The problem of choosing the point of view for your story appears to be a fairly simple one. The primary options are first person, third person, and a couple of varieties of omniscience. In writing, what appears to be true on the surface isn’t always the most useful truth.
Point of view, together with narrative device, is how you present your story to your reader. And instead of four (or so) options, there are many possibilities. It’s actually more useful to think of this technical choice as being multidimensional.
How to Decide
Writers often choose their point of view by feel or intuition or based on their comfort level or belief about their current skills. Sometimes they look to books within their genre or an authority figure. The problem is, there is little to help you confirm whether your choice is a good fit.
Given that the way you present your story is as important as what the story is, you don’t want to guess. Imagine if a writer choosing their global content genre on a whim without confirming that it emphasizes the aspects of their story that are most important to them. Your genre and point of view decisions affect every scene and the words within them. A not-so-great decision means a complete rewrite.
If you search the internet, you’ll find hundreds of posts about point of view. Most of what we find is oversimplified with descriptions of first person, third person, and omniscient points of view combined with the writer’s own preference as suggestion. I understand the impulse to make this topic simple. When you understand all the dimensions of the choice, including narrative and moral distance, it’s easy to become overwhelmed.
If it were that simple, stories written in omniscient point of view would be pretty similar, as would those written in first, and those in a close third. But if you compare the omniscient narration of Animal Farm by George Orwell with Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather or Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow, you’ll find they are different in fundamental ways. Or compare the first-person narration of Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing with To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee or Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
Omniscient and first-person distinctions aren’t meaningless. These narratives do have characteristics in common. But they are third or fourth level characteristics, and alone, they don’t help you decide or evaluate your decision except in terms of technical execution.
Point of view designations have concrete mechanical application (the how in terms of the use of pronouns is pretty clear), but again application doesn’t show you how to choose the best application for your story. Many articles you find online explain the advantages and disadvantages of each option as the writer sees it, but to see the big picture, we need to go further. And then we need a solid approach to make a wise narrative choice.
So, what’s a writer to do? To make a decision that supports your story, you need to understand the story you want to write and your options for presenting it.
Before you decide the best vehicle for your journey, you need to know where you want to go. Understanding the story you want to write is beyond this post, but here are a few options to check out if this is a stumbling block for you. You might try vetting your story idea, finding your theme, or review the comprehensive planning and exploratory draft sections of the “How to Write a Novel” post.
My aim with this post is to give you the lay of the land so you can understand the options available. I’m also merging, updating, and refining my earlier posts on point of view to make this my definitive post on point of view. (I’ll update this post when I have new insights or a clearer way to explain the concepts, and as I gather more examples.)
Narrator or Not
Literary critic Norman Friedman presents point of view choices along a spectrum of showing and telling because he sees this as the defining difference among the options. Rhetoric professor Seymour Chatman chooses a similar approach. The practical thing to realize about this spectrum is that it’s about whether a separate fictional narrator or narrating entity stands between the writer and the reader. (Chatman makes finer distinctions between the actual author and implied author, and the real reader and implied reader. These are interesting, but unnecessary for this exploration.)
Telling comes to the reader secondhand and indirectly. Even if it feels as if we’re there, someone or something is collecting, collating, and sharing information about what happens. Showing is immediate and recreates (as much as is possible) the effect of being there and observing the events for yourself. No story includes only telling or showing, but your point of view choice affects the balance between these two methods of delivering story information. Contemporary readers express a strong preference for showing (which is most likely the influence of film and television), but you can still find useful examples of points of view that rely on telling, even if they appear in only parts of the story. And in fact, the “showiest” points of view have some severe limitations that make them difficult to write and read.
Points of View without a Narrator
Dramatic mode uses 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. Ernest Hemingway’s short stories “Hills Like White Elephants” and “The Killers” as examples. We see these examples listed often because there aren’t a lot of pure examples. You can, however, find a modified form of dramatic mode in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and a little further toward the telling end of the spectrum, Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.
This narrative choice is hard to pull off and can be difficult to endure. As the writer, you must master subtext, the art of communicating what you mean without saying it. Also, the reader works extra hard bridging the gaps a narrator would normally fill. As a result, we see this in short stories but not so much in longer stories.
Some writers use this technique for specific scenes within a novel. For example, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a story primarily presented in selective omniscience, one scene shows us the dramatic mode. This occurs in chapter two, “Spinners End,” a scene where Severus Snape meets with Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange. We observe their actions and speech, but don’t have access to the characters’ internal experience. This provides two forms of narrative drive: dramatic irony (because we know something that Harry doesn’t know) and mystery (because we don’t know the meaning of Snape’s actions).
We often refer to selective omniscience as close third-person point of view. Like the dramatic mode, this point of view has no narrator communicating with an audience for a purpose but gives the writer the ability to reveal a character’s internal sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Norman Friedman explains that the story comes through the mind of one or more characters. Even as the writer provides a window into the characters’ internal experience, we’re shown their thoughts, rather than being told about them as we see in other forms of omniscience.
This is a popular point of view choice with a great deal of flexibility, even though we’re locked within one character’s experience at a time. The external story can have an expansive scope like in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling or A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin (multiple selective omniscience), but also in quiet global internal genre stories like Brooklyn by Colm Toíbín.
Let me clear up a frequently asked question about free indirect speech. I think of this as a kind of temporary or limited form of selective omniscience within a larger omniscient narrative. With free indirect speech, a narrator (independent of the writer) tells the story. Most of the actual words in the telling (other than direct speech or dialogue) belong to the narrator. But occasionally the narrator grants us access to the thoughts of a character without calling attention to it with a thought tag. Pride and Prejudice is a useful example of this.
Points of View with a Narrator
Once we move to points of view with a narrator (with an audience) who stands between the writer and the reader, our inquiry becomes a little easier in some ways, but we have more elements to throw into the mix. Who the narrator is and where they sit in relation to the events of the story are important considerations to tackle next. In terms of their vantage point, we want to know if the narrator is a character inside or someone outside the story?
Questions about whether narrators are reliable come up frequently. But every narrator is unreliable to the extent of what they are capable of understanding (in the case of a young or naïve character) and their own interest or goal in telling the story. Either way, clues within the narrative usually show how much or little we should trust what they share.
Within the Story
Narrators within the story usually tell the story in first-person point of view and are identified to a certain extent. Second person is another option that I won’t discuss separately here because it’s often first person in disguise, blurring the line between the storyteller and reader. Even when it’s not, it’s about putting the reader in the shoes of the narrator who tends to be a character within the story, so the witness or protagonist categories are similar. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk and Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney are examples of second-person narration.
Narrators who are characters within the story can tell the tale while they’re in the middle of it (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins), when the events are in the recent past (To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee or Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson) or in the distant past (The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma). Some stories track multiple timelines, past and present, at once for example The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu.
“I” as Witness or Peripheral Narrator
Peripheral narrators tell a story focused on another character, that is the point of view character isn’t the protagonist. This storyteller can only tell of events and circumstances they observe or learn secondhand, along with their own internal experience. Ishmael from Moby Dick is a classic example. Sherlock Holmes stories also use this point of view: Holmes is the protagonist, and John Watson, the storyteller. This is a great option when the protagonist doesn’t have enough perspective to present the story on their own behalf or when it would be hard to evoke sympathy in the reader for the protagonist.
“I” as Protagonist
This perspective comes through the experience of the protagonist-storyteller, and what they reveal comes from what they perceive or learn from other characters, though with a gap between the story events and the telling, they might reveal circumstances and insights gained after the story events. Great examples include The Fishermen, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hunger Games, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon.
These two categories identify who the narrator is relative to the story, but the examples show the many possibilities within the constraints, mostly in terms of the form the narrative takes. For example, it can be spoken, written, or thought, and in an interview or conversation, through dramatic monologue, epistolary form, stream of consciousness, or internal monologue.
Either first-person option can be presented serially or as part of a collection of different perspectives. For example, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner includes narratives from multiple characters, some in first and some in third-person point of view. When an epistolary narrative device is used, you may see similar combinations, including in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg.
Outside the Story
Editorial omniscience point of view can adopt any vantage point, time, or place, with access to the fullest range of information, from outside and inside the character’s experience (not all of which must be revealed in the story). Internal circumstances are told to the reader, often through the use of thought tags (but remember that free indirect can give us a small sample of a character’s individual words). The storyteller provides exposition, regardless of the characters’ awareness, and occasionally expresses opinions about the events and circumstances in the story.
The storyteller is often overt, using I or we, as in The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, or might remain anonymous, using third-person pronouns, as in The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, Animal Farm by George Orwell, or Being Dead by Jim Crace. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers uses this point of view with great subtlety, the covert storyteller’s commentary is implied through specific word choice.
Neutral omniscience POV has the same freedoms of editorial omniscience, but the storytelling doesn’t offer commentary on the events and circumstances of the story. This POV choice is used in Death Comes for the Archbishopby Willa Cather and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin.
The categories above show the primary options available and how they are the same and different. Writers will sometimes collect several narratives in one story. As I Lay Dying is an example of a collection of different narratives, as are epistolary novels like Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. This often happens in nested stories or those with multiple storylines, like Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, which combines a first-person framing story with a third person narration of Frome’s story, and often because the story touches on morally ambiguous territory. With this exploration, we’re moving into the territory of narrative device. The narrative device is the content aspect of your narrative form, a fictional situation through which the point of view is executed.
Narrative device is the focus of two articles I’ve written (here and here), which I’ll update in light of new insights and examples. If knowing the point of view possibilities hasn’t helped you make a choice, you may find that narrative device gives you an easier path to discovering a good fit for your story.
Now that you have this information, what should you do next? First, read lots of different examples of points of view. Read parts of the stories mentioned here or grab a collection like Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories edited by James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny. Seeing different examples is the best way to understand how they work. I’ve shared my perspective, but you really need to see them for yourself. If you’re a novelist, there is no substitute for written stories. Point of view in films is analogous but most useful in looking at narrative device.
Ask these questions about the stories you read to analyze point of view and narrative device choices.
- What is the problem or opportunity presented by the premise? (You can frame it either way.)
- What is the point of view?
- What is the narrative device?
- What is the story’s controlling idea?
- How well do the narrative choices solve the problem or take advantage of the opportunity presented by the premise? How well do these choices deliver the story’s controlling idea?
Second, run experiments. Point of view is not an easy fix if you realize you need to change mid-draft or once your draft is complete. When you have a likely option, take it for a test drive with some of your key scenes, particularly the core event. (This is also useful when you have trouble choosing among a few main options.) Seeing the choice in action with your specific story will help you avoid mistakes that lead to page-one rewrites.