John Bell on Narrative Point of View

Narrative point of view,  like a tree’s vast root system, feeds and shapes a story. It is a complex element of fiction that involves many important questions, including, as Jane Burroway notes, Who speaks? To whom? In what form? At what distance from the action? With what limitations? For the beginning writer, choosing a point of view is often synonymous with choosing a narrator. But that decision has vast implication for how a story grows. We don’t get very far along in a first draft before we run headlong into the consequences of our choice in terms of consistency, omniscience, and voice, among other things. As any critique group member can tell you, awkward shifts often bring new writers  face to face with the wider questions of point of view, but discussions beyond that often become cloudy. How do we define point of view?  How do we control it? What implications does POV have for character, plot and theme?
On Saturday, November 17, Seven Bridge will welcome back John Bell for a discussion of these questions and more in his workshop, Choices in Narrative Voices. In the essay below, John takes a look at how he’s handled point of view in some of his own work.

John Bell is an author of both fiction and nonfiction, and a former book editor. As a historian, he wrote “The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War,” as well as numerous articles and a book-length study for the National Park Service. As a literary scholar, he wrote the first study of a manuscript by the American fantasy novelist L. Frank Baum and an analysis of the first thirty years of the character Dick Grayson. For young readers, he has published short stories, historical articles, comics with various artistic collaborators, and a book of science experiments. John has taught several workshops at writing conferences in New England , including Building Plot and Sustaining Narrative Momentum, hosted by SBCW.

I’ve been writing a series of sci-fi picaresque tales about Jex, a young adolescent boy with a spaceship for hire. The first of these stories, “Mine,” was a five-page comic published a year ago in the WonderFunders Anthology comic book, issue #8. The next to see print, “Relief,” will be in a different form: a 6,000-word story slated for the 2019 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide from Dreaming Robot Press. Because comics and prose don’t work the same, and because of my storytelling choices, those two stories handle point of view quite differently.
Some comics include an explicit narrative voice. Classic 20th-century American adventures usually had a third-person omniscient narrator who spelled out and hyped up the action on the page. In many horror comics, this voice took corporeal form as a ghastly host, such as the Crypt Keeper—the only character linking one issue to the next.
An alternative approach that defined autobiographical comics and grew more popular in adventure comics at the end of the 1900s was using the main character as a first-person narrator, presenting his or her thoughts in caption boxes. Often those boxes had special coloring or lettering to distinguish them. Lengthy third-person captions and thought balloons disappeared in this style.
But such introspection isn’t right for every character, nor necessary for every story. More and more comics do without narrative captions at all, trusting (or challenging) readers to follow the action by seeing what’s on the page and reading the characters’ dialogue. That was how I wrote my first story about Jex, “Mine.
Comics work a lot like movies in that the images can focus our attention on particular characters and cut to another moment with a change of scenery. In “Mine,” the first three pages follow Jex as he wrangles with a customer who won’t pay his fare. On the fourth page, Jex stomps out of the scene, leaving us with the customer—a change in point of view. Then the last page returns to Jex to reveal what he’s been up to all along. If I had told the story from inside Jex’s head or with omniscient narration, that last page wouldn’t come as a surprise. That tale needed a limited point of view and a momentary shift away from the protagonist.
In between “Mine” and “Relief” I wrote another story in the series, “Repair,” still unpublished. It introduces Eeshal, a girl of about Jex’s age. She and her father run a repair shop where Jex brings his spaceship. While Eeshal replaces a part, Jex teases her, boasts, and performs risky aeronautical maneuvers. Eeshal storms off the ship. The final panels show two different scenes, two disparate points of view. In one, Eeshal’s father remarks to her that Jex could have stopped on lots of other planets for that repair. In the other, Jex’s engineer teases him about having a crush on Eeshal, which he struggles to deny.
I went back to Eeshal for the long prose story, “Relief.” Its premise is that her father has gone missing on a mission to another planet, and she reluctantly hires Jex to fly her there. In this story, Eeshal is not only the protagonist and point-of-view character but the narrator. The story is about her figuring out how society works beyond her father’s repair shop, whom to trust and how to win people over. Everything is related through Eeshal’s eyes. And she’s completely focused on rescuing her father.
In “Relief,” Eeshal finds Jex as exasperating as before. Yet he refuses to leave her until they find her father. Jex never admits that he’s infatuated with Eeshal, and she never tumbles to that fact. With its limited point of view, that story doesn’t reveal Jex’s full motivation. Could I have added a scene in which he makes his feelings clear? That wouldn’t have been in character. To remain true to Jex, and to Eeshal’s limited point of view, I had to leave out one layer of the story in my head. But I can hope that some readers will suspect what Eeshal doesn’t.

Please join John Bell and SBWC on Saturday, November 17, from 10:30 am – 12:30 pm, for Choices in Narrative Voices, at the Thayer Memorial Library, in Lancaster, Massachusetts. This event is free and open to the public.