Writing Point of View to Maximize a Story’s Impact
Have you ever noticed different books tell stories in different ways? Some books are inside the character’s mind and in others, you’re looking down on the characters from the sky or over one’s shoulder. This is called the Point of View (POV). It’s the perspective of how the story is told and one of the most powerful tools authors can use. POV is different from the narrator. I will briefly discuss elements of the narrator; although, I will go into deeper detail in a second article next week.
Writers have three points of view to choose with each providing different problems, responsibilities, and effects. They are called first, second, and third-person. Most people agree on these three points of view, but there are also subsidiary ones with different names–depending on who you ask. In essence, the point of view is all about the story’s perspective.
Perspective is the narrative lens that focuses on the characters, setting, and events of any story. Think of perspective as a window to view the story or the camera filming a movie. Different perspectives are going to give different sized windows as the reader stands at varying distances. I know this paragraph has a lot of technical terms to take in. Just hang on and I’ll explain more as the article proceeds.
The narrator is different from both the author and characters. Narrators tell the story to the reader. They are the stand in for the author and the mechanism for describing places, events, characters, dialogue, internal monologue, narrative devices, and other valid or invalid information. It is from this perspective the reader learns about the book’s story.
There are three main narrative perspectives to tell a story with a couple of sub-perspectives. The perspective is the point of view from which the story is told.
First-person perspective is the telling of a story through the eyes of a character or several characters in that story. The pronouns used are “I” and “me” or the plural would be “we” and “us.” An example text would be,
The platform I was standing on started to wobble beneath me. My heart raced. I grabbed a hanging rope and swung to the next section.
Notice the use of “I” and “me.” The character doing the action is the narrator telling their own story. The character can only give the reader information they know directly in that moment.
The narrator is usually a character in the story or is observing the story from another position in the first-person. A first-person point of view is limited, by definition, since the narrator’s voice is telling the story through the eyes of that character. The narrator only has access to the information the character has at that time, whether it the current action or historical experiences in the form of backstory, flashbacks, or letters (more on this next week).
Dramatic irony is a powerful element of the first-person perspective where the reader knows something that the character does not. Perhaps an author is writing a story where POV alternates between different characters during different chapters. A character could learn an important secret about the central mystery in one chapter and when the book jumps to the next character for another chapter, that character does not know the secret. The reader knows, but the narrative perspective does not. This is a great tool to build tension and create suspense.
Second person perspective is where the narrator refers to his or herself as “you.” It’s done in this way to alienate the reader and create emotional or ironic distance from the action of the story. Another use would be to make the reader the main character of the story:
You felt the platform shake. Your heart sped up. Above there was a rope, you grab it and swung to the next section.
This point of view is seldom used and difficult to do well. Authors known for using this style would be Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, and Italo Calvino.
Third-person perspective is where the narrator is outside of the characters and is telling the story’s events to the reader. This is indicated by the use of “he,” “she,” “it,” or “they.” The narrator would have a voice that is different than any of the characters. Sometimes authors insert the third-person narrator as their own character. The third-person narrator is often a non-participant narrator (more on this next week). They are simply watching the story and have nothing to do with the outcome. An example of third-person would be,
The platform was wobbling beneath her as supports started to buckle. Joan’s heart beat faster. A rope was from dangling above, tied to the rafters. She grabbed it and swung to the other platform.
The third-person gives the author the most flexibility for storytelling. Depending on the narrative distance the narrator is either peer-ing over the shoulder of the character or they can be as a fly on the wall as they watch over everything. The third person point of view can go into the mind of the character(s) for a time and then jump out to explore the rest of the world.
Narrative Distance is how close or how far away the narrator is from the character. A close narrator would go inside the character’s mind and tell the reader their thoughts. A distant narrator could be hovering over the room, describing everything that was going on. Most first-person narrators remain very close to the character they have perspective on. However, third-person can go into the character’s mind and then out to show the whole room, or even city. This technique will vary depending on how the author wants to tell the story.
Narrators can only tell what they know. There are two types of Narrative Authority:
The omniscient narrator is theoretically all powerful and can tell the reader any bit of information they wish. This is a matter of voice and style from the author of how close they want their narrator to go. The omniscient narrator can go into the mind of one character, tell the reader what the are thinking, move out, describe the room, and go into another character’s head and tell the reader what that character is thinking, all in the same scene or chapter. The only limit to omniscient narrator is how much the author wants to reveal.
This also applies to information about the world. If a character comes upon something they cannot possibly know the history of, yet the narrator gives a short allegory of it, then the narrator is omniscient, knowing more about the world than the character..
Tolkien wrote an omniscient narrator in The Lord of the Rings. The narrator spoke less about what each character was thinking at any given time other than the POV of that chapter, but when the fellowship came upon a town or a significant landmark, the narrator would take over and give an entire history of the place even if none of the characters knew any information the narrator was giving. The omniscient narrator has access to all of the information the author does, but it is up to the author to decide what to include and what to omit.
The Limited Narrator does not have all of the information the Omniscient Narrator has. They usually have as much information as the characters has at any one time, but no more.
Lois Lowry employed a limited narrator in The Giver. The POV is third-person but is limited to what Jonas–the main character–knew, thought, and did. Lowry could have written a narrator who knew everything about what happened before the communities were set up or what was happening outside of their boundaries. Jonas, the narrator, and the readers only know what memories the Giver gives to his new student.
Combining Narrative Elements
Often, authors include several elements of perspective, authority and distance into one narrator. Looking back at the previous example, Lowry employed a close limited third-person narrator for The Giver. The narrator was close to Jonas since it had access to his thoughts. It was limited to only what Jonas knew. It was third-person by using pronouns such as: “he” “him” and “they.” Different combinations of these elements will produce different perspectives and results.
Narrators are the keepers of time in stories. The words, sequence of events, descriptions or places or objects, and actions of the characters keep the reader queued as to what point in time the story is taking place. There are two ways to tell time in a story.
Linear Time is where the story is told chronologically. It is simple, binary, and the easiest for the reader to understand as well as write. The story opens with the introduction of the character, their call to action, they go on an adventure, slay the monster, and return home with a prize.
Often, linear timelines rely on backstory to convey characterization via flashbacks, but narrative time is different than a flashback. A flashback is more of a memory or explanation that has relevance on the story or character, but is not vital. Flashbacks do not create non-linear timelines.
Non-linear storytelling does not present the story in chronological order. Yes, there is a beginning, middle, and end to the story, but the book is written in such a way that it may begin at a different point than the story did.
This technique is called In Media Res, which is Latin for, “In the midst of things.” The story starts in the middle or the end and either the narrator goes back to tell the beginning or flashbacks are used to explain how things transpired to get where the book opened.
An example of a non-linear timeline would be William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! as it begins after the central crisis has already happened and one of the characters is reading about previous events. The timelines shift back and fourth between the book’s present and past. This technique is also called an Epistolary Novel and I’ll talk more about them next week.
Picking a Narrator
The first-person narrator has the closest narrative distance, seeing the world directly through that character’s eyes. This is also the most personal and relatable of perspectives because it is how every reader perceives the world when they are not reading. Second-person is used to alienate the reader or to make them the character of the story. A third-person narrator can take many forms depending on the distance and mechanism the author wants to use. It can look down over the entire scene, knowing everything about everyone, or look over a character’s shoulder, knowing only the thoughts of that character.
Picking a POV can be a terrible dilemma for any writer, whether seasoned or new. I suggest further research into your genre as to its conventions, tropes and reader expectations. Look to see what the top selling books in your genre are and from what POV they tell their stories. Make sure that you know the full advantages and limitations of each before picking a POV.
Don’t write your POV yet. I have another full-length feature article next week on the different mechanisms your narrator can live in. This article was simply the what of the narrator. Next week I will dicuss the who and the how. I hope you come back next week and also please read this week’s Friday Fiction Breakdown where I will write about how the three main POV’s are used in modern books.
The workshop question: What POV do you like to use or read?
I’m partial to close third-person.
Thank you for reading this edition of Wednesday Writer’s Workshop. Please follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest to keep the conversation going. Make sure to come back for Friday Fiction Breakdown where I will examine three books using the three main POV’s.