Tag Archives: F. Scott Fitzgerald

What Is Your Point-of-View?

Selecting a point-of-view (POV) for your novel and a POV character for individual scenes in you novel are decisions that require careful thought. Before we get into what considerations you should weigh, let’s cover the basic  point-of-view options:

First person. This is the “I” POV. It has both advantages and disadvantages. The major advantage is that it lends an intimacy and immediacy to each scene. It also provides a consistent voice in the narration. It’s easier for the writer to write from one character’s perspective, rather than writing from the POV of multiple characters. The disadvantage is that the writer is limited to what the main character knows and sees. This restricts the author from developing subplots because the main character must be involved in all scenes.

Second person. This is the “You” POV. It is extremely rare in fiction. A scene written in the second person would go like this:

You woke up in a cold sweat. You knew something was wrong, even before you noticed your wife wasn’t in the bed next to you.

Among the problems with second person is that if the reader doesn’t identify with “you,” it takes her right out of the story.

Third person/objective: The writer is not in any of the characters’ heads. This POV requires the writer to write in precise detail. The writer must show and not tell. The disadvantage of this style is that it lacks intimacy.

Third person/omniscient. This is the “he” or “she” POV. The writer knows everything and can describe a scene from any character’s POV. The writer can even shift POV in the middle of a scene, something I don’t recommend. This is most effective when a writer seeks an authoritative voice.

Third person/limited omniscient. This similar to the omniscient POV with one important difference: each scene is told from a particular character’s POV. This is the most popular POV technique in fiction and the one with which most writers (myself included) feel the most
comfortable. The writer can place the reader in all of the characters’ heads.  The reader knows more than any of the characters.

Those are the basics. Here are some POV tips.

  • In selecting a POV for a novel, a writer must consider who can bring the most to the story and who the reader feels most strongly about. Sometimes it’s a bystander. I blogged about this recently, using the examples of Stingo in William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” and Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
  • The POV character should deliver the greatest emotional power and maximize the inner and outer conflicts of the story.
  • In writing a scene, my rule of thumb is to select a POV character based on who is most affected by the scene. A useful technique if you’re stuck is to write the same scene from multiple POVs and see which one works best. Or, maybe you want to keep them all. Tom Wolfe did this with one scene in The Bonfire of the Vanities, when the detective interviews Sherman. The scene is told first from Sherman’s POV and then from the detective’s POV. Why? I believe Wolfe was making the point about the disconnect between Sherman’s world of opulence and
    the way it was perceived by the common man (the detective).
  • One way to maintain the intimacy of first person POV, while avoiding some of its limitations is to use multiple first person POV characters. This is a difficult technique for the author, who still must keep straight what each character
    knows. It can also be confusing for the reader. The writer should clearly demarcate each scene or chapter to make it clear who is the first person POV character.
  • The third person/limited omniscient POV offers enormous flexibility to the writer. That’s why so many writers use it.

Steve Almond, writing in Writer’s Digest, cited several works using different POVs and posed this question: “In each of these works, the authors have used the same essential criterion: Does the chosen POV bring us closer to the turmoil of the fictional world in question? That’s really the only question that matters.

“Let me go a step further. What matters when it comes to POV isn’t what pronouns are being used, but what emotional posture the author has taken toward his characters, and what sort of narrative latitude the author desires,” Almond wrote.

He continued: “The trick to finding the right POV is striking this balance between intimacy and perspective. You want readers to care about your characters and understand how they experience the world. At the same time, authors have to present their own insights, either through direct exposition, ironic revelation or by shaping the story in such a way that the protagonist is forced to confront the truth as the world imposes it.”

It is a challenge for every writer, but the right POV can make the difference between a riveting story and a snoozer.

What is your favorite point-of-view? Do you use different POVs for each novel?



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The Narrator as Observer

The principal narrator of a novel is usually the main character. That goes without saying, right? However, some stories call for a different strategy: the narrator as observer. A popular example was William Styron’s classic 1979 novel, “Sophie’s Choice.” The story focuses on two young lovers, Nathan Landau and Sophie Zawistowski. The narrator is a young writer from Virginia named Stingo. He is a boarder at a rooming house in Brooklyn, New York, where Nathan and Sophie live together.

The story revolves around the relationship between Sophie, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, and Nathan, who poses as a Harvard graduate and a biologist. Nathan and Sophie befriend young Stingo. The reader finds out later that Nathan has invented his background and he is a paranoid schizophrenic. Nathan is at times generous and at other times abusive. Stingo finds out from Nathan’s brother that Nathan is schizophrenic and he has made up his career as a cellular biologist working on important medical research. Stingo and Sophie leave Brooklyn when Nathan, believing they are having an affair, threatens to kill Stingo. Sophie shares with Stingo her harrowing past as a concentration
camp survivor.

Without revealing any further plot details, Sophie’s “choice” refers to the dilemma when an individual must choose between two equally horrible alternatives. So why did Styron choose a character other than Nathan or Sophie as the main character?

As the narrator, Stingo described the events of the story years later when he was an older, successful novelist. He tied in his own family’s past history as slave owners in the South, which Stingo abhorred. I suspect Styron selected Stingo as the narrator because he is the only character who could view the relationship between Nathan and Sophie with some measure of objectivity. Stingo as narrator also underscored the theme of the universality of cruelty and racism. Nathan, as a Jew, is obsessed with and haunted by the holocaust. Sophie, as a Polish-Catholic, lost her family and suffered as a result of the tyranny of the Nazis. Stingo’s family also took part in the racist system of slavery.

Author Philip Roth has published eight novels where the character Nathan Zuckerman appears. In “American Pastoral,” Zuckerman is not a major character but is an observer/narrator. Swede Levov is the main character. Another famous example is Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, “The Great Gatsby.”

The narrator-observer technique creates distance between the reader and the main characters. Stingo cannot possibly know Nathan Landau’s true state of mind. What Stingo brings to the story is a greater degree of reliability. The reader trusts him. He can present the complex relationship between Nathan and Sophie in a way that neither of them can. Styron presents Stingo as an earnest and honest young man. He has an avid curiosity and he uncovers details about their relationship as he becomes a confidante, especially to Sophie.

The narrator-observer is an unusual narrative technique. It’s rarely used, but it can be an effective tool in a story where the main characters are too biased to reveal all of the dimensions of a novel.

Have you ever used the narrator-observer point-of-view? Can you think of other examples of this technique  in literature?


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