The New Narrative Mode

I have been struggling with a whole category of writing advice, for the past year-and-a-half. That’s about to come to an end, and I’m going to coin a new term in order to end it. I’m also going to ask that you let me capitalize whatever I darn well want to, just so I can get my point across, clearly. This is exciting, isn’t it?

Let’s start with Point of View (POV). In writing (and reading), POV is “the position of the narrator (the character of the storyteller) in relation to the story being told.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.) It is one of the Narrative Modes, which also includes Voice and Tense. POV can be First Person, Second Person, or Third Person, or sometimes Epistolary, Serial, or Flashback. The Narrative Voice “describes how the story is conveyed” and can be Character, Viewpoint Character, Objective, Omniscient (including Universal Omniscient), and Subjective or Limited Omniscient. Let’s set aside Tense for the duration of this article.

Now, when I wrote the article “POV and Other Narrative Modes,” I meant to settle issues once and for all. However, looking back, I failed to actually define POV or Voice (although I did plenty of other defining). This has cost me. You see, I find that when critics of my work (including the invited critics) talk about me “changing POV,” they are not, in fact, talking about me changing POV. It’s something subtler. Something harder to put a finger on.

We’re going to call it Focus.

And it’s somewhere between POV and Voice.

Think of it like you’re a filmmaker. Actually, the analogy is a common one. Your camera–where it is placed and which direction it’s shooting–that’s the Narrative Mode. Are you right in the action? Are you up on a distant hill? Are you in Bob’s nostril? POV and Voice both work together to give you this sense. POV tells you who is narrating for you. Voice tells you how much they know.

Actually, I think a lot of the confusion of this situation arises from people using “Point of View” to refer to “Voice.”

But more importantly, there is a distinct separation between the Voice and this other thing that people keep referring to in my work with the wrong term. Let’s get personal: when I have an omniscient narrator (usually in the third person), they can know anything, go anywhere, read people’s minds, open their mail, flit in and out of worlds. That’s their right. But when I give the reader whiplash by whisking from one character’s head or one space to another, I have violated the Focus, which is something I just made up so that we can finally talk some sense, here.

Back to that video camera. It’s all set up to give us a sense of where we are, we’re filming, and the dialogue and narration are telling us what’s going on and letting us how much we know compared to the characters. The camera is focusing on Bob. Then, while Bob is still talking, it focuses on Sally. We’ve gone cross-eyed. Wait!? I thought…?! Or the camera is facing into a family room and we are watching an argument, then all of a sudden we are staring out at the pool deck.

It’s not that the writer can not change the Focus of the story, or even of any given scene. They can! They can focus first on Bob and then on Sally. They can take us to the family room and then to the pool deck. They can tell us every little dirty secret and the history of the world. They just need to do it with skill and finesse. And they can’t (at least conventionally) change POV, Voice, or Tense.

It’s also about being consistent in your Focus throughout a given work. If we are always in Bob’s head, then in chapter one hundred and four get some internal dialogue from Sally, the reader is going to be distracted and annoyed. Unless it is really that well-executed and purposeful. Because there is always an exception. But for the most part, I think I get into trouble about Focus, not Narrative Mode. And with Focus, the judgement is fairly subjective. And I can sort of do whatever I want. As long as the reader understands me. And I’d like it to be beautiful, as well.

Let me give you an example. The Night of One Hundred Thieves is Third Person (they, he, she), Universal Omniscient (knows everything about everyone, including thoughts, even history and the future), Past Tense (did, ran, sat). “Ingrid let her mind leaf through her memories while her body wound through the narrower, more shadowed corridors of the castle. She circled around the main apartments and through the family living spaces.” Then, within one paragraph of this sentence, Ingrid runs into her pupil’s cousin and the Focus is shifted to him and his sister. In fact, Ingrid disappears completely within several paragraphs. The scene always remains Third Person, Universal Omniscient, and Past Tense. The Focus flits about, which I used in this novel (successfully or otherwise) to emphasize the number of thieves involved in the robbery, to compare and contrast their motives and circumstances, and to give place–Kentwend–the most solid feeling of all.

To recap:

  • Point of View is the direction from whence you are viewing the story.
  • Voice is what (or how much) that POV is able to tell us, the reader.
  • Focus is the perspective that the Narrative Mode takes, and it can change frequently or not at all. Whose brain are we in, right now? Who are we thinking about? Who or what are we focusing on?

My advice? Really wrap your brain around this. Choose wisely your POV, Voice, and Tense when beginning a story. Write it down somewhere visible, even, so that you remember throughout the writing process. Then do your magic with Focus, focusing here, focusing there, taking us in and out of people’s lives and situations, and do it in your voice (which I mean as “distinct style”), but make sure to do it clearly, artfully, and consistently.



2 thoughts on “The New Narrative Mode

  1. Hi Devon! I think the most important point you made was about how Voice tells you how much the narrator knows. I think you have a lot of good points, and I have a theory about this matter. I think it goes something like this: We give the reader fragments of knowledge about the world of the story, called sentences. The reader’s brain is constantly trying to figure out what they can assume about the world based on those fragments, to build up a complete picture. Whenever those fragments coincide sufficiently with what a character is thinking, seeing, or doing, the reader’s brain goes “Aha! I’m looking at the world through this character’s assumptions! What this character assumes about the world, *I* can assume about the world!” And this is a really easy way to grab a whole bunch of information about the world, really quickly, so the reader really likes to do it. (We can explicitly allow these assumptions by actually writing what the character is thinking, like saying ‘he thought’.) And the reader will continue in the assumption that they’re looking at the world through that character’s lens indefinitely. In most books, it lasts the whole book.

    The practical upshot of this theory of mine is that the reader’s idea of who they’re being in the story is really “sticky”, because it’s an easy way to get a lot of information. Something has to happen to “unstick” them. One convention is to use chapter breaks for this, or at least line breaks. The reader begins a new chapter with an open mind about who they might be this time. The problem that I call “POV error” is when the writer justifies the reader’s assumption of which character they’re being, and then gives them a sentence that contradicts that assumption. It’s confusing to the reader’s brain (which is unpleasant and usually unbeautiful) because they don’t know what of their assumed context to keep and what to throw away. And they trust the writer less, because the writer has contradicted context that they allowed the reader to assume. They got “unstuck” too fast.

    I’ve seen stories where the writer unsticks the reader from one character and sticks them to another successfully, mid-paragraph, without whiplash, but it’s rare. (You do it successfully, I think, in 100 Thieves! I’ve seen Woolf and DeLillo do it too.) I think the key to doing it successfully (I’m not 100% sure of this though) is for it to be obvious that the POV change is intentional.

    Sorry for writing so very much in your comment section. This is something that I like to think about!

  2. Thanks for the comment. And thanks for saying that I actually change Focus successfully in “Thieves.” I’ll pay you later. 😉 I always welcome your two cents on writing, even if it’s a “long” comment.

    So perhaps we should call it Stickiness, not Focus. Either way, it can be helpful (at least for us creative folks) to visualize what is happening on a literary level, whether it be turning or focusing a camera, or pulling a Velcro symbol from one character and placing it on the next.

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