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Understanding Point of View

Understanding Point of View


It’s one of the most popular questions on English tests:

What point of view was this novel/short story/poem written from?

It weeds out those who read the book from those who didn’t, and it’s easy points for anyone stealthy enough to look at the SparkNotes. Finding out that Pride and Prejudice had a third-person omniscient narrator is easy enough, and it’s even simpler to scribble those words on a test, but what does it actually mean?

It’s easy to understand what point of view a work is written from once you start reading it – the use of certain pronouns gives away the narrator’s position, and a bit more reading can solidify your observation (which is usually needed with third-person narration).

The explanation goes something like this:

1st Person: I am in the story.

2nd Person: You are in the story.

3rd Person: He/She/It is in the story.

However, that’s not all there is to it. There are different kinds of narrators – limited and omniscient – and different types of characters that might be doing the narration – like protagonists or ancillary characters. And then, as if things weren’t already complicated enough, we add in tense – present, past and future.

When you understand the intricacies of point of view – the pros and cons of using each voice and tense – you can learn a lot about a story, and about why the author made the choice he or she did concerning narration. Stephen King – a rock star writer of our time – feels that narration (and thus point of view – the vehicle through which a story is told) is more important than even the plot:

“In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life.

You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer – my answer, anyway – is nowhere. I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. Some of the ideas which have produced those books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the stark simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau. I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free.”

Stephen King, On Writing

So how can you better understand this most important facet of literature? By looking at a blend of quotes from classics and modern works from today with simple, easy to understand explanations, you can master the concepts of literary point of view.

Next time, you won’t even need to consult the mighty SparkNotes!


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