Everything You Need to Know About Point of View: Lessons and Libations at Craft on Draft
Before readers learn the plot of your short story or novel, before they meet your characters and before they are able to envision the setting – they invariably notice the point of view you’ve chosen. Your initial sentences betray how the story will be told. When I hear the phrase “point of view” it calls to mind grammar - first person, second person, third person - but the style choice extends beyond pronoun and holds more power over your work than you might realize. Use POV right and it can help you reveal deeper aspects of your characters, hide or expose critical elements in your plot, or set-up a narrative strategy that compliments the intention of your work.
This advice comes from the cadre of authors at April’s Craft on Draft event at Trident Booksellers & Café. If you’ve never been, this semi-annual reading and craft discussion series put on by GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator alumni is worth checking out. Each event features a small panel of authors who take the craft issue of choice and offer their own struggles and perspectives on the issue – often sharing selections from early unpublished drafts and comparing them to final manuscripts. It’s a fun way to get varying perspectives on a particular topic. Last week’s event was no exception. Here’s what I took away from each speaker for how and what to do with POV.
Your narrative needs a strategy
Christopher Castellani, GrubStreet's Artistic Director and the author of three novels, is working on a fourth book, The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story? (forthcoming from Graywolf), which tackles the POV question. Castellani advised that a writer’s choice in POV doesn’t have to be the most efficient way to tell the story but instead the choice should support the story’s overall intent. In other words, when you choose a narrative strategy you are choosing how to tell the story in order to point the reader to why you are telling the story. One example he used from television was how the detailed voice-over narration style of Ron Howard in Arrested Development simultaneously calls attention to the show’s mockumentary format and to the absurdity behind each member of the Bluth family’s actions without taking sides. This allows the audience to pass judgment on all of them equally. Consistency is key to narrative strategy, advised Castellani. While in your early drafts you may not know the best way to tell the story, once you choose a narrative strategy everything in that work should support your choice.
Perspective supports character
Daphne Kalotay writes short stories and, most recently, released the novel Sight Reading, which is about a love triangle set in a music conservatory. She shared how she developed the voices of each of the three narrators in her novel by beginning with close third person scenes told in each of their perspectives. In each piece you could hear the seeds of an interesting personality taking root. What I learned from Kalotay reading this early work was how much the close third person perspective was able to convey about the character narrating and how much she could also reveal about the other characters. In each piece she put the characters in uncomfortable settings and asked them to observe a stranger. Those strangers soon became other intriguing characters in her novel. Getting intimate with the thoughts of a character, either through first or third-person close, requires the character themselves to be out of the ordinary. In particular, Kalotay advised, if you choose first person the voice you use must be idiosyncratic and character-driven throughout.
Distance gives you freedom
Author Celeste Ng declared herself a “POV nerd” after writing her novel Everything I Never Told You and tackling an omniscient narrator. The novel opens, “Lydia is dead. But they didn’t know that yet.” which gets us to the heart of the tragedy the Lee family confronts. At Craft on Draft, Ng read from the novel’s first draft, which was written in third-person close. In that version the reader didn’t learn Lydia was dead until page 40. The omniscient POV in the final draft freed Ng to dart in and out of the minds of each family member, revealing things to the readers the other characters do not know and therefore move the plot forward. Ng shares more of her philosophy on POV in a guest blog post. Her advice to every writer is to establish your POV right away. It helps the reader buy into what you are doing.
Getting to hear and discuss the usually unseen early versions of these established authors' work is one of the charms of a Craft on Draft event. It’s a reminder of all the drafting that goes on before that final version is set in print. “I would pay a lot of money to see early drafts of certain books,” Ng said at the event. “It reminds you that nobody struck the ground and a book popped out.”
The next Craft on Draft will be on October 6, 2015 at Trident Booksellers. For more insights on point of view, check out these sessions with LaShonda Katrice Barnett and Adam Stumacher at the 2015 Muse and the Marketplace.
Cara Wood is a graduate of the 2015 GrubStreet Novel Incubator class. A PR and marketing professional by day, she holds a master’s degree in communication from Clark University. You can follow her on Twitter @theory2life.