Unblocker #23: Epistolary Fiction and Combined POV

This exercise is going to be more specific and prescriptive than many of the others I’ve featured here on the blog. (You can get a full list of writing prompts on this page.)

That’s right. Specific and prescriptive. (Don’t worry, it won’t hurt. Much.)

I was reading back through Josip Novakovich’s classic Fiction Writer’s Workshop and within three pages he captured the essence of this particular writing exercise, and it struck a chord with me because of my own experience. One of the more well-received and highly praised short stories I’ve written the last two years is a story called, Perhaps You Should Visit Someday. (It is being sent out to literary journals next week, so maybe, just maybe, it will find a home!)

Perhaps You Should Visit Someday is written in a first-person/second-person combined point of view, with a loosely epistolary form. Mouthful? Yes. Yes it is. To put it more simply, it’s a first-person narrator addressing a “you” character in the form of a letter or a lament. Novakovich talks about Margaret Atwood’s story, Hair Jewellery (which is available in her collection titled Dancing Girls). Novakovich says:

Here the first- and second-person POV are combined to an excellent effect. This is the type of POV combination, or address of me to you, frequently found in love poetry, and Atwood’s story is a love story of sorts, so the story benefits from the tradition. Yet, strangely enough, this POV combination is rare.

Rare, perhaps, but intriguing.

The Exercise

You are to write (a few paragraphs, at least, but a few pages would be better) using a first-person narrator, addressing a second-person “you”. A love letter, a lost-love letter. Dear Jane or Dear John. Here’s what you missed or here’s what I miss most. It can be filled with “if onlys” and “what ifs” or it can be bluntly factual and limited to “because yous” and “since you decideds”. There really is a lot of latitude to be had, here.

The first-person narrator does not have to actually be you, of course. The second-person “you” that the narrator addresses doesn’t have to be someone “real” in your life. You can even use this as an exercise to unlock a hidden secret or two of a third-person narrator you are employing in another story or novel.

The real key to this: Let a few real details of your life slip in, but don’t confine your narrator to any sort of “truth”. Let his or her words flow, let them go in directions that you’ve never considered. Let your narrator say the things she wouldn’t say out loud, the things that wouldn’t fit well in polite society, the things she wishes she’d had the guts to say, just ONCE!

Have fun with this one. Do it on a regular basis.

Happy writing!!

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2 thoughts on “Unblocker #23: Epistolary Fiction and Combined POV

  1. This is a great exercise! I am working on a novel that contains several epistolary sections, but I had to write several drafts of this combined POV just to break myself out of the rest of the novel’s flow. It’s the hardest part for me, and when it’s done well, it is indeed “rare!”

    • It is a good exercise, for so many reasons. It’s a good way to find out something hidden about a character, even if you never use the writing you do as part of the exercise in any published/shared work. It’s one of the long-term, get in the character’s mind ways to break through…If only I used it more… 🙂

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