The point of view you choose for your novel will affect the way your reader sees your story. How do you decide which point of view to choose? And once you’ve chosen one, how do you keep it consistent?
Below I lay out the kinds of Point of View writers use, and at the bottom I give examples.
What is Point of View?
“A position from which something is considered or evaluated, a standpoint, or a place of perception.” — Jill Elizabeth Nelson, author of Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View
Point of view (POV) is the framework through which the reader experiences your story. To keep the reader within the fictive dream (aka, hooked in your work) choose a POV that enhances the tone and style of your story. Then, stick to it.
The first person narrative of Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” enhances the intensely fearful atmosphere of the story. It’s as if the POV character has reached out and grabbed the reader with shaking hands. Take a look at the opening lines of the story below.
“The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe – First Person POV
True!–nervous–very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses–not destroyed–not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily–how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
How Many Kinds of Point of View are there?
There are three basic POVs you can use in your story or novel, and each will lend your tale a different flavor. These POVs each go by the term ‘person.’ a term referring to verb conjugation in English. See the quick examples below.
- First Person—”I do this. I do that. I did this I did that.”
- The voice of a first person narrator should not be bland. First person is a great opportunity to establish a strong voice and personality for your main character.
- Narrative distance is close.
- Second Person—”You do this. You do that. You did this. You did that.”
- This POV can be edgy, which works well for urban, in your face, New Adult novels like BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY. If you choose to write in this POV, make sure your story will benefit from this slightly avant-garde tone.
- Narrative distance is close, and can feel aggressive—in your face.
- Third Person—”He does this. She does that. He did this. She did that.”
Third Person Options
Third person breaks out into two subcategories:
- Objective, aka Limited—the story is told from within a single character’s consciousness and perception at a time. You can switch POV characters, but if you do, it’s usually best to make a section or chapter break.
- Be careful the narrative distance isn’t too great. Take extra care to give the POV character a strong vivid voice.
- Omniscient—the narrator isn’t in any one character’s head, and the narrator knows everything in the story. This POV is like a crane shot in a movie, or as if God was telling you the story. It can be hard to pull off. Technically, you could switch from showing one character’s thoughts and feelings to showing those of another within the same scene, but this is usually jarring to the reader—this is what’s known as head-hopping.
- Third Person Omniscient has the grandest scope, and it can feel old fashioned.
- It is typical of 19th Century novels.
- It has the greatest narrative distance.
- You may want to compensate by keeping the tension and stakes high, and focusing on shocking events in your characters’ lives.
Narrative Voice – Giving POV Shades and Color
No matter which Person you choose for your POV, you can select from the various narrative voices below:
- Stream of Consciousness—based on the William James’s psychotherapeutic technique of having the patient blurt out whatever comes to mind. This style of POV puts the reader right inside the POV character’s head, privy to every passing thought and feeling, whether these thoughts make objective sense or not. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Marcel Proust used this technique. At worst, this technique produces dense impenetrable walls of text. It can be hard to not to make this approach seem pretentious, especially when you are a writing newbie.
- Character Voice—The way a character sounds is his or her ‘Voice’ as he or she tells the story to the reader. Voice should be as specific as possible. A unique voice makes a protagonist more vivid and forges a bond with your reader. How do you get specific with your voice? Use words and phrases only that character would use. That gives your character an unmistakable way to express him or herself. And if you switch POV to that of another character, switch voice so that the reader knows they are now inside someone else’s head.
- Kinds of Narrators—
- Reliable—This kind of narrator tells the truth as he or she knows it.
- Unreliable—This kind of narrator may lie or withhold key plot points, keeping the reader guessing (Amy and Nick in Gone Girl).
- Epistolary—a story told through a primary document, rather than through narration, e.g. letters, social media status updates, diaries, and text messages (Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The sections of Gone Girl that are Amy’s diary are epistolary. ‘Epistle’ means a letter.
Narrative Time – Tense
You can say it happened, or you can say it’s happening, just keep it consistent, or you may lose your readers.
Past Tense—It Happened
Past tense is the mainstream convention for telling a story. Think of “Once upon the time there was…” We’ve grown up with stories told in past tense. A past tense story feels as though it is happening in the present.
Present Tense—it Is Happening
In present tense, stories feel immediate, as in blow-by-blow sports coverage, or water cooler gossip. Present tense is often how we tell stories from our lives to our friends. “So I go to the office this morning and I get in late…”
Narrative distance is the level of closeness that your readers feel to your narrator. The closer your reader feels to the experience of the POV character, the more the reader is hooked by the story.
In most cases, closer is better because the reader is immersed in the POV character’s experience. There are times, though, when a bit of extra narrative distance can help you tell a story. In Gone Girl, Nick keeps the reader at a distance, which clues the reader in on his unreliability. Gone Girl is essentially a who-done-it in which we, the readers, rather than a detective character, work to solve the mystery. So, when Nick drops a few bombs on us in the second act, we are not completely shocked.
Many novels begin from greater narrative distances, the literary equivalent of a helicopter shot, and then later, zoom in on one character’s internal and external experience. Often starting with a greater narrative distance gives room to establish the broad scope of the story, and the world in which it unfolds.
Examples of Narrative Distance
Far – John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH
To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.
Close – Veronica Roth’s INSURGENT
I take Tobias’s hand. The wind picks up as we stand at the edge of the car opening, like a hand pushing me back, toward safety.
But we launch ourselves into darkness and land hard on the ground. The impact hurts the bullet wound in my shoulder. I bite my lip to keep from crying out, and search for my brother.
Tips about Point of View
- Stick to one POV per scene. No “head hopping,” i.e. switching POVs mid scene. Yes, Hemingway did it in THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. Are you Hemingway and is it 1951? Head hopping disorients your reader and gives him or her a chance to lose interest in your story. There is a way to do it skillfully, but it is a pet peeve of many literary agents and editors and can make your work look amateurish.
- No Narrative ESP. Avoid showing sensory details and knowledge the POV character could not know. A POV character can’t see her cheeks flush if she isn’t looking in the mirror. So if you write “Susan’s cheeks got pink.” and she is the POV character, if she can’t see her cheeks, you’ve broken your POV.
- Keep your tense consistent within your scenes. Make it clear when you go into and come out of a flashback, which will, in general, take you back one tense, e.g. from present to past, or from past to past perfect.
- Stay aware of your narrative distance. In your most intense scenes, keep your reader close to the action. But if you are establishing a new setting, or en entirely new world, it’s okay to start wide and then zoom in.
Examples – Points of Views in Literature
First Person Past – THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
First Person Present – THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
Second Person Present – BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY by Jay McInerney
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again it might not.
Third Person Omniscient Past – George R.R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE
“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”
“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.
Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.”
“Are they dead?” Royce asked softly. “What proof have we?”
“Will saw them,” Gared said. “If he says they are dead that’s proof enough for me.”
Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later.
Stream of Consciousness (First Person) from James Joyce’s Ulysses
a quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose theyre just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus theyve nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office the alarmlock next door at cockshout clattering the brains out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so that I can get up early
An Invisible Frame
In this post I have laid out a lot of technical jargon and information about something that ideally should be invisible to your reader. The reason you choose a POV and keep it consistent is to enhance the reader’s engagement in your story. Ideally the POV should be invisible to your reader because they are fully immersed in your story, eager to find out what happens next.
I welcome your comments. Please feel free to ask questions and share your ideas about POV here!