The Point of Telling
I have been thinking about this story’s point of telling. Getting it right is so important, but sometimes you have to figure it out by writing.
The point of telling has to do with the point of view but it is not the point of view. It has to do with the tense but is not the tense. It’s the point in time from which the narrator is telling the story.
Present vs. Past, Short View vs. Long View
For a story told in the present tense, the point of telling is now, as things are unfolding.
For a story told in the past tense, it gets more complicated. The same events described one week later and fifty years later are two completely different stories.
When the point of telling is not long after the events of the story, things are still fresh in the narrator’s mind. Memories are still being formed and are not yet cemented. The narrator might still be trying to figure out what, exactly, even happened.
On the other extreme, with a point of telling fifty years after the fact, the narrator has the benefit of age, wisdom, and perspective. But the events are so distant that some details have faded, while others have taken on greater, perhaps outsized, meaning. Time, as it will, has warped the story, and memory is once again exposed as the slippery trickster it is.
The point of telling is also about the narrator’s relationship to the story as a story. Why are they telling it now? Why haven’t they told it before? Why not keep it to themselves forever? These questions become especially important when the point of telling is long after the events of the story.
Alexander Chee explains it beautifully in this episode of the WMFA podcast:
“I think of it as related to what I call the ‘extraordinary time’ of a character… There is just this one section of their life that is the subject of the story, the section of this life that is more significant than all the other parts of their life. And so why are we there, and who brought us there, and what did they want us to know, and how did they want us to know it? And what happened such that the story suddenly became available to them to tell us? And why would they?”
Figuring out the point of telling feels especially crucial for a first-person story, which is what this new novel is. Right now, the point of telling is twenty-two years after the action of the story. The narrator, who was twenty-two at the time of the action, is now twice that age — and the age her mother was at the time the story took place.
But the full “why now” I have yet to figure out. What happened such that the story suddenly became available to her to tell us — and why would she?