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Writing the Short Story 5: The Point of View

by Editor Magazine   


Following a study of characters, setting, plot and plan, comes naturally an analysis of view-point. In this article an attempt is made to define the three general points of view—that of nobody's, that of the author's and that of the character's, and to show the advantages, the pitfalls, and the possibilities of each.

First, a story may be written as a mere recital of facts, as a pure narration of actions, as a simple explanation. The hero did this. The heroine did that. This resulted in a situation like this. And so on indefinitely. There is no distinct point of view whatever. Second, a story may be written as the author lives it. He is a discriminating, analytical, judicious person behind the scenes. He pulls this string and this character moves. He explains why; he indicates the reason that character will be affected. By this method the story works out clearly, entertainingly and realistically; actions are depicted by a study of motives. The view-point is that of the author, who is in reality a lecturer, a creator, a borrower from life. Third, some character in the story follows the action from his point of view. The reader is told what he sees, what he hears, what he does, what he knows, what he lives. He is an actor-narrator; in the second point of view he is an author-narrator.

The beginner in writing makes no study of view-point, and his story is usually a wandering, aimless, shifting affair, quite lost in the hazy changes of view-point and utterly inconsistent. A moment's thought, therefore, will convince the author of the necessity of determining at the outset the precise view-point of his narration
Stories told from no particular point of view are usually dependent almost wholly upon the spot interest and not at all upon the character portrayal. Brisk adventure affecting a general community may be worked out satisfactorily in this way. Often tragedy may be depicted graphically from no particular point of view; a death on the desert, in the sea, on a deserted island, where there is but a single character at the end, must obviously fall back upon this method. There is no actor-narrator to describe the scene; first-person narration is absurd when the character dies; the author-narrator necessarily comes into the story to a certain extent, but the view-point of nobody is predominant. Stories demand it when they hinge upon the adventures of a purse lost and found repeatedly by different characters, a pet animal that reunites separated couples, or any one of a dozen threadbare and a thousand fresh ideas of this type. Other forms of fiction in which the author and the actor do not hold the center of the story-stage throughout will come readily to mind.

The author's point of view is a dangerous one for the beginner. Too often he forgets his story altogether, and chats with "the kind reader," "the gentle reader," etc.; too often he uses the story as a vehicle for his philosophy of life, clogging the action entirely while he explains. Howells once said of Thackeray: "He was accustomed to stand about in his scene, talking it over with his hands in his pockets, interrupting the action and spoiling the illusion. . . . He never hesitated to make a foray among his characters and catch them up to show how beautiful or ugly they were; and cry out over their amazing properties." If the work is done cleverly and artistically, however, this method offers many advantages
The author-narrator's point of view is from that wholly outside the story, wholly aside from the characters. The dividing line between nobody's point of view and the author's is very slight. Legends and fairy-tales, for example, might be classified under either method of narration. So long as the author explains, and displays, and furnishes motives, and does not clog the story's progress by introducing himself into the plot, he stands a fair chance of success.

In this classification there are two sub-divisions. The author may be merely a spectator. He may relate his story as he sees it take place. Again, he may be omniscient. He may
see with his characters, breathe with them, think with them, live with them; he may, in a word, be in turn the mind of each. Here, again, however, the divisions encroach. The actor-nar-rator's point of view is simply the author become the mind of some one character from first to last.

For the author who is just trying his skill, indeed, this last of the three points of view offers perhaps the greatest advantages. As the mind of one character, he sees the story enacted about him. He tells only what that character would naturally know; through him he views the others; about him are grouped, the elements of the plot. He is the pivot, as it were, upon which the story revolves.

This method is best explained by asking the student to write a first-person story, told precisely as he takes part in it. Upon its completion, the character assumed by him, and designated by the first-person pronoun, should be changed to some other proper name and to the third person pronoun. This will reveal clearly what is meant by the actor-narrator point of view.
Here, once more, are two sub-divisions. The view-point may be that of the principal character or that of a minor. The story may be told as the hero lives it, or as one of the secondary characters takes part in it. The range is wider than will be imagined before the experiment of trying both.

First-person narration, it will be readily seen, is a combination of view-points that may be designated as that of the author-actor-narrator. At first thought, it would appear that this offers the greatest advantages; but the pitfalls are plentiful.

In general, the stories told in the first person are divided into straight first-person narration, which, of coarse, subdivides once more into the hero-narrator and the minor character-narrator, and into the letter or diary form.

The author who essays to be the hero of this tale is usually a pompous ass. One can not describe one's own bravery, one's own miraculous deeds, one's own ability without bragging and strutting about the stage like a peacock. Obviously nothing irritates nor offends the reader more thoroughly. As has already been pointed out, the character who dies can not consistently tell the story. The author who becomes a secondary character often finds difficulty in explaining his presence upon each scene, his proximity to the principal character, his knowledge of the motives and the emotions of the others. Provided he can offer logical and plausible reasons for his stage-occupancy and his knowledge of each situation, and provided he does not obtrude unnecessarily but is a natural and essential character, he may tell the story pleasantly and artistically.

The letter or diary form is a roundabout way to the heart of the story. To be natural, a letter or diary must tell much that is not pertinent to the story itself. This form is designed primarily for confession and analysis of character, for a study of moods and emotions. To make of letters and diaries a short-story is to create a style that is verbose, clog the action, destroy the unity, and sacrifice the force and directness that comes from unfolding the movement before the reader's very eyes, rather than from a late-hour recital of the plot.

This final objection brings one naturally to the story-within-a-story construction. In most cases, this entails a similar loss of effective presentation of action, of superfluous matter at the introduction and conclusion, and of a study of characters that are not introduced intimately to the reader.

As long as fiction is produced, authors will disagree upon the subject of view-point. For the short-story, however, in its ideal form, it seems to the writer that the actor-narrator's point of view offers the best opportunities. In following this, certain rules accomplish clear and easily understood results.

1. Each story must have one character with whom the reader is asked to hope, to fear, to achieve, to fail. By establishing a direct bond of sympathy between that character and the reader by means of making the former the one central, dominating character about whom the others naturally group themselves, this end is easily gained; the method is simply the telling of the story as he or she lives it, by the author's becoming the mind of that character.

2. Descriptions must have view-point. Each of us sees things a little differently from our neighbors, and to a large extent the emphasizing of these points of difference gives to writing what is known as individuality. To describe a scene as the casual observer might view it, is to make it commonplace ; to describe it as the actor-narrator sees it, is to make it a part of the story, influencing him in his actions, prejudicing him in his decisions, and in many ways diverting the trend of the plot.

3. A story must be the pictured creation of a new world, inhabited by new people quite apart from the author and the reader. The illusion is complete only when the author or the spectator of this work-a-day world of ours does not obtrude. With the actor-narrator's point of view, neither the author nor the reader is in any way connected with the story.

4. A story must have a central or principal character throughout. There is no way to make a character more. intimate, more real, more dominating, than to tell the story precisely as he lives it. The author-narrator offers the danger of the shifting point of view. This tends to dissipate the interest over all the characters rather than concentrate it upon one. The actor-narrator's view-point can not consistently change.

5. The successful short-story is a study of character buffeted by environment, setting, action, plot, etc. The interest centers not on what actually takes place, but upon its effect. The character is changed, shaken, metamorphosed; his resistance or his furtherance of the movement are the important points. Now, admittedly, a study of his actions, motives, and governing influences, first, last and all the time, can be carried out in no other way better than from this point of view .

It has been pointed out, then, that there are three points of view: nobody's, the author-narrator's and the actor-narrator's; that the second sub-divides into the mere spectator and the omniscient narrator; that the last sub-divides into the principal and the secondary actor-narrator; that first person narration is a combination of the actor-author-narrator view-points; that the letter or diary form is objectionable; that the story-with-in-a-story construction offers serious difficulties, based upon the preceding points; that, all things considered, the actor-narrator view-point is the best for the student:

1, because it establishes a bond of sympathy between the reader and the character;
2, because unity of view-point is demanded for individuality of writing;
3, because it heightens the illusion of the story itself:
4, because it illustrates most admirably the effect of the plot-action upon the characters;
5, because it makes easiest the keeping of one central, principal, dominating character.

Going a step further, the rules might be construed:

1. Decide at the outset what view-point to follow.
2. Do not be content until you have tried several points of view for the same story.
3. Adapt the point of view to the type of your story, and note for future reference the combinations.
4. Maintain it consistently throughout, without shifting more than the choice permits.
5. Do not sacrifice point of view because of successful examples of great authors; wait until you acquire a reputation yourself
Examples of all the view-points are to be found without number in literature. The citing of a few examples, however, may clarify the student's mind. For the letter or diary form, therefore, read "Robinson Crusoe," "Marjorie Daw," etc.; for the story-within-a-story construction, read the many magazine stories of authors like "0. Henry"; for the first-person narration, read "Huckleberry Finn," "The Vicar of Wakefield," etc.; for nobody's point of view, read "Cinderella," "Jack the Giant Killer," fairy stories, fables, myths, etc.; for the author-narrator's point of view, read the works of Thackeray, Howells, Henry James, etc.; for the actor-narrator's point of view, read "The Mill on the Floss," "Pride and Prejudice," etc.; for examples of all types, read the current magazines.


1. Write a story from nobody's point of view.
2. Write a story from the author-narrator's point of view.
3. Write a story from the actor-narrator's point of view.
4. Write a story from the principal-actor-narrator's point of view. From the secondary-character-actor-narrator's point of view.
5. Write a first-person story in which you are the principal character, the hero, or heroine. Write one in which you are a minor character.
6. Write a story in the form of letters or diaries.
7. Try all these plans with the same story.
8. Study the possibilities of various points of view in the short-story masterpieces. Determine in each case why the author selected the one used.