Narrative perspective is the window that a writer opens up for the reader to look through onto a fictional world.
If the reader is going to stay at that window for as long as it takes for the story to unfold, the view has to be clear, uncluttered and steady. I believe that perspective is a central pillar – possibly the central pillar – of the craft of writing, and that many of the challenges facing writers can be resolved with a better understanding of how perspective operates.
So what is perspective?
A quick online search throws up various articles on the subject. Many of these also talk about point of view, with some commentators conflating point of view and perspective. Point of view is about who is telling the story, ie whether it’s being told in first person (I saw, I go) with the main character talking directly to the reader or in third person (he saw, she went) with a narrator telling the reader about the character. There are also some narratives that use the second person (you go, you see) but this is extremely rare.
For me, point of view is part of perspective, but it’s not the whole package. When I talk about perspective, I’m talking about everything to do with that window into the world of the story. There are three questions that I would advise writers to consider when opening up a new window, at the start of a new project, in order to make sure that the reader’s view is clear and compelling.
Who is telling the story?
When are they telling it?
Where is the reader?
There are actually two who questions. Firstly, who is the story about? Who is the main character? Whose journey is the reader going to follow? Whose actions are going to drive the narrative?
Secondly, who is telling the story? Which point of view are you going to use? If it’s the main character, then you’re going to be writing in the first person. If there’s a narrator, then the story will be told in third person.
With first person narratives, the reader is right there in your main character’s head, seeing what they are seeing, understanding what they are feeling. With third person narratives, you need to decide what sort of narrator you are going to use. There are three main types. An objective narrator is aware of everything that happens in the world of the story, but has no access to the characters’ inner workings. Everything is viewed from the outside. An omniscient narrator also sees everything that happens, but also has access to the thoughts of any character. A limited narrator is tied to a particular character, with no knowledge of anything outside that character’s direct experience, but with full access to their thoughts and feelings.
First person and third person narratives each have their own advantages and disadvantages. For more on this subject, see my post on First Person vs Third Person.
Once you know who is telling the story, you need to know when they are telling it. Is the reader right there with the character, watching events as they unfold? Or are they being told about things that have already happened? A present tense narrative can create a sense of immediacy and tension, but it needs to be handled carefully, in order to avoid bogging the reader down with detail. Managing the passing of time is easier in the past tense than in the present tense, because the events that are being described have already happened, so it’s simply a question of the character or narrator deciding how much to speed up or slow down when telling the reader about them..
Several days passed before…
As the weeks stretched out into months…
There are some logistical considerations when it comes to tense. If a story is told in the first person and past tense, there’s a clear implication that the character survives, in order to be able to tell the reader what happened. The present tense solves this particular problem. The Hunger Games – a story which is entirely about the fact that only one character out of twenty-four can survive – is told in the first person, but in present tense, allowing for the possibility, however unlikely, that the main character, Katniss Everdeen, doesn’t make it out of the arena alive.
So, you’ve worked out who is telling the story, and when they are telling it. The next step is to decide where the reader is positioned. Where is that window through which they are watching the story unfold? How close are they to the main character?
With first person narratives, there is – in theory, at least – very little distance between reader and character. The viewing window is inside the character’s head. The reader sees what the character sees, and knows what they are thinking and feeling. With third person narratives, however, the writer has options in terms of how much access the reader is given to the inner workings of the main character. This is known as psychic distance or narrative distance.
In The Art of Fiction, the writer John Gardner demonstrates five different levels of psychic distance.
- It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
- Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
- Henry hated snowstorms.
- God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
- Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul …
In the first example, it feels as though that window we’ve talked about has opened up in the sky, giving the reader a panoramic view of the setting, and a glimpse of a character. It’s entirely external, entirely objective.
The second example moves the window slightly closer. The character is introduced by name, albeit in a rather formal way, and there’s some limited information about his feelings.
In the third example, the window is closer again, with the narration style growing more intimate and less formal.
In the fourth example, Henry’s own thoughts are starting to come through. The window is close enough for the reader to look into his mind.
In the fifth example, that window is locked firmly in place inside Henry’s head. It’s a very intense and limited perspective, with everything filtered through the character’s perception.
These examples are points on a spectrum. They’re not self-contained options, chosen at the start of a project, and rigidly adhered to throughout. When writing in the third person, you can use variations of psychic distance. For example, you might want to draw the reader closer at moments of emotional tension, or zoom out slightly to show the character moving from one location to another, or to move forward in time. It’s vital, however, that you manage these transitions carefully, avoiding sudden leaps of perspective that will shake that window, knocking the reader out of the story. You need to tread particularly carefully when increasing the psychic distance. If the reader has been kept close to the main character, only knowing what they know, suddenly pulling out in order to give the reader information that the character doesn’t have can feel very much like cheating.
So that’s a quick introduction into what I’m talking about when I talk about perspective – point of view, tense and distance, working together to create the window through which the reader watches the story unfold. To learn more about the various aspects of perspective, have a look at my posts on Psychic Distance, and Keeping the Reader Close.