How to avoid arm’s length writing

(This article was originally posted on 11/4/2020 on my personal wall on Facebook)

What’s the hardest skill to master for a writer? Is it SPaG (spelling, grammar, and punctuation)? Plotting? Description? Tension? None of the above.

It’s PoV (point of view).

First of all, most think it’s about pronoun choice (it’s so much more). And there’s plenty of published works out there to make one think that that’s all it’s about. One can hardly be blamed. English teachers certainly don’t touch on it, even those focusing  on creative writing. And it’s one of those things that has evolved over time. The narrative styles of the 1800s, the 1950s, and today are not the same. Someone raised on the narrative style of Bram Stoker’s Dracula will have a different take from someone raised on the narrative style of sci-fi’s golden age and so on.  But unless you’ve perfected your time machine and plan on selling your work in the past, I urge you to pay attention to contemporary narration because there’s a reason why narrative styles have changed. 

I picked up a book called The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley to get the history of this evolution of narrative (h/t JE Kennard). I’m learning a lot of stuff (and I was pretty sure that at this point I’ve read just about everything on viewpoint) and then I ran across this example that I had to share, because it illustrates the issue with narrative distance and viewpoint so well.

Here’s a scene WITHOUT viewpoint:

There was no answer to Carrie’s knock, but the door was open an inch or two. She pushed at the front door and called out, but no one replied. The hall was dark and full of furniture. Beyond that was another door. She turned the knob, and walked into a kitchen, where a dead body was lying on the floor…

The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley

Anyone could be narrating this (Notice that there would be no difference in this paragraph if we swapped the pronouns and while some writers would argue that “I” would indicate that NOT anyone could be narrating they would be wrong. For one thing, the I would not be able to tell us that there was furniture since it’s dark, nor would the I be able to tell us what was beyond).

This paragraph consists of a lot of telling, but no showing. It’s at arm’s length. It’s full of fake details (What kind of furniture? What does the kitchen look like? What did Carrie call out?). It reads a lot like directions in a movie script. This happened, then that happened. Set: Kitchen (but no description of it because why bother, that’s the prop department’s problem).

To extend the analogy of a movie, the camera is floating above the scene, giving the reader a bird’s-eye view of things. What’s wrong with bird’s-eye? It’s how we enjoy movies after all. Bird’s-eye for the written form works fine for sweeping, epic takes, but not for something as personal as walking in on a dead body (unless walking in on a dead body isn’t that big of a deal to the story). 

Here’s the same scene WITH viewpoint (I tightened it up a bit because this is from a paper book not a copy and paste and re-paragraphed it to make it easier to read in a post):

There was no answer to Carrie’s knock, but she couldn’t help but notice that the door was open an inch or two. It was a Gothic sort of door, ornately carved with grinning gargoyles along the outer edge. 

Carrie hesitated, contemplating her options. She could just turn and go home and pretend that she hadn’t seen her no-good cheating boyfriend sneak in here after some woman … Or, she could go in after him and prove to herself that he wasn’t worth keeping. It would be easier if this old place just wasn’t so spooky. Trust Jonny, with his horror-film addiction, to choose a monster mansion like this for his love nest.

Don’t be a coward.

She shoved the door open and breathed in the must of neglect. For a moment, she couldn’t see anything but ominous shapes in the dark hall. As her eyes adjusted, the humped outlines revealed themselves to be dustcloth-covered furniture. No sign of Jonny. The loser had probably her knocking and run out the back. She threaded her way through the hall between the abandoned chairs to a door that looked like it went to the kitchen.

She pushed open the door. Her flashlight revealed a forties-style kitchen and a dead body sprawled face-down on the linoleum. Her heart stopped short and she covered her eyes.


What would be worse: to look again and find it was Jonny, or look again and find it was Jonny’s cheat-mate?

The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley

The second example isn’t just more detailed. It places us solidly inside a character’s perspective. The camera is no longer floating above the room. We are not in the director’s chair, but on the set, inside the character, wearing her skin, seeing ONLY what she can see as she sees it, hearing ONLY what she can hear as she hears it, smelling ONLY what she can see as she smells it, and MOST importantly, we are in her head with her opinions on things. 

The details of the kitchen are not fake details because the writing is no longer at arm’s length. We not only get a description, but a description through the character rather than a god-like descriptor. We get Carrie’s goals, her motivations, the way she thinks, etc. In other words, we get character, i.e. viewpoint. And the tightness of the viewpoint makes this a unique character and experience. A cop on the scene wouldn’t have described it the way Carrie had. He wouldn’t have had the same opinions or the same insight (i.e. horror-film addiction). 

This is why viewpoint matters. And why viewpoint is not about the pronouns.

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