Choosing Your Story-Telling Point of View

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They don’t do it anymore, but years ago the TV networks came up with the idea of mounting a tiny camera in the helmet of NFL football players. They called it a helmet-cam. Using this device, they would show plays from the perspective of a player on the field. It was interesting. You don’t see those shots anymore. I guess too many mini-cameras got smashed.

The reason watching plays from a helmet-cam was so fascinating was that it put you right into the action on the field. It was more intense because, unlike above-the-field camera angles, the line of vision was limited. You couldn’t see the block your left guard missed or the two hundred and eighty pound linebacker bearing down on you from behind.

Of course it wouldn’t be much fun to watch a whole game that way. There’s too much to see in a football game. It’s nice that they can post cameras high above the field so that viewers can watch all twenty-two players at once.

When writing narratives, one of the first and most important decisions you’ll make involves where you are going to locate the camera. In other words, you must decide the point of view from which you will tell your story.

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If the narrator is a character in the story (first-person point of view), you will be able to give an up-close, helmet-cam kind of perspective. You get one character’s view of things. This limits the information you can provide the reader, of course. If your  narrator is a character, the reader can’t know what other characters are thinking or feeling. You can only relate the story from one person’s perspective. But what you get is the more intimate, immediate feeling of being enmeshed in the story.

If the narrator is just a voice telling the story from a distance (third-person point of view), you lose that on-the-field sense, but you have more options. You can show the wider panorama of events. Like a camera perched above the field of play.

If you choose to write from the third-person point of view, you still have a decision to make. There are two kinds of third-person narrators. The narrator of the story can be omniscient, which means all-knowing. That means the story can jump from one place to another or even one period of time to another. The narrator can know and relate what several characters are doing, thinking, and feeling at the same time. Another option is what we call a limited third-person point of view. That means the story is told by an outside-the-story narrator, but one who focuses on a single character. Limited third-person narrators shine a spotlight on a particular person in the story and follow him throughout. This helps the reader grow in sympathy for that character, but limits the kinds of information the narrator can provide.

Point of view is important. It’s a concept you must decide upon early in the writing process. What kind of story do you want to tell, and how do you want the narrator to be related to that story? Here’s a summary of your options:

point of view

definition

benefits

drawbacks

literary examples

First-Person

The narrator is a character in the story. Intensity, intimacy, closeness to the action Can only see from one perspective, limited information The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hunger Games

Third-Person (omniscient)

The narrator is an anonymous voice who knows everything about everyone. Can see the larger picture. Can move about in time and space. Harder to feel sympathy, connect with characters. The Lord of the Rings, Anna Karenina, War and Peace

Third-Person (limited)

The narrator is an anonymous voice who focuses on one character. Narrator is objective, but focused. The protagonist gains sympathy. Not quite in the action, and not quite able to see the big picture. Great Expectations, The Red Badge of Courage, Harry Potter

 

Note: You may wonder why we don’t talk about second-person point of view. It’s actually possible to write from the second-person, but it is odd and usually very awkward. If you remember your personal pronouns, the first-person pronouns include I and me.  So the narrator refers to himself as a character. Third-person pronouns include he, she, they, and them. Those are the pronouns a third-person narrator would use to talk about characters. So what would a second-person narrator use? You. That’s right—the reader would become a “character.” Instead of saying, “I met the King of Austria,” or “He met the King of Austria,” a second-person narrator would say “You met the King of Austria.” See how odd that is? It has been done though. If you’ve ever read a Choose Your Own Mystery book, you’ve seen it.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Will
    Will06-26-2012

    I’ve seen books that do third-person from the perspective of characters, but with different characters (sometimes even from the view of the bad guys) depending on who was there during that scene. In most scenes involving the protagonist, however, it was from that person’s point of view.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko06-26-2012

      Yeah, that’s a third-person omniscient approach. The narrator just limits his perspective to a particular character depending on the chapter or section of the book.

      Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is sort of a 1st Person omniscient approach. Each chapter is a first-person account from a different character.

      There are certainly artistic ways to play with these categories.

  2. Merri Larsen
    Merri Larsen06-21-2012

    As a writing teacher and coach of thirty years, I learned much from this unique perspective on point-of-view. Your way of weaving it all together on the chart is a perfect visual for all writers – teachers and students alike. My grateful thanks!

  3. Isabella Hodge
    Isabella Hodge06-20-2012

    I enjoyed this post a lot! Very interesting! Thanks 🙂

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