Four Ways to Write Point of View in a Story or Novel
This article explores not only how to write a novel or story from different points of view, but also why you should choose a particular point of view, depending on your goals for a given story. The article explains the pros and cons of using omniscient narration, close third person point of view, first person point of view, and second person point of view.
As an editor, I find that many first-time novelists have a hard time getting a handle on point of view (POV).
They launch into a story from somewhere on high, describe the setting, and then settle briefly on one character, then on another, like a hummingbird going from blossom to blossom, sampling a thought here and a thought there as they go.
This is especially true of writers who were reared on the classics — books by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, George Eliot, you get the idea— all of which feature omniscient narrators.
An omniscient narrator is an all-knowing, godlike voice that narrates externals, such as setting and weather, as well as the internal thoughts of multiple characters. It sometimes even deals out hints and spoilers, as in: “If Muriel had only known that this was to be her last day in London, she might have raised her eyes from the pavement to take in the architectural wonders all around her…”
Most new writers naturally gravitate towards this style of storytelling because it enables them to do an awful lot of things quite effortlessly. An omniscient narrator can create anticipation (as in the example above), describe scenery as if filming from a drone, even show their main character through the eyes of a stranger. Let’s stick with Muriel to illustrate the last point: “From afar, Muriel looked like a biddable sort of girl; small, modestly dressed, and tidy. But if you got up close to her you could see the stubborn set of her jaw.”
Oh yes, omniscient narration is a very handy way of telling a tale. We learn what kind of a girl Muriel looks like on the outside, and what kind of a girl she might actually be on the inside, in just a couple of sentences. But there’s just one problem with using omniscient narration.
It’s gone out of fashion.
Oh, you can still get away with it, as Kevin Kwan does in Crazy Rich Asians, but publishers and agents alike are not really keen on it, and will be even less so if you’re a new and untried commodity.
But why on earth has such a convenient way of telling stories gone out of fashion, you ask?
Omniscient narration is not as well-loved as it once was because it puts distance between the storyteller and the story, making the story less immediate and therefore less immersive.
Books, as we all know, are no longer the only game in town when it comes to entertainment. They face relentless competition from screens, which are very immersive indeed, offering words, pictures, and sound all at the same time.
In the example above, we can see that our omniscient narrator feels slightly critical about the fact that Muriel doesn’t raise her eyes and properly appreciate her London surroundings. There’s also some condescension in the description of Muriel as ‘biddable’ and ‘tidy’. The narrator is clearly fond of Muriel but feels a tad superior to her. This subtly implied judgment creates distance between the reader and Muriel.
Today’s fiction readers want to feel very close to the characters in any novel if they are going to take the time to put down their phone and read it. How close? So close that they live the story through the eyes of the protagonist.
First Person POV
One sure way to eliminate distance is to write in the first person, the most intimate point of view a writer can use.
Young adult (YA) novels are especially likely to be told in the first person. Using ‘I” creates the effect that there is no separation at all between the reader and the protagonist. The reader IS the protagonist.
Actionable Tip: if you want to create an even more immediate and immersive experience for your reader, combine first person POV with present tense narration.
Let’s see how Muriel’s story sounds in the first person and the present tense.
“As always, I walk with my head down. I don’t like locking eyes with strangers, especially not with male strangers who always stare at me a beat too long, some with the same glint in their eyes that a cat has when it watches a bird. Mother says I might as well move to Hemel Hempstead — the ugliest town in England— for all the attention I pay to my surroundings. But you know what? I happen to like looking at the cracks and blobs of gum on London pavements.”
While writing this first person POV scene with the simple goal of conveying a specific piece of information (i.e. that Muriel always walks with her eyes down), the writer has to decide why the character’s eyes are so often glued to the ground. Coming up with a reason through Muriel’s inner monologue has the side effect of revealing all kinds of other things about Muriel. There is no condescension here, no distance. The reader is Muriel, at least for as long as it takes to read the sentences.
Actionable Tip: inner monologue is a fantastic tool for character development. The writer might primarily be trying to convey a single piece of information that, for some reason, matters to the plot. However, by dipping into the character’s thoughts about WHY she does the thing that matters to the plot, the writer almost inadvertently starts hinting at backstory, and (also almost inadvertently) starts developing the character’s unique attitude to life.
Thus it emerges that Muriel isn’t just a shy girl with downcast eyes timidly plying her way down a busy street. She is a mind, a brain, a consciousness, somebody with life experiences that cast light on her habit of looking down as she walks.
While first person POV is common in YA, it is less common in general fiction. In this genre, today’s editors and agents seem to favor novels written in what is known as ‘close (or limited) third person POV’.
Close Third Person POV
Using close/limited third person POV is like shooting a movie using just one camera angle. No, it’s more like strapping a GoPro camera to a single character’s head. As you can imagine, this choice comes with its own advantages and challenges.
Once you have decided to stick exclusively to Muriel’s point of view, you can easily write a sentence like, “She walked down the street looking at the ground.” However, you can’t write, “From a distance, she looked like a demure, well-behaved girl, maybe a little shy.” Instead, you could write: “She knew that she came off as shy at first sight — and that was okay by her, because people let shy girls get away with murder.”
In simple terms: if you are using close third person POV, you are limited to reporting the things your POV character can see, hear, smell, touch, surmise, or remember themselves.
You can’t refer to something ominous waiting for the character around the corner, as in: “Little did Muriel know that there was a man in a lion costume sheltering in the doorway of a building to her right, or that this man was about to step out into the street and slam right into her, changing her life forever.”
If Muriel doesn’t know the man in the lion costume is there, the reader cannot know it either.
Instead, if you were absolutely determined to foreshadow the catastrophe, you’d have to say something like: “Muriel had woken up with a nameless dread that plagued her all morning like a stomach ache, but she didn’t understand what it was all about until 9:10 a.m. when something tall and furry stepped out of a doorway and slammed into her with so much force that she thought she’d been hit by a taxi.”
Caveat: When you’re using close third person point of view, it isn’t illegal to stray occasionally into omniscience — as long as you do so with intention while remaining in firm control of the tone and direction of your story.
Similarly, it isn’t illegal to switch from one close third person POV character to another within the same novel. In fact, this is done quite frequently — but there are (of course) unwritten rules.
Switching from One Close Third Person POV to Another
In our example, let’s say Muriel is knocked unconscious by the man in the lion costume. It would be possible — even, perhaps, necessary — to switch to the lion impersonator’s point of view.
Let’s try it.
“Obviously, Algy knew he wasn’t supposed to be on break (if you can call pausing in a doorway to take off your lion’s head and look at your phone a ‘break’). But the thing was, he didn’t really have a choice. His phone had buzzed and he had a clear duty to see if his agent was texting to say he had an audition that very afternoon. Besides, his boss really ought to realize that no newly graduated theatre major feels a true calling for the job of walking around London handing out flyers while dressed up as a lion. But the text was only from his mother reminding him to pick up his drycleaning. As he turned his attention to his emails in case his agent had decided to go that route, another text suddenly popped up. ‘Algy, get your effing arse in gear and MOVE it.’ Cursing the invention of tracking apps, Algy shoved his head back on and launched back out into the fray. That was when some lunatic pedestrian smashed right into him, scattering his flyers over the pavement like confetti.”
Okay, you can see that I’m getting a bit carried away here, and all I set out to do was show you a little illustration of switching from one close POV to the other. The very fact that a story seems to be growing out of my fingertips is proof enough that diving into POV (any POV, as it turns out) helps the old brain come up with creative ideas.
Exercise: think of a small scene, name a couple of characters, and write a few sentences from each character’s point of view. Nine times out of ten, you’ll muddle your way into a story.
Repressive side note: be warned that the tendency to switch rapidly from one third person POV to another is frowned upon by publishing types and even has a censorious label: ‘head hopping’.
Technically, you can be accused of head hopping when you don’t dwell for long enough in a particular character’s consciousness.
What is long enough?
That depends on a lot of things, but mostly on the experience and technical skills of the writer. If you’re not yet an established author (and I assume you probably aren’t, since you’re reading this) do yourself a favor and stick to one point of view per scene, at the very least. Your safest bet is to stick to a single point of view throughout the entire story, but if you must have multiple points of view, at least give each POV enough space to bloom.
I strongly advise against having multiple close POVs within a single paragraph.
Exercise: If you are trying to write close third person POV and aren’t sure if you’re achieving it, switch to first person POV and rewrite the scene. Doing this will immediately highlight any excursions into omniscience.
You’re not in the habit of reading books that break conventions, but for some reason you’ve picked up The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. As you skim the paragraphs, something strange begins to dawn on you. The story is written from the point of view of you. You aren’t sure what to do with this information. You aren’t convinced you like being the star of some story that you didn’t actually live through, first hand. But you persist anyway, feeling equal parts uncomfortable and intrigued. And then, when you get to the end, you realize you quite enjoyed the ride. Now you start to wonder if you can write a story in second person point of view, yourself. You know it’s risky because most people don’t like reading stories written in unusual styles, but you decide to try it anyway. Good luck to you!
Point of view choice, as I hope I’ve shown, has a crucial mechanical impact on how you convey information. But that’s not the only reason it matters. The point of view you choose will add flavor and shape to your tale. It will help you build character from the inside out. The voice you settle on will determine how suspense is created, how secrets are unveiled, and how backstory is discovered.
Point of view, used well, is as inseparable from the story as yarn is from a blanket.
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