point of view in fiction

Blog header: Twenty Years a Writer

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 3: Writing From the Inside or the Outside?

There’s a lot of advice for writers on how to structure a piece of fiction from inciting incident to crisis and conclusion. How to create conflict and build up tension. How to make relatable characters. To me, that advice often sounds like the writer is looking at their work from the outside, standing apart from it, assembling pieces and fastening them together.

I prefer to write from the inside.

It’s like I’m creating the structure from within and living in it with my characters. I’m right there with them as they interact, experiencing their conflicts and struggles. It’s like making a burrow, digging into the substance of the story and shaping its hollows and passages with my hands and body.

Looking out of hollow space
Image by Juanetito from Pixabay

Writing from the inside is writing in first person or using what’s called “deep POV.” That is an extremely close third person point of view, just one remove from first person. The narrator doesn’t speak as one of the characters, but is pretty much joined at the hip with them, close enough to hear their inner thoughts. It’s as though that character, the writer, and the reader are one. A drawback of this device is that other characters’ thoughts must be conveyed in dialogue or by some other means.

This inside/outside thing reminds me of Emic vs Etic — a concept in anthropology that distinguishes between ways of describing a culture. An outside observer’s account (“etic”) is scientifically detached but possibly coloured by his or her own culture. That written by a member of the culture (“emic”), while richer and more detailed, may be obscured by assumptions not available to all readers. For example: “The group demonstrates an animistic religion,” vs. “I honour the spirits of sky, water, and stone.”

I won’t say that one approach is better than the other, but working from the inside feels right to me. All my novels and many of my short stories are in first person. Of the fourteen stories in Tales from the Annexe, nine are in first person. Those with a third person point of view are, in my opinion, a bit less intense and immersive.

With my eyes useless, I explored my darkness. Like a trapped insect, I crawled inside the walls of my skull, revisiting memories of sight. … I remembered the weight of the glass cylinder filled with the drug, the small resistance as the needle punctured living tissue, the faint grating of glass on glass as I dispensed death.
(From “The Night Journey of Francis Dexter”)

Writing from the outside may be the preferred method for writers who do detailed outlines and other preliminary work before they begin to write. Working from the inside may be favoured by those who plunge in and splash out a messy first draft with the intent to shape it later, in effect writing first from the inside and then from the outside. And maybe those who start from the outside need to do some work from the inside after they’ve created the framework.

Image source unknown

Or maybe it’s about Thinking (inside) and Doing (outside). Introspective works may be best served by first person or extremely close third person. For action-packed thrillers, close third person may be effective, possibly switching between or among characters. Epic fantasy, on the other hand, with its intricate plots and many characters, demands third person omniscient. And first person or deep POV may be used for specific scenes to add intensity.

Whichever approach a writer takes, it’s helpful to do it consciously and methodically, so as to maximize the impact and avoid confusing the reader.

All this reminds me of something I read about how beavers build their lodges. First they pile up a huge mass of sticks, and then burrow inside it to shape their living spaces from within. Then they plaster the outside with mud to make it weathertight. There is something beaverish about us writers, isn’t there?

Beaver lodge
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Fellow writers, do you distinguish between writing from the inside and the outside? Which approach works best for you?

Next time: Reasons to Write and Reasons to Publish

The Ice Cream Truck from Hell ~ Afterword

As the infernal ice cream truck’s taillights vanish into the night, I thought I would answer some of the questions readers might have about the story without even realizing it.

What gave me the idea for the story? Late one afternoon years ago, possibly in September, I heard the unmistakable sound of an ice cream truck’s unmodulated tune close to my house. That was weird, because I’d never heard one around here before — or since, come to that. There is a popular public beach not far from here, and maybe ice cream trucks visit it in summer. Maybe one of them turned on its music en route. But it was the wrong time of day and year — odd enough to make me wonder about it. The phrase “ice cream truck from Hell” popped into my mind uninvited. And I’m pretty sure the tune it was playing was the one known as “Brahms’ Lullaby.” Apparently it is in the repertoire of real ice cream trucks, like this one.

A couple of years later, I started writing the story, but abandoned it after a few pages. It stayed in my mind, though, and when I recently read a couple of serial stories on Beetleypete’s blog, I decided to try writing one myself. I remembered the ice cream truck story and publicly declared I was going to finish it and get it blog-ready by the end of April. And now I’ve done it.

For some reason, I had the devil of a time (ha ha) writing the story. For one thing, it kept trying to be in first person, with Will as the narrator. I didn’t want to do it that way. I’ve written a bunch of novels in first person. I love first person. But I wanted to do this in third person, from Will’s p.o.v. but not narrated by him.

Once I wrestled it into third person, I had to deal with the Graveyard Scene. “What graveyard scene?” readers will ask. The one I deleted. The boys were to hide in a graveyard after running away from the devilish driver of the ice cream truck. I thought this would be a nice little twist, since graveyards are usually considered anything but refuges, especially at night. I even had Doof camping out in a graveyard, behind a mausoleum. But it just didn’t work, geographically or logistically. When I cut the graveyard scene, the whole thing began to come together.

Something I’ve found while editing recently, is the effectiveness of moving paragraphs and sentences around. Not deleting and rewriting, just changing the order. Of course, some deleting and rewriting is needed after doing these shifts, to clean up the seams and edges, but it’s amazing how shuffling blocks of text around can improve the flow of a piece of writing.

Finally, those header images. I put them together on Canva long before I finished writing the story. The time and effort I invested on them was an incentive to get the damned thing (ha ha) finished. One of them is kind of comical, the other creepy. I couldn’t decide which one to use, so I kept both of them, using the comical one for the first three parts and the creepy one for the last four.

Thank you to everyone who read the story and offered encouraging comments. I can feel Will and Doof wanting me to keep writing their story, but so far I’m resisting. (But will Doof ever want to get away from Mr. Phlogisto? How did Blaze, Pyro, and Ember come to work for him? And what about Will? Does he continue to defy his dad’s bullying? Does he ever meet up with Doof again? Hmm.)

Finally, here’s a discussion from 2006 about annoying ice cream trucks. The sixth item, by someone called Olena, sounds eerily familiar!

First Person Narrator

I love fiction narrated in the first person.  Love writing it, certainly. When I began to write The Friendship of Mortals, the first novel in my Herbert West Series, there was no question but that it would be in first person. Charles Milburn, the narrator, has a story to tell. He has carried the burden of memories of his involvements with Herbert West for a decade and a half, and finally, on a night when he can’t sleep he’s ready to relive those experiences, incidentally sharing them with the reader. Nothing is better for this “confessional” mode of storytelling than first person. Think of Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne.

First person narration was right for the sequels to The Friendship of Mortals as well.  The second novel in the series, Islands of the Gulf, has three narrators (or four, possibly). Their accounts overlap somewhat, so the reader sees certain events from two different points of view. I found this to be an irresistible aspect of this mode of storytelling; it’s like walking around a sculpture and viewing it from different dimensions. I told Herbert’s story using the voices of Charles, his librarian friend, Andre Boudreau, his Acadian servant, the widow Margaret Bellgarde, and Alma Halsey, a disillusioned journalist who was once Charles Milburn’s lover. Only once does Herbert himself assume the narrator’s role, in the second half of Islands of the Gulf.

When you start to think about it, the whole business of narrative voice and point of view is an intricate one, full of subtleties.  On the face of it, it seems simple. First person is when the character telling the story calls him- or herself “I,” as in: I opened the door to a man pointing a gun at me. Second person is uncommon but not unheard of, most often encountered in short stories of the literary type: You open the door and there’s a man pointing a gun at you. Third person is the most common voice in fiction: Jack opened the door and saw a man pointing a gun at him. Even with these tiny examples, it’s possible to detect differences in tone and to imagine how the narratives may diverge into a variety of scenarios.

Third person is the most versatile. The trickiest issue in a story told this way is that of point of view. Is the narrator omniscient, that is, equally aware of the motivations and secrets of each character, or is he/she more informed about the protagonist? Is the narrative voice “close,” almost like first person, or somewhat removed? Does the point of view shift from one character to another between scenes, or even (gasp) within a scene? The latter, sometimes called “head-hopping” is frowned upon by some and must be done well if it is to be done at all.

The greatest limitation of the first person narrator, of course, is that you, the writer, are stuck inside that character. If you want to impart information that person cannot possibly have, or convey the emotions of another character in a direct way, you have to resort to devices such as letters or diaries, or to engineer scenes in which your voice-character overhears things, dreams them or mind-merges with someone else — all the time reminding yourself not to snap the thread upon which depends the reader’s crucial suspension of disbelief.

Islands of the Gulf, Part One will be available to readers by the end of 2011.