Point of view (POV) isn’t the most scintillating of writing subjects. On the surface POV appears to be about pronoun (first or third person) and verb tense choices (past or present), but it must be more than that because it’s the subject of the third of the Editor’s Six Core Questions. While diving into the depths of this topic, I’ve concluded that POV is the most important decision you can make about your story after the Global Genre.
Of course, every narrative choice you make can support or undermine the story you want to tell. But POV and narrative device are special cases. As Shawn has said, “Your point of view choices will dictate the tenor of each beat, each scene, each sequence, each act and the entire work. They are crucial choices.”
There’s a lot riding on these decisions.
When you understand the elements of POV and narrative devices and what they’re meant to do, you can choose wisely and make the most of your creative efforts. You’ll also make your life easier. “When you figure out what suits your story best, you’ll find immeasurable relief.”
Let’s start by unpacking these two concepts.
What is point of view? What is a narrative device?
POV and narrative device together give us questions to ask about the way we tell the story. POV is “the vantage point the writer uses to tell the reader a Story.” This tells us where and when the storyteller stands to communicate the events of the story, relative to those events. The narrative device is a fictional lens the writer chooses and through which you present the story events. The lens gives us the who, what, how, and why of the storytelling (as opposed to the story). All the elements of POV and narrative device are interconnected and affect one another.
You can choose to start with any of the elements, but I find it most useful to begin with the narrator, the one who stands between the writer and the reader.
Who is telling the story?
In nonfiction writing generally, the writer speaks to the reader without a translator or filter in between. Even so, the writer uses lenses and might take on a certain role or function, for example, as teacher, guide, neutral journalist, or peer.
With fiction stories, the narrator or storyteller usually is different from the writer. The writer writes the story, but the narrator tells the story. The narrator performs the function of delivering information and events and can be one or more specific characters or an unidentified presence. You don’t have to tell the reader directly who is playing the part, but you should be clear on this point—and early in the process.
- In Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, Bridget is the narrator, but also the protagonist.
- The narrative device of The Princess Bride by William Goldman is quite complex. A writer is telling the events of a story, which his father once told him, and which was originally written by a fictional author. The writer has crafted a narrative device with some overlap between himself and the narrator, but he’s not a character within the main story about Buttercup and Wesley. (The movie has a simpler narrative device.)
- In Animal Farm by George Orwell, the narrator is an unidentified presence relaying and commenting on events observed.
How do you find the right person for the job of narrator? You might ask, who has the knowledge and skills to do the job, or “who is going to give me the most freedom and limitation at the same time to steer me down the right path to tell this story in the right way?”
Who is listening?
Another who that is critical to your narrative device is the recipient of the story’s information and events. While the writer’s audience is the reader, the narrator’s audience could be someone quite different. Just as with the narrator, the intended audience could be a specific character, a class of people, or an unidentified presence.
Why create an intended audience for the narrator? When people tell a story in the real world, they do it for a reason. Even if the primary objective is to entertain, we want something from the exchange, and that goal affects the way we tell the story.
The intended audience affects what we say and how. Imagine that our narrator is a teenager telling about an adventurous night out. When the narrator tells the parent about the events of the night, they might emphasize the good choices and de-emphasize anything the parent wouldn’t approve of. Certain events might be omitted entirely. The words used would be less colorful. The version the narrator’s friends hear in school will be different in material respects—even if the narrator doesn’t lie.
Understanding the intended recipient, even if you don’t reveal this to the reader, will help you make decisions.
- Bridget Jones’s intended audience is herself; she’s writing in her diary.
- In The Princess Bride, the narrator is telling the story to the reader of the fictional novel he’s writing.
- In Animal Farm, the intended audience is less clear, but it seems the unidentified narrator is writing for a general public audience.
Each narrator will have a different reason for telling the story to their audience, which will affect what story events to include and how. Before we get into those elements, let’s look at the narrator’s why.
Why is the narrator telling the story?
The narrator and their audience can point you in the direction of why they are telling the story. The narrator’s why is the equivalent of a character’s Essential Action or their scene goal. Just as you use what the character wants to determine how they behave in a scene, you can use what the narrator wants to decide what to include, in what order, and how. Consider whether the narrator intends to persuade, inform, or entertain, and then go deeper
- Bridget Jones is embarking on a project of self-improvement, and the diary is meant to record certain measures of her progress.
- The narrator’s stated purpose in The Princess Bride is to bring the story his father told him by the fictional author to a wider American audience.
- In Animal Farm, the narrator’s purpose seems to be to tell a cautionary tale about political movements.
Where does the narrator stand?
As I mentioned above, where is the location of the narrator in relation to the events of the story. The narrator could be in the center of the story (as in a protagonist-narrator), off to the side (a character within the story who is not the protagonist), or looking down from above (an omniscient, god-like narrator). The narrator’s location can change over the course of the story.
- Bridget Jones is at the center of her own story.
- In The Princess Bride, the narrator’s location shifts. Sometimes he’s at the center (when telling about his own life), other times he is on the periphery (when talking about his father and family), and other times he observes from above or outside (when relaying the events about Buttercup and Westley).
- In Animal Farm, the narrator reports the action from outside and above the story.
When is the narrator telling the story?
When is the narrator’s vantage point in time relative to the events of the story. It’s not a simple question of past or present tense. The past can be a moment or century ago, and perspective changes the way we see events.
Immediacy may allow us to remember more and more accurately, but it doesn’t afford us perspective on the passage of time. We can view past events in their larger context from which vantage point we may have a different opinion that we can share directly or indirectly. The opinion might tell change why we’re telling, whom we’re telling, what events and details we share as well as the way we tell them.
- Bridget Jones is writing in her diary about events in the recent past, most often on the same day.
- The Princess Brideis written in the past tense about events that are in the recent and more distant past.
- Animal Farm is written in the past tense, and we get the impression that it is the story events are recent.
What events and information does the narrator have access to?
Alfred Hitchcock left us with the useful direction that drama is life with the boring bits cut out. But which bits are boring? Which bits are relevant? Your narrator’s why can help you make those decisions, but the who, where, and when help us determine the raw materials of the narrator’s telling, that is, which events and information do they have to choose from?
If the narrator is a character within the story without powers of mental telepathy, they can share only what they directly observe (words and actions), experience (their own sensations, thoughts, and emotions), or hear from other sources. They could reveal their own thoughts, emotions, and sensations, but not those of other characters. If the narrator is an omniscient, god-like presence, they could have access to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations of one, several, or all the characters in the story.
- Bridget Jones has access to things she’s observed and heard from others. She can guess at what others are feeling and thinking, but she can’t know for sure.
- InThe Princess Bride, the narrator has access to what he observed and what people have told him about his own life and family, but within the story of Buttercup and Westley, the narrator is omniscient with access to thoughts and feelings of the characters. Within the framing story, the narrator comments on the events of the story.
- In Animal Farm, the omniscient narrator has access to the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters and shares opinions about what is happening.
The information the narrator has access to, along with the why, helps us understand how.
How are the Events and Information Presented?
The how of narrative device could be an entire post on its own. It includes everything from the style genre (e.g., epistolary, drama, comedy) to word choice, as well as narrative drive and distance. Choosing the who, why, where, when, and what of your story will affect your options for how.
Narrative drive is a powerful force that pulls the reader forward through the story and relates to the amount of information the reader has relative to the characters. You can use suspense (character and reader have the same level of information), mystery (character possesses more information than the reader), and dramatic irony (reader possesses more information than the character).
Narrative distance is a spectrum that describes where the readeris placed (by narrator and writer) relative to the characters and events of the story. This is different from the narrator’s position relative to the story because the narrator can be at the center of the events (protagonist), but place the reader at a great distance, or vice versa. This distance can change within the story.
- Bridget Jones’s Diaryis an epistolary novel that employs suspense and dramatic irony (sometimes the reader makes a connection long before Bridget does). The narrative distance is intimate, probably because her goal is to track her progress.
- The Princess Bride employs comedy, and all three forms of narrative drive. The narrative distance shifts from quite intimate to remote. It appears the narrator wants to show us how this story has affected him, so he takes us along, making observations and pointing out things we might miss in a straight narrative.
- Animal Farm is a cartoon (anthropomorized silliness) that employs all three forms of narrative drive. Although we have access to feelings and thoughts of characters, the narrative distance feels remote. The narrator is telling a cautionary tale about the political system, and while it is similar to a journalistic point of view, it includes the narrator’s commentary on the story events.
Choose with Intention
POV and narrative device are more complicated than they seem at first blush, but shining a light on the underlying elements is meant to make things easier. When you understand what lies beneath the choices and consider them in light of the story you want to tell, you bring intention to your storytelling.
As I researched and wrote this post, I wandered into the weeds over and over. Each time I found myself off the path, I brought myself back using Shawn’s Six Word GPS, and you can use this for your story too.
Consider asking these questions in light of your own point of view:
- Why am I writing this story? If you know your why, you can use it as a lens like you do for your narrator.
- What do I know about my story? Chances are you know a lot more about the story than you think and can use that to solve for what you don’t yet know.
- Who is the ideal reader for the story I want to tell? Who is the narrator, and to whom are they speaking? Identify these key roles for your story and learn to see it from their perspective.
- How can I see this problem in a new way? How do I want the reader to feel when they’ve finished reading? How does that impact my POV choices?
- Where am I getting lost? Where did I go of course? Where can I find help?
- When is my deadline for finishing this stage of the writing process? This will help you decide how to approach solving your problem.
Then identify your next step and get started.