Discussion for Writers: Perspective, POV and a Memoir

The concept of perspective is one the best tools in the writer’s toolbelt. But if you bother to google around for an explanation of perspective in literature, you’ll find webpages that equate POV (point of view) and perspective. Conversely, you may find pages like the one I found at http://www.pgtc.com/~slmiller/perspective.html  which assert “Simply put, perspective is who tells the story, and point of view is how they tell it.” Apparently, this means that, first, an author decides which character is most important, and then the writer decides which perspective to write that character in, namely in either first, second, or third person. Ug. From where I sit, that’s pretty useless information and demonstrates why writers shouldn’t expect the academicians among us to sharpen the tools in our belt.

Now, last time I checked the mail, I hadn’t yet received the Great God of English Usage Permission to Alter the Linquistic Universe Certification for which I have applied, but what’s a piece of paper? A lack of official authority has never stopped me from spouting off, so from here on out, expect to get my personal take on perspective and how its mastery gives a writer control.

For creative writers, the terms “POV” and “perspective” have unique, functional qualities. Compartmentalizing each as a separate concept and then mastering their usage will dramatically improve your writing. I won’t bother going over POV because I’m confident those who decide to become writers understand the terms 1st, 2nd, 3rd and omniscient POV and have a solid, basic understanding of the limitations associated with each.

For many of us, though, perspective is a mushy concept, largely because we are taught literature by those who are not themselves artists. It makes sense that if literary artists wants to understand perspective as a funtional tool of his craft, they should begin by considering how other types of artists look at it. Since perspective is most often thought of in terms of visual, linear art (drawing, painting, etc), lets start there.

In linear art, perspective is a mathematical trick played on the eye, the result being that something that is flat appears to have depth. Hm. Certainly literature is, speaking physically, flat on the page, nothing more than ink marks on paper, and yet writers strive for a depth of feeling. So our goals are the same. Linear artists achieve visual depth by selecting certain kinds of lines and connecting them in certain ways. Depth comes from selections made by the artist. Those selections are limited by the medium. In other words, an artist painting on a canvas or drawing on paper is not able to construct depth by drawing a sort of hollographic line that extends outward or away from the canvas. The canvas has its limitations and the artist, understanding those limitations, selects lines that provide depth.

For literary artists, the metaphoric canvas is not so much the paper we print our work on, as it is the POV. At least, that is how I think of it, because our artistic limitations are set by POV, not by how our letters look on the paper. However, within whatever POV a writer establishes, he retains the power to select details that provide depth. This is perspective in literary art. In other words, while POV limits what a writer can say about the protagonist within any given scene, perspective is the way the writer highlights what is important in that same scene.

It helps me to think of perspective as a camera lens I point to capture the specific details that will add the depth I want. Next time you attend a movie that has a similar artistic level as you aspire to create, pay attention to where the filmmaker points the camera and ask yourself what is gained by pointing it there. Notice how images are used to reflect the internal things that a camera can’t pick up. This is a useful trick for the writer who is limited by POV. Maybe you have written a character who isn’t 100% aware of her feelings, but you, as the writer, want to convey this to the reader. The problem is, if the protagonist isn’t fully aware, POV will not allow you to write: “Latisha sits, not fully aware of her conflicted emotions” because she isn’t this self-aware. You could write, “Latisha sat on the lip of the fountain, trying to figure out how she felt.” But you know that’s dull. Perspective highlights the things around Latisha that could be used to reflect the inner workings, even if muddled, of the protagonist.

So think fully about the scene, the setting in which you put Latisha. I imagine her sitting at the large fountain outside the local movie theater here in Rockwall, Texas, the one fed by water from the lake which fronts it. There are people everyone. Neon signs glow from the restaurants. Skateboarders rule the walkways. There are cloudy, breezy skies overhead, but the temperature soars over the 100 degree mark. Etc. These are the details from which I can select. I ask myself, which among them, will give the best perspective on the character’s internal self and how can I best describe that? Where should I point the camera? What lines should I connect to create depth?

Perspective is about adding depth by making connections for your reader. Remember that you can focus the narrative voice on a visual, an auditory, or a tactile detail, the same way a filmmaker might walk a character through an open doorway and then provide shots and sound cues of what fills that room–anything from a wide shot of 100 silent men in the same dark suit to a tighter, horn-bleating shot of a disco ball. The camera (the perspective) focuses on different things in order to build mood, tone, establish character, or advance plot. Writers may not have cameras to point, but we do have the ability to focus the readers attention on the wider or the narrower details, on whichever suits our purpose.

Again, perspective functions within POV. You can plop your POV character in the middle of a bedroom, a subway station, or a Starbucks. Wherever you plop her, there is action; there are things; there are sensations; there are people. Or there are not. The writer has to make choices about what to focus the reader’s attention on, or what perspective to provide. So POV is the over-arching narrative voice, but perspective is where the writer focuses the reader within that POV. Perspective may be the character’s eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin. But it is controlled by the writer, who uses perspective within the boundaries of the chosen POV to set a tone, create mood, establish theme, develop character, or enrich plot.  If POV limits, perspective focuses and highlights.

I’ll turn to Kathryn Lynard Soper’s memoir The Year My Son and I Were Born, which I reviewed here on Friday, July 23, 2011, to demonstrate how perspective works.  For our first foray into perspective, I want to use memoir rather than fiction because, in memoir, its perfectly clear that the narrative POV is the writer, the first person voice who is telling the story. We innately understand that the details Soper gives are her perspective.

Consider this paragraph from early in Chapter 2. Soper is in a hospital bed, having delivered a pre-term baby the day before and learned that he has Down Syndrome. Her husband, Reed, is with her.  She writes:

The fuzzy numbness that had cocooned me the night before was gone, leaving me bare and blinking in the stark light of morning. Reed pulled on his sweatshirt, kissed me good-bye, and headed for the door. If he hurried, he could catch the next commuter train, then the bus that would take him home. Home, where our one car waited in the garage in case my mother needed it. When my preterm labor had started two weeks before, she’d flown to Utah from Maryland, coming to my rescue just as she always did. (11)

Remember, Soper is our narrative voice, our POV character. This is the hospital, the morning after her world shattered. At this juncture in her narrative, Soper (as writer) has to make conscious choices about what to focus on at this moment. She could’ve talked about the hospital sheets, the adjustable bed, the sugary-sweet nurse, the boring morning show on TV. But Soper needs to establish breakage as a theme. Her own breakage. The way reality is fracturing her world, tearing apart previously clearly-defined relationships, ripping away her former life with its comfortable expectations, the way she is being isolated. That is what is really going on in this point in her life story. So how does she reflect that? What lines does she connect? Where does she point her camera?

First, she points it at herself, creating an image of a insect breaking from its cocoon, wings wet and unable to fly. Crippled. The choice is an excellent one because so much of her narrative is self-centered. This memoir is about her journey, her repentance. (See previously posted review.)

Second, the camera swings to Reed. But she doesn’t focus on his broad shoulders or weak chin (I have no knowledge about Reed’s shoulders or chin), but instead we are given the image of Reed pulling a sweatshirt over his head, kissing her, and heading to the door. Consider each of these details separately. Reed pulls the sweatshirt over his head, an image that is, for me anyway, so like pulling the proverbial bag over the head that I pick up immediately that Reed is–or rather that Soper perceives that Reed is–choosing to not deal, to not fully see, their new predicament.

But then he kisses her. No, he kisses her good-bye, which is a very specfic kind of kiss, one laden with the threat of separation. Perhaps, considering Soper has layed the broken cocoon, the sweater/bag over the head, and the kiss good-bye, the reader is developing the sense that our protagonist (Soper) is experiencing a not-yet clearly defined sense of betrayal. But then the writer switches the camera to the action her husband takes, namely “heading to the door,” a detail she could’ve left out or stated otherwise. By keeping the movement quick, crisp, we detect she perceives him as determined to clear out. All of these details reinforce the readers perception that the protagonist feels fragile and alone.

The next sentence reads as if she can sense his thoughts: If he hurried, he could catch the next commuter train, then the bus that would take him home. By focusing on this detail, written not as dialogue (a choice she could’ve made), but as an unspoken understanding, Soper establishes the closeness that has existed between she and her husband. Sort of a “we finish one another’s thoughts” moment. And yet, this same detail emphasizes his need to get away (from her? from the situation?), an experience she cannot have. “Commuter train” and “bus” are interesting focal points as well because of the community sense they provide, as if Reed were rejoinging the larger world. Maybe Soper (the narrative voice) didn’t have a clear understanding of how fractured she would feel from her family, her world, as she lay on the bed, but Soper (the writer) considered the available details and chose from them those that would be true to POV limitations and still guide the reader toward a deeper understanding.

I love that Soper (the writer) kept the camera hovering over “home” by repeating the word back-to-back:  If he hurried, he could catch the next commuter train, then the bus that would take him home. Home, where our one car waited in the garage in case my mother needed it. She could’ve written, If he hurrid, he could catch the next commuter train, then the bus that would take him home. One car waited in the garage, but there is magic in focusing the reader again on “home.” This detail emphasizes, even visually, that “home” is now two things, one with a big H and one with a little h. Beyond that, though, consider why Soper mentions the car. Of all the things that are in her home, why would she point her camera at that car? Because Soper understood that the car is a detail that sums up how she perceives her home. Home is a place of self-less sacrifice, hence the car that Reed could’ve used, but that was left for his mother-in-law. Home is a place where, what matters most, is that the children who live there are cared for, protected, able to be driven to whatever dance practice or emergency room beckons. The car is there, like Soper’s mother, should the need of rescue arise. Rescue. Readers begin to sense here that rescue may be something Soper herself needs, or wants.

Soper (the writer) did not need to choose these details, these images. She could’ve focused on anything in that hospital room, any behavior her husband or another person exhibited, could’ve thought about her own plans for the day and not Reed’s, could’ve selected a myriad of other details from her home to describe it. But she chose to focus on these details, to give the readers this particular perspective on the scene, because it establishes theme–breakage, isolation, even sacrifice–as well as characterizes Soper as a person who tries to think of the welfare of others, even if her own needs are great.

Take from this an understanding that the writer controls, or directs, perspective. The wise writer carefully considers all the details available under the chosen POV and in a given scene, be they related strictly to setting or more ethereal things like thought, and selects the details that advance the story. An inexperienced writer might jot down, “Erin descended the steps, only to find the subway crowded.” But an experienced writer is going to think through exactly what is going on in this scene. If she’s writing a romance, she may select details (remember the senses) that build the purpose of the scene. If, in this scene, the writer wants to establish a sense of the protagonist’s aloneness, she may focus the reader on the zillions of elbows that seem to find the protagonist’s ribs, all pushing her way. If the writer wants to build sexual tension, well, how many phallic images can you find on a set of stairs that head into the dark, musty opening to lower reaches of the subway system?

The point is, never waste details. Keep the details appropriate to the POV limitations, but think of them as ways to add depth, to develop character or tone or advance plot. Every word should advance the story. A writer who is consciously aware of the need to point his proverbial camera at things that reflect some important aspect of the story is a writer who has control of his craft. Control leads to that masterpiece you know is inside you.

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2 Comments

Filed under Discussions for Writers, MoLit Community

2 responses to “Discussion for Writers: Perspective, POV and a Memoir

  1. I tend to think much of this is organic and instinctual. It’s hard to imagine being too consciously calculating on detail selection, at least on the first draft. Seems like this approach would be best applied on rewrites, when each detail is questioned and, if needed, strengthened or replaced. But I wouldn’t want to burden a first draft too much with too much strategizing.

  2. For many it is instinctual and organic, but I don’t think its wise to leave it unconscious. Here’s why. When I edit with Irreantum, these are often the kinds of things I end up bringing a writer’s attention to. Too often a writer will have chosen a detail that runs counter to what he/she is trying to achieve. I remember the story “Abominations,” by Heather Halcrow, in particular for this. The story was about a guy who catches monstrous fish out on Utah Lake. The story was brimming with sexuality, and, in my eyes, ended with a detail that screamed masterbation. (Some may not be as inclined as I to see this as I am.) Anyway, in its original (early) form, the story became (forgive me for the pun) impotent at the end. The sexual side of the details all but disappeared.

    As Heather and I worked together (which means I nagged, she worked), she discovered ways to sharpen that sexual perspective by selecting details that added depth. Unfortuantely, I don’t have any of our early editing passes to show examples. I should keep those. Regardless, Heather did a magnificent job of honing in on ways to improve perspective and the result was a really fine story which you can read in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue.

    So while much of this done gut level, most of the stories that I see can elevate their practice of perspective. As I said (or wanted to say but may forgot to), the fine-tuning of the use of perspective will catch the attention of gatekeepers. I argued Larry Menlove’s “The Path of the Antelope, Pelican, and Moon” (Spring/Fall 2009) to a first-place tie in the fiction contest one year specifically because he did a bang-up job of this. I don’t know about the other judges, but I’m looking for the fiction that will make my life as fiction editor easiest.

    You can find back issues of Irreantum at its home page, located at http://irreantum.mormonletters.org/Default.aspx. Click on the “Back Issues” tab.

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