We writers often speak in metaphors, and we often do this pertaining to our craft. We speak about “sculpting” our stories as one might mold clay, chisel stone, or carve wood. We speak of painting pictures with written scenes and composing “musical” dialogue. The gerund phrase, “honing your craft” or the use of the word “hone” as a verb, has become so commonplace and cliché in writing workshops and pertaining to other crafts, that the noun “hone” (a synonym for whetstone) is almost never used as a subject or object in a sentence anymore. But a particularly useful bit of figurative language that can be used as a tool for discussing point of view continues to be the idea of thinking of an author’s “distance” from the chosen POV character as being camera-like.
This is certainly an abstract notion, and it moves our thinking about our craft out of the realm of painting, sculpting, and composing music into the realm of photography and video. There is no doubt that in terms of popular culture, cinema and video have become more popular and common ways of telling a story than books once were. And so we are talking about ways that authors use POV to crop, zoom in, zoom out, pan, and switch cameras. Thinking about and discussing aspects of POV this way is useful because it gives us a framework and vocabulary to communicate complicated ideas about the writing craft. And an abstract notion suddenly has parameters that give it definition and shape.
In cinema, temporal distance (or distance in time between the narrator or POV character and the actual story being told) is often only discernible when we are aware that a flashback is happening (think of the squiggly line trope that was overused in the early days of television and film) or when there is an audible narrator. If we think of the popular television show from the 1980’s, The Wonder Years, we will remember that the child protagonist’s narrated voice in the first person was that of an older man, and therefore the temporal distance for that series would be described as a span of many years, probably decades, because the stories are being told from a perspective of looking back as one might do in a memoir from a place of wisdom and growth.
Another example from film, done in third person (relating to the protagonist), and told from great temporal distance isThe Shawshank Redemption, where the protagonist’s story (Tim Robbins playing Andy Dufresne) is told by the third person voice of Morgan Freeman (also a supporting character, Red Redding) long after the events of the story have transpired.
In literature, temporal distance is created through the chosen POV, tense, syntax, word choice, and character perceptions. For example, an author might achieve the authentic voice of a child protagonist whose story is told in the third person from a close temporal distance by choosing the kind of words that a young child would use even though the story is told in the third person. On somewhat of a subconscious level, this tips off the reader that the story is told in close third person and that the perspective is strongly linked to the child character. And so we can see how easily POV shifts or disruptions can occur if an author’s word choice is inconsistent somewhere along the way, and especially when inconsistency is evident within scenes.
In contrast to the previous example, a story told from the perspective of a narrator (who is emotionally invested as opposed to objective, as discussed in POV Part I) at great temporal distance from the viewpoint character, might convey the judgments of that character at a much older age. And so it is always good to ask ourselves as authors, when we are writing, not only exactly how old our viewpoint character is, but exactly how old and how distant from that character is the narrator? Is the narrator speaking of himself in the third person? What words would that narrator use to describe the actions of his viewpoint character’s youth? What judgments if any might an older narrator make of a younger one? Judgments too, if not consistently treated, can pull your reader from the text and destroy suspension of disbelief.
Discussion of spatial distance in fiction is where the film analogy really seems to shine. We might imagine when we are writing scenes that we are pointing a camera at the characters and setting as a cinematographer would do in a movie. The cinematographer sets up the shots and camera angles, deciding what camera perspectives best tell the story and create the mood that the director has in mind. As authors, we get to fill multiple roles necessary in the shooting of a movie scene: director, cinematographer, camera man, etc. The temporal distance of the narrator might have an impact on what details are included in a scene, and which people and things are the subject of the narrator’s focus. After all, memory is what is involved here, and what kind of details one might observe in a story that is decades old are not the same details that a narrator would notice if he were in the same room at the same time with the POV character.
If the narrator is noticing things that could only be noticed in a wide pan shot—observing the POV character on a stretch of beach, umbrellas on the sand, a myriad of half naked bodies stretched out like bacon sizzling in the sun—then the author is creating distance between the narrator and viewpoint character by doing this. On the other hand, if the narrator is noticing things that could only be seen if one were nose-to-nose with those details, then the author is creating intimacy as if the camera were in the hands of the POV character. The details seen through this camera position are the smaller things like pores, creases, and crow’s feet. They are tactile and textural because they are within range of the POV character’s touch. By the same token, occupying the thoughts of a character brings the camera distance close to the character whereas the camera is perceived as further away when thoughts are left unknown. Shifting between these camera angles and shots is delicate work, and while an author does not and probably shouldn’t tell an entire story from the same distance or angle, too many shifts can create a chaotic mess that a reader cannot or will not want to follow.
Creating a consistent treatment throughout a story of how POV is handled will have the effect of engaging readers. It will establish the narrator’s authority and identity and the way readers perceive and judge the characters. It will ultimately have bearing on the viewpoint that readers take away from the author, what themes are addressed, and how an author establishes a unique and authentic voice.