Craft: POV and Style

June 29th, 2006

Dani asked about an article on POV I mentioned. I backtracked through a couple of links, and found the original source, which did not forbid copying. My assumption on public boards is that it’s okay to repost, with full attributions.

This article is quite long, so here’s just the first segment, on third person limited, and when it’s okay to break the rules:

AWP: The Writer’s Chronicle — Essays, Interviews, Articles, Inspiration




The Writer’s Chronicle

From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance & Point of View in Fiction


David Jauss

September 2000

In his story “Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway places us at a table outside a train station in Spain. Sitting at the table beside us are a man and a woman who are waiting for the train to arrive, and for the bulk of the story, we eavesdrop on their conversation, just as we might in real life. And also just as in real life, we cannot enter into their minds; we can only hear what they say and see what they do. This objective point of view is called “dramatic,” for it imitates the conventions of drama, which does not report thoughts, only words and deeds.

Like a play, Hemingway’s story consists largely of dialogue. At first, the dialogue is the smallest of small talk—the man and the woman discuss what they should drink, etc.—but there is some tension between them, something unmentioned that lurks beneath their trivial conversation, and our interest is piqued. Two pages into this five-page story, the man finally broaches, however indirectly, the subject that is causing their tension: the woman is pregnant, and she wants to have the baby and he doesn’t. Though the man says repeatedly that he is “perfectly willing” to go through with the pregnancy, he is doing his best to pressure her into having an abortion. Eventually, his protestations of selfless concern for her wear out her patience, and she asks him to “please please please please please please please stop talking.” The conversation over, he picks up their suitcases and carries them to the other side of the station, and we follow him there.

At this point in the story, Hemingway momentarily abandons the dramatic point of view and tells us the man “looked up the tracks but could not see the train.” In this sentence, Hemingway reveals something that cannot be externally observed—what the man was unable to see—and so moves us a little way into his mind, reducing the distance between us and him ever so slightly. And two sentences later, Hemingway completes the segue that sentence begins, taking us even farther inside the character and reducing the distance significantly. He writes that the man “drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train.” Notice that word reasonably. This word violates the objective, dramatic point of view even more than the statement that the man did not see the train, for it tells us not just what the man sees—or, in this case, fails to see—but the man’s opinion about what he sees. Just as Hemingway could have written “He looked up the tracks” without going on to tell us whether or not the man saw the train, he could have written simply “They were all waiting for the train” without conveying the man’s opinion that they were all waiting “reasonably.”

If Hemingway had done this, he would have maintained consistency of point of view, and according to virtually every discussion of the subject I have ever read or heard, consistency of point of view is an essential element of good fiction writing. But for my money, the word reasonably is the most important word in the story and Hemingway’s shift in point of view is the single smartest move in a story full of smart moves. In the context of their argument over the abortion, this word implies that the man considers the woman unreasonable, unlike the people in the bar—and, of course, unlike him. This implication complicates the story considerably and thereby rescues it from potential melodrama. How does the word reasonably complicate the story? Although it’s clear that the man is trying to manipulate the woman into doing what he wants—all the while absolving himself of any responsibility for the decision—it isn’t clear whether he is consciously doing so. If he is, he would be a relatively simple villain, and the woman, who agrees to have the abortion, a relatively simple victim. The story would veer therefore in the direction of melodrama, which thrives on the simple, knee-jerk emotions that result from the mistreatment of victims by villains. But if the man believes what he is saying, then he is a relatively complex character, someone whose behavior stems from self-delusion, not one-dimensional villainy, and the story immediately becomes too complex to evoke the simple responses of melodrama. It is essential, then, that the reader knows what the man thinks about himself and the woman. If Hemingway had maintained the dramatic point of view throughout, as most commentators on point of view would recommend, we would never know whether the man was a conscious, Machiavellian villain or a self-deluded person. But Hemingway wisely shifts his point of view, twice moving into the character to reveal, with increasing depth, the man’s thoughts. In my opinion, this is a brilliant example of how a writer can use the technical resources of point of view to manipulate distance between narrator and character, and therefore between character and reader, in order to achieve the effect he desires.

If anyone finds this helpful, I will post more. (Next is a piece by Chekhov, and then it goes into various levels of omni)

If anyone finds this helpful, I will post more. (Next is a piece by Chekhov, and then it goes into various levels of omni)

If anyone finds this helpful, I will post more. (Next is a piece by Chekhov, and then it goes into various levels of omni)

If anyone finds this helpful, I will post more. (Next is a piece by Chekhov, and then it goes into various levels of omni)

5 Responses to “Craft: POV and Style”

  1. L.N. Hammeron 29 Jun 2006 at 11:46 pm

    Quite helpful, actually.


  2. Danion 30 Jun 2006 at 12:47 am

    As Larry says, this is very helpful. Please do post more. This is very intriguing

  3. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 30 Jun 2006 at 3:20 am

    Yes, do post more of it, Sherwood.

    By the bye, I took the liberty of pulling the odd line returns out of the sample you posted so it’s now in proper paragraphs.

  4. Sherwood Smithon 01 Jul 2006 at 5:20 pm

    Thanks, Kevin! (I am a real dork with this computer stuff. Like, I cannot figure out how to put my book up on that category, but what the hay.)

  5. RedMollyon 02 Jul 2006 at 3:07 pm

    This is wonderful–incredibly useful. Thanks!

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