Wednesday, August 31, 2011

1st vs 3rd -- when POV becomes a storytelling issue

When I think about writing and craft, I break it down into sub parts.

There are grammar and punctuation rules -- important, but a low order concern in comparison.

There are style and clarity issues -- things like keeping it all in a consistent point of view and paying attention to the order of words in a sentence so that they are as precise in meaning as possible, often like cutting the fat.

Then there are what I think of as storytelling concerns -- these are the items that would be the same for an oral storyteller as they would for the writer: pacing, voice, use of description, and the awareness of how all of those things make the reader feel at any given moment in the story.

Recently, I've found myself in a situation where the choice between first person and third person point of view is no longer a style choice; it's become a storytelling issue.

I used to write everything in first person when I was a college student because -- duh -- I thought in first person. So writing first person was the moy easy choice. I suppose it helped that in college all of my narrators were spunky, eccentric, feminist, twenty-year-old women with a bit of a cruel streak when it came to sticking it to their ex-boyfriends. I suppose.

These pieces ended up being all about voice: how quirky could I make her voice? how intriguingly awful could I make her thoughts? (Because everyone loves to read about characters thinking the things we all think but are  too polite to say.) And I started to think of writing in the first person as easy because I just settled my writing-self right down in my stream of consciousness and typed away ... ahem, I meant the character's stream of consciousness.

But eventually, I got bored writing that same character and I wanted to branch out. But I still thought first person was the easiest, or at least the quickest means of pounding out a story. So when faced with a looming 8:00AM deadline for a completed short story, and not a word written on the page at 7:30 PM the night before, I wrote in first person because I needed all the speed I could get.

The story's gone through many drafts since, gotten shorter, gotten longer, gotten much longer, outlined it as a novel. I've toyed with what person I want to put it in, first or third, but always came back to first. First person sounded better because it was the way I'd originally written the draft, and you can't argue with original recipe.

Then I did something drastic: I rewrote the opening twice, without looking at the original. Once in third person, then in first.

And a magical thing happened. When I was no longer beholden to my previous draft -- or unduly influenced by it -- brand new bits of story popped up that I hadn't been expecting. Particularly in the third person version. [For purposes of clarification I will mention that this is not merely changing all the pronouns from I to she, but changing the location/distance of the narrator and the narrative techniques.]

This is the situation I mentioned at the beginning of the post where point of view stopped being a style choice and started being a storytelling choice.

The story I'd originally written had a very narrow scope of the things which the character thought or wanted to stop and tell us. I worked hard to excise things she would not think about from her first person narration. The third person story could (even though the narration is still close to the main character) employ many of the narrative techniques of storytelling: I can lightly drop in information and backstory without it feeling like a character spilling her guts to us unprompted. And by moving myself outside of her head, the rest of the world essentially bloomed around me. -- Told ya it was a magical thing that happened.

I challenge anyone to rewrite a story from the beginning without looking at the original (and then tell me what happens!) -- you don't have to change person, although that's helpful to get you out of the previous mindset, but you just can't look at the original. Has anyone else tried this -- what were your results? What tools or tests do you use to figure out what person to write a story in?

Photo credit: dogbomb on flickr

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