Getting to grips with point of view
Point of view can be thought of like a camera.
Point of view is a key tool for any writer trying to tell a story and, at times, it can be difficult to get right. It’s worth taking a little time to understand and chose which form is best for a story and stay consistent. Our Tuesday evening readings often have lengthy discussions about whether a story has head hopped or confused the reader due to misunderstanding about how to use point of view effectively.
In first person the camera is inside the narrator’s head and her eye’s are the view. Since this is the way we perceive the world every day, it can be the easiest to understand.
In second person narrative, the camera switches focus from watching the scene of the story to the reader, speaking to them directly as a part of the story. For example – ‘Dear reader, I hope you are not tired. There will be no sleep for you once you begin this tale.’ Second person is not used often and can be very difficult to make flow smoothly
Third person narrow
In third person narrow, the narrator holds the camera and watches one person. They even have a microphone inside this character’s head to hear and feel everything that character feels, but the narrator can’t see, hear or know anything this character doesn’t directly perceive. Third person narrow can change to a different character, but not quickly. It tends to stay with one character for a chapter or two before moving on to an alternative character.
Third person omniscient
Third person omniscient is the point of view that seems to generate the most discussion and confusion.
In third person omniscient, the camera hovers above the room. It can zoom in and out, it has microphones in everyone’s head and it’s been recording all week, so it knows everything that has ever happened or will ever happen in the future.
This narrator can tell the story from any character at any time, but if the narrator changes which character’s thoughts and actions they are relating too often and without appropriate breaks, it feels strange and jarring. The reader can become confused. If the narrator wants to paint a big picture of the whole room, they would not be able to give close thoughts of every person in the scene.
It’s a form of narration that often lends itself to telling more than showing in the story. Since an omniscient narrator can give lengthy asides and backstory, is more likely to led to dull story telling. Although these same points can be useful for large-scale fantasy epics and historical tales that need a lot of world building.
Practice makes recognizing each point of view easier
A useful exercise is to take a short scene and write it in each of the different points of view as a practice piece.
- 1st — Three people sat with me around Harold’s Birthday cake. I should have eaten my salad, but cake was so much nicer. Harold mashed his piece with a fork. It was disgusting. There were crumbs all over the tablecloth. I took another bite. Chocolate melted over my tongue, covering it with gooey bliss until I swallowed. Too bad we only had three birthdays a year. I could get used to having cake on Tuesdays.
- 3rd narrow — Three people sat with Mary eating cake. It was Harold’s birthday, so she left her salad in the refrigerator. She hated the way Harold mashed his cake with a fork. It was disgusting spilling crumbs on the table cloth. She took another bite. Chocolate melted over her tongue, covering it with gooey bliss until she swallowed.
- 3rdomniscient — Mary, Harold, and Burt sat around a table. It was Harold’s birthday, so he’d brought chocolate cake. He mashed his piece with a fork. Mary grimaced but took a bite, savoring the mouthful of chocolate. Mary would have liked to have cake every Tuesday. Sadly, none of them realized this would be the last birthday cake they would share.
These are not a perfect examples. Part of the fun and usefulness of this exercise is to do it quickly on a very short scene. As the view finder shifts around the scene, think about what things the narrator would know and be able to convey to the reader, and what they would not know.
More point of view exercises can be found on West Lothian Writers at Point of View Exercise, and An Introduction to Point Of View in Creative Writing,
Also, Reedsy has a very good summary of point of view in this blog– Point of View: First, Second, and Third Person POV