(This follows on from yesterday’s post Thinking about points of view).
My only clear memory of reading Tirra Lirra By The River as an undergrad is of a scene where a character following the narrator up a staircase observes her new haircut:
It lingered. One reason is because it is so true and keenly observed, and every time I see a friend with freshly bobbed hair I think of this line. But I think it also stayed with me because it was such a wonderful example of viewpoint.
In writing, “point of view” usually refers to whether a story is told in first/second/third/omniscient point of view (“I”/”you”/”third”/godlike). But here I was thinking more about viewpoint in the artistic/perspective sense — literally where the viewer (whoever they might be) is physically standing, and what they can see from there.
For writers, in a broad sense, it can apply to temporal points of view, too (past? present? future? “The Present Only Toucheth Thee” was kind of all about that).
But to keep it simple: If I’m describing (or drawing) a person climbing a staircase, I can describe the scene several ways, including:
- From their eyes, travelling with them: how the wallpaper gleams olive in lamplight, and where the carpet on the stairs is faded, which stairs creak, what is lurking on the landing.
- From the top of the staircase: seeing their shadow climbing ahead of them, their eyes flicking from stair to stair, their expression as they get breathless, the way the buttons on their cardigan pull, the point at which their feet come into view.
- From the foot of the stairs: the scuffs at the back of their shoes, the way their calves disappear in curved shadows under the hem of a skirt, the marks on the back of the cardigan, over the shoulderblades, where they leaned against a dusty wall, the way the lamplight pulls away from them as they ascend into darkness.
It’s easy to get into habits of describing things all one way, or from the most obvious viewpoint. I try to consciously play with this when I’m sketching, even sometimes building a reference piece that I can move around (e.g. the model library in this post). I do it when writing, too. Occasionally I will write out a scene from the other side of a room, or the level of the ceiling fan. Quite often the original viewpoint was sound (and style and purpose create their own restrictions), but seeing it briefly from another viewpoint will tell me more about the setting, and sometimes the character: Is there dust on the ceiling fan? What’s stored behind the door that was just flung open?
- Pick a scene (written or drawn). If you don’t have one in mind, choose a classic (for example, here, Cinderella running down the stairs) and do a super-quick stick figure or dot point sketch of it, as it first leaps to mind.
- Identify where your viewer (the “person” describing the scene or holding the metaphorical camera) is located. In the sketch, they’re at the bottom of the stairs, or perhaps even driving her carriage.
- Then consider some other potential vantage points — obvious or surprising.
- Sketch those out quickly (words or drawings), and see what you find out about the scene.
The lower picture is from inside the palace, over the prince’s shoulder. Now the scene (and Cinderella) is running away from the viewer. There outside is dark, inside here is bright. Shadows stream away, opulence is everywhere, perhaps there is startled laughter nearby, or the clinking of glasses in the sudden silence of the orchestra.
The upper image is from the shrubbery below a curve of the staircase (might someone be lurking there?). Cinderella is obscured by balustrades — their design would now become important (a specific architectural era? carved with past legends of the realm?), as would the design of the gardens (ominous groves? brightly lit topiaries?). It also provides a particular staging: at least three distinct and separated levels of picture plane, story, and society.