Sunday, October 12, 2014


By Bonnie Stanard

Just when I thought I had some idea of point of view (POV), I read a story that has me scratching my head. I can hear groans coming from Columbia II writers. Oh no, here she goes again. Bonnie’s obsessed. Hasn’t enough been written about POV already?

Yes, but I have a footnote, and I’ll try to get to it.

For clarity’s sake, we writers stick to one POV for any given scene (or chapter or novel). Take a look at the excerpts below taken from a short story I read recently. What is the POV?
He felt no floor under his feet
He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair.
He’s coming down the stairs now, he thought.

The information here is filtered through one person (in this case a boy). My first reaction is that it’s third limited POV, for we know what the boy is thinking and feeling. We’re given his interior monologues. However, if third limited POV, we should be limited to whatever he sees, hears, or knows.

Intermixed with the above sentences are others like these:
[had the boy been] Older he might have remarked this and wondered….
But he did not think this now.
[an expression of] amazed disbelief which the boy could not have known was…
he did not know it was midnight…

Isn’t this omniscient? This is where I’m scratching my head. The story is being told from the boy’s point of view, so why is the omniscient narrator sticking his nose into the story to tell us things the boy can’t or doesn’t know? Has this author mixed third limited with omniscient POV within a given text?

You might expect the writing to be unclear if not pedestrian, but it’s not. And in the hands of an author of less ability than William Faulkner, it might well have been. The way I read this is that it’s omniscient in spite of the interior monologue. It’s not actually the boy telling the story. It’s the god-like narrator, who knows the boy’s thoughts and quotes them as the plot progresses. This departs from our conventional understanding of POV. Only a professional like Faulkner can make something like this work. These excerpts are taken from his short story “Barn Burning,” and you can find the complete text at the website below.*

There’s a quote which goes something like this—Know the rules so you can break them. Of those creative writers who take chances (i.e., break the rules), some are rewarded by critics with labels such as “innovative” or “original.” Failing that, some are labeled as “confusing” or “slipshod.” Some day, I hope I’ll know enough about writing that I’ll be able to mess with the rules in a way that isn’t an embarrassing exhibition of ignorance.

* (a note: this publication has dropped the italics that appear in other published copies of this story.)

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