Studying Point of View Through Revising Chapter 2

I’ve been playing around with the second chapter of my historical novel for a few months now.

Yes, I said months.

I’m working with the same old plot points, but I’m trying to tell the story in different ways.

Ultimately I want to give my protagonist a richer interior life without sacrificing the epic sound of the omniscient narrator. This amounts to moving the authorial camera back and forth, trying to figure out when to zoom in on Henri and when to use the distant, wry narrator voice I adore. I’ve never worked in third person, let alone omniscient, so Chapter 2 has become a master class in point of view.

I took these two photos in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans a year after Katrina. They show the same view of the same house, but framed differently.

It makes sense to be working on this particular chapter. We put so much stock in beginnings, so there’s a lot of pressure with Chapter 1. If that first page doesn’t work, you’ll lose the reader. Conversely, if I were obsessing over Chapter 8, there would be so much to go back and fix. I wouldn’t know whether to go backwards or forwards after finishing the chapter.

In Chapter 2, my protagonist’s father loses an eye in a workshop accident. The boy races to the village to fetch the doctor and then faints on the doorstep.Β The doctor diagnoses Henri with a weak constitution. And that diagnosis launches the rest of the story.

Looking at these images, and weighing which one is more compelling, and which one I should delete, is similar to the way I've been approaching my novel revisions.

If I can get these scenes right, balancing the interior life of my protagonist with the voice of society within this small town, then I can take what I’ve learned and apply it to other chapters. It seems extremely important to figure this out before going any further. After all, I know the story now. What I don’t know involves how distant I feel from my protagonist and how to get closer while retaining the historical epic sound I love.

That’s not to say I’ve been totally caught up in the minutiae. I’ve actually been rewriting these scenes from scratch, over and over, trying to figure this puzzle out. I have 50 single-spaced pages in my Chapter 2 document. Most of that I’ve written and discarded at the bottom of the page.

While the work has been infuriatingly slow, it’s also rewarding. I know Henri much better. I’m learning how to zoom in and out. I’ve cut out extra language and collapsed the distance between the reader and this 19th century French village. I’m almost ready to move on to Chapter 3.

Maybe.

Have you done any point of view explorations?

Shortlink:Β http://wp.me/p1bhaB-Bd

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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16 Responses to Studying Point of View Through Revising Chapter 2

  1. For the novels, I’ve always (both times) done omniscient third person, and then the final chapters in first person. I don’t think this is a generally-applicable form, but I like how it’s worked for me. The second novel, U-town, is quite long and doesn’t have a “protagonist” (it covers a lot of characters), so the first person helps to pull things together at the end. Until I moved in that direction, it seemed that the novel might not end at all. πŸ™‚ I tried at one point to take one section of U-town and make it into a more conventional first-person novel (I was thinking of publication), but it lost all of the things that made it special to begin with. So, I dumped that idea.

    More recently I’ve been working with third person limited. Stevie One (my current project) is in a series of parts, each from the third-person-limited perspective of a different character. So far. I can see the possibility of one omniscient chapter in the middle and/or a first-person chapter at the end. Or it may just be third person limited throughout.

    • I love that you play with POV and let yourself take the risk of switching. I would guess that a serial is an ideal form for that kind of shift. And it’s a cool take on third person omniscient, which has lost its popularity in recent years.

      • The omniscient third person chapter is already looking less likely for Stevie One. I’ve always wanted to do a chapter like the Wandering Rocks chapter in Ulysses, where I would show a series of short scenes of what a lot of different characters are doing at the same moment. With each project, I wonder if this is the one where it will fit. Not yet. πŸ™‚

        • You’ve hit upon one of the classics I’ve never read, Anthony. That scene sounds amazing. I love that you’re carrying this idea from project to project and one day it’ll fit in nicely. I write for moments like that–to get to a scene I’ve been wishing for.

  2. I love that you put so much into your work and these thoughtful posts, Laura. Thanks. I get stuck and often lose my POV. While it also makes me frustrated, it gives me a chance to double back and be sure I was focusing the reader where I wanted them and not taking them on a unscheduled detour. Good luck with your next chapter πŸ™‚

  3. For a writing class, we wrote a scene “in the moment” and then again from twenty years later. I loved the assignment, because it helped me understand narrative distance so much.

    Most of my writing thus far has been pretty close narrative distance, though with one book I took it out of present tense during revisions and added a few months’ distance. (I don’t think it made anything any better, just different, and twenty hours of my life gone on that.)

    I think when we begin writing, we’re so afraid of being yelled at for “telling instead of showing” that we shy away from distance and summary and telling, but there’s great power in occasionally naming emotions instead of showing them. It’s simple and honest. “He was bereft without her.” That’s a nice sentence, and it’s interesting to perhaps see him acting out his emotions, thinking his thoughts about her for several paragraphs, but sometimes a 5-word sentence does the job.

    In an upcoming book, I have one chapter that’s away from the main character, using third person, and I kept the styling very spare, because I think it highlighted the sadness of the scene.

    I actually made a chart about narrative distance and placed examples on it. πŸ™‚ I’m a nerd! Most literary fiction uses a lot more narrative distance than genre fiction, which I write.

    • Writing a troublesome scene from different narrative stances would be a great exercise! I love what you said about telling vs. showing. Telling is really tapping into the oral storytelling tradition–this happened and then this, and then this. I’m trying to harness the power of that sound and how you can make a month or a year pass by in a sentence.

  4. Pingback: Before and After: A Study of Cutting Excess Language | Laura Stanfill

  5. Lynne Ayers says:

    I’m ‘just-a” blogger wondering if there is anything of real substance in me. It is interesting to me, these glimpses into how a writer approaches his/her work. Your example with the photographs made your particular point so clear to me – thank you for that little insight.

    • Oh thanks, Lynne! I’m glad the photography bit worked for you. Blogging takes time, creativity and discipline–just like writing a novel or memoir or short story!

  6. Pingback: The Hunger Games–the Book Versus the Movie | Laura Stanfill

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