POV choices and the External Narrator

My current project is a first attempt to write a story from a single point of view.  It seems harder than using multiple viewpoints, that is, having several characters who tell portions of the story as they experience events. 
Using a single point of view limits choices to what the POV character does, sees, thinks, overhears, or is told by others.  This method is called “limited omniscience,” meaning I don’t let the reader know everything–just what the POV character knows.  It means I can’t write a scene without the POV character in it. 
I’m also using third person (she, they, instead of I, we), and no obvious narrator.  More about that in a minute.
In a first person story, the main character can say My story began [or begins] at a railroad crossing… .”  She can comment on her story as it plays out.
Changed to third person pronouns, this might be, Her story began [or begins] at a railroad crossing.”  Writing it like this implies the presence of a separate narrator, a lightly or heavily felt voice in the story or even a participant, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.   Look at the line again.  You can hear the narrator’s voice. It’s an ancient and perfectly legitimate device, though not what I want to do.
I prefer to write She stood at the railroad crossing…” because the action feels more immediate without a narrator, who has to be telling us about something that happened in the past.  My choice uses past tense, but readers accept past tense as present action.  In the above example, no narrator interprets the character’s presence at the crossing as the start of a chain of events that will become the story, though if it’s the first line, we’ll figure it has some significance.
After years of being out of fashion, omniscient narrators may be making a comeback.  In Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News (1993), a narrator guides us into a unique, poetic rendering of the main character’s backstory:  “Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle…”  If you’re wondering how backstory can be strong and poetic, check it out.
One narrative device is not better than another, though most readers no longer enjoy Charles Dickens’ narrators, who let us know their opinions as much as those of the characters.
I’ve not studied the narrator’s voice in The Shipping News, but I think it’s important and subtle.  “And so Quoyle began [to tell a story to his daughter].”  The voice of this narrator seems to elevate the tone of a dark story and point to the heroic quality of Quoyle, “A great damp loaf of a body.”  A few times the narrator shows the minds of other characters, but mainly the point of view is limited to Quoyle.  I’d call it third person limited omniscience with an external narrator, meaning one who isn’t also a character in the story.
Beginning writers need to be aware of their narrative choice and control it, because inconsistency can cause readers to lose focus.  If you want to show several points of view, it’s safest to confine your POV characters to different chapters or distinct sections within chapters. 
If you happen to be curious about the return of the omniscient narrator in contemporary fiction, see http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/narrative/v017/17.2.dawson.pdf.

3 thoughts on “POV choices and the External Narrator”

  1. I consider myself a beginning writer though I've been writing for years. The reason I say this is because I have only recently picked up on these same POV issues. My biggest mistakes were all omiscient POV gaffs. 🙂 Thanks for the tips here. I will definitely be back for more!


  2. Welcome, Diane! Everybody struggles with POV for the first couple of books! Now that I can be pretty consistent without thinking about it so much, I'm hoping for better creative flow. I'm a slow writer — my editing self really gets in the way.Thanks for your comment. I look forward to having you join the conversation!


Leave a Reply to Diane Carlisle Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s