30 July 2010

From the Archives: Off the Beaten Path of POV

There is a lot to be said for the mainstays of point of view. First person offers the richness of voice and an unparalleled intimacy. It is as if the character is telling you—you!—the story directly, taking you into confidence. Third person has a thrilling range of possibilities, where you choose how much access the reader has to the characters’ inner worlds. But there are several strategies that exist off the beaten path that are worth a look.

Second Person

Second person is cropping up as a more popular experimental form, but it still isn't all that prevalent. Junot Diaz's short story "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie" is an example of this approach:

Wait for your brother and your mother to leave the apartment . . . Clear the government cheese from the refrigerator. If the girl's from the Terrace stack the boxes behind the milk. If she's from the Park or Society Hill hide the cheese in the cabinet above the oven, way up where she'll never see. Leave yourself a reminder to get it out before morning or your moms will kick your ass.

Notice how the "you" character is a specific and individual person. Second person can be an evocative approach, immediately bonding the reader to the character. It is certainly an interesting and unexpected place to situate the reader. Be careful, as some readers can find this off-putting or gimmicky and the approach—in its uniqueness—has the potential to take over the story itself.

Serial First Person and Serial Third Person Limited

A serial approach is essentially a series of either first person or third person limited perspectives. One chapter or section is in one character's perspective and the next chapter or section shifts to another character's perspective. Russell Banks' novel The Sweet Hereafter is an example of serial first person. The first chapter is told in first person from Delores' perspective. The second chapter is told entirely from Billy's perspective. And so on.

This strategy combines the intimacy of a more limited point of view strategy with the sweep and scope of omniscience. It is important to choose scope carefully when using this strategy. You need to tell a story that demands many perspectives. In Banks' The Sweet Hereafter, for example, the novel follows a town's journey after the loss of most of their children in a bus accident.

First Person Speaking Directly to a Second Person

This strategy employs not only a specific narrator, but also a specific listener. A first person character is speaking directly to another character, one who is clearly defined in the story. David Benioff's short story "Neversink" uses this approach, with a first person narrator addressing the story directly to his former lover:

I got your number from Michael and called you the next night, but you were busy that week, and busy the week after, and I resigned myself to never seeing you again. But then you called me, one month after the birthday party, and invited me to watch the meteor shower.

"It's supposed to be best right after sunset," you told me.

"Meet me in Sheep Meadow."

The sun was nearly down. I brushed my teeth while showering and the sky was still bright as I climbed down the stairs to my subway station. Thirty minutes later I was stumbling over angry meteor watchers in Sheep Meadow. I had forgotten to ask you where to meet, and the Meadow is huge, especially on a moonless night. I thought I saw you lying belly-down on a blanket and I leaned close to make sure.

There is an intimacy to this approach that lets the reader eavesdrop, listening in on heartfelt words aimed directly at a specific listener. It also allows for a different intensity of emotion in that the reader knows who the intended listener is and—eventually—the implication of that. It is vital to eliminate all traces of over-explanation in this approach. Sharing information with the reader without making all the prose sound heavy handed—a speaker telling a listener information she would clearly already know—can be difficult.

What are you favorite reads that use a point of view strategy off the beaten path? Do you experiment with this in your own writing?

1 comment:

Indigo Girl said...

Thanks for this from the archives, Brandi--I always seem to need a refresher on POV!