Getting a Head

I once had a student in my fiction writing class who could not grasp the concept of viewpoint.  He (generic pronoun) shifted the viewpoint back and forth, battledore and shuttlecock, until the reader dropped out, exhausted.  When I say viewpoint, I don’t mean his choice of first or third person.  He could manage that.  I mean choosing whose perceptions the author borrows to tell the story in a given scene.  Through whose eyes–nose, brain, tongue, ears, skin, nerves, and so on–does the author bring the story to life?  Whose head?

At some points in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was acceptable for writers to shift the viewpoint at will, as my student did, but shifting with every new paragraph was never common.  By the beginning of the last century, limiting the number of viewpoints became the norm.  With first-person narrative at least, the limit was strict.  By the time I got around to teaching my class, most editors expected writers to control the viewpoint AND limit it.  Now, some twenty years later, things seem to be swinging the other direction.  So should we relax and let it happen?  Why bother to keep the point of view under control?  It’s a problem only in narrative, after all.  The novel comes from drama as much as it comes from narrative poetry.  With film scripts, the camera is the viewpoint.  With play scripts, the audience supplies the point of view with a nudge or two from the lights.

I had already committed to this topic, viewpoint, before Laura Crum posted her wrenching story about the euthanized dog.  (See yesterday’s blog.)  Laura supplied me with a superb example of why viewpoint is vital.  If we had a plain script of her blog, just action and dialogue, it would take up less than a page, but the number of possible viewpoints is amazing:  Laura herself and her terrier, her acquaintance, the doomed dog Maxi, the new puppy, and an unspecified number of children, all of them with experience of Maxi.  In addition, the reader can suppose a vet, the vet’s assistant, other pet owners at the clinic where the dog was put down, the pet shop proprietor who sold the new puppy, and passing customers.  Then there’s Laura’s family…  All of these people and pets have the potential to be viewpoint characters, carrying the story off in a different direction.

Laura’s narrative is passionate and clearly sincere.  She warns her readers that they may find her opinion unpalatable, and she admits that her acquaintance may have motives she, Laura, is unaware of.  Without softening her own feelings, she is fair to the woman who had the elderly dog put down.

If I had my unfortunate student here, I would make him rewrite Laura’s story from one of those other “heads,” one of the potential POVs.  If I were rewriting it myself, I’d do it from the viewpoint of one of the woman’s children.  They had to be torn between grief and interest in the new puppy, an odd, edgy, almost explosive state of mind.

Hmmm.  How old were the kids?  Gender?  Attitude toward Mom?  Were there other pets–parrots, horses, pit bulls, cats, pythons?  How articulate were the kids?  Where’s Dad?

It’s probably a novella.

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5 Responses

  1. Wow–I’m glad (I think) that my blog post clearly touched a nerve. The situation certainly touched a nerve in me. In order to answer all your questions I would have to write the novella you reference (!) But if you read the post carefully, you’ll find that there are other animals mentioned, and the children are “young.”

    And as for point of view, I have always chosen the easy route–writing in first person from either my own point of view (as in the blog post) or that of my chosen protagonist (Gail McCarthy the horse vet). That way I don’t get mixed up–nor do I confuse the reader. But I’m sure some authors would find my approach overly simplistic.

    • Actually, I admired your post, Laura. I was looking for examples of situations in which viewpoint made a lot of difference. The dog’s sad story was clearly the kind of example I needed. Sheila

  2. I tried twice to respond yesterday, but kept hitting wrong keys and losing the connection. Anyhow, we had a cat that lived to be 23. By the end of her life she was blind, crippled, incontinent, and unable to chew solid food. When the incontinence got to be a problem, a year earlier, I wasn’t sure I could handle it, but both sons were horrified at the idea of euthanizing her. So we brought a cat cage home for her to stay in when we weren’t home to clean up after her. When I held her on my lap, I put a folded bath towel under her.

    Fast forward till the last month of her life. By then, the boys saw that her quality of life was pretty low, and they thought it was time to take her to the vet, but they was sure I’d be upset, given that she spent long periods on my lap. So they didn’t suggest it.

    A few weeks before she died, peacefully, we had an earthquake warning, in southern Indiana, where we didn’t know how to act. I thought outside would be safer, and so picked up this creaky old cat and went out. No photo albums, just the only other living creature in the house.

    Only pov I don’t know in that story was the cat’s.

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