What’s The Best Point Of View For Your Story?

One of the most important decisions you'll make as a writer is who will tell your story. In other words, what point of view will you use?

Whether you're writing an entire novel, a short story, or a single scene, these two guidelines can help:

  • Use the point of view that best conveys what your reader needs to know.
  • A scene is strongest when told by the character with the most to lose.

What Your Reader Needs To Know

When choosing from the point-of-view options, ask yourself what your reader needs to know and when. Answering that question will go the farthest toward knowing what point of view will work best for your story.

As I talked about in previous articles, your reader can only know what the view point character knows.

If your story requires a bird's eye view where an all-knowing narrator shares more than the all characters combined know–or the narrator comments from a big picture perspective–third person omniscient is your best option.

If your reader needs to know what multiple characters know–for instance, you want the reader to know Susan placed a ticking bomb under the table that protagonist Pedro is unaware of–third person limited shifting (multiple characters) is a great choice.

If everything the reader needs to know can be told by one character, you can explore third person limited (single character)second person, or first person.)

You can also combine the above points of view.

Making Your Reader Care

Narrating each scene from the standpoint of the character with the most to lose is the best way to keep the reader engaged. The more that's at stake for the viewpoint character, the more likely the reader is to care about what happens.

Under this approach, if you are writing a break up scene, think about who is most invested in the relationship and who will be most devastated if it’s over. That character is probably the one whose viewpoint will jump off the page.

On the other hand, if for the character choosing to end the relationship, the worst thing in the world is to hurt someone else, that might be the viewpoint character to use.

Sometimes, though, your story might benefit from a wider perspective or the view of someone one step removed.

A great example of first person narration by someone other than the protagonist–who has the most at stake–is The Great Gatsby.

Nick, our narrator, is Gatsby’s neighbor. Because he’s a step (or a plot of land) away, he can show us how Gatsby fits into the society around him in a way that Gatsby himself couldn’t. He can also tell us about things that happen that are unknown to Gatsby but that impact him.

I often switch the point of view of a scene when I rewrite to see if it works better. The key is to save your first draft so you can easily restore the scene if you don’t like the change.

What Point Of View You Enjoy Writing

Another question for you, and this one is more fun, is what point of view you enjoy writing.

What you enjoy matters, as often more than one point of view could work for your story. And, maybe more important, if you find you really dislike writing from a certain point of view, and it's the best one for the story, maybe you'll decide to write a different story.

After all, why write something you don't enjoy?

Feel free to experiment to see both what point of view works best and which you enjoy. It's fun, and it can help avoid spending a lot of time deciding the POV before you write.

Why do I think it's better not to devote tons of time to choosing?

First, it can be a way to put off writing. Second, sometimes a point of view you think will work great doesn't when you get into the flow of the story. So it's more efficient to start writing and see how it goes. You can always switch POV in your next scene or chapter and see how that works.

If you do change the point of view of a scene or story, your original version was still worth writing. You probably learned a lot, and you might use it for another story down the road. Or you can send it as a bonus to email list or Patreon subscribers or include it on your website.

Until next Friday, when I'll talk about other types of bonuses you can send to fans and supporters–

L.M. Lilly

Combining Different Points Of View (Point Of View Post No. 5)

The point-of-view articles posted here so far covered three third person point-of-view options–omniscient; third person limited shifting (multiple characters); and third person limited (single character)–and the second and first person points of view.

If none of the options seems as if it will work for your entire story, though, you can combine different points of view in the same novel.

First And Third

Some books shift scene-to-scene or chapter-to-chapter from first person told by one character to third person limited told by another character.

You might do this if you have a strong sense of one character’s voice and really want to write using “I,” but you need the reader to know things that character doesn't know. Or you may feel third person seems more appropriate for one or more other viewpoint characters.

In the thriller Right Behind You, Lisa Gardner shifts between two first-person points of view—a teenaged girl and her estranged older brother—and two third-person points of view—profilers Quincy and Rainie, who are foster parents to the girl. It's worth a read to see how Gardner does this (and because it's a great book).

Second And ???

You could do the same with second person, using it for a particular chapter and then shifting in another chapter to third person or even to first person.

Because second person is less common in fiction, though, your reader might feel disoriented, so use with caution.

First And First

You can shift from one first person viewpoint to another first person viewpoint. This can be a bit trickier than shifting from first to third. With multiple first person points of view the reader may assume the same “I” is speaking.

While you can put a character name on the top of a chapter or scene to signal the switch to the reader, beware: not all readers look at those tags. I tend to overlook them myself, just as I rarely read chapter titles.

To truly do shifting first person right, the changing voice of the current narrator alone ought to cue the reader that someone else is now telling the story.

That can be quite challenging. But you can make it work if you’re willing to listen intently to how each character speaks and get that down on the page.

The popular thriller Gone Girl is an excellent example of an author using two different first-person narratives—a husband’s and a wife’s. Both the viewpoint character’s voices and the actual story change dramatically depending upon which POV we’re in.

Epistolary Novels

Another way to combine points of view is to tell some or all of your story through letters. Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice includes the full text of multiple letters. Austen's original plan for the novel was to tell all of it in letters.

The book overall is in third person omniscient, as we get a big picture view of the community and its views as well as a look into the minds of multiple characters.

But we also get first and second person through letters. When Darcy writes his pivotal letter to Elizabeth (the protagonist) he both details his own feelings, referring to himself as “I,” and relates things that occurred that involve Elizabeth, referring to her as “you.”

The letters create a greater intimacy between the readers and the characters, as we're drawn into direct and often private communications between them. They also allow Austen to have fun with different characters' voices. The letters from Mr. Collins are a joy to read–full of pomposity mixed with some good intentions and a heavy dose of self-importance–and convey his character perfectly.

(Elizabeth says to her father after hearing the first of the letters read aloud: “He must be an oddity, I think….Can he be a sensible man, sir?”)

If you try switching points of view, once you've written a few chapters it's a good idea to give them to a few friends. Ask them to mark any point where they were confused, even momentarily.

Confusion doesn't mean you shouldn't make the shift. But you'll know where you need to work harder to make clear who is talking.

Until next Friday, when we'll talk about how you decide which point of view to use for any particular scene or story–

L.M. Lilly

The Omniscient Narrator: When You Know It All (Point of View Post No. 4)

Third person omniscient is the broadest and most flexible point of view. For most writers, it's also the most challenging to write.

The Omniscient Narrator Knows And Sees All

With omniscient point of view, the narrator can see into everyone’s mind. Not only that, the narrator can go beyond the experiences and knowledge of the characters.

For example, the story could start with a history of a town, a company, or a country regardless whether any of the main characters know that history. Or a scene could begin with a bird’s eye view of a city block and gradually zero in on a single seat on a single train car.

The omniscient narrator also can opine about each character from a step back, rather than being locked into a character’s perspective.

The first two lines of Gone With The Wind provide an example of omniscient narration:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father.

In these sentences, we are in neither Scarlett’s nor the twins’ POVs. Rather, we get a big picture view of Scarlett.

Scarlett herself, for instance, would be unlikely to describe herself as “not beautiful,” and the Tarleton twins probably wouldn’t describe her that way or refer to her mother’s and father’s ancestry if asked to tell someone what she looked like.

Later in the chapter the story zooms in so that we get Scarlett’s internal thoughts and feelings as well as those of the Tarletons, but there are many passages in the book that provide a sweeping view of Southern society, the war, and politics. Those are all told via the omniscient narrator.

Pros Of Third-Person Omniscient Point Of View

The pluses of omniscient narration are the big picture scope and feel, as well as the flexibility. As a writer, you can swoop into the viewpoint of whatever character you choose, and you can back off and give the perspective of many people at once.

Omniscient is the perfect choice for Gone With The Wind because Margaret Mitchell is able to provide numerous perspectives when she needs to, whether of soldiers on the front lines, prisoners of war, society matrons, or carpetbaggers.

She can also include descriptions of lands and cultures and characters that are rich with history and details that no one particular character is aware of.

Cons Of Third-Person Omniscient Point Of View

The disadvantages include that writing in omniscient narration can be unwieldy. As the author, you have so many choices for every single scene that it can be overwhelming.

Also, a lot of care is needed to avoid jarring the reader when you head hop from one character to another or zoom in or out from a bird’s eye view to a single character’s view.

You can avoid this to some extent by only switching POV from scene to scene or chapter to chapter, but then you may as well use third person limited shifting. (For more on that point of view option see Limited And Shifting Third Person (Point Of View Post No. 3)).

Another method is to use a character’s line of dialogue or a movement by the character to segue into that character’s perspective.

Keep in mind that because of the big picture perspective your reader may not feel as connected to or invested in any particular character. Partly for this reason omniscient narration, while common in many classics, is not often used today in fiction.

Most present-day readers want to feel as if they are truly seeing through the eyes of, or living in the body of, one or more characters, and it’s hard to feel that way with omniscient narration.

Further, today’s readers also are unused to shifts of point of view within scenes, and it may distract them or make them wonder if you shifted deliberately or made an error.

Where You'll Find Omniscient Narrators

You see omniscient narration used more in literary novels than in popular or genre fiction.

Literary books focus more on the writing itself than the plot (though how much more varies) and also tend to leave more for the reader to infer about the characters’ thoughts and feelings. This makes such books better suited to an omniscient narrator, as readers don’t have the same expectation of closeness with the viewpoint characters, and they expect to work harder to understand the story.

So should you try omniscient narration?

It's true that some modern readers may be unfamiliar with it and so be throw off by it at first. If you are writing an epic or sweeping tale, though, or you simply love the approach, give it a try.

Until next Friday, when I'll write about combining various points of view in one novel

L.M. Lilly

 

Limited And Shifting Third Person (Point Of View Post No. 3)

The third person point of view is the most complex because it allows for three variations that affect on a scene-by-scene level how you’ll tell your story.

Today I'll talk about the first two: third person limited (single character) and third person shifting (multiple character).

The last type is third person omniscient, which will be covered next Friday.

Third Person Limited (Single Character)

Third person limited (single character) is the easiest of the third person point of view options to manage.

“Single character” means just that.

As in first person and second person, the same character tells the entire story. The difference is that rather than “I” or “you,” you’ll use “he” or “she” (or perhaps “it”) when referring to the viewpoint character.

The “limited” aspect once again refers to knowing only what that the viewpoint character knows. As in first and second person, even if you as the author know there’s a bomb under the table, you can’t tell the reader about it unless or until the viewpoint character knows it.

Likewise, your viewpoint character can’t see into the head or hearts of other characters.

As with first and second person, this type of narration can delve deep into the viewpoint character’s mind and heart. The feel may be a bit more removed because “I” and “you” are out of the picture, other than in dialogue. The narration also is less conversational than first person, though it can still give a feel for the character’s voice.

Third Person Limited Shifting (Multiple Character)

Third person limited shifting (multiple character) means that you tell the story from the viewpoints of more than one character.

But you still are limited to sharing what is known and experienced by the viewpoint character when you are in that character’s mind. The shifts from one character’s point of view to another’s occur either at scene breaks or chapter breaks.

Also, while you can shift from one character’s POV to another’s, you can’t include a fact that none of your viewpoint characters knows.

Exception:

Once in a while, an author breaks out of the limited viewpoint to share a generally-known fact for background.

For instance, my standalone supernatural suspense novel When Darkness Falls is mainly set in downtown Chicago, and my two viewpoint characters are in their mid-twenties.

In that novel, if it’s important to the story, I could include a detail about the Chicago L trains without making clear which viewpoint character knows the information, or that any character knows it. Such background information usually comes at the beginning or end of a chapter or scene.

If you need to do this, the key is to make sure it’s not distracting to the reader.

In my example, if in description I mention that the Red Line runs north and south, the reader probably won’t wonder which character’s point of view that comes from. But if I give a long history of the first L train, and talk about how each line used to be known only by destination and not color, the reader will likely start wondering whether my two twenty-something viewpoint characters actually know that and why.

Where To Find These Points Of View

Certain genres are more apt to use first person than others. Private eye novels (including the V.I. Warshawki novels that are my favorites (see Why I Love V.I.)) are often first person. This point of view gives the reader a strong sense of solving the mystery with the sleuth.

You’ll see third person limited shifting most often in thrillers. It gives the reader the chance to see the story unfold from different perspectives and allows tension to build when the reader knows something that the viewpoint character doesn’t. If the antagonist is a viewpoint character and knows there’s a bomb under the table but the protagonist doesn’t, the reader worries for the protagonist.

That ratchets up tension.

But there are no hard and fast rules, so write whatever you enjoy the most.

That's all for today.

Until next Friday when I'll talk about third person omniscient point of view–

L.M. Lilly