Point of View (POV) is the framework for how your story is told. It is much more than deciding which pronoun to use. Yet many writers don’t give much thought to this essential storytelling tool. Let’s take a deeper look at how POV, perspective, and narration impact your novel or short story.
1. Understand the terminology.
Here is a short-and-sweet definition: POV is the perspective from which the reader experiences the action of the story. To expand on that a bit: Point of view determines what you tell, how you tell it, and what it means. All of this is filtered through the experiences of one (or more) characters. Perspective can include the thoughts, emotions, dreams, and plans of that character. Imagine the fairy tale Cinderella told from the evil stepsister’s perspective. That would be an entirely different story!
2. Determine how the story’s events will be told.
Once you’ve identified the character whose perspective you want to tell, you’ll need to consider how to share that character’s perspective. The key question here is: how. How will you relate what happens in your story? There are a few basic options:
- A single character — third person limited (single)
- Example: A Man Called Ove, by Frederik Backman
- Multiple characters — third person limited (multiple)
- Example: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
- A deeply personal account — first person
- Example: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
- A comprehensive take — third person omniscient
- Example: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
- A bird’s-eye view of the action — third person omniscient (direct)
- Example: Latecomers, by Anita Brookner
3. Establish how much access the narrator has.
What we’re really talking about in point number two is the narrator. When you decide how you want to share your character’s perspective, you’re also determining how much access the narrator has to that character’s inner life. Depending on the type of story you’re writing, you may want the reader to get to know one character intimately or you may want the reader to have a bird’s-eye view of the events of the story.
- In first person, the reader only knows what the point of view character knows. The point of view character can only reveal information he or she has witnessed or experienced firsthand.
- In third person limited, the narrator sees and knows everything the POV character does. The narrator can reveal things about the character that would not otherwise be revealed in first person. The narrator cannot be where that character is not. When this happens, it’s often called head hopping.
- Third person omniscient narrators are all-knowing and all-seeing, but they can choose not to reveal details.
4. Consider the intimacy of your narrator.
Each point of view has an inherent level of distance between the character and the reader. The most intimate is first person. The narrator is the main character, and therefore the reader is in that character’s mind throughout the story. The least intimate is omniscient third person. In this option, the narrator can be in the minds of all characters. That freedom to roam prevents the narrator from getting too close to any one character.
Here is the tricky part… while each point of view has an inherent distance, it is not a fixed distance. You, the author, can control the narrator’s distance between the reader and the character throughout the story. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction offers this terrific example. The first has the greatest distance working down to the least, and notice they are all third person limited from Henry’s perspective.
- It was winter of the year 1852. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
- Henry J. Barberton had never much cared for snowstorms.
- Henry hated snowstorms.
- God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
- Snow. Under his collar, down inside his shoes, freezing and plugging up his miserable soul.
Do you have any questions about POV and perspective? Post them in the comments and let’s discuss!
NEW COURSE ALERT! If you’d like to learn more about point of view and how to use this storytelling tool, my new online class called POV Essentials at GrubStreet is for you. This post just scratches the surface! We’ll dive into the advantages and disadvantages of each POV (yes, even second person). You’ll come away from class with a better understanding of these story elements, and a road map for how to use them to develop your novel or short story. Class is four weeks and begins on April 15. Hope to see you there!