I never fully grasped point-of-view until I read David Jauss’s amazing essay “From Long Shots To X-Rays: Distance and Point of View in Fiction” in his collection of essays Alone With All That Could Happen. Jauss writes, “Perhaps the most important purpose of point of view is to manipulate the degree of distance between the characters and the reader in order to achieve the emotional, intellectual, and moral responses the author desires.” He further argues that the question of “where the language is coming from” is one of the most important issues in point of view.
This idea of point-of-view as the tool writers use to “manipulate the degree of distance between the characters and reader” becomes especially important to flash writers who must find ways to close the distance quickly. Also, Jauss provides an easy way for me to know when I’m closing this distance: the more the language of the piece comes from the character, the more I am closing the distance between character and reader.
I find that I often get to the character’s language at the end of the first paragraph, using third-person (he/she) limited (the reader only has access to that one character’s thoughts) throughout, sticking to that first-established POV until the very end.
Here’s the opening of my still-in-process story “Reenactment”:
He smoked outside the mall, east of Pittsburgh, where they filmed the original Dawn of the Dead. He had an interview to join Undead Reanimators, a job that involved creating your own zombie character and acting in any undead functions: mall promotions, birthday parties, fund drives, and the like.
“Zombies don’t smoke,” some assistant to the head guy said, and so he tossed the cigarette away.
“I’m thinking they would litter,” he said to the assistant.
The assistant ignored him. Maybe that was part one of the training, but he didn’t need it, had that part down pat.
Even though the piece is written in third-person, I still tried to make the language read as if it were being written in first person, so it is as if the character (not the author, not an invisible narrator) is telling us “some assistant to the head guy said.” In other words, that language is not mine, but the character’s. Writing third-person pieces that use, as much as possible, the character’s language, then, is one way to speed up the identification process.
Why not just write it in first person then? Well, that’s a great question. I like the flexibility of third person, the chance to bring in information and character description in when I feel the reader needs it. In first person, I feel more confined and more awkward about bringing in any outside viewpoint.
Also, this point-of-view seems to work as most point-of-view does, by beginning at a distance and working itself in. [I have, however, seen plenty of flash pieces move inside out to dramatic effect].
I found the term “viewpoint intruder” in a great article by Kristen Johnson Ingram to describe those words that get between a character’s viewpoint and the reader, creating distance that the writer usually doesn’t want. Ingram writes, “Remember, it’s understood that once you’re in a character’s viewpoint, you stay there until the end of the scene, and there’s no need to place her in every sentence.” As I looked back on my own writing, I found these lurking in one of the very first flashes I wrote, “Little Magpie”:
I find Maggie squatting on the kitchen floor beside the door to the garage. My eyes always go to her belly first, as if she has swallowed a globe. There’ve been two miscarriages, both early. Never have we gotten so far. Then I notice she’s picking something off the floor, putting it in her mouth. Get closer. They surround her. Hundreds of them. Ants. Maggie is eating ants.
The I find and the then I notice are both examples of viewpoint intruders, as they make the action come to the reader not directly, but filtered first through this character’s viewpoint. Here’s that same paragraph edited:
Maggie squats on the kitchen floor beside the door to the garage. My eyes always go to her belly first, as if she has swallowed a globe. There’ve been two miscarriages, both early. Never have we gotten so far. Maggie’s picking something off the floor, putting it in her mouth. I get closer. They surround her. Hundreds of them. Ants. Maggie is eating ants.
Some other possible intruders that pop up in my own writing included “turned to,” “looked at,” “heard,” and “thought back to that time.” The sense I have of reading over these intruding words and phrases is of someone once-removed from the character, writing down what the character is doing and feeling and sensing, as in this example:
She turns to look at the light. It feels very bright to her. She then remembers that she had a similar light in her bedroom as a kid. That makes her feel anxious, and she can feel the sweat go down her back. She then notices that the light has begun to flicker.
Consider that same piece without that once-removed reporter taking notes and with the information coming to us as experienced by the character.
The bright light, like the one in her bedroom as a kid, sends sweat down her neck. The light flickers.…