The story’s viewpoint can be told from several perspectives and which one you choose can be critical to how your story comes across.
Different stories lend themselves to different narrative styles and point of views (POVs). In his April 2000 article in Fiction Writer entitled “First Blood, Third Person” David Morrell warns that some writers may “select a viewpoint merely because it feels natural, but if you…don’t consider the implications of your choice…your story might fight you until you abandon it, blaming the plot when actually the problem is how you’re telling it.”
The viewpoint choices include:
- Third person limited
- Second person
- First person
The omniscient view is the broadest view. Through this viewpoint the narrator describes everything and everyone and may drop into any character at any time, and — in the case of a beginning writer — all too confusingly in the same paragraph.
While this POV is the easiest one to use it is really the hardest to master. In the wrong hands, this viewpoint can be as intrusive as it is distancing. And it is prone to polemic. In the hands of a masterful writer, this viewpoint can make for the most powerful and rich storytelling. Epics of any kind, especially epic fantasies or historical epics, lend themselves to this style. The omniscient viewpoint is particularly suited to a story that is “large”, where ultimately the main character is not any particular protagonist but “the story” itself, or a society or world or time period. The writer must still somehow achieve connection and intimacy with the reader to succeed with this viewpoint. You can do this through lyrical and compelling narrative, poetic language and powerful imagery.
Limited Third Person Viewpoint
A story told through limited third person POV is narrated from one or a few key characters (though not at the same time) by revealing not only their movements but their thoughts and feelings (e.g., he struggled up to his feet, giddy with pain). When starting out, it is often best to adopt this style, which is generally more personal, appealing and least confusing. So long as you respect the readers’ need for clarity by keeping to one POV per scene, you can choose to enter into the heads of as many characters as you wish. It is the norm to use chapter, section or scene breaks when changing from one POV to another.
This style of narrative is the most common one used in contemporary books, particularly genre books, thrillers and action/adventure books. Through conflicting perspectives of your characters, you can swiftly paint a rich tapestry of tension for both characters and reader.
Second Person Viewpoint
This second person viewpoint (“you”) is not often used, mostly because it is both distancing and less easy to read. Although it is a narrative often used in conversation (e.g., “you never know what you’re gonna get with a box of chocolates, do you?”) this style of narrative is harder for readers to embrace and get close to the story’s characters. This viewpoint works effectively in certain artistic situations when you wish to purposefully impart a distance to the narrator, due to their own limitations, infirmity or situation.
First Person Viewpoint
The first person point of view is both the most limiting perspective (told only through one viewpoint) and most personal and revealing (of that viewpoint character). This viewpoint works well in literary fiction where the main character’s thoughts and issues are the key focus in the story. When the character who changes the most is the one telling the story, this makes for very compelling reading.
Many detective stories are told in first person to great effect. The reader is right there with the detective, solving the mystery. The first person viewpoint is also the preferred POV for memoirs, for obvious reasons.
One thing to keep in mind, particularly when narrating through the first person POV, is the reliability of your character. You need to decide how reliable your first person POV character is in telling the story and how you will impart this to the reader. Writing through a character’s faulty perception of the world (and of themselves) provides a writer with an incredible opportunity but also an incredible challenge. You can only go so far with an unreliable character before losing your own credibility as a writer — and losing the reader in the long run. Obviously, you need a balance.
If you are struggling with your story and can’t quite pinpoint what is bogging it down, try changing how you are telling it. Change the viewpoint and see what happens.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.
7 thoughts on “How Are You Telling Your Story?…Part 1: Viewpoint”
Thanks Nina. I have noticed that sometimes I’m not sure what viewpoint to use.
You’re welcome, Viviann!
The more I see this information the more I get confused. I have a project shaping up that I already know is going to be an education by itself, not to mention a wild ride.
Do you have any suggestions for reads that include 4 or 5 conflicting POV characters? I don’t have much current stuff, but that’s what a library is good for. Trying to do some investigation on how to handle this before I dive into the messiest part of the project, so I can keep up, or improve, the quality of my work. (My limited audience loves it, but I want this to be appreciated by a wider audience as well.)
K. Caffee, I can’t think of any reads off hand on POV (except my own book “The Fiction Writer”, which discusses this topic in a little more depth). Donald Maass’s excellent workbook for The Career Novelist also has a small section on viewpoint and POV generally. There may be a good resource from the Writer’s Digest series… POV is definitely a place where you can dramatically improve your story with some imaginative use … or severely limit the narrative and / or confuse your readers. I just covered this topic in my course at George Brown and it generated a lot of discussion. I’ve seen some very neat examples of imaginative use of changing POVs in books… Hayden Trenholm’s “Steele” series is one; Marjorie B. Kellogg’s “Dragon Quartet” plays with not only POV but tense shifts from one “book” to another; Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible” takes each major book section and gives each one a strong POV from one of five characters, who appear (without POV) in overlapping roles in each other’s chapters (very effective). In my own short story “The Arc of Time” (in “Natural Selection”) I use several devices such as letters, tense, straight narrative with shifting POV to create a multi-faceted story that weaves like a tapestry toward its undeniable end. Hope this helps…
It does, and thank you for the quick reply. From what I’m “picking up” from the project, “Poison wood Bible” sounds like something I need to read soonest. (And, yes, I know.. bad grammar on that one.)
I’m doing my best to keep the entire thing past tense, and one of my editors for the first book project mentioned I have a habit of dropping into and out of third limited and third omniscient. So, to keep the over all feel of the series the same, need to stay with those. It’s just been difficult to find anyone who could recommend a read with a similar approach to what I’m wanting to do with this project. I was beginning to think I was going to have to rethink the entire “voice” of the segments in question.
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Thanks, Amusing! 🙂
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