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NARRATION #4: Focalisation
Does your novel have a strong point of view? Or perhaps several? - In this post, we'll discuss how you can see and tell your plot through different eyes.
Posted on 11 November 2021 0 Comments
NARRATION #5: Voice  Previous NARRATION #3: Distance Next

Just a Trick of Perspective

(Disclaimer: Everything I present here has been influenced by essays, articles and books I read as a student. I don’t want to claim anything as my original thought. Still, going back to find out who said what seems too much to tackle at the moment. Don’t think of this as me teaching my original wisdom. Think of it as sharing what I’ve learned.)

Through which eyes do we see a story? A question that’s harder to answer than you might think at first. Sometimes, everything is broken through the lens of the protagonist, sometimes through that of a bystander or a narrator figure. Often, these even overlap – making our job not any easier.

Still, focalisation matters. Focalisation is what gives our stories shape and voice. If you don’t know how you should look at your plot, you don’t know how to write it.

To help myself understand this issue better, I’ve gathered a few thoughts – some by experts of the field and some by myself. As always, there not meant to be a definite answer, but (rather fittingly) various ways to look at these.

The Limitations of Knowledge

If we go back to our good old friend GĂ©rard Genette, we find a first way to think about focalisation. He didn’t only ask: Who tells the story? Of course not. We know that’s the narrator. Instead, he asked: How much does the narrator know in comparison to the character through which we see the story?

In asking that, he came up with these three answers:

Authorial Focalisation

As Detective Martinez strolled through the room of suspects, thoughts ran wild. But not only his. Old Gunther worried someone might have found his collection of wartime memorabilia. Young Susan dreaded the scorn of her parents for repeatedly sneaking out of the house. Anthony, however, feared that he had been found out.

The above example is certainly not the best thing anyone has ever written. On the contrary. But it showcases the most important attribute of authorial focalisation: A story that is told in this manner isn’t broken through any lense. There isn’t any one perspective we inhabit. Instead, the narrator slips in and out of characters’ minds, whenever it is necessary: He knows more than them.

Use authorial focalisation whenever you want your reader to get the larger picture. To understand connections between different plot points. It works best when you want to share insights or make your readers feel sympathetic to a large cast of characters.

However, you should be aware of the disadvantages: By giving us insight into anyone we please, authorial focalisation takes away from the mystery. You would need to be a technical mastermind to write a detective novel where we can slip into anyone’s mind. – There simply wouldn’t be any tension.

Also, the more characters we get to know on such a personal level, the less we will care for them individually. There is a good reason authorial focalisation largely died out since the early 1900s: We place more value on the individuum, and this way of narrating clashes with that.

Actorial Focalisation

As Detective Martinez strolled through the room, his thoughts ran wild: Did old Gunther know he had found his nazi stuff? Did he really want to reveal Susan’s nightly outings and subject her to the scorn of her parents? Was he right about Anthony being behind these dreadful crimes?

With actorial focalisation, the narrator knows exactly as much as the character – because they are seeing everything through the character’s eyes. In our case, through the eyes of Detective Martinez. (By the way: Notice how we can convey the same information just by playing a bit with the phrasing. Neat, right?)

Actorial or internal focalisation gives us one huge advantage: We really get to know the character that serves as our camera. We know how they feel and we know what they think. By the end of the story, we will have formed a lasting empathic bond with them.

What we gain in empathy, we also gain in tension: Since we know only as much as our characters, we can still be surprised by a good plot twist. If Detective Martinez doesn’t know who the murderer is, neither do we.

But this mystery enhancing technique is also a double-edged sword: Especially in stories with a large set of characters with complicated relationships, or stories with complex plots, it becomes hard for the reader to keep track of everything. If we only get to know what the character knows, we might not get all the information we want.

Neutral Focalisation

Detective Martinez strolled through the room of suspects. One by one, he looked at them, stopping especially long in front of Old Gunther and Young Susan. When he got to Anthony, his brows furrowed and he sighed.

Writing convincingly with neutral focalisation is seldomly done (exclusively), because it is effing hard: Here, your narrator knows less than your character. In effect, they are like a bystander witnessing everything from outside or like a movie camera, capturing every external movement for the reader.

Writing neutrally (or externally) means writing cinematically. Not every type of story is meant for this: If your story is more about internal development, choosing another type of focalisation will be more comfortable for you.

However, if you can pull it off successfully, you will have created something that stands out. It may not be overly emotional or introspective, but it will give your reader more freedom to interpret actions for themself and engage them more deeply than other stories ever could.

Focalisation as a Grammatical Issue

If there is a hill I would die one, then it is this: All narration is first-person narration. I don’t care whether your story is written in first, second or third person and what type of focalisation it uses. Your narrator is a character and their narration stems from within them.

Think of it this way. In front of every first sentence of every story you have ever read, there is an invisible sentence implied by its narrator: “Let me tell you this story: …” – Whether they choose to tell a story about themselves, an acquaintance or a total stranger, each story is technically in first person.

Because I am so adamant about this, you can guess that Genette’s model of focalisation wasn’t as satisfying to me. Even though it is highly useful. That’s why I needed to look at it from a different point of view: introspection and empathy.

Basically, you can look at the spectrum from neutral to authorial focalisation as a spectrum from apathy to mind-reading (or telepathy), from neutral to omniscient.

Your narrator could be apathetic to what is going on around and within them: If they do not know what others feel (or even what they feel), their narration will automatically assume neutral focalisation. This, of course, works best when we have a narration in third person. But I could also imagine a story about, let’s say, a detective with alexithymia who can neither explain his thoughts nor guess those of others.

In a limited viewpoint, our narrator has some introspection into another character or other characters: They feel empathy. – This works both for authorial and actorial focalisation. They can sort of assume the inner workings of one or several other people and tell about them. Still, they wouldn’t be mind-readers. Their narration would only be an educated guess.

And lastly, an omniscient narrator is a mind-reader. By using their very own powers of telepathy, they can translate the inner workings of one or several characters. This is closest related to authorial focalisation. However, if the mind-reading is limited to only the protagonist, actorial is also still on the table.

Bear in mind: This idea of a spectrum of introspection is nothing peer-reviewed or necessarily deep. It’s my way of looking at things. It’s an addendum to Genette, not a contradiction. What I find helpful about it, is that it allows me to see things not as set in stone, but rather as a continuum my narrators can move on.

Number of Perspectives

Once we have understood through which lenses we can focalise, we need to ask ourselves this: How many lenses do we want to use? Especially in actorial focalisation, we can use various narrators and/or various perspectives. Basically, it’s an endless bag of mix and match.

If we use no focalisation at all, we’re in the territory of neutral focalisation. Meaning a cinematic atmosphere without much introspection. We talked about it before.

If we use one character – as in The Hunger Games, for example – there isn’t much to discuss either. Everything above holds true, since one perspective is the way most stories are told.

But then we come into the territory of multiple focalisations. Think of A Song of Ice and Fire, if you will: Each chapter is assigned to one character, even though they are not narrating it. We have about five to ten point-of-view characters in each book. Same goes for other great works of fiction such as Beloved or The Stars’ Tennis Balls, even they don’t state it as outright.

This is a great trick by Martin, Morrison and Fry: By having multiple actorial focalisations, they secure for themselves the advantages of authorial focalisation – greater understanding of the overall picture, empathy for more than one character, etc. They don’t, however, risk losing themselves in too much introspection.

Be warned, however: Don’t underestimate the talent and craft necessary to pull off multiple POVs. If you choose to do so, you limit the amount of time (or words) you can spend on each of those characters. You need to be extremely skillful to still flesh them out as much as you would with a single perspective.

Also, bear in mind: Too many POVs means that we only get to know every character from the surface level. If you were to push it to the extreme, sooner or later, there wouldn’t be much difference between multi-actorial and neutral focalisation.

What Can We Learn From This?

I have written a lot. Some of it is definitely good, at least the part about Genette I think. The other stuff is more of my personal ideas than anything else. They aren’t as polished, and some thoughts don’t feel quite right yet. But I think they might warrant a discussion. For now, here’s your summary:

  1. Having introspection into every character of your story helps the bigger picture, but it doesn’t help reader-empathy or tension.
  2. Limiting your perspective to that of one character (your protagonist) makes everything feel more immediate, but also limits the things you can tell.
  3. Only looking at your story from the outside gives it a cinematic feel. If done correctly, it allows for interpretative freedom. If done wrong, it just sucks.
  4. All narration is first-person narration. Your narrator, however, can tell their own story or those of others.
  5. Your narrator is somewhere on the spectrum from apathy to telepathy. By figuring that out, you have figured out a large part of focalisation.
  6. Multi-POV brings with it a lot of advantages, such as painting a bigger picture. But careful: It limits the amount of story you can tell for each character and may turn out too superficial.
  7. Just make sure you know your narrator and you know through whose eyes you want to see your story. The rest will follow naturally.

Happy writing,

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