Monday, July 8, 2013

Whose Story is It? Choosing a Point-of-View

Many emerging – and even some established – writers struggle with the issue of point-of-view. While we learn in middle school the difference between first person, second person, third person limited and omniscient points of view, we do not learn about the benefits and drawbacks of each one. Writers should make a deliberate decision not only about whose story it is, but what is the emotion they’re trying to draw from the reader.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained the difference between surprise and suspense by comparing the sudden explosion of a bomb under a table to that same bomb ticking away for 15 minutes before the explosion. That example can also be used to explain the difference between first and third person. The “I” narrator has no idea that the bomb in her life is about to explode, while the “she” narrator may be well aware that it’s there and about to affect a dozen lives. Ask yourself: Do you want your reader to feel surprise or suspense?

Surprise! I came home early and caught my boyfriend in bed with my mother. Surprise! My new boss is my college ex-boyfriend. Surprise! I came home to find my wife missing and our house in shambles.

First person “surprise” is the best way to tell the story when you want your reader to feel as close as possible to your protagonist – to “be” your main character. (This works in a particularly creepy way when you’re using first person to tell the story of a serial killer or other sicko.) It is also a popular form for detective and mystery fiction; the reader likes to play along and try to solve the mystery as she has the same set of clues as the protagonist. It is, by its definition, limited to the main character, and efforts to move past that limitation usually result in a book that doesn’t work.

Writers should use first person if they are telling the story of one person, and if they are consistently in their main character’s head. First person also has the advantage of letting the writer avoid lots of description, narration, back story and history. The main character herself is the setting, and nothing should be in the book that the main character does not know first-hand.

First person can also be used with more than one main character if the writer is deliberate about switching off between them and giving them both equal time to tell their stories. (Don’t ever try this with more than two characters.) The main challenge is developing a personal voice for each character so that it is obvious in each sentence who the “I” is.

Second person is generally only used by writers of “choose your own adventure” type books. There have been a few brave writers who’ve tried to write a novel this way, but they are not widely read.

Writers who chose third person want to go beyond the thoughts and impressions of their main character, or they have more than one main character. Romance publishers advise their writers to use third person, showing the perspective of both romantic partners (and no one else). The third person POV offers two perspectives; limited and omniscient.

Third-person limited is limited to one or two main characters. The advantage of this perspective is that it allows the writer to tell one (or two) person’s story, but also to give the reader information that the protagonist does not have. This option does allow for lots of description, narration and back story. It also gives the writer the ability to describe other characters and events in a way that the reader can make judgments independent of the main character. For instance, the protagonist may think her husband is an upstanding guy, but the writer can drop hints to lead the reader to believe he is, in fact, the murderer.

Third person omniscient is the most difficult point of view to pull off. It’s most successful when the writer is telling a sweeping story that affects many characters; each character gets his own chapter and only in that chapter is his point-of-view shown. Unfortunately, many writers who work in the third person do not seem to understand the rules for this type of storytelling. Third person does not give the writer leeway to talk about the waitress’ tough day as she’s serving pie to the protagonist. Nor is it permissible to write a “he thought/she thought” ping-pong contest in the same paragraph. When writing in third person, especially for “pantsers,” it is very easy to make these kinds of mistakes, so sharp editing is key for success.

For many writers, the choice of first or third person isn’t a conscious one. It’s an integral part of their voice. Even so, writers need to know the pros and cons of each perspective, the emotion they’re trying to elicit in their readers, and the rules they need to follow to produce a well-structured manuscript.

1 comment:

  1. I did try first POV for more than two people in my book Recipes for Disaster. It's got some fab reviews, but I concede, Jami, it can lead to confusion Distinctive voices definitely needed. Great, informative post! :) xx