Point of View, Tone, Voice and Narrator

The Story’s Voice.

. . . falsehood is a critical element in fiction. Part of the thrill of being told a story is the chance of being hood-winked. . . . The telling of lies is a sort of sleight of hand that displays our deepest feelings about life.

—John Cheever

Point of view—the vantage point from which a writer tells a story—has a more important effect on us than you might imagine.

The Omniscient Point of View

The traditional vantage point for storytelling, the one we are probably most familiar with, is the omniscient point of view. Omniscient means “all-knowing.” The omniscient narrator is a godlike observer who knows everything that is going on in the story and who can see into each character’s heart and mind. This storyteller is outside the story’s action altogether.

Once upon a time, in a mountainous country called Gulp, there lived a plump princess who wanted to be thinner. She knew that Alfred, the troubadour, would not sing beneath her window until she had lost twenty pounds. Actually, Alfred was willing to settle for ten.

The omniscient narrator can tell us as much—or as little—as the writer of the story permits. This narrator may tell us what all— or only some—of the characters are thinking, feeling, and observing. This narrator may comment on the meaning of the story or make asides about the story’s characters or events.

The First-Person Point of View

At the very opposite extreme from the omniscient point of view lies the first-person point of view. In stories told in the first-person, an “I” tells the story. This “I” also participates in the action (though, depending on the story, in varying degrees of importance). Unlike the omniscient point of view, which can keep us at a distance from the action, the first-person point of view draws us directly into the story. When we hear the first-person narrator speak, we feel as if we are listening to a friend telling his or her own story, or as if we are reading someone’s letters or diary.

I am a princess from a small country in the Alps called Gulp. Every morning I step on my scale and get hopelessly de-pressed. How could I have allowed myself (Me! A princess!) to have gotten so fat? Now don’t think I want to lose weight because of some man. That’s not the case at all.

This first-person point of view sees only what the “I” character can see, hears only what the “I” character can hear, knows only what the “I” character can know—and tells us only what the “I” character chooses to tell. Consequently, we must always keep in mind that a first-person narrator may or may not be objective or reliable or honest—or even terribly perceptive about what’s going on in the story. We must always ask ourselves how much the writer of the story is allowing the narrator to know and understand—and how much the writer agrees with the narrator’s perspective on life. In fact, the whole point of a story told from the first-person point of view may lie in the contrast between what the narrator tells us and what the writer allows us to understand in spite of the narrator.

The Limited Third-Person Point of View

Between the two extremes of the omniscient and first-person points of view lies the limited third-person point of view. He re the story is told by an outside observer (like the godlike narrator of the omniscient point of view). But this narrator views the action only from the vantage point of a single character in the story. It is as if the narrator is standing alongside this one character and recording only his or her thoughts, perceptions, and feelings. Chances are, this narrator will tell us more than what that character would be able to tell us(or might choose to tell us) if he or she were narrating the story. (This point of view is called “third-person” because the narrator never refers to himself or herself as “I.” The third-person pronouns are used to refer to all characters.)

Helena wondered if Alfred was going to ask her to dance. Their eyes had met over the punch bowl, and his seemed to linger. But of course she had no way of knowing how he felt about her. If only she hadn’t broken her diet last week, she kept chiding herself. Without realizing what she was doing, she nervously stuffed a piece of cake into her mouth.

In choosing a point of view, the writer must consider how much information to tell the reader and how much to withhold. And in reading a story, we should always ask ourselves, “How would this story have been different if it had been told by someone else?”

The Narrator’s Tone

Tone is the attitude a speaker or writer takes toward a subject, audience, or character.

You’ve probably heard this kind of complaint before: “It’s not what Mary Anne says that bothers me; it’s the way she says it.” In speaking and in writing, tone is revealed by the way we say some-thing, just as much as by what we actually say.

Take a word that has a sweet sound to it: Dear.

Whisper it: “Dear…”

Make it impatient: “Dear!”

Make it a question: “Dear?”

Make it a summons: “Dee-ar!”

Do you notice a change in tone, in the attitude you communicate to the person you are addressing?

Use dear as a descriptive word. Let’s say you are describing Stephanie, who has just done the breakfast dishes, mopped the kitchen floor, and arranged fresh flowers on the table. Your tone will probably be admiring, grateful, and affectionate as you say of her, “She’s a dear.” But if you are feeling a bit resentful that this saintly Stephanie is always making you look bad by comparison, our tone might be bitter, jealous, and maybe even insincere when you say exactly the same words.

Or suppose you use the phrase to describe Hazel, who is trying on lipsticks at the cosmetics counter and has just turned to swat the little child tugging at her skirt. If you said of Hazel, “She’s a dear,” your tone would express still a different attitude. It would be scornful, sarcastic, and ironic—because you are trying to communicate that Hazel is anything but a dear.

When we speak, we convey tone through sounds—pauses, in-flections, volume, stresses, pitch. We can even use facial expressions or gestures. Writers, of course, cannot rely on sounds to convey tone; they can use only words.

Words and Altitudes: Connotations

Many words carry a tone or attitude with them (this is what we mean by the connotations of words). The word skinny, for example, suggests a critical tone, but the word slender suggests approval. The same applies to red-faced as opposed to rosy, or fat as opposed to plump, or cheap as opposed to reasonable.

Tone can also be conveyed through the details a writer uses. If a writer introduces a six-year-old child and describes her ragged clothes, her sweet face, and her cheery disposition, we can be certain that the writer’s attitude toward this character is positive and compassionate. The writer is directing us to feel love and pity for the child. But a different writer, with a different attitude toward the child, might emphasize her ignorance, her dirty face, and her jealousy of her baby sister.

Tone is also conveyed by the way a writer manipulates the plot and characters in a story. If a writer provides a happy or satisfying ending to a conflict, we might say that the story conveys a roman-tic, positive, or hopeful attitude toward life. But if a story ends tragically, we might say that the story conveys an ironic tone, or maybe a cynical or fatalistic attitude toward life.

Point of view also affects tone. Many writers, like many other people, carry the same tone along from situation to situation and from story to story. Some will always have their characters respond to challenge and adversity in a sunny, optimistic way. Others will always have them respond in a cynical, gloomy way. In fact, we are often attracted to a particular writer because his or her tone reveals an attitude toward life that resembles our own—or because it provides a welcome contrast. And perhaps we say of another writer, I’ll never read another one of his books because his tone is just too cynical.”

Like point of view, the writer’s attitude is an essential element of the story’s meaning. We might even view the difference between comedy and tragedy as the difference between two opposite attitudes toward life.

Determining a Story’s Point of View

Whenever we read a work of fiction, we should ask ourselves five important questions about its point of view:

1. Who is telling the story?

2. How much does this narrator know?

3. How much does this narrator understand?

4. How much does this narrator want us to know?

5. In what ways would the story be different if someone else were telling it?

In any story, we must always keep in mind that the narrator is not necessarily an objective or reliable observer of what is happening. In fact, our feelings about the characters and events may be very different from the narrator’s feelings—and the writer may intend for us to feel this way. Thus a story’s point of view has a tremendous effect on its tone. A story told from the perspective of a madman who hates everyone but his saintly mother will be different in tone from the same story told by the saintly mother herself. It will be different still from the story told by an outside narrator who can penetrate the mysteries of both mother and son.


~ por rubiha en febrero 21, 2009.


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