“Point of view can never be incidental or accidental. It’s as fundamental as the choice between present and past tense, or formal and informal diction, or dramatization versus summary and exposition.”
—Peter Selgin, “The Deadliest First Page Sin”
A few months back, I taught a craft class on story structures. During the first session, we talked a lot about point of view. Despite being a rather basic aspect of storytelling, point of view can be tricky, especially in the early drafts of a story. It can also be tricky if, as a writer, you’re unsure of how you want to tell your story. This uncertainty can lead to attempting to cover everything about a story, in a way that muddles and obscures the narrative. Peter Selgin calls this “default omniscience” in his great article, “The Deadliest First Page Sin,” which is a useful resource for how NOT to use point of view.
How Point of View Works in a Story
Point of view, for our purposes today, encompasses a few aspects of storytelling:
First, there’s the basic narrative function, by which I mean whether your story is told in first person, second person, third person, or omniscient.
Second, there’s the character function, by which I mean who your narrator or protagonist is.
And third, there’s the function of details, by which I mean what information the narrator/protagonist decides to share throughout the story and how they go about doing so.
As the writer, you are in control of these three elements, and though your original choices may change as the story evolves, it’s best to be clear with yourself from the beginning about what you’re trying to do. These three factors will help your story find its shape.
Without a solid point of view, even the best story will fail.
Choosing a Point of View
Who we are, where we are, what we’ve been through—these things influence how we perceive the world, and how we tell stories about what we perceive. The same stands for our characters.
The same story told from first, second, or third person will reveal different details, different biases, different subtexts, different clues. Even omniscient narration comes with a slant (after all, if a narrator can “see” everything, along with that privilege comes a certain weight of responsibility).
Basic Point of View Options
Firs person singular (“I”) & first person plural (“we”): First person works well for stories carried by voice-y, unusual, and/or unreliable narrators. It’s also great for building intensity and/or insight into ONE character’s mind (in the case of singular) or into a community’s mind (in the case of plural). But remember: a piece written in first person must remain inside the narrator’s head at all times! Any deviation from how the narrator perceives the world will lose the readers trust.
- Here’s a story I really like that’s written in 1stperson singular: “Shepherdess” by Dan Chaon
- And here’s a story written mostly in 1stperson plural: “The Question of Where We Begin” by Kyle Minor
Second person (“You”): Second person is similar to first, but gives more of an immediacy to the reader, forcing the narrative and the emotions attached to it on to the reader. When done well, this can really pack a wallop. When done poorly, a story in second person might feel juvenile, repetitive, or cloying. One of my favorite second person stories is “Bees” by Sarah Hall.
Third person singular (“he,” “she,” or “they” (in regards to gender choice)) & third person plural (“they” as a group): Third person can be close or removed, which will inform how “in” your characters’ heads you’re able to go. Third allows for more maneuvering within characters’ intentions/actions than first or second, but detail and action should still remain true to the protagonist’s character. Lots of stories are told in third person singular, and here’s one full of nuance and feeling: “The Hunter’s Wife” by Anthony Doerr.
The special case of omniscience
Omniscient means “all seeing” and can be used with first or third person point of view. Use of the omniscient point of view has largely fallen out of fashion in literary circles, but you can find it often in pre-Modern novels. If choosing this mode, make sure you’re aware of the particular challenges that accompany it. Again, you’ll want to take special care to avoid “default omniscience.” Omniscience still needs to choose a narrator, specific POV, and/or focus. Often with omniscience, the author will too heavily show their hand, and this can annoy readers.
- One recent example of first person omniscient narration is Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.
- “L. Debard and Aliette” by Lauren Groff is one example of how third person omniscience can be used well.
The Importance of Point of View
Think of point of view as the foundation of a house. Any good builder will tell you that if you want a structure to last, you need to make sure that what you build upon is solid.
Choose a point of view right away. It may change later, and that’s fine, but before you even lay down the first sentence, you’ll want to know upon whom you are structuring your story. Point of view carries from the first word to the last and everything in between.
Point of View Pitfalls
Each specific point of view comes with its own set of pitfalls. First person can be boring, second person can be grating, third person can keep a reader at arm’s length. All three can be bogged down by the wrong details. But beyond the specific craft elements of point of view, what else can make a story’s “view” fail?
Not knowing your narrator/protagonist
As I mentioned above, point of view is directly related to who your narrator or protagonist is. Therefore, you must know, in great detail and with fearless certainty, everything about the person telling your story. That goes from eye color to birth date to what they had for lunch, to whether they see a therapist and why, to the last time they had sex and whether it was good or bad, to what their lucky t-shirt looks like, and on and on. These details probably won’t make it into the story, but you should know them anyway. Why? Because without knowing the minute inner and outer workings of your main character, you won’t convincingly capture their voice or story on the page. And without convincing the reader that your main character is worth listening to, even the most plot-based fiction will fail. As readers, we want to trust or understand or be fascinated by the characters whose stories we read. Without one of those elements at play, you can write an otherwise expertly crafted story that lacks the je ne sais quoi that all good stories have.
Not using details to your advantage
Tandem with not knowing your character, not using details to your advantage is the other main pitfall I see most often when it comes to point of view. Think about it this way: your narrator is walking down the street. She sees a piano fall from a four-story window. Think about how your character might describe what she experiences on an ordinary day. Now, imagine that same character’s mother just died. Then, imagine that the same character just got a raise. How does the scene change, depending on what’s going on in your character’s life? There might only be subtle detail shifts, but there will still be shifts. It’s your job as a writer to capture this kind of immediacy in every single scene, in every single sentence. If you only capture the most basic details and observations, your story will reflect that and be… boring.
You might not nail it in the first draft, or the second, or even the tenth. But by the time you’ve got a final draft, the specific details and reactions of your chosen point of view should be driving the story toward its aim.
Point of view is just one tool in the writer’s toolkit, but it’s an extremely important one, and can make the difference between a story that sags and a story that sings. Take your time, and take care to choose the point of view that best serves your story, and you’ll be on the right track from the get-go.