Look Who’s Talking

First appeared on UncommonYA on August 20, 2014

Plot’s self-explanatory; setting and even symbolism can be straightforward too. An element that typically stumps my literature students—and many authors—is point of view. I stress to my students that P-O-V involves who’s telling the story. We go over different types, notably first-person, and the variations of third-person, from detached to omniscient. I have them repeat omniscient after me, just because it sounds cool. Ditto juxtaposition and specificity. But I digress.

Some students fail to see the difference between first-person (I) and third-person limited omniscient, where the reader has access to the inner workings of (usually) one character. We talk it through, always with an eye on why an author may have chosen a particular P-O-V. Once they grasp the differences, my students are quite insightful, imagining how a story would change if narrated from an alternate viewpoint.

For writers, point of view is crucial. Figuring out who should narrate is key to unlocking how to tell the story. Embracing a specific P-O-V provides vital tools to create the world of a novel. Committing to that point of view also limits an author, effectively locking the toolbox that holds various other stylistic elements. Third-person detached, for instance, basically eliminates readers’ access to characters’ inner workings. In writing, as in life, I tend not to opt for detachment.

I’ll give an example from my novels. Both THE NAMESAKE (Merit Press, 2013) and my upcoming book, TEDDI ALDER, use first-person narration. Each novel follows a teenager in the throes of painful change and self-discovery. Evan is upended by his father’s suicide; Teddi struggles to understand who she is in the face of dark childhood truths. Both characters explore devastating emotional territory. To help my readers experience it firsthand, I chose to let Evan and Teddi tell their own stories.

It wasn’t like I had much of a choice, actually. First-person narration seemed to choose me. In both cases, the stories arrived in the protagonists’ voices. Evan began to tell his story, and so did Teddi. I felt sort of like the shoulder these people picked to cry on. Writing in first-person also appeals to me as an actor. It allows me to become my characters, as if I’m channeling their stories. Taking on a character’s voice via “I” helps me feel each moment gut-deep. When writing a highly emotional scene, I’m often awash in the same feelings as my characters. This translates to the page, delivering a vivid experience; it’s one of the real strengths of first-person.

However, this P-O-V also has drawbacks. It can feel limiting, narrow, crafting (and digesting) 200-plus pages from just one perspective. But there are ways around it, methods for allowing other voices to have their moment. One of these is through conversation. I tend to use quite a bit of dialogue in my writing, to allow other characters their say, without actually shifting point of view.

In THE NAMESAKE, while obliged to tell the story solely from Evan’s perspective, I felt it critical to also get inside the head of his lost father. I accomplished this through a journal and cassette tapes that basically allowed me—and my reader—access to another P-O-V. It was possible for my reader, and as importantly for Evan, to connect with Evan Sr.’s deepest thoughts, told once again through his first-person narration.

TEDDI ALDER also incorporates other voices into what is basically a single-character, first-person narrative. This time, along with plentiful dialogue, I introduced other perspectives with a writers group. The SUMMERTEEN workshop functions as both a plot device—Teddi’s writing uncovers dark childhood memories—and a way for readers to access other characters’ inner workings.

Whatever the point of view, authenticity and consistency are essential. If P-O-V feels off, it’s likely not the correct choice. And if viewpoint randomly shifts while writing, it’s probably also a case of imperfect fit. When starting my current work-in-progress, I automatically used first-person, mostly out of habit. It felt wrong. This one’s a ghost story, and while it centers on fourteen-year-old Dexter Peregrym, it also has a large, colorful cast of characters, both living and deceased. Third person omniscient is the clear choice. The minute I switched, I found my rhythm, and the story started to crackle. My advice? When the right point of view comes along, you’ll know. Stick with it. If it starts feeling restrictive, find unique ways to season it. But remember: who’s talking is as important as what’s being said.

Steven Parlato is the author of THE NAMESAKE, Merit Press, 2013. Publishers Weekly praised the novel as “an introspective debut.”

Kirkus Reviews called the book “a memorable, disturbing story, carefully wrought.”

Book blogger, The Subtle Chronicler, said, “The characters were all perfectly laid out. I was able to connect with each and every one of them.”

Book Blogger, Dayla F.M. at Book Addict 24/7 chose THE NAMESAKE as one of her top ten reads of the year, calling the book “heartbreakingly real.”

Find Steven Online on Poets & Writers
Like his author page on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and find THE NAMESAKE on Goodreads. Drop Steven a line at steve@stevenparlato.com

Buy the Book:
Purchase THE NAMESAKE on Barnes & Noble.com or find it on Indiebound.

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