I thought I had it all figured out after my last post about choosing the right POV for my story. And then I listened to a Story Grid Editors Roundtable podcast that gave me even more to think about. It was both helpful and not.
The podcast, “Bite Size Edition – Choosing Your POV,” by Leslie Watts, pointed out that the choice of POV affects more than just what pronouns and verb tense are used—it can affect dialogue, setting details, and characters’ actions. This is especially true when POV is tied to narrative devices. But what is a “narrative device”?
When I searched for “narrative devices” the majority of resources listed techniques as varied as hyperbole and backstory—I think Google confused my search terms with narrative techniques and literary devices. What I think Watts meant by narrative device is what Joe Bunting called a “narrative framing device.” A narrative framing device is a way of telling the whole story—it is more global than say, a cliffhanger, which means a story or scene ends without resolving the conflict.
Some of the devices Bunting listed include epistolary, chronological, and framed story. So for example, in an epistolary novel, the story is told through letters (or emails, newspaper articles, etc.—think Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower). In these novels, the entire story is told via documents, and this choice affects everything. It limits what is known to the reader to what the letter writer knows and chooses to relate; it also influences the attitude with which the information is related. The reasons why the characters are writing and to whom they write becomes significant.
Watts said that POV tells you the where (in relation to the story events: in the action, for example, might mean a protagonist-narrator, while outside the actions might mean a god-like omniscient narrator) and when (this relates to verb tense—so, as the story is happening would be present tense, after the fact would be past tense).
So if POV is for the where and when, then the narrative device tells the who, what, how and why of the narrator. Who is telling the story? To whom? How are they telling the story? Why are they telling the story?
It was a bit of a revelation to think about these things. And they are not easy questions to answer. But I can see that if I could answer them, it would make the decision for me.
I think where I get hung up is if I’m thinking of telling a close third person POV. This is the most unobtrusive narrator. First person and, often, third omniscient narrators have distinct personalities. They are characters in their own right. They’ll color the events with their opinions and insights. And this is true if they are just telling a story or writing letters or keeping a diary.
Watts uses the example of Bridget Jones’s Diary: Bridget, the protagonist, is telling the story to herself via diary entries so that she can keep track of how well she’s sticking to her New Year’s resolutions. Because it’s a diary for herself, she’ll write about things in an unfiltered, yet prejudicial, way that she wouldn’t do if she were just telling a friend about what was happening. So it’s easy to see that this choice is really important.
But still, how do we answer these questions when our narrator is not a character?
I couldn’t find an answer to this question. But I did find something else from Watts that was helpful. In an answer to a question on the show notes page, Watts said she believes answering why the story is being told is critical, and we can think of it in terms of why we communicate: to persuade, to inform, to educate, to entertain.
Even with a close, unobtrusive third person POV, there is an answer to why. It seems to me that in this case the answer to why might have more to do with your story’s theme than when the narrator is also a character in the story. But I’m not sure yet.
Thinking about how the narration can alter elements of the storytelling is really important. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make figuring it out is easy.
Leslie Watts, “Bite Size Edition – Choosing Your POV,” Story Grid Editors Roundtable Podcast, https://storygrid.com/editor-roundtable-choosing-your-pov/
—. “Consider the Source: Elements of Point of View and Narrative Device,” https://storygrid.com/consider-the-source-pov/
Joe Bunting, “What Is a Narrative Device: 9 Types of Narrative Devices,” https://thewritepractice.com/narrative-devices/