What I’ve learned about shifting point of view and psychic distance

One of the craft books that I’ve read that has a lot of good pointers on point of view is TOOLS OF THE WRITER’S CRAFT by SANDS HALL. I got the book when I was at Squaw Valley. She has a lot of good pointers on how to use omniscient point of view and using sensory details to ground through the character. Also, there are some fantastic exercises in the back of the book.

One of the things I try to do is only shift POV at scene breaks because  a scene break is a clear indicator that something has changed. I also try to make sure the narrating character is always the one who has the most to lose, or is the only one with a specific piece of information, within the scene. Orson Scott Card suggests choosing narrators who hurt the most.

Whenever I open a scene, I try to tell my readers right away whose head they are in by 1) putting the narrating characters name somewhere in the first sentence, 2) including sensory details that immediately ground you in the narrating character’s body; as I’ll mention below, there is a hierarchy for how quickly a sensory detail will place you in a character’s body. Also, one of the authors I like to read suggests trying to use each of the five senses every two pages when writing a first draft in order to make sure you are grounded.

The hierarchy of sensory details are (this is from Sands Hall’s book):

  1. Sight and Sound
  2. Smell
  3. Taste
  4. Touch, tactile feeling
  5. Emotional feelings and thought

For example, when a character notices some detail through sight or sound, it isn’t very personal because a whole bunch of people in a room can see/hear the same thing. Smell is a little more personal because smell is often attached to memory, but if you’ve ever walked past an ice cream parlor baking waffle cones you know that smell isn’t always very personal either—everyone else on the street is smelling the same thing you’re smelling. Touch is probably the most personal of the five senses because when you touch something, or feel your shirt dampen from sweat and stick to your back, you are the only person feeling that.

Thought and emotional feelings are the closest you can get to a character; I have to admit that I struggle with this one. One of the critiques I’ve gotten about my work is of having these free-floating statements wandering around my prose that sound more like author-intrusions instead of character-thoughts.

I recently read I AM LEGEND by RICHARD MATHESON and tried to underline every instance of thought, paying particular attention to when he slipped in and out of free-indirect discourse. I learned a lot.

“What if they were already waiting for him? How could he possibly get in the house? He forced himself to be calm. He mustn’t go to pieces now; he had to keep himself in check. He’d get in. Don’t worry, you’ll get inside, he told himself. But he didn’t see how. One hand ran nervously through his hair. This is fine, fine, commented his mind. You go to all that trouble to preserve your existence, and then one day you just don’t come back in time. Shut up! His mind snapped back at itself. But he could have killed himself for forgetting to wind his watch the night before. Don’t bother killing yourself, his mind reflected, they’ll be glad to do it for you.”

There is a lot of action in this paragraph: 1) he is shifting between thought and physical observation, 2) He is having a conversation with himself. Whenever the prose is presented as a question (“How could he possible get in the house?”), or exclamation (“Shut up!”), or uses repetition (“This is fine, fine”), it sounds like a thought. Switching to first and second-person in a new sentence (“You go to all that trouble to preserve your existence…”) has the effect of thought. Also, notice that when he zooms out into physical detail (“One hand ran nervously through his hair”) he has to use several clues to signal that the next sentence is a thought: repetition (“…fine, fine…”), and an attribution qualifier (“commented his mind”).

The best way I have to explain free-indirect discourse is to show what it is in relationship to the other forms of discourse. (I got these examples from Wikipedia).

QUOTED, OR DIRECT DISCOURSE: He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. “And just what pleasure have I found, since I came into this world?” he asked.

REPORTED, OR INDIRECT DISCOURSE: He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into this world.

FREE-INDIRECT DISCOURSE: He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?

Anyway, that’s all I know. It’s way harder in practice than in theory   :-)   I hope this is helpful.


Works Cited

Hall, Sands. Tools of the Writer’s Craft. 2005. Moving Finger Press: San Francisco, 2007.

Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. 1995. Orb, Tom Doherty Associates: New York, 1997.

About E.S.O. Martin

E.S.O. Martin is a writer, a California native, and a graduate of SF State's Creative Writing MFA program.
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