Welcome to week three of Writing Fundamentals. For those of you who are new to the craft of writing, I really hope Ive opened a window into this exciting world. For readers who are old hands perhaps youve been reminded of some technical aspects that may be worth considering in future works. During the last two sessions weve talked about how to begin writing and touched on important elements such as setting, storyline and theme. A discussion on characters followed which leads us to how you are actually going to tell your story. Every story is told by a voice and that voice and the way an author uses it to tell a story make up the storys point of view. When writing a story you need to think about which of your characters should be telling your story and how you want the story told. For a writer this is one of the most major decisions to make.
The two major options to choose from are first person and third person and both have their advantages and disadvantages.
If you use first person I to tell your story then you can only relate what that character experiences, what he/she sees and feels. So once you start writing in first person you are actually taking on that characters persona and telling the story as that character. A great example of this is All Quiet On The Western Front.
First person often feels the most natural way to tell a story, after all it is the voice we use to tell the story of our own lives. As the author you literally throw the readers imagination into the body, head, experiences and emotions of your character. If you were an actor you would stay in character for the duration of the time you are writing the work. Of course being in character for the duration of a work has its limitations. It can get boring only hearing one persons point of view which means you have to be committed and stay true to the voice you have chosen. Most importantly you can obviously only include details in the story that your character would know. Every story has a number of stories within it that could be told, however by choosing the first person we choose to tell only one of those stories.
Having said all that Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield begins this way: I am born. Such an opening really involves the reader.
The second major option is third person. Third person tends to be broken into two different forms.
a) Third person limited allows the writer to choose one character and to listen in on that characters thoughts, so that the reader sees things from that characters vantage point. As the author although you may have many other characters in your story you are limiting the action and information the reader receives to that which centres on and/or can be known by only one character in the story. So limited third person allows the writer to show us the feelings and thoughts of a number of characters, with the main action usually concentrated through one main character. You arent limited by the use of I so you can use any voice, any style of structure or language.
Here is an excerpt from one of my favourite writers, Ernest Hemingway.‘The two boats started off in the dark. Nick heard the oarlocks of the other boat quite away ahead of them in the mist. The Indians rowed with quick choppy strokes. Nick lay back with his fathers arms around him. It was cold on the water. The Indian who was rowing them was working very hard, but the other boat moved further ahead in the mist all the time. Where are we going, Dad? Nick asked.’
In Hemingways Indian Camp the narrator begins by telling the reader that some boats have pulled up on a lake shore and that people are getting into them. Then the narrator directs us to one particular character, Nick and that character becomes the focus for how we see the story.
Your second choice within third person is;
b) Third person omniscient allows the narrator of the story complete access to any information, past or present, stated or silent, enacted or thought, relative to any character in the story. The author can basically narrate anything at all, hence the term omniscient or all-knowing. Third person omniscient is an immediate choice for many storytellers as you can report on anything thats happening in the story, including what different characters are feeling and seeing. Its particularly useful for large casts of characters and various settings. Its great benefit is being able to move focus from character to character, one scene to another, one time period to another. As long as the story flows and the reader doesnt get lost its a great way to tell a story.
Here is an excerpt from Disquiet by Julia Leigh.
‘The woman was dressed in a tweed pencil skirt, a grey silk blouse and her dark hair was pulled back into a loose chignon, the way her mother once used to wear it. Her right arm was broken and shed rested it in a silk scarf sling which co-ordinated unobtrusively with her blouse. By her feet, a suitcase. The children – the boy was nine, the girl was six and carrying her favourite doll – were saddled with backpacks and they each guarded a small suitcase of their own. The woman stepped forward and went straight up to the gate – iron-spiked, imposing – looking for the lock. Instead she found the surveillance system, a palm-pad, and she rested her palm on the electronic pad for a long moment until she was defeated. Unfazed, she returned to collect her suitcase and, without a backward glance at the children, turned off the driveway onto the grassy verge.’
The above excerpt is written from a very distant omniscient viewpoint and contains no feeling whatsoever. Although the reader does receive some internal knowledge; the way her mother once used to wear it. The piece could also be written from the mothers viewpoint, in which case the point of view would be third person omniscient.
When deciding what point of view I should use for a work I always ask myself;
1. Which character is the most important in this scene?
2. Do I want that character to always be the most important character in every scene, Or
3. would the story be better if I told it from different perspectives.
It is a question of what you are trying to achieve in your work and also what you want the reader to come away with when they have finished reading the work.
1. Finish this thought: When I heard the door shut behind him
2. Describe your first kiss.
3. If you chose two characters and listed some detail about them last week, write a scene in which they sit down to talk in the setting you chose in week 1.
4. Write a short scene between a nurse in a psychiatric ward and one of her patients using the omniscient all-knowing point of view.
5. Try writing a short story using the elements discussed.
I hope youve enjoyed this introductory series to the fundamentals of writing.