I’ve recently been engaged in furthering my education in the field of prose. I’m finding some of the terminology going over my head in the same manner poetry’s highbrow language once did. I recall my early days here thinking no one spoke English. I understood nothing when people here spoke to me. All the talk of enjambment, alliteration, consonance, assonance and metaphorical, orgasmatronic peeinonamee just left me blank. Apparently some of these fancy acts of poetic legerdemain had spewed right out of my own quill, AND it was a good thing.
“Well, Mikey, I understand you’re quite the cracker jack story teller. How’s about you knock me off a quick story in third person omniscient point of view, present tense? Now, not too much exposition, lean heavily on narrative. Something simple, a group of thugs robbing a liquor store. Piece of cake, right? I’ll give you an hour. Say … five hundred to a thousand words.”
Of course, I’m on my way to the 5-7-5 Funny Animal prompt post haste. Yep, I don’t have a damn clue what was just asked of me. Could I write a story about a group of thugs robbing a liquor store? Five hundred to a thousand words? In an hour? Sure, I could do that. But, the three dudes exposing themselves in a tub at the Omni-max? I haven’t a clue how that would interest me. I don’t even know their names.
For me, learning has to start at the most basic premises. Computers? You need to start with the part about PLUGGING THEM IN. Yeah, I do need to know that. It doesn’t do anything if you don’t plug it in first. Is it in the instructions? Nope.
Well, I’ve learned a little about this subject. Let me try and explain what I’ve learned so far. First of all, POV? That stands for “point of view”. Quite a few people tried to explain POV to me. Finally, I had to ask one of them, “what in hell does POV mean?” That finally put me on the road to learning.
Point of view is where something is being seen from, specifically the set of eyes through which events are being viewed. In writing prose there are three basic points of view: First Person, Second Person and Third Person. I’m going to focus on First and Third simply because those are the two most stories and novels are written with. We can leave second person for the time being for another time.
First person. I’m very familiar with this. It turns out, everything I’ve written up until the last two weeks has been in first person. First person in the simplest terms is YOU telling the story. It’s you or you pretending to be someone else i.e. the character in your story who is the one who sees everything and tells the reader about it. I always think of myself as a reporter telling everyone what I see, hear, feel, think, taste, smell, in fact anything that occurs to me that I think might relate to the story and move it along.
So, I can tell you what the sunset looks like, how the sunset makes me feel and how the temperature drops when the sun goes down. I can say it reminds me of watching the sun set with my girlfriend twenty years ago and how it felt to kiss her. In other words, anything I see or think or remember. Basically anything in my head can be related to you the reader.
Sounds pretty cool, like I can do anything I want. There are drawbacks though. You can hear a conversation between two people and tell us what you heard them say. You can tell us what they look like. You can tell us what you know about them. Maybe they’re friends you’ve known for years. Or, maybe they’re strangers you’ve never met, you can tell us that too. You can tell us the car you see rolling down the road towards a cliff is their car and describe their reaction as it plunges off the cliff.
Here’s some drawbacks. You can’t tell me what other people are thinking. You can’t tell me what they are doing unless you are actually watching them do it yourself. In other words, if they leave your sight, you can’t tell us anything about their activities because you can’t see what they are doing anymore. Remember, you can’t tell me about things you, yourself, can’t see firsthand. You could speculate. You could say something like, “I bet those two are making out in his old car and getting drunk.” You can imagine, yes. But you can’t know because you can’t see them. The best you can do is guess.
It’s still a pretty cool way to tell a story and you can tell tons of stories in first person. Usually the star of your story is the story teller.
Joe Story as it were. “Hi, I’m Joe Story. I found my wife’s body at the foot of the stairs. I don’t know how she got there, but I’m not going to rest until I find out.”
And there you go. Joe Story is going to go places and see things and talk to people. He’s going to hear things and watch people do things. He’s going to remember the good times with his wife. He’s going to share his heartache with you. He’s going to solve the mystery and tell you everything that’s happening along the way. You’re going to go on the quest with him. That’s first person point of view.
One of the things you notice about first person is that the story teller is always saying “I” or “Me” or “My”. “I saw her at the foot of the stairs. It broke my heart. What would happen to me now without my beloved wife to take care of me.”
That brings us to third person. A third person is a set of eyes that isn’t a part of the story. A third person’s only job is to look through one of the character’s eyes and tell you what that character sees, hears, thinks, etc. Third person is also a common way to tell a story and it can be a more versatile way. I think of a third person as an invisible ghost. Some people just think of God. The ghost or God is similar to the first person. They know everything about the person whose eyes they are looking through.
I like to envision my ghost actually going up to the character and standing beside them. Maybe he’ll start off by describing the character.
“Mary was a tiny thing. Maybe five feet tall on a good day. She was a doll though and men were attracted to her. She was shy and didn’t realize just how attractive she was. That only added to her beauty.”
Right here is an advantage to third person. If Mary told this story, it would be a pretty vain gal who described HERSELF as a “doll who men were attracted to, shy who just didn’t realize how attractive she was, a quality only adding to her beauty”.
Now, so far this is third person, but it is “limited”. It’s very much like first person. We are LIMITED to what Mary can see, hear, feel, think, etc. Mary doesn’t know any more than Joe Story what goes on around the block. So, you can see how similar the two points of view are.
So here we have someone, a ghost or God, telling the story from Mary’s point of view. That’s third person. Since it’s ONLY Mary, it’s limited, limited to Mary. Third Person Limited.
That brings us to the crazy talk I first heard that sent me off writing this. Third Person Omniscient.
It still sounds pretty wild and mysterious, yes? Well, we know what third person is now. So we are left with omniscient. What does omniscient mean?
Omniscient means: all seeing. One who is omniscient sees and knows everything. What the story teller in third person limited knows about Mary, this dude knows about EVERYBODY!
Imagine Mary, John and Billy sitting at a table. Our story teller, the Ghost or God, is sitting by Mary observing through her eyes like it was earlier.
(The Ghost is sitting by Mary) Boy, Billy is getting fat. But John is looking good. I sure miss Clarence though. Both of these guys put together don’t equal him.
So far so good. We’re familiar with this style, yes? All is well, Mary is telling the story like we have seen before. Now, for a little trick.
(The Ghost gets up and goes and sits by Billy.) Billy sees Mary looking at him. He can feel the wheels turning in her head. I know damn well she’s thinking I’m fat. What’s knew, Mary? Don’t you think I knew that? I guess Johnny here’s more to your liking.
(Now, the Ghost gets up again and goes and sits by John). Jeesh. Mary staring at me again. Maybe I should tell her, there’s no one for me but Billy. But I haven’t even told Billy. "So, you talked to Clarence lately, Mary. I can’t believe you two aren’t going to get back together.”
(The Ghost scurries over beside Mary.) “Hell no. He dumped me, he can go to hell.” Mary talked a good game, but her heart was aching for Clarence. She’d have him back in a heartbeat.
(The Ghost gets up and sits by John.) “Oh I don’t think you mean that, Mary”. What the hell’s wrong with me. A couple pounds’ overweight? At least I’d treat you right….
Get the gist of it? The story teller, the Ghost or God or whatever you wish to envision, is able to see from everybody’s point of view. The dude knows EVERYTHING. He knows what’s in everyone’s head, what everyone’s thinking, what everyone sees and every fact about every life from the day they were born. Hell, he knows that Bruce is in his Ford Ranchero on his way there with a gun even while they talk.
As you can see, third person omniscient has endless possibilities. BUT, it can sure turn into a big mess in a hurry. If you aren’t careful your reader’s head will start spinning trying to follow what’s going on and they’ll end up clueless. So, it has drawbacks too.
I left second person as it’s seldom used in any kind of creative writing. But the key word is “You”. Here’s a short sample, just to give you an idea:
“You think it’s going to be a sunny day and it turns out you should’ve brought your umbrella. But, making bad decisions is something you’ve gotten used to over the course of your life. You’re what they call a born loser….”
Hopefully, I haven’t made the issue even more confusing than it was before. Talking it out like this is the best way for me to learn it. I hope at least a few people will benefit in the same way. For those of you who already know all of this, is my writing soooo entertaining you have made it all the way to the end? It is? Wow. Thank you so much. I’m sure you understand I was just kidding about the money….