By Dave Hood
What is point of view? It is the narrator of the story. It is the character who is observing the events as they unfold in the story.
Point of view is the most complex element of fiction. (Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction) One error in point of view can compromise your story. Several errors will result in the editor tossing it in the waste bin. Each point of view has particular advantages and disadvantages. Without a good understanding of point of view, the writer will be unable to choose the best point of view for his/her story.
In this post, I’ll discuss point of view in a story. The following will be covered:
- Different types of point of view
- Advantages and disadvantages
- Interior Monologue
- Stream of Consciousness
The Importance of Point of View
As mentioned in the introduction, the point of view refers to the narrator of the story, the character who is telling the story. Each point of view available to the writer has certain advantages and disadvantages. Each point of view also influences the emotional state of the reader in a different way. For instance, if the reader uses first-person point of view (“I”), it creates an intimate connection with the reader. The reader feels as though he/she is speaking to a friend or participating in a conversation with someone who is sharing a story.
Types of Points of View
Before sitting down to write the story, the writer must determine who is going to narrate the story and how it will be narrated. The writer does this by selecting a point of view. There are three options:
- First-person point of view (I, We)
- Second-person point of view (You)
- Third-person point of view (he, she)
First person and third person points of view are the most common POV that writers use to narrate the story.
The form of the story often dictates what point of view to use. For instance, if the writer is going to use a journal entry, diary, stream of consciousness, interior monologue to tell the story, the first person point of view would be the obvious choice.
The writer will also need to consider the distance from the action. If the writer wants to tell an intimate story, a story experienced by the protagonist, he/she would use first-person. But if the writer wanted to be more objective, tell the story from a distance, by someone not involved in the story, he/she might use the third-person objective.
Distance refers to “psychic distance”, the degree to which the reader feels intimacy and identification to the character, or the degree to which the reader feels detachment and alienation from the story.
The writer can also increase the sense of distance in the mind of the reader by using a narrative summary and reduced the distance by using a scene.
First-Person Point of View
The story is told by the narrator of the story. The narrator can be a participant in the story, such as the protagonist, or the narrator can be an observer in the story, watching events as they unfold. To tell the story, the writer uses “I.”
Example: On that sunny day in July, I walked in the woods to a clearing, which lead to the pristine lake, where I took out my fishing rod, attached a worm, and began to fish for salmon…..
The first person POV has all the limitations of real life. The narrator can share his/her own thoughts and feelings, but he/she is unable to report what others are thinking and feeling in their minds. The narrator can only report what he knows.
The big advantage if first-person POV is that it provides the most intimacy for the reader. It is also an eyewitness account, a subjective account, a credible account of what happens in the story.
Second-Person Point of View
When the writer uses second-person “you” to tell the story, he is referring to the reader as a character in the story. This point of view is rarely used by writers because it confuses the reader.
Example: In your lonely home, alone with just the noise of the cat walking on the wooden floor, you sit down, turn on the laptop, and stare at the screen. But you’re not sure of what to write, not sure of whom to write to, not sure you want to continue living this socially isolated life as a writer….
The second person POV is only use by the writer when the character is referred to as “you.” You become the character within the story.
The problem with second person “you” is that it draws attention to itself. It is also difficult to write an entire story using this point of view. It is difficult to avoid using first person “I” or third person “he/she.”
The second person remains an idiosyncratic and experimental form. (Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction)
Third-Person Point of View
The simplest way of understanding third person point of view is that the writer tells the story using “he, she.” Essentially, the writer has three options when choosing third-person point of view:
- Third-person Limited
- Third-person objective
- Third-person omniscient
It is like the first person point of view in the sense that the writer can share the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist or main character—but not any other characters. The writer tells the story using “he/she.”
Example: In the rain, he walked in the dark wood with his shot gun, searching for the black bear that attacked the camp the night before. He was scared, anxious that the bear would appear like a tormented ghost from somewhere beyond. He wasn’t sure if he had the guts to pull the trigger, shoot and kill the beast.
“The big advantage of third-person limited is that it “mimics our individual experience of life, that it is our own ability to penetrate the minds and motivations of others, which can lead to the kinds of conflict or struggles for connection that inspire much fiction.” (Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway)
The writer restricts the story to the facts that can be observed by a particular character. The writer doesn’t reveal the thoughts or feelings of any character and tells the story using “he/she.” The writer reports the story without sharing the thoughts or feelings of the character. For instance, Ernest Hemingway narrates “Hills like White Elephants” using third-person objective. And so the reader must become a detective—trying to figure out what is going on in the story. To do this, the reader must interpret the dialogue and actions of the characters. The reader often learns through inference.
Example: He sat down to write the letter. First, took out a piece of blank paper and a pen. Then he searched for a quote on “Love” in the Book of Famous Quotations. Then he turned on the laptop, connected to the Internet, searched for a love poem…
In third-person objective, the reader learns from interference. This point of view is true to life, in what we often obtain meaning through inference.
The narrator is like god, knowing everything that is going on in the story, all events, all thoughts and feelings of each character. The writer tells the story using “he/she.”
The writer can do the following:
- Objectively report the action of the story.
- Go into the mind and report the thoughts and feelings of any character
- Interpret for the reader the characters thoughts, feelings, actions, appearance
- Tell the reader what has happened in the past or what will happen in the future
- Move freely in time and space to different scenes; tell the reader what is happening elsewhere in the story.
- Provide reflections, judgements, and truths
Interior Monologue or Stream of Consciousness
The writer can share the thoughts of the character by using interior monologue or stream of consciousness.
The writer can share the thoughts of the character with the reader by using an interior monologue, in which thoughts are described in sequence.
Example: I must get dressed, drink a coffee, read the newspaper…I must exercise and meet Carol for lunch…I must drive to the grocery store, pick up something for dinner….I have so much to do and not enough time.
Stream of Consciousness
The writer shares the thoughts of the character in a disjointed or unorganized way. This method shows how the human mind doesn’t function with order and clarity like the interior monologue. The writer describes any thought as it comes into the character’s mind.
In Ulysses, writer James Joyce used this technique.
Both are written using the first person “I”. However, the writer can also use interior monologue and stream of consciousness in the third-person limited or third-person omniscient. In both cases, the writer would describe the thoughts of the character using “I.”
Each point of view has advantages and disadvantages. The most important point the writer needs to remember is to use a consistent point of view in telling the story. In other words, if the narrator is the first person “I”, the writer tells the story using this point of view, and doesn’t switch to second person “you” or third person “he/she.”
To learn more on POV, you can read:
- The chapter on POV in Janet Burroway’s “Writing Fiction”
- The chapter on POV in “Writing Fiction” from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop
In the next post, I’ll discuss how to write the ending for your short story.