I’d like to continue J. Leigh’s discussion of POV vs. perspective. This is such an important topic for writers, and something that can make or break a story if not executed correctly. In the last post, J. Leigh defined perspective as a refinement or narrowing of the larger category of point-of-view. When writing, you have to know whose head(s) you’re in — not only capturing how would the world look through those eyes, but also how that character would express what he or she perceives in language. In 1st person POV, incidentally, the focus on language is even more crucial because you’re inside that character’s head all the time; there is no narrator or outside “God voice”.
So that’s by way of summary — by all means, though, if you missed that first post, go back and read it! 🙂
I want to pick up the discussion of perspective with respect to embedded narratives — stories within the main story, such as a flashback or a narrated account within the context of the larger plot.
Example: Joe Shady meets his pal Slim at the local pub. Through the haze of smoke and liquor, Slim asks Joe what he’s been doing for the last three months. Joe replies, “You would hardly believe it.” End of chapter. The next chapter and the three chapters after that are told in Joe’s voice as he narrates his adventures. This is an embedded narrative. For a more classical example, Book 4 of Vergil’s Aeneid — Aeneas’s tale of the fall of Troy in the court of Dido — is perfect.
Okay, let’s mix it up. Get your thinking caps on, ladies and gents.
Let’s say you want to write a story told in a retrospective voice (older Joe remembering younger Joe). This would allow the older Joe’s narrator voice to be more sophisticated than younger Joe’s dialogue voice. Now, suppose you use this voice for most of the story, until young Joe catches up to older Joe. Can you also include an embedded narrative in the first (retrospective) section?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: Yes, if you are careful and know what you’re doing.
The key to pulling off a complicated layering of perspectives is to inform your readers that this is what you’re doing and then execute it with surgical precision. Perhaps you could include a prologue to set up the retrospective tone of the first section of the book. Set up the embedded narrative clearly and end it clearly. On the sentence level, be sure you don’t confuse your verb tenses. When the voices come together in the present, unify the voice across all levels of your writing (sentence, paragraph, chapter, book). If present Joe is 17, then use a 17-year-old’s voice for the rest of the book, not a 35-year-old voice.
As J. Leigh pointed out in her post, the perspective and the P.O.V. have to be appropriate to the story. The same applies to the decision to layer perspectives. An pure, adrenaline-pounding adventure story or thriller probably wouldn’t lend itself well to the retrospective flashback structure. Readers will expect action, not nostalgia. An adventure that is character-based may well support such a structure. It all returns to the basic rules of writing:
- Know your story (genre as well as plot lines).
- Know your characters.
- Know your audience.
So don’t be afraid to experiment with complex layers of perspective. Perspective is one of the many tools at our disposal, and its correct application within a story can enrich the overall experience for your reader.
Or ruin it.
So make sure you practice. A lot.
And get a friend to beta-read.
Have fun. 🙂