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Points of View

A few years ago, browsing in a used bookstore in a town where I don't live (which, by the way, is a great strategy for finding titles that you might not encounter locally), I came away with Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories edited by James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny. These gentlemen, literature and writing professors at New Hampshire's Phillips Exeter Academy, collected 42 short stories to illustrate various narrative forms, bracketing them with short commentaries to create a textbook for students of fiction.

Photo by Sam Williams on Unsplash

With a range of authors from Edgar Allan Poe to John Updike, with section headings like "Interior Monologue," "Detached Autobiography," and "Anonymous Narration -- Dual Character Point of View," and with pedantic introductions to each section, it wasn't my usual reading experience. To be fair, it was published in 1966 when the expectations of the reading public were quite different and the average reader might have actually put time into something conceived as a textbook.

The editors described stories as systems of communication and knowledge (an idea that I may revisit in a later post). They presented this paradigm by way of, among other things, Jean Piaget's concept of "egocentric speech" (a child thinking aloud), Lev Vygotsky's "inner speech" (the ordered, informed thinking of an older person), and Henry James' "central intelligence" (an authority deciding which story will be told).

This collection is a useful starting point for those who've wondered about why authors choose a given narrative voice -- first, second, or third person; I/we, you, or he/she/they. I found it interesting to revisit how these choices have been used.

I, Me, Mine

When a story is told in first person, the "I" might be speaking with sincerity or humility; delivering a speech, monologue, or anecdote in a face-to-face situation; or narrating a sequence of events. "I" will be the voice of a biography or memoir, and "I" will always be subjective.

A lot of older fiction defaults to first-person narrative. Even when it's essentially a story told in the third person, the narrator introduces him/herself if only to explain how s/he came to tell the story. I have two theories about why this was so. One harkens back to the oral tradition of storytelling before literacy became widespread. Listening to a story was normal and comforting, and part of the interaction was a distinct sense of someone speaking to you. My other theory is that the omniscience of third-person storytelling seemed presumptuous or sacrilegious. How could a mere mortal know so much about everything? Did the storyteller imagine him/herself to be God?

One of the modern delights of first-person narrative is that it allows readers to put themselves in the hands of an unreliable narrator. More on that later.

First person plural is an unusual way to tell a story, but unless it's the royal or editorial "we" (a haughty perspective that may soon grow tiresome), this voice would normally suggest inclusion, the sound of a few or many acting and thinking as one. It's been used to good effect in science fiction written from the POV of a collective personality or aggregated intelligence.

You, the Listener

Second person is an odd way to tell a story (although more commonly used than "we"), but if "you" is the point-of-view pronoun, the speaker is either addressing "you" face to face or making assumptions from a place of higher knowledge.

I associate this narrative technique with mid-20th-century radio theater. It was a way of personalizing a story for listeners, instructing them what to observe, feel, and think just in case the stilted dialogue and creative Foley weren't doing the trick. It also fit in with the brash immediacy of crime stories and, by extension, the tough, unromantic personality of standard-issue detectives in the noir film genre that was emerging around the same time. One of the best-known examples of second-person narration comes from late in TV's Golden Age: Rod Serling as grim master of ceremonies for The Twilight Zone. "You are about to enter another dimension..."

But authors are ever inventive. I recently encountered a short story told in the second person as a way of never actually revealing the protagonist's gender or appearance. These things didn't matter to the story and might have gotten in the way if the reader had the opportunity to think about them.

Little Did He Know

Third person may be the most flexible way to narrate a story. Reading about the actions of "he/she/they" puts the audience outside of the characters in a place of detachment, observation, objectivity, and higher knowledge. The reader might be expected to assume things about the characters, or the author might dip into "his/her/their" thoughts, artificially transcending the existential human condition of never truly knowing another person.

In many ways, third-person narration became the standard mode of written storytelling by the 20th century. Moffett and McElheny call it "anonymous" narration and break it into categories of single-character, dual- or multiple-character, and no-character points of view. As a fiction writer myself, I prefer the term "omniscient," which focuses less on the narrator's lack of identity and more on his/her ability to present a bigger picture. As a reader, I prefer limited omniscience, which allows the narrator to describe what a character is thinking, experiencing, and maybe even missing, but without giving away the game through heavy-handed foreshadowing.

Whenever I think about heavy-handed foreshadowing, my mind immediately goes to Stranger Than Fiction, a 2006 rom-com in which the hapless protagonist discovers that he's a character in someone else's novel, and that author is struggling to kill him off creatively. He starts hearing her voice narrating his life, and the plot turns portentously on the overdone phrase "little did he know." I'm not really a fan of the rom-com genre, but I loved watching a film that took delight in the caricatures of a literary hack with writer's block and a lit professor who'd based a career on explicating the phrase "little did he know."

Trust Me on This One

Among my favorite stories in the Points of View anthology, two of the first-person stories stood out for me through the author's trick of choosing an unreliable narrator: Truman Capote's "My Side of the Matter" and Stephen Vincent Benét's "Too Early Spring."

Capote's narrator in "My Side of the Matter" is suspect from the very beginning: an arrogant, just-married teen moving into the home of his pregnant bride's family. It's 1940s Southern comedy-teetering-on-disaster as the nameless young man meets every gesture of disapproval (completely unjustified, he claims) with an escalation of petty hostility. The story ends at its climax, and while it's obvious that the outcome will be unpleasant, it's equally obvious that our not-so-humble narrator will be claiming his innocence to the bitter end.

Benét's narrator in "Too Early Spring" is a teenage boy recounting a love story. Chuck and Helen are all-American kids learning about themselves, small town life, and what love is. After they sweetly fall asleep in front of a fireplace, Chuck wakes from a bewildering dream to find Helen's parents accusing her of promiscuity that (in an almost throwaway sentence at the end of the story) Helen appears to consider rape. But Chuck narrates the long denouement like a kid falsely accused. Deflecting possible truth with elaborate excuses may have been a necessary publishing strategy in the early 1930s, yet it also illustrates the power of denial. Interestingly, when I first read this story as a teen, I completely believed the narrator's denial.

Systems of Communication

As a professional writer, my craft is based on the premise that information is most effectively transmitted in the context of telling a story, however subtly rendered. Writing fiction is the art through which I've honed this craft. And while the points of view examined above don't have a lot of direct relevance for writing a big slab of web copy or a punchy little tweet, I would argue that any system of communication works better when the communicators know what story their audience needs to hear, and what voice is best for telling that story.

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