Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Concealment and Revelation through POV and Viewpoint

How do you choose which POV to write your story in? First, third, omniscient? Which character's viewpoint should a scene be in? These topics have doubtless been covered in depth here already, so I want to focus on one consideration and that's concealment and revelation. In other words, choosing a certain POV or viewpoint to hide information, delay a realization, or to uncover something hidden. To a character, the reader, or both.

This concealment and revelation, however, needn't be to the level of creating an unreliable narrator story, as with the recent stories Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. The technique employed, though, can benefit any story. It can create humor, build suspense, reinforce contrast, and aid in character development. Not to mention allow for surprises.

(SPOILER ALERT: I don't mind spoilers, and since they are necessary to make my points here, I will give them. I'm sorry if this bothers you!)

Examples are often more helpful than explanations, so I'll give three.

Character Development and Reader Surprise
Patrick Carr's The Shock of Night is part a murder mystery and part fantasy save-the-kingdom-from-terrible-mysterious-danger. The prologue is from the POV of the murder victim (but the scene doesn't cover the attack, for which I'm grateful). Chapter One introduces, in first person, the main character, Willet Dura. Willet is the king's reeve and is a former soldier left scarred by his experiences. But Willet suffers from more than PTSD. He's insane. Because of something that happened to him in the mysterious Darkwater Forest at the end of the war. Yet the reader doesn't realize he's insane for some time. Oh we get that Willet has a few eccentricities, but, overall, he's a likable, smart, kind-hearted to the poor, sarcastic towards the elite kind of guy. We like and trust him as a narrator.

Through his eyes, we go with him to visit a priest to talk about his new, powerful gift and the murder case. Then, some chapters later, through the third person POV of Pellin, leader of the Vigil--a group that protects the kingdoms against the evils of the Darkwater Forest--we learn that there was no priest. Willet imagined the whole thing, something he'd done many times during previous visits to an abandoned church.

Did this ruin Willet's credibility on the whole? No. Pellin's other observations affirm that Willet is only insane in this one area. This revelation was a shock to me as a reader, but I didn't feel as if I had been tricked. Patrick Carr's goal was to reveal something important about Willet, something important to the overall conflict, which increased my interest. What was Willet hiding? Why couldn't he, or wouldn't he, remember?

By using the two POV characters, and by using first person POV for Willet, Carr was able to let us see something about Willet that Willet didn't know himself and that wouldn't have made sense if told in third person by him. A limited third person, because it's deeper into the character than regular third, might work, but first is better for this. Not only was Willet's visit to the priest informative and interesting when I read it unsuspecting of the truth, but also provided a pleasant shock when Pellin's viewpoint revealed it to be misleading.

Humor, Suspense, and Contrast
In Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, there is a scene in which Mrs. Jennings observes a private
conversation between Elinor Dashwood and Colonel Brandon and assumes it is a proposal. The reader knows this to be impossible and is busy both laughing at Mrs. Jennings's conjectures and forming conjectures of her own. The conversation Mrs. Jennings supposed to a proposal of marriage that would bring pleasure to Elinor was an announcement of a plan that would enable the man Elinor loves to marry a young woman he'd foolishly engaged himself to in his youth and felt honor-bound to marry.

Austen first conveys this scene through the distant Mrs. Jennings for the reader's amusement as well as for building curiosity, which Austen soon satisfies in a brilliant contrast between the assumed and the real.

Delayed Revelation for Heightened Reaction
In my novel The Beast's Enchantress, told in first person, the main character is a stunningly beautiful young woman, until her pride gets her in trouble with a magic mirror. Alexandria is sucked into the mirror and ends up in an unknown land. She initially thinks that's all that happened to her, that her punishment is a long walk home. Then she sees her reflection--she's an old hag. Her horror, and hopefully the reader's, is greater because of the delay, because she thought she'd gotten off the hook. This scene wouldn't have worked with a distant POV, one describing what happened to her from an outside viewpoint rather than through her senses. She's too focused on the unfamiliar forest around her, and on finding her way out of it, to notice her wrinkled, wart-spotted skin.

POV and viewpoint can be used for a number of effects (and, hopefully, not for the author to say, at the end of the book "Ha! I tricked you!"). Are there any stories that stand out to you for their use of POV and viewpoint? Any that would have worked better in a different POV or viewpoint?


  1. Awesome post, Lizzie! I love your examples. I always think it's fun in romances when the perspective changes back and forth between the male and female to see how they interpreted or responded differently to a certain scene or event. And speaking of Jane Austen, in Emma the way she kept the reader in Emma's perspective made for some great surprises involving the men she was trying to set Harriet up with :)

  2. Misinterpretation is fun in romances. And Emma is a great example!


Please note that your comment hasn't gone through unless you see the notice: "Your comment will be visible after approval." We apologize for any difficulties posting comments or delays in moderation.