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Selecting a Point of View for the Short Story

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April 2011
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Before sitting down to write a short story, the writer needs to determine which point of view to use—who the voice of the story will be.

In this post, I discuss point of view. The following will be covered:

  • Definition of point of view
  • First person point of view (I)
  • Second Person point of view (You)
  • Third Person point of view (He, She)

Definition of Point of View

What is point of view in short fiction? It refers to the question of who narrates the story. All short stories have a narrator–either a character within the story or a voice of authority who is not known to the reader. The reader views the story through the lens of the narrator–thoughts, feelings, perceptions, descriptions.

The writer can write a story using first person narration (I), second person narration (you), or third person narration (he, she).

Each point of view (POV) has its advantages and disadvantages.

First-Person Narration

When the writer uses first person point of view, the story is narrated by a character within the story, either the central character or supporting character. As well, the writer tells the story using the “I” point of view. The writer can delve into the mind of the character, and share details of his/her thoughts, feelings, and memories. But the character must be present at all times as the writer tells the story. Susan Minot’s “Lust”, TomFranklin’s “Alaska” is told using the first person “we.” Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is also told using this first person plural point of view.

The advantage of first person POV is that it allows the writer to use a strong voice, intimate voice, one who is a witness to the story. It also provides directness, allowing the writer to tell the story through the eyes of one character. The writer can also use a colorful, authentic voice to tell the story.

The writer can also use stream of consciousness or interior monologue to tell the story. So there is immediacy, intimacy in telling the story. It is subjective, as the narrator is the subject.

The main disadvantage is that the writer cannot share the thoughts, feelings, or actions of other characters, unless the narrator is present in the story.

Second-Person Narration

When the writer chooses to narrate the story using second person narration, the story is told using the “you” point of view. This point of view distances the reader from the narration but also includes the reader in the narration—as “you” can be interpreted as the reader.  And so, the “you” point of view can be distracting to the reader. In short, the reader becomes the character within the story. Susan Minot’s short story “Lust” shifts from person to the second person “you.”

Third-Person Narration

Many short stories are told using third person narration. It puts distance between the reader and the story. The narrator is not a character within the story, but is instead a voice of authority, unknown to the reader. The writer tells the story using “he, she” point of view. The writer can employ one of three third-person points of view:

  • Third person omniscient point of view
  • Third person limited point of view
  • Third person objective point of view

When the story is told using third-person omniscient POV, the narrator knows everything about what characters are thinking, feeling, doing, and can share this information with the reader.

When the writer chooses to use the limited third person point of view, the narrator knows what is going on in the life and mind of a single character. James Joyce’s “Eveline” is narrated using third-person limited, as is Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog” is also told through the limited-third person point of view.

Sometimes, the writer chooses to narrate the story using objective point of view, also known as the dramatic point of view. The narrator tells the story, reports the action, shares the dialogue, but does not delve into the thoughts or feelings or memories of any character within the story. Hemingway’s Hills like White Elephants is told using third person objective point of view.

When writing short fiction, convention is that the writer use only one point of view throughout the story. However, once you begin reading short fiction, you will notice that good writer’s break the rules. For instance, Chekov shifts from third person limited to third person omniscient at the end of Gusev. In Tobias Wolf’s “Bullet to the Brain”, the first half of the story is told from third person limited then shifts to third person objective.

The best way to understand point of view is to read your favorite short stories, pay attention to how the writer uses point of view in the story. When choosing a point of view to use, you need to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each view point. If you want to tell the story from the eyes of a witness or participant, share the thoughts and feelings and memories of that character, you would use the first person point of view. On the other hand, if you wanted to tell the story from a distance, be able to write about the thoughts and feelings of every character, and move from character to character, you would tell the story from the third person omniscient point of view.

In the next post, I will cover the theme or meaning of a short story.

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2 Comments

  1. Amy says:

    uhhhhh wow u’ve got 2 b kidin me

  2. ladysown says:

    thank you for writing this post, it will be helpful as I teach a story telling class with my homeschool group.

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David Hood

David Hood

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