The Craft of Writing | wprnPublicRadio.com
by Randall “Jay” Andrews
Thirty-six manuscripts and twenty-five years in the entertainment industry. With an eclectic storytelling range, his work encompasses Sci-fi, dystopian, noir, mystery, thriller, horror, speculative, and contemporary drama (I know, weird last one, but that’s most of my early work.) Writing has been a lifelong love and a lifelong discipline. He’s always up to chat about writing and can be found working with writers to push them to reach their goals. (Okay, so first person, inside the quotes. If you’re reading this, enjoy, I have some fun stuff.)
Point of View
I’ve gone over the different Points Of View many times. Explaining at length the different forms of 3rd person, as well as, the views of 1st and 2nd person.
This time, I’d like to avoid getting technical and get into a real-world way of explaining how the three views work for your storytelling. When a writer tells me they have to go check to see what POV they are using, I realize they have gravely missed one of the most critical junctures of writing, and that is determining how the story is going to be told.
Every story has a narrator, and every story is designed to involve the reader in a specific way. For a down and dirty way of remembering, think of it this way: When you were a young child and you came home from school, your mother may have said to you, “Guess what I did today?”
As you sat on the couch, wanting to turn on the TV and watch Gilligan’s Island, she had plans to tell you about her harrowing day with the gopher. That story was all about I, I, I, and she told you about everything she did, and made you feel as though YOU WERE HER. She placed you in the story as HER by saying “I went after that little creature until I had exhausted every fiber of my body.” That is a FIRST PERSON POV. The narrator of the story is the STAR of the story. (For that reason, they can’t die at the end of the story–by design! People have cheated this premise, but it’s just that, a cheat. It is also not standard to have any other POVs in this kind of story.)
However, your mother may have said, “Guess what your father did today?”
As you reached for the Tupperware bowl to pour some Captain Crunch, she goes off on his day, “He sold seventy five timeshares today. Looks like we are going to Hawaii, thanks to Him. He never put the phone down, called every client in his book.” She made you admire him, You saw him as the hero of the story, as a viewer of that guy’s story, told by a narrator who knew things.” The whole story is about HIM, HIM, HIM. THAT IS A THIRD PERSON POV. (In this story, any character can die, because the narrator is omniscient.) They are telling you ABOUT SOMEONE ELSE, and they can jump to others if they wish. *warning* Do so with the understanding that it is still important to understand whose story is being told.
Finally, your mother may have said, “Guess what I heard today?”
You are grabbing your mitt and bat, trying to urge her along before you step outside with your friends, and she spits out, “You weren’t a very good boy today. You apparently went to places you shouldn’t have gone. You know that you shouldn’t be in Tina Gotalots’ house when her parents aren’t home, and you shouldn’t be in Ms. Gotalots’ bedroom.” The whole story is about YOU, YOU, YOU. She has just INVOLVED YOU in the story, and as such is telling a second person POV. (This is a story where YOU can die because YOU aren’t the narrator, and the narrator can be speaking to any YOU if they wish.)
The Rule of the Single Narrator
Sometimes I’m stumped by writers these days. There are so many people not trained in writing that I see writers not only head hopping, but jumping from first person POV to a third person POV where the FIRST PERSON isn’t the narrator of the third person POV. People, if you are writing a story with “I” as the narrator, then even if you go into third, “I” should be telling the story in third. So, if I am telling a story about me and my father (and it would have to be past tense to work) I would say, “I felt the cold steel against my temple and knew if my father didn’t get there soon, they would shoot me…” (new chapter) Across town, my father (not JOHN) raced to get to me, he knew that being late was not an option. “Get out of the way,” he screamed at a bicyclist.
Only in this way are we securing a SINGLE NARRATOR.
Points of View
This is not about tense, but rather about POINT OF VIEW. I am often surprised how many people get into writing and really don’t understand POV. What is point of view? Simply, it’s from whose eyes and ears we are seeing and hearing a story being told. There are three different POVs with a split in one of them.
The first is FIRST PERSON. First person is where the reader is reading the story through the mind of the main character, it is very personal, and it is one which the reader often understands more of a world around them than the narrator. It is the use of I, ME, MY, MINE. An example is Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird. Scout is a young girl who doesn’t understand the trial her father is involved in, but the reader does. It is the observations of a little girl that gives the book its humanity. There is a frailty to first person; a vulnerability. It is also voyeuristic, because, the author isn’t afforded the opportunity to see things outside their immediate scope, and you can’t kill off the character if it’s in first person.
The second is SECOND PERSON. It is probably the rarest of the rare in fiction, (1st person, present tense being the second rarest). Second Person is a story being told ABOUT YOU, or directed TO YOU. It has a dream like quality to it, and employs the use of YOU and YOUR. Although it is rare, let me qualify that in the rise of the modern ESSAY format of storytelling, it is increasingly popular, and I personally use it often in my essays. I find it draws the reader into a participant of the story. If I am talking to and about YOU, you have no choice but to participate in the story. Some examples of literature that use second person include: If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, by Italo Calvino, and Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney. (Also, the well-known 1st person, present tense author Chuck Palahniuk also has dabbled in this POV.)
The third, which can best be explained as TWO types, is THIRD PERSON. Third Person POV is in the voice of the author. It is the author who is the puppet master of the story. This is overwhelmingly the most common POV in literature (second is 1st person past tense). The beauty of THIRD PERSON is the narrator can inform us of things the character may not know, including the death of the protagonist. It is the view of an outsider looking in, just as the reader is. If done well, the narrator paints a picture of the scenes and allows the reader to barely know the author is there. I said there are two types. They are 3rd person limited, and 3rd person omniscient. If you think about it, you can guess what that means. 3rd person limited is being in the head of only one character in a scene and is the more popular of the two. It is being on the shoulder of that one character and writing his/her story. The other is 3rd person omniscient and is the narrator being in all places at all times. Knowing where and what all the characters are doing.
Different Forms of 3rd Person
Surprisingly, I’ve discovered most new writers are not that clear on whose eyes a story is written in. I’ve asked people to give me three stories written in first/present (there aren’t many) and even more seasoned writers have a hard time coming up with them. The truth is, writing a book has an appeal to it, but how to write one is a craft not everyone is capable of handling. Besides the obvious talents of grammar and story structure, there are nuances of writing most writers don’t consider. One of them is POV. POV is the abbreviation of POINT OF VIEW. It is the viewpoint the AUTHOR writes the story from. The two most prevalent are First Person/Past, and Third Person/Limited/Past. (We’ll get into what limited means later.)
Finally, let’s get to the meat of this lesson: the many forms of THIRD PERSON.
Third Person is the most common POV in literature. Anyone who has written a college term paper has undoubtedly used Third Person, and yet may not know exactly which third person they’ve used. There are several. They are Omniscient, Limited, Narrative, and Cinematic. Although Limited can be used for a single person’s thoughts, for the most part, even in LIMITED, the POV is multiple. (Caution! That just means you can move from character to character. Doing so in a single scene is chaotic and will lose many readers.)
First, let’s give a general overview of what Third Person is. Third Person POV is in the voice of the author. (She said, He said, and It.) It is the author who is the puppet master of the story. This is overwhelmingly the most common POV in literature (second is 1st person past tense). The beauty of THIRD PERSON is the narrator can inform us of things the character may not know, including the death of the protagonist. It is the view of an outsider looking in, just as the reader is. If done well, the narrator paints a picture of the scenes and allows the reader to barely know the author is there.
Within this POV there are FOUR basic types. Let’s break them down.
Omniscient: This is probably the most commonly used POV for beginning writers. In this POV we move from character to character. In this viewpoint, we give the reader the most information possible because we disregard the intimacy of the reader to a specific character. In other words, don’t count on the reader caring too much about anyone in the book. It is a great POV for a term paper, because no one cares about intimacy with Christopher Columbus, just the facts Ma’am. A Plot heavy story can get away with it, but character development will be the victim. This is considered a VERY WEAK voice for fiction.
Narrative: This is another one commonly used by beginning writers. In this POV, the author is TELLING everything. By not using First person, the Author avoids using “I” and doesn’t put his/her self directly in the story, but everything happens with the AUTHOR in the middle, between the reader and the story. Here is an example:
Danny scurried into the car as soon as soon as his mom showed up. He had had a really rough afternoon at football practice and was anxious to tell her about it. His mother had said she would drive him over to the sports store for new shoes, and that cheered him up. He used his cell phone to call his best friend and to tell him to meet him at the store.
The author is telling us about Danny. The author gives you every little detail and create a fairy tale mood. What it does is keep the reader from getting invested in the story. This is also a very weak voice, because the reader doesn’t get to see any of the action, just listening to us tell them about it. (This works again well for a term paper. Only this time we use it for what a character did who we don’t need to invest emotions into.)
Limited: This is the best and most widely used POV in all of writing. In limited, the reader is isolated to the views of certain characters, characters we want them to become intimate with. In this view, we are hearing and seeing with his eyes and ears what he/she sees, and we are thinking what they think. It allows the reader to make decisions as to what they are witnessing. Example:
Danny raced up to Mom’s car. Practice had been hard but he’d endured it with praise from Coach Smith. The pat on the back felt great. He’d even outdone Jimmy Peterson, the star quarterback, even he complained practice was too hard. He rolled his helmet like a top, sticking his fingers in the ear holes and looping the shell.
His Mom beamed, “You seem to be sweaty but happy.”
He smiled, “I am.” Outside the line of exhausted boys filed one by one to waiting cars.
“Well, young man, you deserve a prize. How about some new shoes?”
Danny sat up, “Really?”
“Yep, you deserve it.”
Danny picked up his mom’s cell phone and asked, “Can I call Bill and ask him to meet us there?”
She reached out and patted his shoulder, “If you must.”
Last, we have cinematic. This is the camera pan where we treat the scene like a movie, viewing the entire scene. This is looking at the scene from behind the proscenium arch. This is so limited, it is used for specific moments, not for entire stories. It is so disenfranchised from the story because something is happening that requires us not be in the scene because of the many moving parts or the totality of the view. There is no character development here. It might be a fight scene, it might be an overarching death scene, and we are allowed to view the participants of the procession. It is the CHAOS of the scene. We only use this POV on occasions when the set of eyes we are working in, can’t take it in alone.
So, if you are asking, which is best 3rd person narrative, it of course, depends on what you are writing; however, if it’s what I suspect, fiction, Third Limited is the choice.
Staying in POV
The other day I was reading a young writer’s work and came across an issue I don’t see often in more established writers—but one which should be discussed. Point of View (POV) is the craft of keeping your story in the subjective view of a single character. It is good writing to stay in POV with a single character within a single scene. That isn’t to say you can’t jump POV from scene to scene (typically broken up by chapters) but you should never be in two different POVs in the same scene; it is confusing for the reader, and anything confusing for the reader is bad for the writer.
Now some of you will say, “Wait, what about omniscient view? Doesn’t that jump from character to character?” Not really, what it does is tell us the characters POV in omniscient narrative, which is telling a story, as in the oral history of events. Example, “Johnny was one of those boys who would fly off the handle and scream at the slightest disruption, whereas Mary was so calm she would whisper soothing words when trouble arose.” That is an omniscient observation.
The power of staying in POV is the reader is on the journey they are supposed to be on; the one we are dangling on the rope, hanging off the cliff, scaring with the unknown—the POV character, which is usually the protagonist.
This paragraph… “Again? Well, you’re cleaning it up at my house. It’s closer,” sighed Lunar. She ran ahead and grabbed a bottle of peroxide and a rubbing pad just before Tyler entered her house. She cleaned up the blood smears as Tyler laid his head down to stop the bleeding. “Okay, now put this cream on your nose to heal it,” commanded Lunar as she handed him a bowl with a green mixture in it. ”…is an example of where the writer has written something that can’t be known from the POV character. In the previous paragraphs, the writer has given us a glimpse of Tyler’s thoughts, but in this paragraph, he states that Lunar ran ahead and grabbed a bottle of peroxide before Tyler entered the house. The problem with that paragraph is Tyler is only capable of knowing she had peroxide in her hand when he entered her house, not that she grabbed it. You might think I am splitting hairs, but believe me, any editor worth the money you pay them would see this as a red flag to YOUR understanding of being out of POV.
For me, I always remember that my POV character is WATCHING everything unfold and the story is going to be told by me THROUGH them (being on the shoulder of the POV). If you maintain that observation rule, you will never slip out of POV.
When I wrote my last novel, it was a rewrite of an earlier novel from years ago, one where I decided to change POV from the father to the daughter. My issue was that there were several scenes I wanted to keep, but because there was no way the daughter could be involved, I had to create a vehicle for the scenes to remain, thus came voyeurism. Voyeurism is often times the only way for the reader to know what is happening because it’s the only way the POV character can know what’s happening. Voyeurism is nothing more than our POV character relating through his or her eyes, to the reader, what is happening.
All in all, we want to avoid getting between the reader and the characters, so if you treat your narrative with the sole purpose of presenting the story, and doing so through the lens of the Protagonist (usually the carrier of POV), you avoid accidentally slipping into head hopping. A well done POV is often the difference between being read or being put down.
Writing in SECOND Person
Writing in second person is a very intimate form of writing, often done in letters to another.
Here is an example of 2nd person narrative:
But by the grace of God, there go I
Just think of me as your cab driver on this little journey we are about to take. You’re heading across town, the day hasn’t gone well, your car broke down, you’re late for dinner with a date, you stood in the rain, and steam is gently rising off your coat as you cozy up in the back seat of my overused Yellow Cab. I’m playing generic easy listening pop from the nearest big city, the nearest big city’s most POPular station. The DJ breaks in every third song with a smooth silky voice and paints a picture how life is somehow perfect on his end of the dial. There’s a searing sound of scooting through puddles every time we round a corner, the rooster tail of water wings out beside you. The rain is incessant; it pounds on the roof like a forgotten lover, tapping on the door to be let in. You sniff; wipe a bead of water running off your forehead and into your lashes. Maybe you have your glasses on, maybe you don’t; they are dappled and fogged over. There’s a chill in the air, so cold your pinkies have forgotten their way back to your other fingers, they dangle off the end of your hand, numb.
“Can you turn the heat up!” You never ask me, you’re paying so do what you say.
I fix the mirror so we meet face to face. “Sure.” I smile.
If you are in the mood you might engage me in conversation, but you’re not. You have to be somewhere; you have to be somewhere an hour ago. The season is still winter but the days are starting to grow a little longer, five isn’t dark anymore, but it certainly isn’t that far off. We jump on the freeway to cut off the surface streets, jump from one exit to the next. As we coast down to the light at the end of the off ramp, you notice a man standing, holding a drenched cardboard sign, so wet you can barely read, ‘Please Help.’ You feel for the guy, but his life is his life, you try not to make eye contact. From the corner of your vision, you can see his clothes are so filthy you wouldn’t toss them in your washing machine for fear of ruining it, let alone touch them long enough to do so, ripped, greasy, stained military pants and a thick purple down coat with duct tape in various spots. Under his knit cap are locks of graying streaky brown hair. This is a pathetic soul. To your horror, I roll down the window and reach out to him, I see him every day, rain or shine, sign in hand. I have a dollar folded long, stuck between my forefinger and middle. We come close enough for him to nod and say, “Thank you, Randall.” He knows my name because I know his. “Don’t catch a cold Jay.” He smiles and the gap where he had his tooth knocked out by some kids who rolled him one night glares back at me.
You’re as compassionate as the next soul, but you’re in one of those moments where fairness is something you’re finding in short supply. I don’t think you’d ever act that way under normal conditions but you snap at me, “Why give that bum money? Probably will just drink it away!”
You engaged me; my turn.
“You know, panhandling can be profitable.” I raise my eyebrows. “A lot more than driving a cab, maybe more than you make.” I’m not suggesting that Jay is panhandling, just that it’s normal to be disgusted by the lack of humility some people might have standing in the rain, dirty, unlicensed, pandering to our worst fears, the fear that but by the grace of God there go I.
You scoff at me, “You think he makes more than me?”
“Nope, I know he doesn’t, but some do. In fact, when I used to have a high rise job, I’d look out my fifth floor window to the corner of Beverly and Wilshire in downtown Beverly Hills, every Tuesday and Friday a woman would stand at that corner, her hands raised, her voice writhing in agony, pleading with all the well-to-do patrons passing by that she was desperate. She’d work that corner, without fail four hours a day two days a week, moving on to other corners on other days. From my window I couldn’t see exactly what she earned but in Beverly Hills, it was never change, only bills, and one day I counted how many times she reached and took them, and if I guessed they were only ones, she made seventy five dollars an hour. If two of those were something other than ones, maybe a five and one a ten, she was up to eighty eight. If twice, bills were stuck together, that’s ninety dollars an hour. If she worked a full forty, she made 3600.00 dollars a week, over a hundred and eighty k a year. I saw the woman one night at an art show; a proud woman. I was young and not very subtle, I introduced myself; told her I knew her. She looked surprised. I said I watched her on our corner every Tuesday and Friday. She was indignant, denied it, made a stink in front of everyone that I was crass and rude. She turned the tables on me, I winked at her, but still, every Tuesday and Friday, she was there, working her corner.”
By now, you’re stunned by my story. “What does that have to do with the bum you just gave money to?”
We’re nearing your destination, but at this point you aren’t in as much of a rush. You really want to hear the connection.
“I gave Jay a ride home the night he was rolled. I wanted to take him to the emergency room but he pleaded no. He hadn’t been inside a building in fifteen years. He knew he smelled bad, apologized he was going to ruin my cab. I told him, the seats are plastic for a reason; I can wash away any memory. He told me he was most disappointed by the fact they got his trouser money, that wasn’t his, but that his sock money could pay off some of the trouser loss. Turns out, Jay kept his money in his sock, money he used to eat, buy shoes when they wore out, a blanket when his got too dirty for even him.”
I have your attention. “What was the trouser money for?”
I tell the story Jay had me stop by the post office on the way to his place. When we got there, he pulled a plastic bag from his pocket, inside was a pristine envelope, his hand writing was beautiful, labeled to a woman named Claire. He used a clean tissue to handle the envelope, placed fifty dollars inside. “Normally, I save up to one hundred before I send if off, but the kids got all that.” He was about to get out of the cab, heading to the postal box when I said, “Here, let me.” He was pretty beat up and was willing to let go. There was a stamp already attached and the mail was ready to go. She lived in New York. As I walked across the parking lot I took a quick look at the note inside, it said, “Hope the girls are doing well; tell them I have never forgotten them.” There was a picture of Jay, but it wasn’t him in his present condition, but rather a lie. It was him in a more glorious moment of his life, clean shaven, suit on, real professional looking. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my night’s earnings, topped off his envelope so he was true to his one hundred, sealed it, and pushed it down the mouth of the big blue box. You see, turns out Jay had lost his way and his family had left him. Every time his trouser money hit 100, he sent it off; he tithed ten percent to his own living. He lived in a makeshift two bedroom home, made from two refrigerator boxes at the end of a lonely alley behind a twenty four hour mini mart. The owner of the mart would give him leftover food just so Jay would stay and scare off prowlers.
You are looking at me with shame. I assure you, “Don’t be ashamed, you have nothing to be ashamed of, we all move through our lives on paths we choose for ourselves. We may not leap our hurdles as well as others but they are our hurdles to leap. You aren’t responsible for the Jays of the world, only for yourself. As long as you aren’t creating hurdles for others, you’re helping them.”
You gather your things. “Here’s my stop.”
I pull up to the curb of a beautiful two story Victorian home sitting atop ten stairs on a hillside. It has darkened enough someone has left the porch light on for you. I turn in my seat to gather my fare, and the words I impart are these, “I don’t know if you’re religious, Lord knows, I don’t even know if I am, but a good rule of thumb to live by is this, the next time you’re sitting next to the grimiest, smelliest, saddest person you’ve ever seen, remember this, that person was made in God’s image, and that might be the soul sitting next to God when you get there.”