When beginning a story, a writer must decide, not only who will be in the story, what they'll do, and where and when they'll do it, but the point of view from which the story's people, places, and actions will be seen and described. Many options are available, and each one will make a big difference to how readers experience the story.
One can, like Raymond Chandler, show everything as seen by one first-person narrator:
I went over and picked the gun up and wiped it off very carefully and put it down again. I picked up the three rouge-stained cigarette stubs out of the tray on the table and carried them into the bathroom and flushed them down the toilet.
—The High Window
— or one can become an "omniscient narrator" who can see a murderer hiding behind closed doors:
[Raskolnikov]… succeeded in slipping neatly and quickly back into the flat and closing the door behind him. Then he took the hook and softly, noiselessly, fixed it in the catch. Instinct helped him. When he had done this, he crouched holding his breath…
—Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
— or slip into a young woman's mind and eavesdrop on her thoughts:
...Emma sat down to think and be miserable. It was a wretched business indeed. Such an overthrow of everything she had been wishing for. Such a development of everything most unwelcome. Such a blow for Harriet! That was the worst of all....
—Jane Austen, Emma
When Vronsky's horse breaks her back in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy first takes us close to Vronsky on the steeplechase track:
...he stood staggering alone on the muddy, stationary ground and Frou-Frou lay breathing heavily before him, bending her head back and gazing at him with her beautiful eyes. Still unable to realize what had happened Vronsky tugged at the rein.
— then to the grandstand where, with Anna, we see the same event in long shot:
Without replying to her husband, Anna lifted her binoculars and gazed toward the place where Vronsky had fallen; but it was so far off and so many people had crowded there that it was impossible to distinguish anything.
James Jones's masterful trilogy of World War II — From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, Whistle — provides a fascinating example of how a writer's use of point of view can change to match a growing vision of human life.
Jones' trilogy takes us from Honolulu just before Pearl Harbor (From Here to Eternity) to the battle for Gualalcanal (The Thin Red Line) to a hospital for wounded vets as the war winds down (Whistle). Jones begins From Here to Eternity with the traditional narrator's point of view used by realists like Balzac, Trollope, and Dreiser. Jones introduces his characters with concise portraits that place them against detailed backdrops — here Prewitt:
When he finished packing, he walked out on to the third floor porch of the barracks, brushing the dust from his hands, a very neat and deceptively slim young man in the summer khakis that were still early morning fresh.
He leaned his elbows on the porch ledge and stood looking down through the screens at the familiar scene of the barracks square laid out with the tiers of the porches dark in the face of the three-story concrete barracks fronting the square.
Many similar paintings of people and places create a pre-war Honolulu that readers can enter; we hover invisibly beside the characters and watch them act out the drama. Whenever a character's mind becomes the best vantage point on the action, Jones slips inside for a look, but he soon returns to the more frequent close-but-outside point of view.
As the novels progress, Jones' outside view diminishes from an overall framing device to a slender thread that sews together large patches drawn from the characters' thoughts and feelings.
The first three sentences of The Thin Red Line paint troop ships approaching Guadalcanal; the fourth sentence takes us into the soldier's minds, filled with "dense anxiety and tense excitement." There we stay for the rest of the chapter, Jones moving from the mind of one soldier to another as they land on the beach, trek inland, and suffer their first casualties. Only in the chapter's last paragraph does Jones leave their minds and look at them from the outside:
The jeep was sent out to collect the stragglers along the route, and Sergeant Storm with a weary detail to help him and his cooks, set about putting up the kitchen tent....Other details exhaustedly, sickly, went about putting up the supply tent and orderly room tent. Before any of these jobs could be completed, it began to rain.
Character point of view is perfect for showing the soldiers in combat, fearful that they'll be killed any moment. Pinned down by mortar fire, Private Doll thinks about lifting his head but finds he can't:
What if just as he put up his head another exploded and a piece of it took him square between the eyes, or knifed into his face, or ripped through his helmet and split his skull? The prospect was too much.
In Whistle character point of view leaps upward again. The first sentence — "We got the word that the four of them were coming a month before they had arrived" — opens the tale in the voice of one of the Guadalcanal vets already in the Luxor hospital waiting for their buddies to show up. Thereafter, except for short descriptive sentences — "The windows were open and it was cool. In the bathroom big fresh towels hung on the rack" — we see the novel's world only as the characters experience it; Jones often stays with one character's viewpoint for a whole chapter.
Paragraph after paragraph begins with a character's name and an emotion: "Landers felt badly..." "Strange was aghast at himself," "Instinctively Winch sensed..." Jones only hints what the characters look like — "his uniform was wrinkled from being slept in" — but we learn their inmost thoughts in detail:
Somewhere down in the deepest part of his mind, in some place he wished neither to investigate or explore, but consciously knew was there, was a strong feeling, a superstition, that if he could bring Strange and Prell and Landers through, without them dying or going crazy, and make them come out the other side intact, he might himself come through.
By progressively increasing character point of view through the three novels , Jones digs deeper and deeper into his soldiers like a miner after gold. By the end of Whistle, I know these all-too-human men not better than I know David Sechard at the end of Balzac's Lost Illusions, but differently. Balzac keeps his narrator/character mix stable, staying in touch both with Sechard's mind and his world throughout the novel. In From Here to Eternity Jones begins like Balzac, introducing the characters with an extensive outside look:
Maylon Stark was medium-built and husky. That was the only word to fit him, husky. He had a husky face, and the nose on it was badly bent and flattened huskily. His voice was husky. His head sat huskily on his neck, the way a fighter carries his chin pulled in from habit.
— but by Whistle he barely sketches his "tough, broad face" and "thick line of brow hair" before diving into his hallucinations under anesthesia:
...at the far end a huge figure shrouded all in white sat on a white marble chair atop a white marble base. In the flashing lights, seeing it all in broken lines as if reflected in a splintered mirror, [he] stood and waited in front of all the crowds. Until the white figure, its face covered, slowly extended one huge arm, the index finger pointing. There was a vast sigh of "Ah!" from the crowd and Strange knew that he had lost.
As Jones shifts his emphasis from narrator to character point of view, he shifts the writer and reader from standing beside the characters to the writer and reader standing inside the characters. Reading Balzac we walk the streets where the characters walk, watching them as passers-by watch others in the crowd; reading Jones we limp along the hospital corridors deep inside his battle-scarred veterans, empathizing one-on-one with their battered, nearly broken spirits.
Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program.Click here to read other articles by Michael Lydon