Bullet in the Brain: POV

The best way to learn about writing is to critically analyze the works of great writers. This article tackles a critical issue — POV — by examining it in the beginning of Tobias Wolff’s short story Bullet in the Brain. I recommend reading it at least once to familiarize yourself. We’ll start with the first sentence:

Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper.

The story begins in the limited third person POV. That means that everything we know as a reader is filtered through Anders. In other words, even though the protagonist, Anders, is referred to in the third person, the reader ONLY sees what Anders sees. This is crucial because it defines Anders’ character. Here’s what I mean:

Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, (1)so of course the line was (2)endless and he got stuck behind two women whose (2)loud, stupid conversation put him in a (2)murderous temper.

Look at the section indicated by (1). This part of the sentence does three things. First, it tells the reader, subtly, that Anders is a pessimist. The second thing it does is prime you for the strong words, indicated by (2)s, following it. If those three words were “so of course” wasn’t in the sentence, then the POV has a different effect. Because “so of course” is very colloquial, it makes the reader feel like they’re getting more of Anders POV.

Think of “so of course” as an indicator that’s saying “HEY! READER! THESE THOUGHTS ALL BELONG TO ANDERS!”. Because of them, the subsequent powerful words (endless, loud, stupid, murderous) are more effectively attributed to Anders as opposed to a narrator.

Last but not least, “so of course” is the perfect stylistic transition for the rest of the sentence. It feels exasperated, and it gives the reader the sense that Anders is both angry and in a hurry.

One sentence. That’s all it took to sow the seeds of Anders character. And, even though it’s not going to be covered in this post, it introduced conflict into the story, which is THE MOST important thing in fiction. Without conflict, there is no story.

Second sentence:

He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders – a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

This sentence is in third person omniscient. Third person omniscient is when  a narrator outside of the characters knows everything about them. For example, if this whole story were told in omniscient third person, the reader would expect to read about the thoughts of the women in front of Anders or the thoughts of the bank robbers.

One might argue this is still 3rd limited, as Anders could be reflecting that he’s rarely in a good mood and also reflecting on his career. It is arguable. Still, I think it’s third person omniscient and this isn’t one of Anders’ thoughts, because I don’t believe Anders would identify himself with those adjectives, especially after the first sentence. He doesn’t possess that kind of self-awareness.

There’s an important lesson in how these two sentences come together. Remember, as a storyteller, you’re transporting your reader to a world of your design. The LAST thing you want to do is break that illusion. If anything in your story does that, it could cause your audience to lose interest and do something else.

POV shifts can be very jarring for a reader, but this is a fine example of a POV shift done right. There are a few reasons for this. First, the shift is at the beginning of the story before the reader is fully accustomed to a particular POV. Second, it makes sense. The first sentence mentions that Anders is in a murderous temper, and the second clarifies and adds to that statement. It’s a natural progression.

Time to skip ahead to when the bank robbers arrive. The following paragraph illustrates how so very effective — and subtle — good POV is at immersing the reader in the story and creating conflict:

She sucked in her cheeks but stared past him and said nothing. Anders saw that the other woman, her friend, was looking in the same direction. And then the tellers stopped what they were doing, and the customers slowly turned, and silence came over the bank. Two men wearing black skimasks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door. One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard’s neck. The guard’s eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun.

Note the POV and how Anders slowly realizes that something is wrong. The story doesn’t read “Two men wearing black ski masks and blue business suits entered the bank.” That sentence would suck for a few reasons, but the thing to note here is what POV it would be. If the story read “Two men wearing black ski masks…”, then there is no drama.

But, because we are inside Anders’ POV, we are shown the events, not told them. Something you may have heard somewhere from someone about an effective way to write. By seeing the events through Anders eyes, we are shown them.

Read the paragraph again. Note how Anders notices things sequentially. Also note that we are never, not once, told something that Anders wouldn’t know.

She sucked in her cheeks but stared past him and said nothing. Anders saw that the other woman, her friend, was looking in the same direction. And then the tellers stopped what they were doing, and the customers slowly turned, and silence came over the bank. Two men wearing black skimasks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door. One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard’s neck. The guard’s eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun.

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