Sunday, February 5, 2012

The POV Perplex

An introduction to Friedman’s chapter on POV

“The main issue seems to be whether the authorial presence should make itself known directly or not” - Norman Friedman

As with much in the field of narrative storytelling, narrative voice, meaning the various modes of point of view (hereinafter POV) have not been—cannot be—defined in such a way as to please everyone. First person narrator is pretty easy, but after that you pays your money and takes your choice. One writer’s third person limited is another’s close third person. Some consider neutral narrator and objective narrator the same thing while others make a distinction. You may find epistolary mode in the mix and wonder why. You may conclude that you misunderstood the concept somewhere along the line.

Consider for comparison how easy it is to define English tenses: if you google “simple present” or "how many English tenses are there?" you’re going to pretty much the same definition and the same list of tenses every time.1 Goggle "point of view in narrative fiction" and see what you get. The reason for the lack of simple definitions is that POV modes are not discrete; POV exists on a continuum. Moreover, third person POV shifts back and forth along that continuum from omniscient to close third person all the time, so to declare that a book is written in one mode or another is generalization that isn't very useful to writers.

But just because there is no convenient set of definitions doesn't mean that writers don't need to know what is meant by POV and how to use it. Because wrapping your head around the issue of POV—getting the complete picture—will change your life..

“The chief virtue of the narrative medium is its infinite flexibility, now expanding into vivid detail, now contracting into economical summary”

In fiction, the narrative voice is perceived to speak from a distance that is either closer or further from the one constant: the mind of the  protagonist. Thus "point of view" is a literal term, and "close" is going to always refer to "closer to the mind of the protagonist" and "omniscient" and "observer" are always going to be further away. Both academics and writers have written about POV since the beginning of the 20th century (when narrative omniscience began to fall out of favor), using whatever terminology seemed best to them. This trend continues.

My preferred breakdown of POV; the one that taught me the most as a writer and enabled me to discuss the subject with clients as an editor; is that of Norman Friedman, in his book Form and Content in Fiction. Although (perhaps because) he was not writing for writers, his analysis and explanations are comprehensive and full of specific examples. Moreover, he relates POV to issues such as showing versus telling and emotional engagement, with which it is inextricably interwoven; issues that are the meat and drink of good  writing technique. He comes down hard against the popular idea that the omniscient modes are flawed and should be avoided; he points out how often POV shifts in the third person; that no rules govern POV: that the writer’s choices either work or they don’t —or as he puts it “the thing has to look true, that is all.” You won’t find references to catchy terms like "bobbing heads" or a discussion of the pros and cons of outliers like first-person/second-person plural; Friedman is talking about the underpinnings of all narrative storytelling that have been at work since storytellers sat around the fire and spun their tales.

“These modes of rendering, the one second hand and indirect, the other immediate and direct, rarely occur in their pure form. Indeed the chief virtue of the narrative medium is its infinite flexibility, now expanding into vivid detail, now contracting into economical summary.”

It is my intent to—eventually—write about my experiences as an editor dealing with interesting POV issues my clients have dealt with over the years. But I feel it is impossible to do that without providing an overview of the subject as a stable point of reference. I have also long desired to share Friedman’s take on POV with other writers and editors, because I find it so helpful on both fronts. To that end, I have received permission from the publisher to reprint Friedman’s chapter on POV, and I am pleased to make it available here for the public. Moreover, this is the breakdown I use when I am communicating with writers, so they may find it of particular interest.

“Even the most concrete of scenes will require the exposition of some summary material”

As implied above, Friedman is an academician, and writes for an academic audience2. He quotes Aristotle and gives examples from nineteenth and early twentieth century authors who were themselves the first to stake a claim on the previously unexplored corners of POV-land. In short, this is about as far as you can get from tip-of-the-day-style writing advice. Moreover, as I am excerpting just the one chapter from the book, Friedman’s own definitions of terms and the foundational material in the first seven chapters are not her to frame his meaning. We arrive in the middle of the story, so to speak. Thus I provide below definitions for a few key terms and a simplified review of Friedman's take on POV as context for the excerpted chapter.

Even so, I have chosen to separate the three sections of the chapter, because the first and the last sections are somewhat opaque and may not be of interest to everyone. The actual breakdown is contained in Part 2 (POV II in the tabs at the top of the frame). So my advice is to read Part 2 first.

Definition of terms:

·      When Friedman writes about the “author-narrator” he refers to the narrator, the voice that tells the story (most applicable in omniscient modes), not to you, the writer, sitting at your computer.
·      Friedman makes a distinction between narration (i.e., what the omniscient narrator does) and imitation (i.e., what the writer does when she assumes the identity of a character in, for example, limited third person and first person modes). One of many ways to describe the two ends of the point-of-view continuum.
·      He introduces another opposition between scene and panorama. Scene (which happens at the imitation end) involves expanded writing and direct dramatization. Panorama (at the narration end) involves  condensed writing and indirect narration.
·      Likewise, subjective writing (identified with telling, a term you are no doubt familiar with) is differentiated from objective writing (identified with showing). Subjective writing is at the panoramic end of the continuum, while objective is at the scenic end.3

Narrative modes
In Part 2 of his chapter on POV, Friedman identifies seven narrative-voice modes, but is careful to point out that it’s possible to define others and that, moreover, within these modes, POV can shift from front to back, near to far. The modes are listed in order from panorama/condensed/indirect (distant from the protagonist) to scene/expanded/direct (close to the protagonist).

1.     Editorial Omniscience You may know this as omniscient narrator, third person omniscient, etc. Friedman also calls it the frameless frame.
2.     Neutral Omniscience Often called neutral narrator or third person neutral. Saga mode.
3.     “I” as Witness First person, but not from the POV of the protagonist. Sherlock Holmes mode.
4.     “I” as Protagonist First Person, from the POV of the protagonist. Also called  by Friedman, “protagonist narrator”
5.     Multiple Selective Omniscience What we call multiple POV these days. Friedman includes both third person and first person POV in this mode.
6.     Selective Omniscience Most commonly called limited third person these days, or close third person. Friedman calls it (and I love this) the reflecting consciousness.
7.     Dramatic Mode In effect, dialogue only; completely imitative and objective. I.e., not a narrative. A reference to the fact that with drama (meaning storytelling acted on a stage), the author has completely disappeared, with the scene being all there is.

Part 2 is a good place to start.

Part 1 is a study of POV from the early days of drama and narrative storytelling. It is enlightening to realize that what we take for granted now was considered novel a hundred years ago.

Part 3 has a lovely examination of what Friedman terms “consistency,” meaning consistency of characterization, attained when the writer can detach herself from her characters, fully objectifying them.

“Lack of consistency means loss of effect.”

1 Yes, I know, in England they call the progressive tense the continuous tense, etc. The point is that although grammarians will argue about what to call a tense, and, for example, whether or not to include the conditional tenses in the list, each term has a specific and clear meaning that can be easily illustrated by example.

2 No harm there. I think it’s extremely helpful for writers to read some writing theory now and then, to step back from the trenches of a daily writing quota and take some literary theory on board, just as I think it’s useful to read serious literary criticism.

3 This is the one that I found counter intuitive. It helps to realize that Friedman is using subjectivity in terms of the relationship between the narrator and the reader, not between the character and the reader. Apparently this is the terminology used in the academic world, so there it is. Friedman puts it this way: “Subjectivity refers to the interfering and summarizing authorial narrator and objectivity means the disappearance of the author”

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1 comment:

  1. This is excellent! I will share it tomorrow with the writing group I run. A professor of mine at Vermont College wrote a synopsis of Friedman's Forms of Plot that was very helpful.