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Writing Short Stories - Point Of View

( Originally Published 1922 )



The Purpose of Point of View.—The reader comes to you, the author, as an entire stranger. From the moment of introduction, he gladly relinquishes all conscious hold on his practical every-day world. He is determined to incorporate himself into the soul and being of your hero, to think that He is this hero; hence, has all the right in the world to sorrow or fight with him. The purpose, then, of point of view is to arouse the reader to the pleasurable belief that he is seeing, at first hand, startling and revealing incidents.

What is Point of View?—Point of view is the telling of a story from some previously, determined vantage point. It is an essential convention of the art of short-story writing. If it were not for point of view every story would be hopelessly confused, would deteriorate merely into a babel of tongues. The story would resemble greatly a room full of people, all talking at the same time. The story would contain no suspense, no thrilling conjectures as to the manner in which the hero might extricate himself from harrowing situations, because it would already be explained by a triple or quadruple point of view just what the characters would do, because they themselves would reveal their motives and intentions.

The mechanism of telling a story is divided into three methods: first, the point of view of the main participant; the omniscient point of view; and the objective, impartial, or third-person point of view. All stories told in the first person usually have the point of view of one of the main participants, preferably the hero or heroine. Examples of stories told in this point of view are "Robinson Crusoe" and a number of Poe's short stories, such as the "Black Cat" and "Ligeia."

This method of telling a story is extremely effective because of the inevitable tone of sincerity coming from the use of the personal pronoun. We seem to read of the personal experience of some character who is setting his experience down just as it occurred. Thus: "But the worse thing of all was the loneliness. There wasn't a wild animal to prowl around the tent at night, nor a bird to sing at dawn. I was the only creature that moved in all that hell of desolation. Then I happened to recall an expression I had once heard : `Alone with God.' That put the idea of prayer into my head, and one evening at dusk I got right down on my knees and prayed—not for strength, or patience, or gold, but just for company. I asked that something, or somebody, be sent in time to keep me from going crazy."

This method also has its defects. If the adventures through which the hero is hurled draw too greatly upon his personal energy and resourcefulness; if he is made a shining example of the rising of man to emergency, and this is told in the first person, the story is very apt to carry the impression of egotism. Moreover, in stories that contain stirring action occurring at widely separated points, the hero must be rather super-human and veritably possess seven-league boots to cover the great distance and participate in all the action. He must be there or he cannot tell what occurs. Customarily, however, these difficulties are circumscribed by the means of letters, messengers, and so forth.

Point of View of One of the Observers of the Story. —This is the point of view customarily employed in detective stories. Conan Doyle makes an extensive use of this method, Dr. Watson serving as the observer of all the main action. It is essential that the observer be largely a recorder of what happens and not too greatly a direct participant in the action. If he is the latter, the attention of the reader is very apt to be diverted from the hero to the part the observer plays.

The Omniscient Point of View.—In this point of view the writer supervises and analyzes the actions, motives, and thoughts of his main characters and brings one or more of them, complete in all details of heart and soul, to the attention of the reader. He knows all, he sees all, and he experiences many things which can be known only by some one who can penetrate into the utmost recesses of a person's heart and mind. This point of view is in use largely in stories of analysis, such as George Eliot's "Romola," in which lengthy tale she sketches the deterioration of the main character, Tito Melema. It is this point of view that is used so largely in stories of character. To understand a character very thoroughly, we must know much of his motives, for it would be next to impossible to know what a character thinks and feels and how he reacts under certain conditions without having the power of omniscience. If an author has this power, the reader profits thereby.

The omniscient point of view, however, is seldom used in modern short stories because it consumes too great space in the telling. The reader must not be too greatly concerned with the motives, the thoughts, and each phase of the feeling of several characters. The action must go on, the crisis must be met and done with. We cannot linger too long on traits of character as are dealt with at length in novels.

The Objective, Impartial, or Third Person Point of View.—This is the method now in use by present-day short-story writers. It admits of a swift development of the story plot. This point of view is often called the author-observant poin of view. In such a point of view the short story bears a st king resemblance to the drama. In the drama the characters merely act and speak. No one stands back of the scenes or on the stage to analyze aloud to the audience the motives which move the actors. The character must interpret l is own emotion without any outside influence except that coming from expression of the lineaments, the movements of the hands, the inflection of the voice, and so forth, together with the settings of the stage. The point of view of the author-observant is exactly 'similar to that of the audience of a drama. The author is a mere recorder of events. He stands to one side and gives to us the action of the personages of his story, just as they occur. We must interpret from the character's speeches and actions just what kind of people they are.

This method is unusually effective because it admits of a speedy unraveling of the plot. The reader can become greatly interested in the life of the action because the author is far removed from the reader's thoughts and does not intrude himself upon the reader's reflection. The characters of the story have it all their own way—the author is merely the stenographer who takes down the character's speeches and movements.

Combination of Points of View.—A story need not be told entirely from the omniscient point of view or from that of the author-observant. A combination of both of these elements of story telling may be used. In telling a story I may be omniscient in a restricted sense. I may delve deeply into the motives of one character and leave the motives of the other characters to the interpretation of the reader. This is an excellent method because it allows the reader to use his ,own imagination on the other characters and thereby heightens the suspense. In stories of the author-observant type, the writer may introduce comments on life and his characters at opportune moments during the development of his story. We give as an example of the author-observant type of story, interspersed with comments, a portion of O. Henry's "The "Trimmed Lamp."

Suffused in the aura of this high social refinement and good breeding, it was impossible for her to escape a deeper effect of it. As good habits are said to be better than good principles, so, perhaps, good manners are better than good habits. The teachings of your parents may not keep alive your New England conscience; but if you sit in a straight-back chair and repeat the words "prisms and pilgrims" forty times the devil will flee from you. And when Nancy spoke in the Van Alstyne Fisher tones she felt the thrill of noblesse oblige to her very bones.

There was another source of learning in the great departmental school. Whenever you see three of four shopgirls gather in a bunch and jingle their wire bracelets as an accompaniment to apparently frivolous conversation, do not think that they are there for the purpose of criticising the way Ethel does her back hair. The meeting may lack the dignity of the deliberative bodies of man; but it has all the importance of the occasion on which Eve and her first daughter first put their heads together to make Adam understand his proper place in the household. It is Woman's Conference for Common Defense and Exchange of Strategical Theories of Attack and Repulse upon and against the World, which is a Stage, and Man, its Audience who Persists in Throwing Bouquets Thereupon. Woman, the most helpless of the young of any animal—with the fawn's grace but without its fleetness; with the bird's beauty but without its power of flight; with the honey-bee's burden of sweetness but without its— Oh, let's drop that simile—some of us may have been stung.

The Center of Interest.—Before deciding upon the point of view, it will be well for the writer to determine definitely with just what characters or character he has to deal with most sympathetically, for half the charm of a story lies in the fact that it has a center of interest, meaning that one of the characters, or one set of characters, holds the center of the stage and is constantly in prominence. A story to be perfect must have a center of interest, just as a wheel must have an axle.

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