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Narration and Point of View

by Bill Bowler

Part 2
Part 3
appear in this issue.
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  I have written such a long letter only because I didn’t have time to write a shorter one. — Blaise Pascal  

Show, don’t tell.
The Basic Modes of Narration
First-Person Narration
The Character-Narrator
Point of View
First-Person POV
Reliability of Narration
Second-Person Narration


“Delete the ‘infodump.’ You’ll lose the reader. Show, don’t tell,” says the heartless editor to the sensitive author, whose courage fails as he pictures his poor story, the tender creation of his hopes and dreams, about to undergo bloody surgery with a meat cleaver.

Third-person narration, the bread and butter of Dickens, Hugo, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, not to mention Asimov, Frank Herbert, Tolkien, and Philip K. Dick, has fallen out of favor. Readers, we are assured, have little patience for it. The author is encouraged to use speech and dialog, to avoid digression and stick close to the action. This is good advice, in general, but let us consider the particulars.

“Show, don’t tell”

The first caveat pertains to “show, don’t tell.” Literature, by its very nature, is a verbal medium. Its building blocks are words. Technically, an author cannot show; he can only tell. Painters, sculptors and filmmakers show. Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics are pictures; they show. Chinese and Japanese characters are stylized drawings; they have the element of showing as they tell.

Letters of an alphabet (and the words they spell) are abstract symbols. If they ever had any pictorial function, they have lost it. “W” is not a drawing of anything and shows us nothing. Neither do “wobble” or “bowl.”

It is true that some poems have a graphic element and are written in lines arranged to create a shape or image, such as a poem about a bell in which the lines form a bell shape. An example of a calligramme by the surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire, La Colombe poignardée et le jet d’eau (‘The Stabbed Doved and the Fountain’) can be found here.

Stories written in words in languages that employ alphabets can only tell. There’s no getting around it.

If we can’t take the editor literally, what, then, does he mean when he admonishes, “Show, don’t tell”?

The Basic Modes of Narration

Since grammar classifies pronouns generally into three persons (1st: I, we; 2nd: you; 3rd: he, she, it, they), narration also has three basic modes. Each mode of narration — in the first, second, or third person — has unique characteristics that distinguish it from the other modes and determine what can and cannot be accomplished when narrating in that mode.

Throughout the history of Western literature, narration in the first or third person has predominated while the second person has remained, for the most part, a rare and experimental form.

First Person Narration

Linguists use a simple diagram to illustrate the elements of what they call a “speech act,” that is, a spoken utterance or written words:

Addressor —> Code
—> Addressee
  1. The addressor is the speaker or writer.
  2. the code is the spoken or written words
  3. The message is the meaning of the words as encoded by the addressor and decoded by the addressee.
  4. The addressee is the listener or reader.

In a speech act, any one of these elements can be made paramount. Emphasis can be placed:

In short stories and novels, first-person narration — narration in “I” — tends to emphasize the addressor, the speaker, the narrator himself:

“I always get the shakes before a drop. I’ve had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can’t really be afraid. The ship’s psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was sleeping and he tells me that it isn’t fear, it isn’t anything important...”

— Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers

First-person narration draws the reader’s attention to the narrator. The reader has the sensation of being spoken to by a person who is telling of his own experiences. This speaker can, in principle, be a pure narrator who depicts events without participating in them.

However, first-person narration particularly lends itself to a narrator who tells a story in which he himself takes part, who depicts events in which he himself participates, who knows personally the characters involved, and who has opinions about the events and people in the story.

The Character-Narrator

In first person, the distinction between narrator and character is not sharp. In effect, the first-person narrator functions in the story on two levels simultaneously: as narrator of the story and as character in the story.

Often, the first person character-narrator is the main character, the hero of the story. In this case, the character side of the character-narrator duality is dominant. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a good example of this.

However, rather than being the main character, it is also possible for the character-narrator to be a minor character, observing and commenting but only peripherally involved in the events. Dickens plays with this idea in the first sentence of David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

When the first person character-narrator is not the hero but a minor character, the character side of the duality recedes and the narrator side takes precedence. The narration begins more closely to resemble third person as it shifts from the peripherally participating, minor “I” to the main actors, “he” and “she”:

It may be asked how I come to know such delicate details. What if I were myself a witness of it? What if Stepan Trofimovitch himself has, on more than one occasion, sobbed on my shoulder while he described to me in lurid colors all his most secret feelings... But what almost always happened after these tearful outbreaks was that the next day he was ready to crucify himself for his ingratitude. He would send for me in a hurry or run over to see me simply to assure me that Varvara Petrovna was ‘an angel of honor and delicacy, while he was very much the opposite.’ He did not only run to confide in me, but, on more than one occasion, described it all to her in the most eloquent letters, wrote a full signed confession that (...) he had told a stranger that she kept him out of vanity, that she was envious of his talents and erudition, that she hated him and was only afraid to express her hatred openly, dreading that he would leave her...

— Dostoevsky, The Possessed

First-person narration provides the reader with a very direct, firsthand experience of the fictional world. The reader feels himself in the company of one of the characters, encountering the other characters and experiencing the events of the story alongside the character-narrator.

Point of View (POV)

As a general rule, in real life as well as fiction, the meaning of information conveyed from one person to another depends on the points of view of both parties. There are two basic facets to point of view: the physical extent of the information available and the attitude of the person towards the information conveyed.

The physical point of view of a person standing on the corner of Fifth Ave. and 34th St. is not the same as that of a person on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, nor is it the same as that of an astronaut in a space station in geo-centric orbit above the East Coast of the United States.

Characters are not cameras: they don’t merely look at something and tell us what they see; their own feelings color and shape their perceptions. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury has four radically different narrators, all with different perceptions of the same things. Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon is the classic example of different meanings derived by multiple narrators.

The plot of “Rashomon” is reduced to a single, bare-bones event: a bride and groom are walking through the forest when the groom is attacked and killed by a bandit.

The film viewer is shown this same incident repeatedly, but it is narrated each time by a different character with a different point of view. Each time, the event remains unchanged, but its meaning changes. Each narrator makes himself the center of the story; each has his own motives and justifies his actions.

When the groom narrates, he is ignobly attacked by a villainous bandit. When the bandit narrates, he is unjustly provoked by the groom, and rescues the damsel from a loutish husband. When the bride narrates, she is the romantic object of a fatal amorous dispute.

Upon first viewing, the viewer’s classic question is, ”What really happened?” The answer is, it depends on who’s talking.

First-Person POV

In first-person narration, the point of view is necessarily that of the narrator alone. If multiple points of view are needed, another character has to use the pronoun “I.”

As a consequence, story information, which the first-person narrator does not possess — scenes or events he has not observed; the unspoken thoughts of other characters — are not directly available to the reader. They can be learned, if at all, only indirectly, by inference.

Reliability of Narration

Narration is distinguished not only by point of view but also by the narrator’s reliability. The narrator may have complete omniscience: he knows everything and his words are always “true,” as in many of Tolstoy’s works. At the other extreme, the narrator may be naïve and make the reader mentally correct or doubt the narrator’s bogus interpretations of events. Or the narrator may be a chronic liar.

In first person, the reliability of narration within the story is extremely flexible and covers a broad range, from gospel truth to bald-faced lies. In interpreting the story, the reader judges the veracity of the narration according to what he knows about the first-person narrator’s POV.

If a jilted lover narrates about her “ex,” if a greedy miser speaks of money, if a politician denounces his opponent, the reader or listener automatically thinks, “Consider the source” and factors in what he knows about the speaker in order to gauge the accuracy of the narration.

The first-person narrator can be right or wrong about the events of the story or the motives of the other characters; he can tell the truth, or lie; he can understand the story, or he may not; his hopes, dreams, fears, prejudices — in short, his emotional and psychological qualities — all are taken into account by the reader in interpreting what is being told by the narrator. This flexibility, ambiguity, and multi-leveled complexity render first person an extremely vivid and lifelike means of narration.

Second-Person Narration

Throughout the history of Western literature, authors have overwhelmingly chosen to narrate in either first or third person. Second-person narration, narration in “you,” is a perfectly good theoretical construct. There is no grammatical reason not to use it, yet it remains rare and problematic in practice. We could offer, as a specimen, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Haunted Mind,” which begins:

“What a singular moment is the first one, when you have hardly begun to recollect yourself, after starting from midnight slumber! By unclosing your eyes so suddenly you seem to have surprised the personages of your dream in full convocation round your bed, and catch one broad glance at them before they can flit into obscurity...”

In contrast to first person, second-person narration, analogous to the grammatical category of address (the “vocative” mode), tends to shift emphasis away from the speaker (addressor) and even away from the story (the code and message), towards the listener (addressee), towards the reader himself. Addressed directly by the narrator, the reader feels himself drawn into the story as a pseudo-participant. The reader, as it were, is made a faux character in the story, seemingly participating in the story events.

This is a difficult fiction to sustain. The reader naggingly feels that the “you” of the story is not him at all. A fictional POV is foisted on the reader, which he may not have, or with which he may not agree, and which tends to generate resistance on the reader’s part. Second-person narration remains largely an experimental form, one that most authors shy away from and most readers find difficult to adjust to.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Bill Bowler

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