One of the most important decisions you will make in writing your story is choosing which point of view to use. The point of view is the “head” or “camera angle” from which you filter the action. Here are five commonly used points of view.
- First Person Point of View – The narrator is “I” or “we.” A writer only reveals things the narrator sees, hears, thinks or knows. I knew I shouldn’t have let Grandma go down there. She isn’t too steady on her feet to start with, and then she gets those dizzy spells. But she insisted, and the next thing I know, she’s tumbling down those stairs like a gymnast.
- Second Person Point of View – The narrator addresses the reader. You know how it is. You think you shouldn’t intervene, you think she’ll get mad at you if you don’t let her do what she’s always done.
- Third Person Point of View, Panoramic – The narrator sees all the action, but doesn’t read minds. Think of this like a movie camera–describe anything you see or hear, but not thoughts. Mrs. Smith stood at the top of the stairs, her son John next to her. Clinging to the handrail, she planted her trembling foot on the first step. But the other foot caught on the carpet.
- Third Person Point of View, Controlled Consciousness – Like first person, the reader sees all the action through the eyes of a single character and can only see what that character sees. The difference is the writer uses “he” or “she” instead or “I” or “we”. When using a controlled consciousness point of view, choose one character, called the viewpoint character, to experience the story through. A writer can have more than one viewpoint character in a novel. The viewpoint character should change only at chapter or scene breaks and should never change without good reason. John knew he shouldn’t have allowed his grandmother to go down the stairs alone. She wasn’t steady on her feet and sometimes she grabbed onto the nearest object when dizziness overwhelmed her.
- Third Person Omniscient – God-like; the narrator knows and sees everything, and can move from one mind to another. Although third person omniscient allows the most flexibility, it’s difficult to manage. Besides visiting the heads of different characters, the reader can also see into the future or see things that none of the characters can see. John stood next to his grandmother. He wanted to help her down the stairs. Mrs. Smith looked at her grandson, her blue eyes sharp, and moved a strand of hair from her face. She was determined to do this on her own, to prove she wasn’t helpless.
By changing your viewpoint character, readers get a different account of the action. Therefore, carefully choose whose viewpoint to use so they can get the greatest power from each scene.
Even within third person omniscient, there should be only one viewpoint character at a time, only one character whose thoughts and mind readers visit. If you must switch “heads” within a scene, clue the reader to allow for a transition. Once the switch is made, stay with it. “Head-hopping” confuses the reader.
Besides point of view, intimacy and voice affect how close the reader feels to the story and the characters. Intimacy is how close the reader is to the action and to the character’s thoughts and emotions. Like a video camera, a writer can zoom in and out, getting close (into a character’s head) when she needs to and then back off when things get too hot or when a broader perspective works better.
Voice is the way in which the narrator talks—it can be proper and formal, conversational, or even illiterate. To be effective, it must be natural and unique, just like each person’s voice. An author’s voice may be one of the most difficult things to develop. When you first begin putting words on paper, you “try out” different voices, trying to find the one that suits you. Of course, each story can have a different voice and still be the author’s. The more you write, the more comfortable you become with your voice.
Likewise, the tense chosen affects the power of the story. Writers often use past tense (he was) in fiction, although some effectively use present (he is). Past perfect (he had been) and future perfect (he will be) should be saved for flashbacks and special effects. It is extremely important to maintain tense. Like viewpoint changes, tense changes jar the reader and mark the writer as an amateur. Unless you are an accomplished writer, do not even consider changing tenses within your novel. If you are uncertain which tense to choose, go with past tense. It is the easiest to handle and the most invisible to the reader.
Point of view, voice, intimacy and tense are the spices in your main dish of plot, character and setting. As such, they must exist, but they should be invisible to the reader, allowing for a smooth, full-bodied flavor without any jarring inconsistencies.
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