December 13, 2019

Putting the Elements of Point of View Together

This is the final post of a three-part series exploring the mechanics of point of view: what the elements are and how they can be manipulated for greater writing success.

I’ll break down the point of view elements in the Essayist Omniscient, Limited Third, and Central First Person POVs; show what a scene looks like rewritten in each; and then include an analysis about what each narrator’s perspective contributes to the scene.

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Putting Everything Together

If you need a refresher on the elements of point of view (and what they look like in individual execution), check out the links above! We’re diving right into one of the most distant POVs: Essayist Omniscient.

Essayist Omniscient POV Break Down

Here are the mechanical elements that structure the Essayist Omniscient point of view in the following example scene “August Troubles”:

Essayist Omniscient in "August Troubles"

The gravel road stretched out, splitting the field of overgrown grass in half. Tall trees lined the southern edge of the field and provided a shady covering for the road as it disappeared into darkness.

       Summer heat layered the air; it was a dry, blistering sort that depending on where you walked, made it hard to see, or hard to breathe, or neither at all, and instead just making the grass look like it swished even though there wasn’t a breeze to be had twenty miles around.

       The air reverberated with the shining hum of cicadas and, all in all, had an uneasy sort of lulling that put its passersby on edge, especially if they had to pop out midday.

       A man walked down the lane, his fedora soaked in a ring of sweat and his shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows. A wild look flashed through his eyes and ignited an urgency to his step.

       His name was Marcus Graham and he was a salesman, the type who went door to door selling necessities people couldn’t live without. And he wasn’t that bad either. Number two at his company. He usually had his traveling suitcase with him, but on this day he instead he carried a shovel. Things usually ended badly for him and today was no exception.

       Marcus narrowed his eyes, looked at his watch, and cut into the left field. He smiled to himself as he trampled down the grass, leaving a wide path behind him. They wouldn’t even see it coming. He would right the wrongs done to him. He’d show them.

       He broke through the tree line and was forced to pause so his eyes could adjust to the shadows. It would be too soon before he ever saw another housewife in her ridiculous curlers again. This wretched place on earth was about to be a nonexistent memory.

       He breathed in deeply and his mind shifted to a topic he often liked to reflect on. He was a single-minded man and saw it as the source of his inspiration and aim in life. Most of the people he came across were dull and complacent. It struck him that he was not entirely unlike the shafts of light breaking through a few branches, disrupting the cool mediocrity of humanity.

       His eyes barely adjusted, Marcus noticed the ground dropped off to reveal a small creek below. He launched himself down the soft bank and let the momentum carry him right through the ambling water. Yes, things would be very different for him. Soon, everything would be made right. 

       He barely felt the sodden weight of his muddied clothes, or the dirt crowding under his fingernails, as he scrambled up the other side.

       He stopped short.

       A woman in a yellow dress was digging a hole with her bare hands near a tall oak. Her brow was furrowed deep.

       “What are you doing here?”

       She started and then paused, as if gaining her composure. She turned and smoothed the side of her hair. Bits of dirt left a dusty smear on her temple.

       “Same as you,” she said.

       “Ellen, don’t start with me.” Marcus slammed his shovel into the ground. Her drawl was already grating his nerves. She wasn’t going to get it.

       Ellen stood, blocking the hole. Her face almost had a desperation to it. He nearly laughed aloud. Show the woman a little attention and now she wants everything.

       “We can do this together. Be together,” she said, her voice a little high.

       “No, no.” Marcus shook his head and inhaled. “You’d draw attention.”

       Ellen took a step forward. She shortened her drawl, sounding like folks up north. “I can blend in. I won’t stand out.” She smiled. “See?”

       Marcus moved to the right, angling to get a view of the hole, but Ellen shifted. Sweat ran down his forehead and made his eyes sting. This had gone on long enough. “It’s one thing to fake an accent. Another to convince people you are what they want,” he snapped. “You couldn’t even get Herman to marry you!”

       Ellen’s face went blank. The cicadas paused, just for a second, as they too had absorbed Marcus’ words. She stared at him empty-eyed and then blinked. She spun and reached down into the hole.

       “No! Don’t you dare!” Marcus lunged for her, but she darted to the side, her hand holding a blue object.

       “Ellen, don’t be stupid!”

       She knew she was a fool to think things would be different. She saw what he really thought of her now. She threw the object, intending to throw it into the creek, but she had never had a great arm. It hit the trunk of a maple tree near the bank’s edge and turned on, hovering midair.

       A large oval, ringed with fluid cords of white and blue, stood behind the object. Its center was misty, grey-like, and not all that entirely different from the way open fields look minutes after the breath of dawn.

       A fierce passion rose up in Ellen and she sprinted towards the portal. She had never felt so powerful, so fast before.

       Marcus screamed and surged after her. His fingers grazed her dress.

       Ellen clutched the object to her belly, not stopping, and vanished.

       The maple tree loomed in front of him and, before he could react, he clipped the trunk and went sprawling down the bank’s edge.  

       He splashed face first into the creek, water going up his nose and burning his lungs. He lurched onto the bank, coughing. His vision clouded and he tried to think over his gasping. The wretched woman left him. Left him. After all he had did for her. After all he could have done for her.

       He punched the water. She wouldn't survive one day without him. He wasn't going to be stuck here. There had to be another one.

Essayist Omniscient Scene Analysis

This Essayist Omniscient narrator doesn’t take Marcus Graham seriously. The narrator’s tone has a resigned amazement to it while still maintaining an unflappable demeanor (based on the more positive word choices used in descriptions).

Throughout the example, you can see the narrator contrasting his viewpoint with Marcus’ by the diction used. The narrator has a more reasonable and laid-back mindset, reflected in such  phrases as “and he wasn’t that bad either” and “ambling water.”

Marcus, on the other hand, plows through things and people, to get what he wants, regardless of the effect. His thoughts and dialogue show his myopic view.

Note how he also recklessly navigates the creek and its banks—this is dramatic irony wrapped in subtext. The reader sees what Marcus does not: not only are his problems of his own making, he is the problem itself.

Because the narrator is aware of Marcus’ disposition, his choices in shifting distance both physically and with revealing Marcus’ interiority are calculated. He generally tells the story from afar but does get close to reveal Marcus’ internal state.

The scene starts with Marcus in a bad mood; as the narrator wants to avoid initially deterring the reader, he does not share Marcus’ thoughts until they transition to a more “positive” state.

Instead, he uses the initial setting to reflect Marcus’ inner state and then asserts his own opinions about Marcus’ life; this lays the groundwork in persuading readers to adopt his view despite how little information they actually have to make an informed decision.

Then the narrator psychically shifts closer to share Marcus’ interiority, which gives the reader a solid opportunity to experience Marcus’ narcissism and piece together that his moods are unpredictable. It also prepares the reader for his end-of-scene response.

After Ellen is insulted, the narrator immediately switches to her view. This gives the reader an opportunity to experience why she does what she does, but also establishes distance from Marcus’ point of view. The reader already knows how he thinks so nothing new is going to be revealed during the climax of the story.

Also, jumping to Ellen’s viewpoint further reinforces the narrator’s unsympathetic position towards Marcus. When the very thing Marcus wants most is in jeopardy, the narrator stops the camera from revolving around him. The narrator only switches back when Marcus’ humiliating downfall and tantrum occurs.

Limited Third Person POV Break Down

Here are the mechanical elements that structure the Limited Third Person point of view in the following example scene “August Troubles”:

Limited Third in "August Troubles"

The gravel road stretched out, splitting the field of overgrown grass in half. Tall trees lined the southern edge of the field and made the road disappear into darkness.

       Summer heat layered the air; it was a dry, blistering sort that made it hard to see, hard to breathe, or neither at all, and instead making the grass look like it swished even though there was no breeze. The air reverberated with the shrill hum of cicadas.

       Marcus Graham walked down the lane, his fedora soaked in a ring of sweat and his shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows. Urgency ignited his step and he tightened his grip on the shovel he was carrying; it was splintery unlike the molded leather handle of his traveling suitcase.

       A wild look flashed through his eyes. He was glad Herman had finally kicked the bucket. Finally. He had never made things easy. Always made him wait. But now he wouldn’t need to go door to door anymore, selling things to housewives in their ridiculous curlers.

       Marcus narrowed his eyes, looked at his watch, and cut into the left field. They wouldn’t even see it coming. He would right the wrongs done to him. He’d show them.

       He trampled down the grass, leaving a wide path behind him, before shortly breaking through the tree line. He was forced to pause and let his eyes adjust to the shadows. He breathed in deeply and his thoughts brightened. He could be the best now. Well, he was the best. They just refused to acknowledge it.

       Shafts of light broke through a few leaves, disturbing the coolness, and he snorted at how he’d break up the stagnant mediocrity of humanity.

       His eyes barely adjusted, Marcus noticed the ground dropped off to reveal a small creek below. He launched himself down the soft bank and let the momentum carry him through the creek. Yes, things would be different for him. He was going to make great things happen. 

       Marcus barely felt the sodden weight of his muddied clothes, or the dirt filling his fingernails, as he climbed up the other side.

       He stopped short.

       Ellen was digging a hole with her bare hands near a tall oak. And she was wearing that silly yellow dress he had bought her. Her brow was furrowed deep.

       “What are you doing here?”

       She jumped and then paused, as if gaining her composure. She turned and smoothed the side of her hair. Dirt left a dusty smear on her temple. 

       “Same as you,” she said.

       “Ellen, don’t start with me.” He slammed his shovel into the ground. Her drawl was already grating on his nerves. She wasn’t going to get it.

       Ellen stood, blocking the hole. She reeked of desperation. Show the woman a little attention and now she wants everything. 

       “We can do this together. Be together,” she said, her voice a little high.

       “No, no.” Marcus shook his head and inhaled. “You’d draw attention.” 

       Ellen took a step forward. She shortened her drawl, sounding like people up north. “I can blend in. I won’t stand out.” She smiled. “See?”

       Marcus moved to the right, angling to get a view of the hole, but Ellen shifted. Sweat ran down his forehead and made his eyes sting. This had gone on long enough. “It’s one thing to fake an accent. Another to convince people you are what they want,” he snapped. “You couldn’t even get Herman to marry you!”

       Ellen’s face went blank. A sudden silence hit his ears and he realized the cicadas had ceased their whine. Of course. Nature was on her side.

       The cicadas started back up.

       Ellen blinked just then, spun, and reached down into the hole.

       “No! Don’t you dare!” Marcus lunged for her, but she darted to the side, her hand holding a blue object.

       “Ellen, don’t be stupid!”

       She threw the object in the direction of the creek. It hit the trunk of a maple tree near the bank’s edge and turned on, hovering midair.

       A large oval, ringed with fluid cords of white and blue, stood behind the object. Its center was a misty, grey-like color.

       Marcus felt his jaw drop. So that’s what it loo—

       Ellen sprinted towards the portal.

       He heard himself screaming and surged after her, his muscles burning to catch up. His fingers grazed her dress.

       She vanished.

       The maple tree loomed in front of him and, before he could react, he clipped the trunk and went flying down the bank’s edge.  

       He splashed face first into the creek, water going up his nose and burning his lungs. He lurched onto the bank, coughing. His vision clouded and he tried to think over his gasping. The wretched woman left him. Left him. After all he had did for her. After all he could have done for her.

       He punched the water. She wouldn't survive one day without him. He wasn't going to be stuck here. There had to be another one. 

Limited Third Person Scene Analysis

This narrator has a very different persona from the Essayist Omniscient narrator; his primary motivation in determining what details to share with the reader is now completely different. As the narrator is impartial to Marcus, his focus is painting a medium-distanced, vivid picture of a living and breathing character to engage the reader.

He holds back his thoughts and opinions to let the reader decide for herself if she likes or finds Marcus interesting as a character. So the narrator’s word choices—outside of Marcus’ interiority—are more neutral than what the Essayist Omniscient narrator used.

Notice how information is shuffled around in the beginning of the scene. It’s not in the same order as in the Essayist Omniscient example. He isn’t concerned about downloading backstory or asserting an opinion, but instead weaves in a relevant detail here and there to guide the reader.

Look at how he exercises his limited omniscience about Marcus’ life without accessing the character’s interiority: “Urgency ignited his step and he tightened his grip on the shovel he was carrying; it was splintery unlike the molded leather handle of his traveling suitcase.

The italicized portion of the sentence is the narrator revealing details about Marcus’ life—it is not Marcus sharing his thoughts on the handle and suitcase. If it were, it would read something like, “Marcus tightened his grip on the shovel and felt four or five splinters sink into his palm. He wished for the worn leather handle on his traveling suitcase.

The narrator also limits himself to only Marcus’ point of view; he never enters Ellen’s. He starts from afar to capture the scene’s setting but quickly drops down to a middle and then close level to introduce Marcus and his state of mind. The narrator then slides back and forth as needed in the middle and (occasionally) close levels, judiciously regulating the dose of Marcus’ interiority.

When compared with the Essayist Omniscient example, a great deal of information about Ellen’s personal experience is lost because the scene is only viewed from Marcus’ perspective.

While information about Ellen’s interiority can be conveyed via her facial expressions, body language, and dialogue to communicate what is likely going on in her head, here, a bit of the tension fizzles out when she starts sprinting. Let me explain.

The narrator is attached at the hip to Marcus and so he sees what Marcus sees: her back. The reader doesn’t get to see from Ellen’s eyes that she clutches the blue object to her belly as she runs headlong into the portal.

That particular visual is exciting because the reader experiences what both characters are doing at nearly the same time. With how the characters (and narrator) are positioned in this scene, the reader can only visualize that she simply vanishes. 

Central First Person POV Break Down

Here are the mechanical elements that structure the Central First Person point of view in the following example scene “August Troubles”:

Central First Person in "August Troubles"

The gravel road stretched out before me, splitting the field of overgrown grass in half. I concentrated on the field’s southern tree line, ignoring the stabbing pains from the sharp gravel. The shrill whine of the cicadas filled my mind. 

       Herman was dead. Finally. He had never made things easy for me. Always made me wait. With him out of the way now, I wouldn’t have to go door to door anymore. I could make this miserable part of the earth with its idle housewives in their curlers a nonexistent memory. 

       A heat wave rolled off the grass and hit me. The skin on my cheeks pulled tight. My head felt stifled, but I refused to adjust my fedora and tightened my grip on the shovel I was carrying. 

       I narrowed my eyes and looked at my watch. I cut into the left field, trampling down the grass as I headed for the tree line. Things would be different. Oh yes sir, they would. I could be the best now. Well, I was the best. They just refused to acknowledge it. I’d show them how it was done.

       I broke through the trees and was forced to stop. It was either blinding sun or absolute darkness, never anything in between. I’d take them out with a clean blow. They wouldn’t even see it coming. Shafts of light punctured through a few leaves, giving the dimness a stagnant warmth. I snorted at how I’d break up the stagnant mediocrity of humanity.

       There was no time to waste. I could just make out that the ground ahead of me dropped off to reveal a small creek. Good. Almost there. I launched myself down the soft bank and let the momentum carry me through the water. Great things were about to happen.

       I felt slightly out of breath as I climbed up the other side.

       I stopped short.

       Ellen. She was digging a hole with her bare hands near a tall oak. And wearing that yellow dress I had bought her. Did she really think—

       “What are you doing here?”

       She jumped and then froze. She almost made me repeat myself, but she then turned and smoothed the side of her hair. Dirt marked her forehead.

       “Same as you,” she said. 

       “Ellen, don’t start with me.” I slammed the shovel into the ground. Her drawl was already grating on my nerves. I exhaled deeply. She wasn’t going to get it.

       Ellen stood, blocking the hole. "Marcus, we can do this together. Be together,” she said, her voice a little high.

       The woman reeked of desperation. “No, no.” I shook my head. “You’d draw attention.”

       Ellen took a step forward. She shortened her drawl, sounding like folks up north. “I can blend in. I won’t stand out.” She smiled. “See?”

       I moved to the right, angling to see the hole, but she shifted her stance. Sweat ran down my forehead and made my eyes sting. This had gone on long enough. Time to move on. “It’s one thing to fake an accent. Another to convince people you are what they want,” I snapped. “You couldn’t even get Herman to marry you!”

       Ellen’s face went blank. The whining buzz in the air suddenly ceased. Of course. Even nature sided with her.  

       The cicadas started up their hum again and I ground my teeth.

       Ellen blinked just then, spun, and reached down into the hole.

       “No! Don’t you dare!” I lunged for her, but she darted to the side, her hand holding a blue object.

       “Ellen, don’t be stupid!”

       She threw the object in the direction of the creek. It hit the trunk of a maple tree near the bank’s edge and turned on, hovering midair.

       A large oval, ringed with fluid cords of white and blue, stood behind the object. Its center was a misty, grey-like color.

       I felt my jaw drop. So that’s what it loo—

       Ellen sprinted towards the portal.

       I heard myself screaming and surged for her, my muscles burning to catch up. My fingers grazed her dress.

       She vanished.

       The maple tree loomed in front of me. I clipped the trunk, flying down the bank’s edge.

       I splashed face first into the creek, water going up my nose and burning my lungs. I lurched onto the bank, coughing. My vision clouded and I tried to think over my gasping. That wretched woman left me. Left me. After all I had did for her. After all I could have done for her.

       I punched the water. She wouldn’t survive one day without me. I wasn’t going to be stuck here. There had to be another one. 

Central First Person Scene Analysis

This narrator has access to only one viewpoint: his. Marcus-as-the-narrator is telling Marcus-as-the-character’s story to the reader. When compared with the prior examples, the presentation of his viewpoint is slightly more intense. This occurs for two reasons.

First, the chronological distance between Marcus-as-the-narrator and Marcus-as-the-character is immediate, which means his narrative is short-sighted and emotionally intense. There is no time for Marcus-as-the-narrator to decompress, gain hindsight, and then incorporate those insights into his narrative.

Second, he is wholly unreliable as a narrator; narcissists mask their extreme insecurity with arrogance to compensate for how they feel about themselves. Part of this involves making everything about them. From his narrative, the reader is led to believe some wrong has been done to him and that he’s a little bitter about it, when in actuality, he is operating from a perceived injustice. 

Marcus-as-the-narrator knows he has a balancing act to manage in getting the reader to sympathize with his situation without alienating her.

In an effort to make the reader feel concern toward him, he uses word choices that ultimately end up revealing unpleasant qualities about himself. While this is clearly reflected in Marcus-as-the-character’s interiority, notice how the narrative describes the initial setting.

Marcus-as-the-narrator makes sure the reader has a tangible grasp on the physical setting, and then combines it with strong sensory words so the reader can vicariously experience his misery: stabbing, shrill whine, hit, pulled tight, stifled.

But he knows he can’t let the reader see who he really is, so Marcus-as-the-narrator attempts to create emotional distance by using filter words, such as noticed, felt, heard, etc.

While operating from a middle narrative distance is often unnecessary in first person as the reader intuitively understands the narrator is experiencing what he shares with the reader, Marcus chooses to insert them to out of desperation to be liked.

He fails miserably, of course, and the reader sees him as he truly is.

Customizing Point of View

Wondering about the other common point of view types (Authorial Omniscient, Objective Third Person, Deep POV, Second Person, and Peripheral First Person)?

I’ve included example scenes—including a brand new one revisiting the velociraptor example from part 1—in The Many Names of Point of View cheat sheet! Just subscribe to get access.

Now that you have an idea of how to adjust the mechanics of point of view and seen several typical constructions, I think it’s important to mention that just because you can customize POV, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

There is a reason why we have the common POV types. The authors who’ve gone before us have figured out the best and easiest combinations to work with. Most of the time a tried and true point of view will be the most appropriate fit for your story.

But sometimes not. If none of them seem to work, play around with a few of the elements. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the next Jay McInerney (author of the much referenced second person point of view Bright Lights, Big City).

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Writing The Treasure Hunter revealed several little-known truths about creating a story. In the context of sharing my short story's creation process, I will explore these important truths. Truths like your premise can change multiple times. Or, your beta readers can unknowingly help you discover your artistic goals. Or, joy keeps your writing standard high.

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