A couple of weeks ago, I spent three days at the Elgin Literary Festival, and one of the highlights for me was meeting Christopher Castellani. He’s the author of three novels (All This Talk of Love, The Saint of Lost Things, A Kiss From Maddalena,) a Guggenheim fellow, and the artistic director of GrubStreet.
He’s also written a terrific book, The Art of Perspective: Who Tells The Story, which tackles choosing and using point of view in fiction.
One of the most important choices you make when writing a novel is deciding who tells the story. When writing The Great Gatsby did Fitzgerald choose to tell the story from Gatsby’s point of view? No. He selected Nick Carraway. And he did this for a very specific reason.
Because Nick is an outsider to the glamour of Gatsby’s world, he can more fully represent us, the reader. His journey is our journey. Despite the fact that he’s the “narrator,” he’s also the protagonist and has a strong transformation. Nick tells the story looking back to the past because memory is a huge theme in the book, and it allows him (he doesn’t witness all the events) to piece things together from what he’s heard from others. This lends a mythic quality to the story. Do you see how selecting Nick as the narrator who tells the story looking backward creates a very particular experience for the reader?
Deciding who tells your story is your narrative strategy. And Castellani says that if you don’t know why your story is told from a certain point of view, then you don’t have a narrative plan. The perspective through which you filter your story should support your themes, the emotional core of the narrative, and also offer access to information you want the reader to have.
Once you choose who tells your story, Castellani lays out a way to understand perspective as being on a continuum of “intimacy” to “distance” between the author and reader.
He stresses that neither approach is ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ but should serve the themes and access you want to give your reader.
Here’s an example to show how perspective works…
Highly filtered consciousness.
Barbara stood staring at the lawn in her back yard. She looked at the patchy green and she saw dandelions and weeds and a few gopher holes which seemed purposely there to make her feel as though she was a failure. She noticed a dead palm frond, broken at the trunk, its tip grazing the cement near the cracked and greenish swimming pool. She heard a flock of wild parrots race above, screaming. She wondered if she would ever escape this hellhole.
Notice how this method creates distance between the author and reader?
Less Filtered Consciousness.
Barbara stared at the lawn in her back yard. The grass was patchy green with scattered dandelions and weeds. Her life was a failure, she thought, looking at the gopher holes. A dead palm frond was broken at the trunk, its tip grazing the cement near the cracked and greenish swimming pool. A flock of wild parrots raced above, screaming. “Would she ever escape this hellhole?” she asked herself?
See how this method closes a bit of distance between writer and reader?
Low Filtered consciousness (with attention to direct style)
Barbara stared at the lawn in her back yard. She’d told Brian to water the grass and now it was patchy green with scattered dandelions and weeds. Who had she hired to kill the gophers? Mikey? Mickey? She wanted her damn money back. A dead palm frond, broken at the trunk, mocked her, its tip skimming the greenish water of the pool, as a shrieking flock of wild parrots raced overhead. She would never escape this hellhole.
See how this method puts us directly in the character’s head?
Again, none of these approaches are ‘better’ than the other. They are simply narrative strategies meant to serve the story. In his presentation at the festival, Castellani used the brilliant E.M. Forster as an example. In Howard’s End, Forster uses free direct style to put us into Helen’s head, and we immediately know that Helen and her inner experience are part of the beating heart of the book.
But in A Passage To India, Forster employs Highly Filtered Consciousness, because it’s necessary to reveal the large thematic canvas he wants to work with (East vs West etc.) There is a distance here that allows him to get at the hugeness of the themes and the four different characters he explores.
Take Action! Here are some things to think about as you choose your narrative strategy.
Point of View is more than just craft. It’s one of the most powerful creative decisions you’ll make.
To find out more about perspective and how to use it, check out The Art of Perspective. It’s a slim volume with EVERYTHING you need to know and understand about point of view.
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