On Point of View

“From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance and Point of View in Fiction,” the second essay in David Jauss’ On Writing Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, 2011) will probably be of interest more to critics than to writers. Jauss frees us from a didactic approach to viewpoint, releasing us from rules to be obeyed so we can discover how skilled writers have changed point of view to deepen their message.

While fiction writers may find it liberating to learn that good writers skillfully shift point of view to pull readers into and push them away from their characters, doing so skillfully is an art that few master easily. As a result, some writers may be liberated into writing bad fiction.

Critics, however, can benefit from seeing how changing point of view mid-chapter, mid-paragraph or mid-sentence is not always wrong.

I recall having a story I submitted a few months ago to YouWriteOn.com criticized because I introduced the viewpoint of a second character in the middle of a scene. As a result of the critique, I re-wrote the scene removing the shift, but I wasn’t happy with how it came out. Now I can go back to that story and write it the way it wants to be written.

On the other hand I recall from a recent novel how the author presented the viewpoints of three different characters in three succeeding paragraphs. It was jarring and I started looking (and finding) more examples of similar shifts, some of which were integrated more smoothly than others.

In other words one should be careful when changing from external narrative to internal dialogue or any other shift. If overdone readers may find it tiresome and distracting.

Anyone interested in the topic will appreciate the examples Jauss offers from Hemingway to Chekov to Joyce to Faulkner. I did.

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