Thursday, 8 December 2011

Unlimited limited single POV

One of the first things we learn about point of view (POV) is that if you're supposed to be telling the story (or that section of the story) from a certain character's viewpoint, you can only say what that character could know or think.

For example, if we're in Fred's head, we can't have Fred tell us something that Joe's thinking, only what Fred thinks Joe's thinking.

So, writing from a single POV is limiting, isn't it? Even writing one section/chapter from a single POV must be limiting at least for that section/chapter.

Not so. Let me introduce you to the Unlimited Limited POV. (Don't Google it - I made it up.)

The point of ULP is, crucially, that the reader can know more than the character who is telling the story. This is because the reader knows that in fact the author is telling the story, manipulating the character to observe only what the writer needs him to observe. So, the character can observe something but not know the significance, but the reader, knowing the rules of story-telling, knows that the writer has put the observation there for a reason.

It's like Chekhov's Gun. (The idea that if a gun appears in Act One, it must be used by Act Three.) I also call it the stage telephone. You NEVER see a telephone on a film or stage set if it's not going to ring.

Recently I came a across a fabulous example of Unlimited Limited POV. You only need this one example to understand the whole concept. It's in The Help by Kathryn Stockett - a wonderful, wonderful book, by the way.

The book is written in the first person, but alternates throughout the book between several first-person narrations. So, how does the author show us more than the character can see? Well, my example comes from the POV of Skeeter. Skeeter's mother becomes ill during the book and the clever thing is how you know this before Skeeter does. She will mention things such as seeing her mother walk into the distance, looking smaller than usual; or she'll mention her not eating. She won't say she's worried about her mother being ill - she isn't, at first. But the reader is. The reader knows that the author wouldn't have mentioned such things if there wasn't a reason. It's like when, in a book or a film, if a woman feels nauseous in the morning, we know she's pregnant before she does.

So, when you're telling the story through a single POV, don't feel limited by it. Tell your readers more than the character knows, by selecting the things your character notices and subtly regulating how she expresses them.

I love fiction, love it!

15 comments:

dansmithsbooks said...

Hmmm. Interesting food for thought. I think maybe this is something writers do without really thinking about it and without putting a name to it. I tend to write in the first person and you've got me wondering if I've used this trick before. Well, if I haven't, I probably will now . . .

Catt said...

Good post Nicola. Clearly explained. Interestingly, I've just studied Pov on my course and we did this (although termed differently). I much prefer writing in 1st person and I find myself much more aware of whether I do this or not.

catdownunder said...

My current effort is "first person" - but I never thought I would try to write anything that way. I certainly did not sit down and think "I am going to write this in the first person." It just happened and I have to assume that it is right for the book!

Jenni said...

I started writing my book in 1st person but then changed it to 3rd person - there was too much that the audience needed to know about other characters and the storyline! I do write most of my short stories in 1st person though :)

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

It seems to me that the various POVs go in and out of fashion. I thought 'close third person' POV was the current favourite but it seems more and more authors are choosing first person. For my debut novel I have a specific reason for using first person POV. I have not been able to discover, however, whether the choice of POV is driven by consumer tastes or by what is currently being taught in the creative writing industry.

Dan Holloway said...

This is marvellous, Nicola. Would I be right in thinking the techniques you are talking about are those you would also use when creating an unreliable narrator, where the aim is also to have the reader perceive the same set of circumstances very differently from the narrator, by using cues into our collective consciousness that the narrator doesn't share (as in the physical descriptions you mention from The Help, which we would recognise as symptoms) - I'm not a fan of the book, but this is something Shriver does very effectively in We Need to Talk About Kevin - one particularly chilling part I remember is her description of a shopping trip, and her absolute concern with how people are looking at her, which we are clearly meant to think is monstrous self-absorption. The difference is that in the passages from The Help the narrator is simply and very believably unaware whereas in Kevin that unawareness is used to create a sense of culpability in our minds ("how can she describe those circumstances in that way!?! She mus be a monster" as opposed to "ah yes, I see what's comnig, poor her when it hits her") but the basic technique seems similar

Nicola Morgan said...

I would never dream of choosing a POV based on what was in fashion. And i question whether it's fair to say 1st is more or less in fashion now than ever. It should just be a matter of how the story works. So, Fiona, I say there is no "current favourite" - people keep talking about things as though they were new. It's a confirmation bias example, I think.

But this post wasn't about whether you choose 1st or 3rd - it was only about how 3rd is not as limiting as it might seem, and how to stop it being limiting.

Dan - what I'm talking about is akin to unreliable narrator techniques, yes, but i think those are generally somewhat more linguistic and subtle than what I'm talking about, which is a way of getting the reader to see the world through the eyes of the character but with the mind of a wiser character.

Miriam Drori said...

I love reading books in which the reader understands more than the narrator. They make me feel clever. I'm thinking of The Remains of the Day by Ishiguro and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Fair comment Nicola. I chose my POV to fit my concept but then I read lots of criticism of 1st pers. POV and I started to worry.

I get confused, though, when I stand back to consider my approach to my next project, I find myself worrying how far I should meet the perceived demands of contemporary readers, echoed and expressed by agents as in "We love your book but it's not what the marketplace wants right now."
You appear to have clarified the point, however. An author must be true to his concept if it is to work, regardless of fashion.

I like close 3rd POV and I like 1st pers.POV, but sometimes I like 1st POV more for that feeling of sitting right inside that character's mind.

M Louise Kelly said...

V useful, thanks. I'm writing in close 3rd person at the moment, which very much adds up to seeing things from just one person's point of view (or the way i'm using it is!) and i've been trying to do the seeding of hints of events that my MC couldn't know about - sometimes to the point of feeling my head is going to explode. It's like knowing lots of family gossip or lies and having to keep track of who's supposed to know which version of the tale when you're all sitting round the chirstmas dinner table trying to pretend you're all friends! Not that anything like that goes on in my family, you understand.

Tyler Tork said...

I'm working on something which uses limited 3rd-person but with alternating characters, so that the reader knows more about what's going on than any of the characters do, and can put things together. Then, the setting is semi-historical, so there are relevant facts that a modern reader knows, that the characters don't.

It's fun...

David Griffin said...

Excellent, Nicola, thank you. :-)

As it happens, I recently bought a canvas photographic print to go into my writing shed (well, a third is for writing!); the reason I bought it, apart from liking it a lot is that from this one picture alone, I've a whole new novel idea. just looking at it the first time gave me the beginning and end as well as the title and over the following week the skeleton plot of the novel all clicked into place.

One thing I hadn't considered – leaving that decision til I start it – is the voice and tone of the novel. (I've still got to finish my third novel WIP with another WIP after that though; plenty to get on with). Your explanation of unlimited limited single POV is going to be perfect for it. It will be a rather surreal and odd tale anyway and this will add a lot to its ambience, I think.

Maybe the author's voice could be an acquaintance of the main character, thus able to add more detail than just the straightforward author's voice. This would work well in my future project, I'm pretty much certain.

The novel idea is appearing more charmed by the day, what with the concept coming into being from merely looking at a photograph, and now your excellent description of unlimited limited single POV.

So thank you again! :-)

Julian Hill said...

Sometimes it amazes me how far a writer can push this envelope around the first person. It may be hard to pull off but I think you can even have a first person narrator tell you things that she couldn't possibly know. The voice of the narration can drift between something that sounds authentically the voice of the character and something more literary. If it's well done, the reader can split off the pieces almost as if they were clearly dialogue and narration, picking up purely on the fluctuations of voice. I suppose this is a first person equivalent of free indirect style, and I've seen it work really well. Bloody hard to do though!

C D Meetens said...

I was trying to explain this exact concept to someone just the other day. This is much better though - it's clear and with some great examples. I'm going to direct my friend to this right away!

Melinda Szymanik said...

I love writing in first person and love this too. Excellent!!