Once I connected the parable of the blind men and an elephant to writing advice, my life became a lot easier. This cautionary tale from the Indian Subcontinent features several blind men reporting on what an elephant feels like to them. Of course, they each inspect and therefore describe a different part of the elephant.
The takeaway is that people tend to perceive life experience and their environment through the lens of their own experience and believe it represents thetruth of existence. In reality, our individual lenses can only take in a tiny portion of the potential of life.
Unfortunately, writers who write about writing are as susceptible as the rest of us, and tend to write about topics from their understanding both in terms of their own preferences and patterns of thought. That’s not a crime, but it means that if we want to gain a deeper understanding, we have to study different writers and integrate takeaways in our own integrated picture.
This is particularly true in point of view because the choices are often simplified to the extent that they don’t provide much guidance.
Complicating matters, we don’t have universal and standard terms as a starting point. Different writers and teachers use the same word to describe different concepts and different words to describe the same concept. As literary explorers intent on improving our craft, we must interrogate the materials and assign our own labels when it makes sense.
With this post, I’m sharing my current thinking on POV from several different sources (sources listed below). My goal is to present a clear way of looking at POV to help you form a more comprehensive and functional picture to use when deciding on POV for your stories because, although many of the great thinkers on POV are literary critics (for example, Norman Friedman, James Wood, and Suzanne Keen), your goal in learning about narrative POV is more practical: How do you choose the most effective POV for your story?
Before we dig into the options, let’s define the relevant terms from macro to micro. Critic Suzanne Keen calls our inquiry narrative situation, “the combination of narrator, perspective (point of view), and narrative level.” My first post on this topic refers to POV, but really I focus on narrative device, that is, the storyteller and their relationship to the characters, story events, and reader. This post is more squarely in the territory of POV, the perceptual lens through which the story is transmitted to the reader and the technical elements related to that.
Some aspects of POV overlap with the questions to get to the bottom of narrative device, and I group those terms according.
Who tells the story?
The writer writes the story, but the storyteller is a fictional entity (or entities) that conveys story events and circumstances to the reader. I like the term storyteller because the entity that reveals the story events can be a character within the story, a narrator outside the story, or an unidentified entity. When the storyteller is a character, they can be the protagonist or another character acting as witness.
The writer places the storyteller within a range that runs from overt to covert, that is the writer might reveal precisely who the storyteller is in great detail, or they might be silent on that score. Of course, you’ll want to be clear about your intention, no matter what you tell the reader.
When and where does the storyteller stand?
When a character is the storyteller, they might reveal the story events and circumstances at or near the time when they happen, which Keen calls consonant, or a time in the future, labeled dissonant. When there is a large time span between the events and their telling, the character often speaks with two voices (story present and storyteller present), revealing the events themselves and the perspective of their future self.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley are examples of consonant narration, while To Kill a Mockingbirdby Harper Lee and The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma are examples of dissonant narration.
Because the storyteller can be a character, their vantage point could be from within the story, but a storyteller might also occupy a realm above or outside the story world. Keep in mind the storyteller sometimes shifts position over the course of the story.
What information is revealed through the storyteller?
The storyteller conveys the actions and speech of the characters they observe and may have access to the thoughts, emotions, and perceptions of one or more characters. To refer to these circumstances, I like the way writer and teacher Damon Knight’s describes the storyteller’s access as seen from inside or outside the characters.
The storyteller might comment on the characters and events within the story, or they may withhold their opinions. Friedman refers to this distinction as editorial or neutral.
With these terms in mind, we’ll look at POV options using Friedman’s spectrum.
A Useful Spectrum
Literary critic Norman Friedman present POV along a spectrum of showingand tellingbecause he sees this as the defining difference among the options.
Of course, no story consists of only telling or showing, but a writer’s POV choice affects the balance between these two methods of conveying information. Keep in mind that telling comes to the reader secondhand and indirect, “a generalized account or report of a series of events covering some extended period and a variety of locales.” But showing is immediate and direct, providing “concrete detail within a specific time-place frame.” Many contemporary critics and writers express a strong preference for showing (which may be the influence of film and television), but you can still find great examples of every category, even if they appear only in parts of the story.
Another progression that stands out in Friedman’s system is that the possible vantage points and the information available to the storyteller grow more limited.
Note: I omit the category Friedman labels the Camera because it’s not very workable in contemporary conventional fiction. I also omit discussion of second person POV because it’s often first person (“I” as protagonist or witness) in disguise, blurring the line between the storyteller and reader. If you’re interested, Keen’s book contains an excellent explanation.
Editorial omniscience POV can adopt any vantage point, time or place, with access to the fullest possible range of information, from outside and inside the character’s experience (not all of which must be revealed in the story). Internal circumstances are toldto the reader, often through the use of thought tags. The storyteller provides exposition whether known to the characters or not, and might express opinions about the events and circumstances they share.
The storyteller is most often overt, employing Ior we, as in The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, or might remain covert, using third person pronouns, as in The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers uses this POV with great subtlety, the covert storyteller’s commentary appearing within specific word choices.
Neutral omniscience POV possesses the same freedoms of editorial omniscience, but the storytelling doesn’t overtly offer commentary on the events and circumstances of the story. This POV choice is used in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester.
“I” as Witness
This POV is employed when the character-storyteller’s narration is focused on another character, that is the POV character isn’tthe protagonist. This storyteller is limited to the events they observe or learn about secondhand and their own thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsbyis a witness to the events that lead to the death of Jay Gatsby. Sherlock Holmes stories also use this POV: Holmes is the protagonist, and John Watson, the storyteller.
“I” as Protagonist
This perspective comes through the experience of the protagonist-storyteller, and what they reveal is limited to what they can perceive or learn from other characters, though with a gap between the story events and the telling, they might reveal circumstances and insights gained over time. Great examples include The Fishermen, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hunger Games, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.
Multiple Selective Omniscience
When we move into multiple selective omniscience, the storyteller fades into the background. We often talk about this as close third person POV. Friedman explains that the story is transmitted through the characters’ minds. Even as the writer provides a window into the characters’ internal experience, we’re shown their thoughts with free indirect speech, rather than told about them with accompanying thought tags.
Critic James Wood describes free indirect speech elegantly as “a kind of secret sharing” that arises because “[a]s soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking.”
Pride and Prejudice is a great example of the use of this point of view.
Selective Omniscience has the same qualitied as Multiple Selective Omniscience, except that the entire story is filtered through the experience of a single character.A Game of Thronesby George R.R. Martin is a great example of this POV.
Dramatic mode employs a covert narrator, and we no longer have access to the characters’ thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. We hear what they say and see what they do, but their internal experience comes to us between the lines. Friedman points to Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” as a great example.
Table of Possibilities
Damon Knight created an incredibly useful table in his book Creating Short Fiction, and I’ve adapted it here using Friedman’s categories and some of Keen’s terminology. Keep in mind this is a table of possibilities, not requirements.
*This is rare, but we see an example of it in The Book Thief.
How do you choose your story’s POV?
When you set out to choose your story’s POV, understand that there is no single right answer, though some choices will be more effective than others. It’s very individual, and though there is some conventional wisdom about which POVs go with different types of stories, the better course is to consider them all and use a process of elimination through experimentation.
Remember that you don’t need to limit yourself to a single POV choice. Some of the stories mentioned here use a consistent POV throughout, but many of the writers chose more than one. John Gardner said, and I agree, “In contemporary writing, one may do anything one pleases with point of view, as long as it works.”
That doesn’t mean that you should choose your POV at random or make your story a muddled mess. A different POV character can mean telling a different story. For example, tell a crime story from the criminal’s point of view, and its subgenre is more likely heist or caper, not a murder mystery, which is most often told from the perspective of the detective.
Be intentional, but know there is flexibility as long as the transitions between points of view are smooth enough to avoid pulling the reader out of the story. Consider POV options as tools you use to perform the task of telling the story.
Read and watch stories actively
When you consume stories, record your answers to the Editor’s Six Core Questions as best you can. (Don’t worry about getting the answers right. This is not a test.) Pay attention to the way writers deliver their stories. With video it’s a little more complicated, but after more than a year of watching, analyzing, and discussing films with my fellow Roundtable editors, I understand there is a lot we wordsmiths can learn about POV from films.
Some writers tell me they worry that consuming stories actively will feel like homework, that they will lose their appreciation and enjoyment of the stories. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that studying story craft in this way has only added to the pleasure I derive from the stories I read and watch. Every story you encounter contains at least one prescriptive or cautionary lesson to help you become a better storyteller. Take advantage of this very inexpensive education.
Find a masterwork
If you are attempting to do something you’ve never done before, you will benefit from studying the work of those who have already done it successfully. Keep a list of the POV and narrative device choices in the stories you love. Think about why the writers of those stories decided to present them as they did. When you make your decisions consider which story (or stories) are a good model for the story you want to tell. Don’t worry so much about genre and other factors. Focus on how the events and circumstances are presented.
Consider your narrative device
Look at the questions in “Consider the Source” and make preliminary decisions.
Practice writing pivotal scenes (especially the Fifteen Most Important Scenes) in your story using different points of view. Observe the advantages and disadvantages. Observe how it feels as you read the scenes and afterward.
As Ira Glass explains that no matter where you are in your writing journey, there is a gap between your present location and where you want to be, that is the work you produce today and the work you know is possible. You can find support for the journey by reading articles like this and books on the craft and listening to podcasts like Shawn and Tim’s. But the way to close the gap is through studying masterworks and practice.
“Point of View in Fiction: The Development of a Critical Concept” by Norman Friedman
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
Narrative Form by Suzanne Keen
Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight
How Fiction Works by James Wood