craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman
The Penderwicks (as I explored here) has delightful characters, and Birdsall is a master at distinguishing between the four sisters and establishing them as a coherent unit. One of the ways she allows us to know the four sisters so fully is through close third person narration with a shifting point of view–we see the world through each sister’s eyes at various points in the narrative.
Birdsall establishes a strong narrative voice for her omniscient narrator in the opening pages, and then seamlessly slips from one point of view to another without losing the reader. (She returns to the omniscient narrator voice as well.) How does she do it?
First, let’s define “close third person” or “limited omniscient” narration. Close third is as if the narrator is sitting on the main character’s shoulder–seeing what they see, hearing what they hear, able to peek into the MC’s brain but not the minds of other characters. It maintains a close psychic distance between the reader and the events of the story, but in its purest form, it limits the reader’s access to anything but the main character’s perspective.
One might consider that Birdsall’s omniscient narrator just slips into the minds of each sister at various times. We could discuss the book only in terms of omniscient narration. However, I would argue that Birdsall shifts from omniscient to close third person POV throughout the story–each sister has a different voice and language, as does the narrator.
The first time Birdsall uses close third is with Rosalind. After describing the scene in the car and the game of “I Went to the Zoo and I Saw,” the narrative shifts to a paragraph from Rosalind’s point of view. Note how Rosalind’s name often signals that we are in her point of view:
“Rosalind, who was sitting in the front seat with Mr. Penderwick, turned around and gave Skye her oldest-sister glare. It wouldn’t do much, Rosalind knew. After all, Skye was only one year younger than she was. But it might quiet her long enough for Rosalind to concentrate on where they were going. They really were badly lost. . . . Rosalind looked over at her father in the driver’s seat. His glasses were slipping down his nose and he was humming his favorite Beethoven symphony, the one about spring. Rosalind knew this meant he was thinking about plants–he was a professor of botany–instead of about his driving” (pp. 3-4).
First, Birdsall gives a spatial reference, letting the reader know where Rosalind is looking from. Then we get a signal that we are in Rosalind’s thoughts–”Rosalind knew.” The fourth reference to Rosalind gives us a clear physical movement that tells us we are going to see what Rosalind sees. Finally, the last “Rosalind knew” puts us again in Rosalind’s thoughts.
Not all paragraphs need this much signaling. One moment at the beginning letting us know we are in a character’s POV can be enough to make it clear that the whole paragraph belongs to that character. In this case, because it’s the first time the narrator enters a character’s POV, Birdsall makes the perspective change very clear.
Action: When shifting into a character POV for the first time, use signals throughout the paragraph to make the POV shift clear. In later paragraphs, pare back to as few signals as you can use to still make the POV clear.
Language and Voice
Birdsall clearly signals when we’ve entered a new character’s point of view–through language and voice. Rosalind’s voice, above, is that of an older child, somewhat stiff, using a more mannered speech, but still straightforward and childlike.
Chapter 3, however, opens in a new character’s point of view, and the language and voice let us know that we are in the youngest sister’s head.
“It was Batty’s bedtime. She had taken a bath, brushed her teeth, and put on her mermaid pajamas, and now she was standing in the middle of her Arundel bedroom, looking around. The butterfly wings were hanging on the closet doorknob, ready for morning. Her favorite picture of Hound, the one that her father had framed, was on the little white dresser by the window. Rosalind had put Batty’s special unicorn blanket on the bed, and Sedgewick the horse, Funty the blue elephant, Ursula the bear, and Fred the other bear were sitting on the pillow. It was an okay bedroom, Batty decided. . . “ (p. 29).
The details in this paragraph are details Batty would notice–the mermaid pjs, not just any pjs; the butterfly wings, her specifically named stuffed animals, etc. The sentence structure, too, signals a younger voice. The first sentence is short and to the point. The following sentences stack details in cumulative lists–”and, and, and,” as children often do. Birdsall does signals that Batty is “looking around” so we know that the narrator is describing what she sees, but it is primarily Batty’s voice that reveals the point of view.
Action: Be sure to make voice, diction, and sentence structure unique to your POV character. Even without signals, readers should be able to tell whose perspective the narrator is taking on. However, don’t neglect clear signals in addition to voice and language choices.
Transition through the Omniscient Narrator
Switches often have space between them. The strong voice of her omniscient narrator helps, in this case. Instead of always being on one sister’s shoulder or another, we can see the world from a more distant view.
In Chapter 4, the first three and a half pages are in Rosalind’s point of view, as she helps Cagney, the young gardener, replant a rosebush. She “suddenly felt as shy as Batty” and she “had never cared about plants. She has wanted to for her father’s sake, but in her secret heart, a plant was just one more thing that needed feeding and coddling” (p. 40). The end of the section describes with straight narration a brief interaction with Cagney.
Then, in the next sentence, we shift into Jane’s POV.
“While Rosalind tussled with the rosebush, Jane marched steadily along the driveway toward Arundel Hall. No sneaking through the hedge tunnel, Rosalind had said. Jane must go the long way around and show herself honestly.”
Even though most of the words in the paragraph are reporting what Rosalind said, we are with Jane, and hearing Rosalind from her perspective. The scene continues, letting us into Jane’s thoughts:
“Jane hoped that she wouldn’t meet Mrs. Tifton and then she wouldn’t have to use this [apology] speech. Who knew what the boy Jeffrey had told his mother? She might already be disgusted with the Penderwicks” (p. 41).
Using straight narration from the omniscient narrator in between close third person points of view can help ease the transition, giving readers a breath between the two and avoiding POV whiplash.
Action: When shifting between close third person points of view, use the omniscient narrator as a buffer. Try a short section of straight narration in between the two.
Passing the Baton–Shifting POVs without the Narrator
When the switches are fast, there’s some kind of turn or moment–an “airlock”–where the POV baton is passed. Here’s an example where the transition happens through dialogue. It’s a rather long passage, but it’s worth seeing the technique in full.
“Rosalind had never been to a boy’s apartment. As she hurried Batty along, she wondered what it would look like. Anna, who had two brothers in college, said that all boys were slobs, that it was in their genetic makeup, but Rosalind wasn’t so sure. . . .
Rosalind and Batty arrived at the carriage house exactly on time and found the screen door Cagney had described, with a BEWARE OF ATTACK RABBITS! sign nailed alongside.
‘Here we are,’ said Rosalind to Batty, but Batty had vanished. Rosalind found her around the corner, hiding behind a big barrel full of geraniums.
‘I’ve changed my mind,’ said Batty.
‘Oh, sweetheart, Cagney’s not a scary boy,’ said Rosalind.
‘Yes, he is.’
‘But he’s already told the rabbits about you. Think how sad they’ll be if they don’t meet you.’
‘Tell them I’ll come another day.’
‘They’re waiting for you now.’
Batty knew how it felt to be disappointed, like when Skye had promised to play Peter Pan with her, then forgotten. She crept out from behind the barrel and walked back to the screen door with Rosalind. Rosalind knocked on the door.
‘Come on in! Shut the screen door tight behind you!’ came Cagney’s voice.
Inside, Rosalind was interested–and relieved–to find a clean and cozy living room with a tidy little kitchen off to the side. She stored up details for her next letter to Anna . . .” (pp. 70-71).
There are two POV shifts in this passage, first from Rosalind to Batty, after a lengthy section of dialogue, and second from Batty back to Rosalind, with one sentence and a line of dialogue from Cagney.
During the longer dialogue section, the narration moves outside of Rosalind’s POV and not quite to Batty’s POV, but it doesn’t take on the distinct voice of the omniscient narrator. The dialogue acts as a sort of neutral zone between the two points of view.
In the quicker change, the shift is quite subtle, but quite elegant. The paragraph that starts “Batty knew how it felt” leads us through her thought and action (coming out from behind the barrel) to end the sentence with Rosalind. The following sentence picks up with Rosalind’s action, which could still be from Batty’s perspective, but places the focus on Rosalind. Cagney’s line takes the focus off both girls, though we hear Cagney from their perspective. When we return to the sisters, we are clearly with Rosalind’s POV: “Inside, Rosalind was interested.”
Action: Try experimenting with different points of view for your story. Question whether using two or more points of view will enrich your story or muddy it. Proceed accordingly.
Whatever You Do, Be Clear
It is possible to have a novel in shifting close third-person without a strong omniscient narrator, but shifts must be handled deftly, either by dedicating a chapter or more in a row to each POV (see R.J. Palacio’s Wonder for this strategy, or Cassie Beasley’s Tumble and Blue as I’ve explored here), or through careful mid-chapter shifts.
In middle grade writing, especially, it is essential to keep readers clearly within a recognizable point of view. Readers shouldn’t wonder whose perspective they’re in, or get whiplash from shifting too often, too quickly, or with no preparation.
But with careful attention, multiple points of view can tell your story more richly and more fully.
Anne-Marie Strohman (editor) writes picture books and is working on a middle grade novel. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She lives in the mostly-sunny city of Sunnyvale with her husband and two children. She is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.