This is the first in a series of posts about point of view. Inspired by my MA studies, I’d like to share with you all I know about this fascinating subject – which is one many writers struggle with, but if used well can lift an ordinary story up into magnificence!

Part One – Third Person Viewpoint and Free Indirect Style

Point of view in fiction is a thorny subject, and one that is often misunderstood. I recently read an article by Tahlia Newland, where she talks about ‘head hopping’ – where point of view (POV) is not clearly defined, and isn’t used to best effect by the writer. If you’re unclear about basic third person POV, or want to know more about head hopping and why it’s considered bad form, have a read of Tahlia’s article.

I agree that POV needs to be used for maximum effect, and that switching between characters within the same paragraph isn’t the best way to control a reader’s experience of your story. It’s also one of my pet hates. On saying that, I recently read a book where the author did just this, but because she did it consistently, and because each character was so well-drawn and defined, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment at all.

What I want to focus on in this post is how to use third person viewpoint to draw the reader in to your fictional world completely – to make them believe they are right inside a character’s mind, seeing the world through her eyes, experiencing events as they happen without anything getting in the way. And what could get in the way, you ask? Apart from the head hopping mentioned earlier, the other thing to watch out for is the intrusion of the narrator’s voice.

What do I mean by narrator’s voice? Well, look at it this way – who is telling the story? You are, of course, but in the world of the story, who is telling it to the reader? If your book uses first person POV then it’s obvious – it’s the character who is talking, telling his or her story directly to the reader. But if you use a third person viewpoint, then who is speaking, writing, relating the story on the page? Often the author is quite visible in fiction, with language and choice of phrase consistent with the writer, not necessarily the characters. A classic example is the vivid, writing-workshop-esque description of a landscape, not seen through a character’s eyes but placed into the story because the writer wants the reader to ‘see’ the setting. This is the omniscient viewpoint in action (more on this in future posts), and while often effective, it removes the reader from the action, rather than shoving her slap bang into the middle of it.

Now imagine seeing a landscape entirely through a character’s eyes. It’s a landscape where something is happening – there’s a point to its description, it’s not just there to look pretty or show off the writer’s gift for metaphor. Our hero, Bettina, is arriving at university for the first time. It’s a historic building, and the omniscient viewpoint would describe the stunning architecture, the colour of the stone, the history of its construction.

And then there’s really good third person viewpoint:

“Bettina stood in the middle of the scavenging pack, searching for clues to where she should be right now. Freshers’ Fair – a free-for-all of pounding music, insistent voices, tiny carrier bags crammed with free gifts, and improbable societies touting for members. The walls of the quadrant closed in above her, tobacco yellow; stained, perhaps, with souls of students who had failed to thrive … She joined a queue for who-knew-what, and waited, dazed. The stone path at her feet was littered with flyers; the arched entrance had disappeared completely. What would it be like to live here, day after day? The noise, the smell of hot, competitive need – after the country it was anathema to her.”

There is nothing in this piece that Bettina doesn’t see or think. She’s an intelligent, well-read young woman, and what she notices is that which is interesting to her. (I couldn’t resist describing the colour of the stone!)

Notice something else about the passage above: The second to last sentence is an example of free indirect speech. “What would it be like to live here, day after day?” There is no “she wondered” after this, or “Bettina thought”. Writing in this way puts the reader inside her thoughts – who else, after all, could be asking this question? The narrator, perhaps. But the narrator is nearly invisible here – it’s as if the reader is the one observing her. Now add the following statement to the end of that piece: “Little did Bettina know that university was about to get much, much worse …”

Arghh … I’m in physical pain right now. I can’t stand author intrusions like this*, and although many writers seem to think this is a good way of introducing tension – a foretelling of traumas to come – it isn’t. It’s a bad way, a lazy way, and it pulls the reader out of the story by her hair.

Before I finish, here is another explanation of free indirect speech:

Direct speech = ‘Why is Tommy wearing that penguin outfit?’ she asked.
Indirect speech = Why was Tommy wearing a penguin outfit, she wondered.
Free indirect speech = And why on earth was Tommy wearing a penguin outfit?

Next book you read, watch out for free indirect speech, or style, and notice the effect it has on you as a reader.

* The only time this kind of statement can work is if your story is narrated in first person POV, and your narrator is telling the story of what happened to Bettina. But then you have another set of problems – how can the narrator know so much about what Bettina is thinking? As a reader you’d have doubt the truth of some of the narrator’s story, which brings us to the idea of the unreliable narrator – a topic for another post!

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