Just one point of view on point of view
approximately 2100 words
Just One Point of View
What is "point of view," anyway? In movies, the camera provides the point of view. That's easy. But in fiction it's more complicated.
At the most basic level, the point of view is the perspective of the person narrating the story. For example, if the author writes, "I said hello to Matt," we have a first person narrator. She's right there, one of the actors, participating in the events, saying hello.
On the other hand, if the author writes, "She said hello to Matt," the narrator is a third person relating what happened.
There are a few examples in fiction of a second person narrator--"You said hello to Matt"--but these are rare.
So there are at least three kinds of point of view, and the obvious clue is the pronoun. "I" signals first person narrator, "you" second person," and "she" third person. About thirty percent of all fiction uses a first person narrator. The overwhelming majority of the remainder uses a third person narrator. But it's still more complex than that.
Movies are fabulous things. They have actors, music, Foley artists, set designers, costumes, and especially the camera, the eye of the audience, that serves up all these delicacies. The special effects dazzle us, the actors awe us, the score touches our hearts. Fiction has none of these marvels. All we have is words in a row. The amazing thing is that, done with craft and art, those mere words create all the dazzling things in movies and more inside the readers' imaginations. That's the power of fiction: it stimulates the readers to imagine an entire world, populated with complex, interesting characters and filled with conflict, tragedy, and joy.
More precisely, readers are the author's partners and, together, author and reader create the fictional world. Readers hear the nasal whine of the clerk's voice, roast in the sun, smell the roses, taste the coffee, and feel a lover's caress in their heads. Even more, they know the heat of embarrassment, the chill of fear, the giddiness of love.
In a movie, the audience sees these things happening to the actors. A book is more intimate. In a book, these things happen inside the readers' heads. There's a deep connection with the characters and the world they inhabit because the reader has been a partner in creating them.
I'm not saying fiction is better than movies. I'm saying they are different art forms, each with unique complexities and depths. It can be enormously helpful to think of your story as a movie playing in your head, but it's both less and more than that. The fundamental difference is that in fiction the story happens entirely in the reader's head while in a movie it happens on the screen. In fiction, the "words in a row" are a guide, a blue print, and an enticement for reader to create the fictional world. If those words fail to stimulate the readers' imaginations, the story will fail.
The most fundamental artistic goal for any author is to pull the reader into the story, to create a fictional dream that's intimate, intense, and compelling. You want the reader inside the story, experiencing events as they happen. The question is, how do you do that? Of course, there is no single correct answer. However, there's a reason why most fiction uses a third person narrator: it's more natural, more effective, and easier.
Wait. Third person is easier than first person? Yes, that's what I said. The main reason is simple. In a first person narrator, it's easy to imagine your readers are sitting in easy chairs next to you, and that you're telling them your story. In fact, it's an irresistible image since we tell each other stories this way all the time. Your spouse asks, "How was your day?" and you respond by telling an amusing, annoying, or at least interesting incident. The problem is that you are telling the story, not showing it. "Show, don't tell" is another whole essay, but the point is that resisting this trap is what makes writing first person narratives so hard. Well, there are other technical reasons why it's harder, too, but that's a big one. In any case, for sure, your story fails if you tell it instead of showing it. Your readers don't want to read your diary, they want to experience your story holistically, the way they experience the real world.
That's worth saying again. Readers want to experience your fictional world holistically, the way they experience the real world. They don't want to read a Wikipedia article on what France was like in 1815. They want to read Les Miserable. Well, I might want to read both, but I'm weird.
Readers are looking for an emotional connection with your fictional world, and they get that through your characters. Hitchcock famously said that the audience cares about the characters, while the plot is there to give the characters something to care about.
What does this have to do with point of view? Let's review where we're at. You want your readers inside your story, experiencing it in a fictional dream. To do that, you want your readers to encounter your world the way they encounter the real world, and you want them to form an emotional connection with your characters. Now ask yourself: how do you encounter the real world? You do it through your senses. You do it by interacting with the world, physically, emotionally, and socially.
So how do you put your reader inside your story? It's simple, really. You put them inside the head of your narrator. When you write what happens, write it as if it's happening to that one character. Say her name is Jill. Then write about what happens as though you--the author--are inside Jill's head. Put the reader inside Jill's head, and you've almost certainly started the fictional dream.
With a third person narrative, this imposes a limitation on the narrator. Jill knows what she thinks, sees, hears, feels, and so on. But she can only infer these things about the other characters through their words and deeds. Thus, as authors, we are limited to Jill's point of view. We can't hop from her head to Jack's head and back again because you can't do that in real life. Head-hopping disrupts the fictional dream.
Third person limited, then, is the most common narrative choice for fiction. In the nineteenth century, third person omniscient was the dominant narrative form. The omniscient narrator stands outside the story, looking in. He knows everything. He knows what Jill thinks and how Jack feels. He knows about the bucket they are going to spill and can tell you about it before it happens. The problem is that the omniscient narrator is outside the story. That's in conflict with drawing the reader into the story and into a character's head. For this reason, the omniscient narrator has almost completely disappeared from modern fiction.
Since showing is better than telling, let's consider a short example.
After months of drought, rainfall finally came to the plains. At first, farmers all over the county breathed sighs of relief. But then the storms didn't stop, and relief turned to dismay as fields flooded and crops washed away.
At the Niblock farm, rain drummed on the barn's tin roof and thunder rumbled in the distance. Water drizzled from a neglected leak in the roof and annoyed Jill. She glared at her husband, Jack. He's such a slacker. She gave him a disgusted look.
Jack, for his part, heaved a weary sigh. The endless rain meant he'd probably lose this year's crop. He'd mortgaged the farm to pay for the seeds. He knew Jill was disappointed he hadn't fixed the roof, but he didn't have the money for the repairs. Besides, why should I bother? He knew the rapacious bank would foreclose on the farm in a few weeks anyway.
The above is certainly a third person narrative, but it's also omniscient. The very first paragraph summarizes the context. The narrator is not in any character's head. The narrator is standing outside the story, looking in, telling the readers stuff. This is important stuff, but it's still telling. If it were a newspaper article, it would be a pretty compelling opening. But this is about fiction, not journalism.
Another sign that this is an omniscient narrator is that we know what both Jill and Jack are thinking. In the second paragraph we're in Jill's head since we know her thoughts verbatim. But even in the second paragraph, we've got the omniscient narrator telling us about the barn and its leaky roof before we meet Jill.
In the third paragraph, we hop into Jack's head. The narrator tells us what he knows--that Jill is disappointed and that he'd mortgaged the farm--and then we also have a verbatim quote of his thoughts. The third paragraph ends with the narrator telling us what he knows about the bank. We know this is the narrator from the vocabulary, as not many poverty-stricken farmers would be likely to use the word "rapacious."
Now, let's re-work this to be in Jill's point of view, but still convey the same information.
Jill scowled at the rainwater drizzling onto the barn's dirt floor. Her face heated and she sent a withering stare at her husband, Jack. "Were you plannin'--" She stopped and raised her voice to speak over the drumbeat of rain on the tin roof and the grumble of distant thunder. "When were you gonna fix the blamed roof?"
He huffed and gave her a hang-dog look before answering in a whiny, wheedling voice. "You know we ain't got no money for fixin' no roof. I had to borrow money just to get the crop in. 'Sides, what with the drought and all, didn't seem like the roof needed no fixin'."
His tone and excuses made her blood boil. She pointed at the puddles on the floor. "Well, our prayers done been answered," she snapped. "There ain't no drought now. 'Sides, the Henderson's ain't got no money neither, but their roof don't leak."
Jack's face turned red as a pig's pecker. He shouted, "The Hendersons didn't have to borrow no money from the bank."
Her heart chilled and she took a step back at his shouted words. Maybe she'd pushed him too far bringing up the Hendersons.
He stomped his foot. "Them damned bankers, they's Hell's Angels, that's what they is. This rain's gonna wash our crop plumb into the next county. Then what we gonna do?" He jabbed at her with a finger. "I'll tell ya what's gonna happen. They's gonna send the Sheriff to take our farm from us. The farm my Pappy left us. Leaky roof won't matter none when that happens."
The second example has more or less the same information as the first. It's longer, to be sure, but it's also more dramatic and the emotional content is higher. From the very first sentences we're in Jill's head: she scowls and her face "heats," an internal sensation only she can feel. Readers can infer that Jack initially feels bad from his "hang-dog" look, the shuffle of his feet, and his tone of voice. Much of the other information comes out in the dialogue, along with the conflict between Jack and Jill. The bankers are no longer "rapacious"--they're "Hell's Angels." The readers learn about Jack, Jill, the drought, and the bankers through the words and deeds of the characters, not through narration. Most importantly, we're in Jill's head throughout. The reader is inside her head, and thus inside the story.
"Third person limited" has other implications, too. Jill certainly knows the color of her eyes and her hair, for example, but she's not going to be thinking about those during this argument. Thus, you wouldn't write, "Jill tossed her raven-colored hair out of her crystalline eyes before she pointed at the rain puddles." Even though Jill might be seeing the color her hair during this action, she's unlikely to be thinking about it. She's also probably not going to whip out a mirror and look at her eyes in the middle of a fight with her husband in a barn. Being in Jill's point of view also means being in the moment, in the middle of unfolding events.
The title of this essay is "Just One Point of View" because that's what it is, just one person's point of view on point of view. But it's also about staying with just one point of view in your fiction. In each scene, you should have exactly one point of view character. Change scenes and you can change point of view characters. You can even shift from third person to first person. But be careful with too many changes or too many point of view characters. Readers are fragile critters and it's easy to break the delicate emotional and intuitive connection they have with your story and your fictional world.
Remember, it's all happening in your readers' heads.
Read more essays on writing by Max at
"Thoughts on Writing"