bovanne.” Here is the first paragraph of “My Man Bovanne” in its entirety:
Blind people got a hummin jones if you notice. Which is understandable completely once you been around one and notice what no eyes will for you into to see people, and you get past the first time, which seems to come out of nowhere, and it’s like you in church again with fat-chest ladies and old gents gruntin a hum low in the throat to whatever the preacher be saying. Shakey Bee Bottom lip all swole up with Sweet Peach and me explainin how come the sweet-potato bread was a dollar-quarter this time stead of dollar regular and he say uh hunh he understand, then he break into this thizzin kind of hum which is quiet, but fiercesome just the same, if you ain’t ready for it. Which I wasn’t. But I got used to it and the onliest time I had to say something bout it was when he was playin checkers on the stoop one time and he commenst to hummin quite churchy seem to me. So I says, ‘Look here Shakey Bee, I can’t beat you and Jesus too.’ He stop.
Voice is established from the outset: we hear the woman’s—Hazel’s—voice through her diction and syntax, and from this can interpret place and background: yet even beyond, we can interpret character: here is someone who tells the truth, and who, we infer, will tell us as readers the truth, as well.
If we think about the famous first-person narrators from literature—Bone from “Bastard Out of Carolina” for instance, or Nick Carraway, or Holden Caulfield, or Kate Vaiden— each of them has their own unique voice, and could on voice recognition alone pick them out of a crowd.
Barbara Kingsolver, in fact, named “Kate Vaiden” as her favorite novel, and in many of her own novels—“The Bean Trees,” for example, or “The Poisonwood Bible”—uses narrators just as recognizable for their voice. In “The Poisonwood Bible,” for instance, she uses a sequence of five shifting first-person narrators— Orleanna Price and her four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May—and each of these narrators is completely recognizable by the first couple of sentences alone.
In first-person narration, the voice of our characters does much of the work of establishing character, place, and background: in third- or second-person narration, in which the author is speaking outside of the character, the voice of the story also carries just as much weight and influence.
Consider the short, staccato sentences of an Ernest Hemingway, or a Raymond Carver, for example, which rely on short sentences, a fewer selection of words, repetition of these words, or the use of shorter words. On the other hand, consider the work of such writers as Arundhati Roy or William Faulkner, and others, whose work features longer and more complex sentences, a wider vocabulary, and more multi-syllabic and compound words.
Within third-person narrations, the individual voices of the characters themselves, however, stand out (or should stand out) as distinct from the author’s voice itself.
For now, let’s restrict our discussion to first-person narration and character voice, and how we implement “voice” in our own work.
First, the voice needs to ring true.
This doesn’t mean we can’t make it up, or use multiple voices that we know in real life and create one voice out of them, or vice versa, but we’ve all read stories in which the author could just not quite get the voice right, lapsing into cliché, or worse.
This problem often arises when writers try to reach so far outside themselves (to someone with a socio-economic position, say, or with a different childhood, or with a different job, or from a different region, or a different culture or background, etc., etc.) that they cannot get the voice or the character right.
So when we’re creating voice for our characters, we need to make these voices ring as true as they are in real life and is why so many writing teachers suggest to “write what you know,” which I would amend, to, write voices that you know. And if you don’t know, find out, and then find readers who also know these voices well. If, as Steve Almond notes, the tone of our stories is a kind of music, we need to make sure we don’t hit flat notes.
What would our specific character actually say, or actually think in a given situation.
This involves keeping our ears wide open, out in the world. Paying attention to how the people in our lives talk: what words they choose and when, what things they talk around, and why, in our ongoing quest to create and invent characters who ring true to life, or for whom the reader is willing to suspend their disbelief and accept our characters as real characters in the context of the story: our ongoing goal as writers.
Voice needs to reveal character
“So that’s how come I asked My Man Bovanne to dance,” the author Bambara writes/the character, Hazel, narrates. “He ain’t my man mind you, just a nice ole gent from the block that we all know cause he fixes things and the kids like him. Or used to fore Black Power got hold their minds and mess em around till they can’t be civil to old folks.”
Hazel’s voice creates not only her unique place, background, perspective, and point of view, but also reveals character. By hearing the character’s voice directly, and the way this particular character narrates their life, we learn what is important to them, and what isn’t. What they care about, and what they don’t care about. Notice in the story how Bambara has her narrator move in and out from the location (at the dance) and roams around in time and place. Also be aware that the author’s voice (Bambara) and the narrator’s voice in the story are not the same thing. As we create our characters, we also create their unique voices, apart from that of our own.
Consider the multiple characters from William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” Each one— Darl, for example, or Cora, or Vardaman—and there are fifteen of these separate narrators, has their own unique voice, their own unique way of speaking. By the end of the novel, for many of these characters we know whose voice we’re going into without even needing the name at the top of the chapter.
The voice needs to advance the tension and conflict in the story.
But right away Joe Lee come up on us and frown for dancin so close to the man. My own son who knows what kind of warm I am about; and don’t grown men call me long distance and in the middle of the night for a little Mama comfort? But he frown. Which ain’t right since Bovanne can’t see and defend himself.
Because we have a first-person narration here, it isn’t enough for the first-person narrator to simply be revealing their character, their setting(s), their life. If this is a story, the voice must be doing double-duty: working to advance tension and conflict, as well, through the narration. In addition, in “My Man Bovanne,” the voice also advances the theme of the story: the conflict between the younger and the older generation.
Just a nice old man who fixes toasters and busted irons and bicycles and things and changes the lock on my door when my men friends get messy. Nice man. Which is not why they invited him. Grass roots you see. Me and Sister Taylor and the woman who does heads at Mamies and the man from the barber shop, we all there on account of we grass roots.
The tension and the conflict of the story exists between Hazel and her children: Elo, Task, and Joe Lee. The theme of the story also is rooted in this tension. As Hazel narrates:
And I ain’t never been souther than Brooklyn Battery and no more country than the window box on my fire escape. And just yesterday my kids tellin me to take them countrified rags off my head and be cool. And now can’t get Black enough to suit em.
When there are multiple voices, each needs to be clear and distinct
In “My Man Bovanne,” we hear the voices of Elo, Task, and Joe Lee distinct from the voice of Hazel, and distinct again from the voice of the author, Toni Cade Bambara. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in this exchange, all narrated from the first-person point of view of Hazel, in which the children are taking their mother to task, no pun intended, over how close she was dancing with her partner:
Task run a hand over his left ear like his father for the world and his father before that. ‘Like a bitch in heat,’ say Elo.
‘Well uhh, I was goin to say like one of them sex-starved ladies gettin on in years and not too discriminating. Know what I mean?’
I don’t answer cause I’ll cry. Terrible thing when your own children talk to you like that. Pullin me out of the party and hustlin me into some stranger’s kitchen in the back of a bar just like the damn police.
In this exchange, we hear the direct sharpness of Elo’s voice, and the diction he chooses. We also hear the more careful modulation of Task. Even though the children are saying almost exactly the same thing, with the same motive, their individual personalities are revealed deeply through their voices.
Voice, whether through a third-person, second-person, or first-person narration, and whether inside a character’s mind, or revealed externally through their speech, is an essential part of our writing.
In addition to a character’s voice, each author has a voice, as well. Voice breaks down into style and tone.
The Ernest Hemingway style: short, direct, with few commas.
The Henry James style: lengthy sentences, multiple commas.
The Lucille Clifton voice: short lines, no capitalized letters, very little puncuation.
We think of these voices as an author’s style. When we’re beginning writers, we generally try the styles of many other authors before settling on our own style or styles–the unique way in which we write the world.
What is the unique vision that the author of a work is attempting to share? This becomes our tone, part of our authorial style.
Sometimes we write comedy, or dark comedy, or we create writing that has an optimistic tone, or writing that has a pessimistic tone, or transgressive writing, or meditative writing, or romantic writing, etc.
The tone or mood that our word choice suggests often becomes part of our recognized style. Many writers write in many different tones and moods; many writers have a single, recognizable vision of the world that comes through in everything they write.
In film, tone/mood can be suggested by music and lighting, two advantages that the medium of film has over the written word. (Where literature has an advantage is in the uses of smell, touch, and taste, as well as the ability to go into consciousness and point of view.)
A good ongoing writing exercise to challenge yourself with is to take the same scene–something short: a paragraph, say–and rewrite it multiple times trying to evoke different moods or attitudes. What are you wanting your reader to feel, in this moment? How can the structure of the sentences themselves combine with your syntax and diction to produce that result?
The arrangement on the page of the words themselves is part of the artistic whole that we create.
Often what we’re talking about here is the difference between prose and poetry.
Generally speaking, prose uses the sentence and the paragraph as the basic building blocks of the text. Punctuation choices (commas separate clauses; periods end sentences) is generally consistent across prose styles.
Generally speaking, poetry uses the line and the stanza as its basic structural units, and also emphasizes the rhythmic, metaphorical, and aesthetic/lyrical qualities of the language itself. Punctuation, or lack thereof, is often consistent with prose styles but just as often is unique and organic to the individual poem.
“Prose poetry” or “poetic prose” are terms used when, 1., the lines are so long they resemble paragraphs, and/or, 2., the writing uses the sentence and paragraph as its basic structural units but emphasizes the rhythmic, metaphorical, or or lyrical/aesthetic qualities of the language itself. Punctuation, or lack thereof, is often consistent with prose styles, but is just as often unique and organic to the pieces itself.
Here is a very short piece of text written in prose form. The building blocks are the sentence and the paragraph. The sentences form the (short) paragraph.
Here is a very short
piece of text
written in poetic form
The building blocks
are the line
and the stanza
“Enjambment,” or, enjambed lines, are lines that break up a clause or sentence. End-stopped lines are lines that break after the end of a complete clause or sentence.
When to break a line:
“I want the line-break to tell me something about how the poem feels: where a speaker butts up against silence.”
When you break a line, do so for one reason only: to guide the reader to read the work in the way that you’re intending for it to be read.
This can mean the following–
Break a line to:
~Slow down or speed up the reader
~Emphasize certain words or phrases
~Create new meanings
~Connect with existing traditions (In Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnets, and other formal-verse poems, for example, the line breaks are codified in specific ways, with line breaks at the end of ten syllables.)
~Create a new tradition
–but is not restricted to those. There may be many more reasons than are presented here. Any manipulation of words on the page should be done because it guides the reader in the way that you want them guided.
That’s really it. Please don’t break a line without a reason, or so that it “looks like a poem.” That shows an artist who’s not yet fully in touch with their craft and is writing a copy of a copy of something that had a true artistic impulse.
When to start a new stanza:
Start a new stanza to:
~Show a change in speaker, consciousness, setting, or other change
~Slow down or speed up the reader
~Emphasize certain words or phrases
~Create new meanings
~Connect with existing traditions
~Create a new tradition
As an example of a line- and stanza break that works, please read Erin Belieu’s “She Returns to the Water.”
Notice how the short lines, and the vertical length of the poem not only reflect the act of a diver diving off a board, but also draw us deeper and deeper, visually, into the psyche of the narrator.
We’re on an inner journey, and the verticality of the poem means that it’s shape and its meaning are working in relationship to one another.
Because poetry (or cross-genre, or un-genre work) creates its own visual presentation in each unique poem, the arrangement of the words on the page is as much a part of the poem as the words themselves.
With prose, the visual presentation would seem to be more straight-forward, but consider such works as “Sometimes a Great Notion” or the cross-genre work of Michael Ondaatje, in which even within the prose structure, the authors create their organic forms, unique to each work of art.
In “Sometimes a Great Notion,” for example, Ken Kesey uses parentheses and ellipses to signal changes in consciousness, or in observed character, or in setting.
As an artist, you have the opportunity with each new work of art to teach the reader how to read it: and visual arrangement is a tool to use.
Whatever you do, do it because the poem needs it.
In the poem “Afterglow,” by A. Van Jordan, a new visual arrangment is created, to imitate that of a dictionary definition.
af·ter·glow \≈\ n. I. The light. esp. in the Ohio sky after sun-
set: as in the look of the mother-of-pearl air during the morning’s
afterglow. 2. The glow continuing after the disappearance of a
flame, as of a match or a lover, and sometimes regarded as a type
of phosphorescent ghost: This balm, this bath of light / This
cocktail of lust and sorrow, / This rumor of faithless love on a
neighbor’s lips, / This Monday morning, this Friday night, / This
pendulum of my heart, / This salve for my soul, / This tremble
from your body / This breast aflame, this bed ablaze / Where you
rub oil on my feet, / Where we spoon and, before sunrise, turn
away / And I dream, eyes open, / swimming / In this room’s pitch-
In these examples, note where the turns of the line exist. What is the effect on yourself, as a reader, if any? Why break these lines here? What is the effect of the slashes in the A. Van Jordan poem on yourself as a reader?
Or consider an additional form of visual arrangement, in Deborah Poe’s “Aluminum,” in which the placement of the words reflects the patterns of thoughts and consciousness of the characters.
The possiblities for visual arrangement in our work is nearly endless, based on what we’re trying to communicate in our work: the visual arrangement of a story is organic to, and an inextricable part of, the work itself.
The title of an artistic work is the lens through which the work is read.
To repeat: the title of an artistic work is the lens through which the work is read.
One of the best ways to discuss the role a title plays in any work of art is through the title of the short story “La Santa” (“The Saint”), by Gabriel García Márquez.
“The Saint” comes from his story collection “Doce Cuentos Peregrinos” translated into English as “Strange Pilgrims” (although a more literal translation of that collection would be the title “Twelve [Pilgrim/Wanderer/Migrant] Stories.”)
The twelve stories each focus on diverse experiences of Latin Americans living, studying, or traveling in Europe, by choice or necessity. Themes of strangeness, foreign-ness, and connection/separation run as connecting threads throughout the book.
The story “La Santa”/“The Saint” centers around the character Margarito, who journeys from Colombia to Italy in order to get an audience with the Pope, in hopes of getting sainthood for his deceased daughter.
He fails for years, trying in almost every possible way to gain an audience. And then, when he finally seems on the cusp of meeting with the Pope, the Pope dies, and with that—in the context of the story—he knows he’ll have to start the process all over again.
But even so, he refuses to give up, at which point the narrator observes: “Then I had no doubt, if I ever had any at all, that the Saint was Margarito. Without realizing it, by means of his daughter’s incorruptible body and while he was still alive, he had spent twenty-two years fighting for the legitimate cause of his own canonization.”
The title serves as a lens into the story. In Spanish, the feminine title (“La Santa”) obviously specifically refers to Margarito’s daughter, and it is the first-person narrator who must make the connection with the reader that the actual saint is Margarito.
In English, the title (“The Saint”) is much more fluid. The word “saint” can refer to either a male or female, or, in other words, the father or the daughter, and is one of the rare instances in which the nuances of the translated title almost serve the story better than the original title.
I use this example not necessarily to dig deeper into this particular story, but as a stepping-stone to talk about titles in general. The title of an artistic work is the lens through which the work is read.
Again, the title of an artistic work is the lens through which the work is read.
If the title of a story is “La Santa,” or, “The Female Saint,” we are cued to know how the author wants us to read the story. We know the lens the author is giving us through which to read the story. If the title is “The Saint,” we read it through a slightly different lens.
If the title had been “Margarito,” or “An Audience with the Pope,” or “Yes Another Day,” or any other title, we would have been cued to read it differently.
Consider an imaginary story involving two neighbors arguing (for example) over a small patch of land. The name of one neighbor is Saúl, the other neighbor is named Rebekah (say.)
This story is entirely different if the title is “Saúl” as opposed to “Rebekah.”
The author is presenting a specific lens, a specific angle of vision to use when reading the story.
If the title of that story is “On the Boulevard,” that leads to an entirely different lens for the story. A different reading of the story. Similary if the title is something like “Fences,” or “The Endless Clouds.”
Each title cues the reader differently and changes the entire lens of the story itself.
Continuing with Gabriel García Márquez titles (which are all more accurate translations, as opposed to the “Strange Pilgrims” translation), when we read such novels as “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “Love in the Time of Cholera,” or “Of Love and Other Demons,” we know the lens that the author is presenting to us.
We know to read “One Hundred Years of Solitude” with the long view in mind, of a full century. We know to be looking at themes of solitude spread out over generations.
We know to read “Love in the Time of Cholera” through the lens of love, and through the specific era of its setting, as well as to pay specific note to the similaries between love and cholera.
We know to read “Of Love and Other Demons” through the lens of love as a possible malignant, as opposed to benevolent, force, and to be aware of the interplay between the two throughout the course of the novel.
Obviously, as readers, we find the themes that we wish to find in these works of art. Titles are merely our clue to how the author is presenting their work.
Consider how much different “One Hundred Years of Solitude” would be were it entitled “Úrsula,” for instance.
Would we read it differently?
What if “Love in the Time of Cholera” were entitled “Fermina Daza”? Or, “The Parrot in the Tree”? Or, “The River Inward”? Or, “Florentino Ariza and His 623 Loves”?
The title of an artistic work is the lens through which the work is read.
William Faulkner’s novel “As I Lay Dying” features fifteen separate “I” narrators. The title could refer to the mother, who is dead during the novel (although we also get her point of view.) It could also refer to any number of the other narrators, who could be seen as “dying,” in various metaphorical or literal ways during the novel.
Through the title, we are invited to consider all these options, and the title raises more questions than it answers.
And the work of art takes on additional nuance and reverberations.
Titles aren’t necessarily the theme of the work of art. They aren’t necessarily the moral. They aren’t necessarily the setting, or the main character. A title is a lens. A particular angle of vision through which to experience the work.
Where the title comes during the process of the creation of the work of art depends on the process of the artist.
The title can get us started, as writers—the poet Kathleen Halme, for instance, often starts with the title, and then writes the poem based on that title.
The title can also be the final thing we write. Or, the title can arrive anywhere in-between.
The working title for my first book, “Leap,” was “Myths and Legends of the Pacific Northwest Coast,” during the entire process of writing the book.
That working title helped keep me focused around the themes of transformation and wonder around which the book revolved.
It was only two days before the fully designed and final manuscript was literally due to the printer that I changed the title to “Leap,” to enhance certain thematic elements.
And it was only then that the book began to resonate perfectly, like a tuning fork struck at the perfect pitch. The working title would have worked fine; the final title made the book resonate.
The title leads the work, but also follows it, and should generally resonate with every aspect within the work.
A title can be a place name that helps to frame and define the work—consider “Moloka‘i,” by Alan Brennert; “Winesburg, Ohio,” by Sherwood Anderson; “Miles City, Montana,” by Alice Munro; “Sault Ste. Marie,” by David Means, or “Mansfield Park,” by Jane Austen, among many, many examples.
A title could also refer to the specific people in a place, like James Joyce’s “Dubliners,” Annie Dillard’s “The Living,” or Kaui Hart Hemmings’s “The Descendants.”
Or it could pose angles or questions about a place, as in Toni Morrison’s “Paradise,” or John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” or Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City.”
Titles often ask us to focus in on certain characters, like “The Great Gatsby,” or “Anna Karenina” or “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” or “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “King Lear” or Steven Millhauser’s “Eisenheim the Illusionist” or “Martin Dressler”: all works of art with many characters, but with the authorial emphasis singling out one character for extra focus.
So, setting—whether specific or metaphorical—or reference to a group, or reference to an individual, are rich places to consider our titles.
Other writers use references to existing works of art. Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion,” got its title from a song. Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” found its title in the Yeats poem “The Second Coming.” Ernest Hemingway’s title “For Whom the Bell Tolls” comes from the John Donne poem “No Man is an Island.” William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” comes from Shakespeare’s “MacBeth.” The title of his novel “Absalom, Absalom!” derives from the Biblical character.
Sometimes titles pose questions to their own texts, as in Thomas Glave’s “Whose Song?,” or Ayi Kwei Armah’s “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.” These titles serve as ways to subvert and question the very works of art that they entitle!
Titles sometimes spring to us fully formed; other times we labor over them, trying dozens of titles until one finally fits—or at least fits enough that we can move on to the next project.
My second book, “Drifting,” served both as the working title and as the actual title, serving the book both thematically and as a way to amplify the various times the word “drifting,” or variations thereof, appear in the work.
Individual story titles from the collection include reference to place (“Port Angeles”; “In a Bar off the Highway”; “Maui Nui”; “The Fragments of the Town of Sandstone, Utah, Drifting Upward After the Bursting of the Smith Reservoir Dam”); reference to time (“September”); simple nouns (“Driftwood”; “Plumeria”); and a reference to a character (“Clare”). Two titles (“Like That” and “The Daniell and Henry, 1701; or Home, Mother England”) rely on phrasing that only makes sense after the reader has read the piece. And the final story, “Untitled,” was in response to asking myself the artistic question of what would happen if I didn’t give the reader a lens through which to read the work. What if I, as an artist, declined to provide this lens. How might readers then approach the work?
It’s difficult to stop writing about this because I want to discuss literally ever literary title in existence, from “The Odyssey” to “An American Marriage,” but I’ll finish with one thought:
A great way to explore titles is to browse the titles of works of art you know well and consider alternate titles, and how they would affect your reading of the work. Not just books, but paintings, songs, and plays. Any work of art that relies on a title to help give it shape and meaning.
Would we read “As You Like It” differently were it entitled “Rosalind”?
The original title of Kate Chopin’s novel “The Awakening” was “A Solitary Soul,” and was the title she preferred. Her publisher chose “The Awakening.”
When I read that novel, I read it with “A Solitary Soul” in mind, and it adds much to the richness and texture of the work.
An eighth core element of creative writing concerns authorial identity. Who is the writer behind the artistic work, and what is their level of authority and believability?
The words “author” and “authority” are related. When we’re reading a text, we want to know that the author has the believability to tell the story–that the story is true to life: if not factually true, emotionally true with the human experience.
This is why perhaps the first thing writing classes teach is to “write what you know.” Or as Phyllis A. Whitney once said, “if you don’t know–find out!” By which she meant: find out through research and by expanding our experiences.
Some people think this is a new phenomenon–that such questions as “who has the right to tell what stories” are somehow new. They are not.
Narratives by such writers as Olaudah Equiano, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, and others were prized because the writers themselves experienced the events that they narrated, leading to a greater sense of versimilitude as experienced on the part of the reader.
Even going back to the ancient Eurasian texts like those of the Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, and others, great emphasis was placed on who was telling the tale.
If the teller of a tale witnessed the events with their own eyes, such a vantage point was generally mentioned in the story itself as an increased reason to listen.
So the artist”s identity has always been as much a part of the work of art as the work of art itself. It’s why a painting by Banksy or Monet is worth more than that of a forgery, even if the forged painting appears virtually identical.
It’s why famous authors continue to get their books published even when the quality starts to falter: they have built up their name to the point that their very identity is a main selling point. Consider all the co-authored or ghostwritten books that prominently display the more famous name on the covers.
Another example, now that artificial intelligence can create poetry: if a poem is written by a computer, the reader takes that into account as part of the experience of reading.
For example, this poem–
asleep at noon
on a bare twig
among cherry blossom shadows
–was written by a computer program.
We take that identity into account when reading it compared to work by, for instance, Bashō:
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut
Authorial identity matters to most readers, and is as much a part of the work of art as the rest of the work.
Does this mean that we, as writers, can never step out of our particular background, or write characters of different genders, races, socio-economic classes? It does not.
But it does mean that our authorial identity will be part of that text, and included as part of that text by the reader as they interpret it.
We are inseparable from our works of art, in other words, in the eyes of many readers.
Through research and by expanding our own experiences we can expand our writing voices.
But it doesn’t erase or replace our particular authorial identity. The reader will take our identity into account as as they read.
By reading, we build empathy by stepping into the experiences and perspectives of others. By writing, we help build empathy in others by letting them step into our own perspectives.
Understanding our own selves and our own points of view allows us to share our perspectives with others and leads to deeper, richer work. However imagined our stories are, they remain emotionally true with our own experiences, and by embracing and being true to our selves, our work resonates.
Plot is what happens in a story; theme what the story is about: the larger point that the story makes.
Consider such novels as “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Beloved,” or “Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas.”
The plot of Huckleberry Finn is that a black man and a white boy escape on a river to find freedom. The themes include friendship, hope, racial reconciliation, imbalances of power, the very concept of what freedom is, and so on.
Theme, or meaning, is what literature classes and book clubs discuss, what critics write essays on, and is very often what we as readers remember long after we forget how Character X got from Point A to Point B to Point C.
The plot of “Beloved” is about a woman who kills her children to prevent them from being enslaved. The themes of the novel include motherhood, daughterhood, womanhood, manhood, trust, belief, revenge, desire, and many other meditations.
The plot of “Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas” involves a stockbroker becoming aware of the non-financial aspects of life. The themes of the novel include the spirit of adventure, travel, attitudes toward money, the embracing of non-Western modes of thinking, friendship, loss, trust, and hope.
“The process of discovering, choosing, and revealing the theme of your story beings as early as a first freewrite and continues, probably, beyond publication,” says Janet Burroway.
“The theme is what your story is about and what you think about it, the core and the spin you put on it.”
John Gardner writes that theme “is not imposed on the story but evoked from within it–intially an intuitive but finally an intellectual act on the part of the writer.”
Theme is expressed through everything else in the story: from the sensory details selected to plot to point of view to setting.
What we as the author think the theme is, however, is not necessarily what the readers will think.
We might think a story, for example, is about love, or loss, or jealousy, or financial insecurity, or ambition, or frustration, or emotional paralysis, or any number of other things. Our readers, however, might think it’s about imbalance of power, or loss of trust, or friendship.
“In an essay, your goal is to say as clearly and directly as possible what you mean,” Burroway writes. “In fiction, your goal is to make people and make them do things, and, ideally, never to ‘say what you mean’ at all […] If a writer sets out to write a story to illustrate an idea, the fiction will almost inevitably be thin […] You may not know the meaning of story until the characters begin to tell you what it is. You’ll begin with an image of a person or a situation that seems to embody something important, and you’ll learn as you go what that something is.”