Andromeda Romano-Lax will be teaching a three-week class called “Perspectives and Viewpoints” for the 49 Writing Center, starting next Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Advance registration required; a few spots remain. Last week, she wrote about why POV matters for readers. This week, she writes about POV breakthroughs, from the writer’s perspective.
Some writers have point-of-view, or POV, figured out from the first moment they conceptualize a story. Many more have to actively, consciously work out the POV problem, deciding who should be telling the story, and how: a complex decision that involves not only “person” (first, third, or rarely, second), but also complex issues involving multiple choices along a continuum: omniscience versus serial first or limited third person narrators versus close, limited third, single-character subjectivity. And that doesn’t even take into account the possibility of using an unreliable narrator.
Unlike so many other elements of writing, which can be massaged or patched over at many points in the revision process, POV demands attention early. It shapes everything: characterization, story, voice. POV rules are made to be broken, but a wobbly, uncertain POV is the first sign that a story isn’t working. When a writer figures out exactly how she wants POV to operate in her story – and especially when she figures out how to do something she’s never done before – the ground shifts. It can be a breakthrough for the work in question. It can be a breakthrough for the author’s entire oeuvre.
Antonya Nelson, author of Bound: A Novel, tries to figure it out before she starts writing. But that doesn’t always work. She told interviewer Susan McInnis, “I have written fifteen or twenty pages only to realize, This is not this guy’s story. I have to stop and tell it from the wife’s point of view.”
Twenty pages doesn’t sound so bad considering the months – even years – that some writers spend tinkering. Just over a decade ago, author Zoe Heller had the idea to write a novel about a love affair between a woman teacher and her teenaged pupil, based on a scandalous real-life case then in the news. That idea would turn into a clever and intelligent novel, Notes on a Scandal (also known as What Was She Thinking?) and a movie starring Cate Blanchett and Dame Judi Dench. It was Heller’s second novel–and it would become her “breakout” book–but like most writers, she didn’t find the perfect approach right off the bat.
In an interview with the UK Guardian, Heller explains:
I made a number of false starts with the book–writing it from the teacher's point of view, from an omniscient, third-person perspective and so on–until, a couple of months in, it occurred to me to tell the story in the voice of Barbara, an older colleague and friend of the badly behaved teacher. Philip Roth once described novel-writing as a process of "problem-solving," and for me, the discovery of Barbara offered a solution to several problems all at once. It was a great "aha!" moment. I felt straight away that I knew Barbara inside out, that I "had" her voice. It was one of those rare instances in my writing life when I was positively eager to get to the computer and start work every day
Ann Patchett had written several respected books before she authored the one that finally jetted her into the literary limelight, where she has remained. The key to that novel, Bel Canto, was mastering a new element of POV: using omniscience, or the “god-like” ability to see into every character’s heart and mind (and into the future as well). Omniscience was more commonly preferred in 19th century novels—a natural match for an apparently more stable world in which God, State, and The Author all spoke loudly. But its profile dropped in the modern novel, which favored intimate portraits of the individual mind and a less clear authorial (or authoritarian) presence. Even so, some of our most literary contemporary authors have rediscovered the power of omniscience, which can create a broader scope and more liberating fluidity in narrative.
In a 2002 Writer’s Chronicle interview, Sarah Anne Johnson asked Ann Patchett whether Bel Canto, her first omnisciently written novel, felt like a huge leap, in terms of craft. She answered:
Huge. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It is exactly the thing I haven’t been able to pull off in my last three books. … I didn’t know how to do third person (in her first two novels), and I didn’t know how to do omniscient … (Bel Canto) was like a piece of knitting. I’d work on it fiercely for two weeks, and then I’d put it in a drawer for three months. Every time I finished a chapter, I felt like it was over-- I didn’t know where to go next. … It was just sheer will. So it took me a lot longer."
Bel Canto has a cast of sixty characters and a plot that revolves around terrorism and music. It is an emotionally expansive book, an operatic book. Being able to move in and out of many characters’ minds was essential to telling such a sweeping story. But balancing all those POV shifts isn’t easy. Patchett said, “There has to be an easy flow between point of view. You also don’t want to create a situation where the reader is more interested in one character than another."
What I take away from these three talented writers is not—as the POV-astute Henry James might have wanted to tell us—that one POV is more powerful or correct than any other. What I learn from Nelson, Heller, and Patchett is that mastering and employing POV requires a willingness to experiment, to be uncomfortable, to match form and technique to content, to start all over. POV requires learning the rules and then bending them; it requires learning everything you can about craft, only to realize you don’t know quite what you need for your next story. And that’s okay. Writing always demands just a little more than we’re able to provide at any moment. That’s how we keep moving forward.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Detour (Soho Press, Feb. 2012), a novel set in Italy 1938, told in the first-person by a German narrator, reflecting back on the road trip that changed his life. Her current work-in-progress employs an unreliable, third-person narrator with occasional first-person vignettes written by a peripheral character. Regardless of how many novels she writes, Andromeda expects that she will never finish learning about POV.