Thursday, June 16, 2005

Who's telling this story?

How do you want to tell your story? Do you want events to unfold as described by some neutral observer (usually called "the omniscient narrator"), using the third person? This is the style used for newspaper articles and most academic writing. "John Smith, a tall brown-haired man, was walking to work when he noticed the spaceship landing at the next intersection. The light was still green."

Or do you want to tell the story from John's point of view: a first-person narrative? "I'm John. I walk to work every morning -- keeps my cardiologist happy. Tuesday I was shocked to notice a spaceship landing at the intersection of Grant and Stockton."

More rarely, a story is written in the second person. "You remember, darling, how we used to walk to work? And the day you saw the spaceship landing? You thought the markings seemed Russian, but of course they were Phringlant."

A related issue is whose activities you follow in the story. Do you report only on what John does? Or do you follow Mary as well, and George, and Sam, and the Phringlants? A classic bestseller such as Alex Haley's HOTEL follows a different person each chapter for a while, then brings characters together in some chapters for interaction that advances the plot.

Short stories generally only follow one person, and are typically written in the third person. But you add texture to longer works when you trace the actions of various characters. (And sometimes you can even get away with telling an entire story from a differing point of view, and sell it as a stand-alone novel. Consider Orson Scott Card's ENDER'S GAME and ENDER'S SHADOW.)

-- Rachel Holmen

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