One productive way to think of third person point of view is that the reader is in position like a movie camera and a tape recorder in position at a definite location, for example, up near the ceiling in one corner of the room. Sometimes the camera is running (visual description). Sometimes only the tape recorder is going (dialogue). And sometimes that camera-tape recorder moves. It might be behind one of the people in the room and only see and hear what that person sees or hears. It can also move into that person’s head and in addition record the thoughts of that person, or move to an entirely different location and show us what is going on there. These changes must not be confusing to the reader (and there is a simple guideline that you will see is part of Principle #3 which spells this out). What I call “camera movement,” not only brings fresh perspective, but also is a way a writer can conceal things from an audience in order to increase surprise and suspense.
In the first scene of Example 9 we are given the option of hovering a bit before looking at the situation through Rob’s perspective. In the second scene the writer is able to temporarily withhold some things from the reader that heighten tension when they are revealed–Don’s having been fired and the teeter-totter dynamics to the two men’s relationship (Rob’s will prosper at Don’s demise). Details fit more naturally, as does dialogue. Dialogue often seems fake unless it gives the reader insight into the conflict or into some hidden aspect of speakers’ characters.
And that raises one other reason writers favor the third person: dialogue is always first person anyway, so a story or article using third person has the advantages of both first and third person points of view. The same can be said for using the past rather than the present tense. Present tense (as seen in the garage sale example, Example #8) has a breathless quality that is hard to sustain in prose; it just isn’t the convention. But, when a short story or novel is told in past tense, dialogue remains present tense, giving the audience additional variety. We don’t really read past tense, as past anyway. When in doubt, use a form of third person point of view and the past tense.
FICTION & TRUTH
If you take something you have written (like our first exercise) and rewrite it using a different point of view (switch it from first to third) you’ll see the effects of your creative choices. It’s not a matter of one being more correct than the other. Each is best suited to different results. Rather than favoring one from habit, make a conscious choice based on how you want the reader to respond. Whether to present characters literally or fictionalize them is also a matter of creative choice. One of the most challenging pieces I’ve written involved a series of connected stories each having as its subject a different member of my immediate family. At the time everyone was going through an important transition in his or her life, including myself (I had just gone through a divorce after many years of marriage). It was difficult because I wrote this collection to be given as a Christmas present to these same family members. I wanted it to be an accurate, but didn’t want to hurt their feelings. It would have been easier to write the stories if I had fictionalized the people and events, and the result might have been even closer to the truth.
Sometimes we just have to follow where our writing leads us. Sam is my neighbor. He’s retired, about seventy; and two years ago he was run over by a truck. It was a freak accident. He pulled up to a driveway as a delivery truck was slowly rolling down it. He noticed there was no one in the truck. Sam got out of his car and ran over to the runaway vehicle. Without any fore-thought he jumped up on the running board with the idea of opening the door and putting on the brake or throwing it into a forward gear. He slipped on the running board and went under the tire. His wife called me from the hospital where they brought him. Over the next several weeks I was to visit that hospital many times.
In one of the writing seminars I was presenting, Sam was my subject for the character development exercise. The first scene I wrote took place in the hospital, as did the second in which his son rushed up from Chicago (where the son worked) some three and a half hours away. As I was writing that second scene I filled in some details of the flashback with things from a childhood memory of my own past. When I wrote the third scene, which took place three weeks later, I found myself asking: Why am I changing the facts? Sam did come out of a ten-day comma; he was alive and happily making pottery as I wrote the exercise. Yet in my written segment he did not recover. I had him die. Later we exchanged papers in the workshop, and I’ll never forget the comment my partner made to me. He said, “It sounds like you’re deeply grieving.” I thought, “My God, I’m not writing about Sam, I’m grieving the death of my own father that took place some six years before.” The part that I had included for descriptive purposes was the background for the real subject surfacing through the writing.
I like a definition given by the poet, William Stafford. He says, “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say, as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.” Stafford trusted receptivity, the willingness to fail, a withholding of judgment. He believed that for a person who follows with trust and forgiveness whatever occurs, “the world remains always ready and deep, an inexhaustible environment, with the combined vividness of an actuality and flexibility of a dream.” Stafford observed, “Working back and forth between experience and thought, writers have more than space and time can offer. They have the whole unexplored realm of human vision.”
William Stafford’s words about human vision are stirring for writers, but the writer isn’t the only player in the mmunication process. In fact, for twenty minutes let’s forget about writing and look at what we’re doing from the standpoint of the reader. I’ve pointed out some needs both share, but there are also marked differences; so much so that Principle #1 which applies directly to the writer (discovery through an unfolding process) may now seem to be contradicted by Principle #3 which takes the raw material generated this way and rearranges it to maximize reader involvement.
Think of it this way. To produce, you have on your writer’s hat (an old beat up fedora with a card in the band that says, “Press”). When you employ Principle #3 you take off this fedora and put on the green eyeshade of editor (who is nothing but a glorified reader). It’s important to keep these two in the right order. Give the editor preeminence and, red pen in hand, that editor in you will say, “Whatever you’re probably going to do, won’t be any good.” On the other hand, how many editors are great writers? Let the writer discover the story and the editor will now have something real to fine-tune using his or her critical powers and a sensitivity to what the public wants. When there is doubt always side with the writer. It’s the productive choice. Without the writer there would be nothing to edit.
But for the time being, we are looking at a subject from the standpoint of the reader-editor. Have you ever read someone’s journal? A journal is very “writer friendly.” You write in it twenty minutes after dinner every night, for example. On the other hand, let’s say a female friend has just landed a new job and she wants you to see what led up to it. She asks you to read her journal entries for the last couple of weeks. You then realize how “reader unfriendly” a journal can be. Equal weight is given to trivial and important matters, you are locked in a boring “day-by-day” chronology, everything is seen from the journal writer’s point of view. How can we break out of this kind of monotonous pattern? The answer is to write in scenes, then alter the order of those scenes. Remember Principle #2 stated we should dramatize characters “rooted in scenes.” Principle #3 takes that concept one step further.
Scenes are vignettes that have cohesion in themselves, yet when strung together they create a whole that is even greater. A scene has time, place, and a set number of characters. Change any of these and you are technically into another scene. Somewhere today a high school teacher is assigning the class to read six scenes of Shakespeare for homework; everyone will groan until one kid, who is counting the pages, realizes that some of the scenes are ridiculously short. Every time a new character comes on stage or leaves there is a new scene. But, doesn’t thake sense? When we’re in a group and a person enters or someone leaves, don’t the dynamics change?
Scenes are important for three reasons. First, of all they ground the reader. The reader knows where he or she is and who is there. The reader doesn’t have to wonder about these essentials and can concentrate on what’s happening. Second, because scenes are complete in themselves, they can be presented in a different way than in chronological order to achieve a certain effect, for example, to create suspense. I’m not talking about changing the order of the events, but changing the order in which those events are related to the reader. Third, the vantage point (moving the camera and tape recorder) within a point of view can be shifted subtly from one scene to another.