Tips on technique 3: Point of view

Extract from: Word Power: a guide to creative writing by Julian Birkett

In writing any piece of fiction, the question of who is to tell the story needs to be thought about. Is it to be you, the author, who knows everything about all the people and all the events in the story? Or is it to be one of your characters, describing what happens to him or her? Are there more ways than just these two to tell a story? The answer to the last question is yes. This chapter looks at the range of possibilities available to you, and the advantages and drawbacks of each. The three most common ways are:

  •     in the third person, where you the writer tell the story
  •     in the first person, where the narration is done by one of the characters
  •     in the third person, with the focus on one character, from whose point of view the events are related.

Extract from: The Writing Book by Kate Grenville

What is 'point of view'?

Point of view can become a confusing technical problem. Points of view can be endlessly categorised, from 'first person limited' to 'dramatic third-person omniscient' and everywhere in between.

A more practical way of thinking about point of view is to ask these questions about the piece:

  •     who's telling the story
  •     how much do they know
  •     are they telling the truth?

Point of view is the voice a story speaks with, so it has to be the right voice for the right story. That's where it's useful to look at the range that's possible, because the point of view in which you first write your story might not be the most dramatic point of view for it. Point of view can go on changing through different drafts as a story reveals itself more fully to the writer.

It's tempting, when writing stories about things that happened to you, to write in the first person. The stories might come out that way the first time, but as finished pieces they might be more powerful told from another point of view.

Consistent point of view

Point of view is the frame within which the story happens, so if the frame suddenly changes shape to include more or less of the story, it can be disconcerting. You may wish to use that as a deliberate effect. But if you don't, you should check that it is just one frame, not several, that you've placed around the story.

Third-person narrators of the God-like kind are free to be anywhere and to be in the minds of all the characters. But 'limited' points of view are based on the idea that the narrator is speaking out of one particular mind. Problems in consistency can arise with a limited point of view; the reader becomes used to seeing the story through one mind but suddenly the story 'hops over' into another mind and starts telling it from another point of view.

Ask the questions: who is telling this story, and would they know what they're telling us at this moment. If they don't know from their own direct experience, but are just guessing, how can I, the writer, let the reader know whether the narrator is guessing correctly?

The Writing Book

by Kate Grenville

A completely practical workbook that offers down-to-earth ideas and suggestions for writers or aspiring writers to get you started and to keep you going.

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Extract from: Writing - a user's manual by David Hewson

Every scene of every book is defined and in some ways shaped by the position of the voice narrating it. Sometimes this is obvious. In a first-person book the voice of the tale comes directly from the character relating what happens. But sometimes POV is far more subtle. Popular fiction is usually divided between first-person and third-person stories, and third-person fiction sub-divided into three distinct sub-categories. Before embarking on any book you need to think about the POV you intend to use.

This decision is far from irrevocable. Sometimes it's worth rewriting an opening scene from different points of view in order to work out which is best. What matters is that you're aware of POV as a writer, even if this technical concept goes over the reader's head entirely. Without a defined POV your narrative is likely to flounder around the place, meandering into byways where the story will become confused and lost.

The best way to envisage POV is to think of it as something Homer could never have imagined: a camera. In every chapter there's a lens through which the reader experiences the narrative. It's a very clever camera too, once that doesn't simply pass on an image of what's happening but also the words of those speaking and even at times what's going on in their minds.

This distinction between speech and thought gives you a clue to one of the trickiest aspects of POV. In order to function, that camera must understand its limitations and never range beyond them without good reason.