Would You Like to Overcome the Limitations of First Person POV?
Have you ever wanted to do the impossible in your stories?
That is, to have your narrator be everywhere and know everything, while staying in the first person point-of-view (pov)?
It sounds like a paradox. How can Jim, a normal human being, know what’s happening in Ellie’s kitchen three miles away, without clairvoyance or technology? And how can he know what she’s thinking at that moment, unless he is telepathic?
That’s the big drawback of staying in one character’s pov. It brings great intimacy to a story. The reader is within that person’s mind. But it also limits what the character can plausibly know or experience.
What’s the answer?
A work-around. Or rather, five of them. Here they are:
1. Introduce a ‘time slip’.
The narrator flashes forward to a future time, the period in which they’re actually telling the story and looking at events in retrospect.
‘At that moment, could I have seen it, Ellie was hiding her diary – with its terrible secrets – behind the loose brick in the kitchen wall. But that became clear to me only six months later. By then, it was too late.’
The reader is then returned from the future to the ‘present time’ of the story. The flash forward is barely noticed but the reader has been given information that the narrator could not have known at the time, plus a little scene hanger to tempt them to read on. And the pov stays with the narrator.
2. Drop in a speculation.
The narrator imagines what might be happening elsewhere.
‘I wondered what Jim might be doing at that moment. Saturday morning, the shooting range. It was a ritual. But who was he shooting at, really, every time he squinted his eyes and squeezed fifteen rounds from his Beretta 92FS into that paper target? I shuddered.’
If the narrator is imaginative, they can slip – speculatively – into the viewpoint of any character without leaving their chair.
3. Invoke a plausible ‘vision’.
Perhaps the narrator suffers some traumatic shock, or has a vivid dream, or their mind is distorted by fever, drugs or alcohol. They experience a ‘vision’ of something they could not know but which, perhaps, turns out to be true.
‘It was not possible but, in my dream, I saw Elmore knock on our door. My wife opened it. She beckoned him in. She was wearing only a smile and a negligee. It was not possible.’
Of course, these hallucinations are more believable if the narrator already has some glimmerings of the truth which their subconscious then pieces together. But it’s not necessary, so long as the narrator has a convincing reason to lapse into an altered state of consciousness.
4. Recreate a scene.
This is a favorite in crime fiction. The detective, or somebody playing that role, deliberately reconstructs an event they did not witness. They can do it for themselves in a private reflection or explain it to another character.
‘ “Let’s suppose the perp entered by the back door here…” I laid a knife on the table. “And our victim was watching television here.” I put a napkin in front of it. “His back was turned. The television was loud. He wouldn’t have heard a thing.” I stabbed the knife in the napkin.’
Or the narrator can play a ‘what if’ game in their heads.
‘Suppose the door had been unlocked? And the television was tuned to the Super Bowl? That’s loud. And the killer was wearing sneakers. Maybe he crept slowly…’
A narrator can also use the ‘what if’ strategy to simulate the thinking process of another character.
‘So where had Doris hidden my passport? Normally, she kept her valuables in the jewelry drawer but that didn’t sound right. The cookie jar? She had a few dollar bills saved there for emergencies. No. Where were our wedding photos? Stuffed in the shoe closet. Of course. I went to the shoe closet.’
5. Let body language ‘speak’ a character’s thoughts.
An astute narrator can deduce what a character might be thinking or feeling by their body language. So can any other character, and they can reveal it in their body language. There’s no need for an awkward shift to another person’s pov.
‘ “Forgive me, Ms. Smith, but are you correctly attired for a job interview?” The chairman gazed at the ceiling. He doesn’t like my lip stud.
“Some of our customers might find it,” the woman’s smile was cold, “a mite aggressive.” She doesn’t like it either.’
Now we know what both characters think. And if one or other stiffened or leaned back in their chairs we’d also know how they felt. Threatened. The narrator wouldn’t need to spell it out.
We can use any or all of these techniques to simulate a shift in pov while staying within the narrator’s viewpoint. That can be important in a short story where the immediacy of a single pov can have great power, and there is little space to rotate viewpoints between characters.
In a novel, there’s more space to shift between 2-3 povs, but even then, it’s important to stay primarily within one pov. Otherwise, the reader gets confused. These work-arounds keep our stories in focus.
What problems have you had with point of view? And what solutions have you found? Leave a comment and share your experiences!