Point of View
When we discuss the major elements of a story, the first three mentioned are plot, characterization and setting. The fourth element is just as important as the others, and sets the parameters by which this story will be held. And this element is point of view. Many writers and even writing professionals interchange the terms point of view and viewpoint. The point of view establishes the boundaries under which the narrator will abide, as well as the “head” or “camera angle” from which the action will be filtered; it is established in the very first paragraphs of a story and is not changeable unless the author engages unusual devices. The viewpoint, on the other hand, is the eyes through which we will experience the story, and depending upon the point of view used, may change multiple times throughout the story.
Every story has a narrator, although at times the narrator is more obvious than at others. For example, in First Person Point of View, the narrator is an actual character, the “I” who is telling the story. In other cases, such as in Third Person Omniscient Point of View, the narrator is an entity of its own with supernatural abilities that looks down on the action from afar or who can swoop into any character’s head. The viewpoint character may or may not be the narrator. It is through understanding exactly who your narrator is that you understand what point of view you are using and how that point of view is controlled. I strongly recommend you imagine the narrator as a character, a breathing entity with a physical body, so you can visualize your narrator and know exactly where he is at all times. It is by controlling the narrator that we control point of view.
Depending on which source you study, there are a variable number of points of view to choose from. However, I have selected the six I think are most often used.
First Person Point of View - The narrator is the character “I.” Only things that are experienced in some way (seen, heard, thought, felt, etc.) or that are known by the narrator can be revealed: I knew I shouldn’t have let Grandma go down there. She isn’t too steady on her feet to start with, and then she gets those dizzy spells. But she insisted, and the next thing I know, she’s tumbling down those stairs like a gymnast . . . In first person point of view, the narrator and the viewpoint character are one and the same. First person point of view is a good point of view for a beginning writer to use, as it’s fairly easy to control—since your “I” is your narrator, you already know exactly where that little guy is. Do be advised that it’s necessary to let your reader know as soon as possible—preferably in the first paragraph—that “I” is the narrator.
Second Person Point of View - The narrator addresses the reader or some other assumed “you”: You know how it is. You think you shouldn’t intervene, you think she’ll get mad at you if you don’t let her do what she’s always done . . . “You” in this case, is the viewpoint character and the narrator, which makes things rather, uh, strange. This is a point of view that is difficult to maintain and that becomes awkward very quickly. Few stories have used this point of view successfully—and we don’t recommend using it.
Third Person Point of View, Panoramic - The narrator sees all the action, but is not privy to any character’s thoughts or emotions. This can best be explained as imagining the narrator as an audience member watching a stage play or as a movie camera recording the action. The narrator is independent of the characters and can see and hear everything, and may even see or hear things individual characters do not. However, the narrator does not have the ability to go inside any character’s head. Therefore, in this point of view, there is no viewpoint character—the only viewpoint is that of the narrator, who is not a character within the story but an outsider. Mrs. Smith stood at the top of the stairs, her grandson John next to her. Clinging to the handrail, she planted her trembling foot on the first step. But her other foot caught on the carpet and . . .
Third Person Point of View, Controlled Consciousness - This is probably the easiest point of view for a beginning writer to use. The narrator is the viewpoint character. Like first person, we see all the action through the eyes of a single character, and we can only see what our viewpoint character—our narrator—sees. The difference is we use “he” or “she” instead or “I” or “we”: John knew he shouldn’t have allowed his grandmother to go down the stairs alone. She wasn’t steady on her feet and sometimes she grabbed onto the nearest object when dizziness overwhelmed her. Note that in order to let your reader know immediately whose viewpoint we’re in, the viewpoint character should be the first character mentioned in the story. In this case, since John’s name is the first name mentioned, we expect that we will be in John’s viewpoint and that John will be our narrator. Also note that since John is our viewpoint character, we see the other character’s through John’s eyes. Instead of calling Mrs. Smith “Mrs. Smith,” we call her “his grandmother.” Everything and everyone is in relation to John and how John views them.
Third Person Omniscient – For some reason, this is the point of view many amateur writers choose. After all, being an author is like playing God, so why not take all the power you can? Why not? Well, for starters, controlling those God-like powers is extremely difficult and if they aren’t done correctly, you may as well write “I AM AN AMATEUR” at the top of every page. The omniscient narrator sees everything and knows everything. The omniscient narrator has the power to jump to any location, to any point in time, at the snap of a finger. The omniscient narrator has the power to pop into any character’s head and know what that character is thinking. The omniscient narrator is GOD. So what’s the problem?
Well, if this power isn’t controlled by the use of transition and invitation, the reader can feel like he’s the ball in a ping pong game, bouncing all over the place. And if the narrator suddenly jumps to a different location, the reader is lost. Omniscient point of view requires first and foremost that it announce itself as being as such in the first paragraphs of a story. This is typically done by exercising omniscient power, such as by stepping outside the characters and looking down on them, then slowly moving into the action. Consider: The Smith house was like any other house on Julian Street, its elegance long faded and its best features eroded by time. A widow since the Big War, Mrs. Smith fought for her independence on a daily basis. Even though her grandson John wanted to do everything for her, she reminded him daily she was not yet an invalid.
Without a word, she quietly walked out of the living room and went to the kitchen. Apple pie would sure be good for a change. And not any apple pie, but her made from scratch pie with apples canned from the fruit trees in the yard. She opened the kitchen cabinets. Flour, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, Crisco. Everything was there. All she needed was the apples. She hummed as she put on her apron and walked toward the cellar. The door creaked as she opened it. She switched on the dim light, although it didn’t help much.
Footsteps sounded behind her. She turned. John. She should’ve known. “I don’t need your help,” she said.
“What do you need down there? I’ll get it for you.”
“I can get it myself.”
John rubbed his forehead. “Granny, please.”
But his grandmother planted her feet on the landing.
John hesitated. He never knew exactly what to do—if he should disregard her feelings and physically move her out of the way, or if he should allow her to continue, knowing she could easily fall and break a bone . . . .
If we were actually writing a story, we’d probably have more of a transition, but note what has happened in this example. First, we started from outside, slowly moving into the house. We were not attached to any characters, which immediately defined the narrator as independent of any one character. We slowly moved toward the characters (transition). Then we hovered over Mrs. Smith and eased our way into her head. Then we stepped back outside of her and hovered between her and John (the dialogue served as this transition). Then, when John rubbed his forehead, we took this opportunity to move into his head. Whew! A lot of things happened in this small section.
Note that in order to let our reader know we are using the omniscient point of view, we follow specific steps:
1 - We begin from a distance, careful not to be in any character’s head, revealing information in a way that a character would not think.
2 - We then move slowly toward the characters, although we may continue to hover above and simply report the action as it happens, or we may decide to ease into one of the characters’ heads.
3 – If we do enter a character’s head, we must first have a transition, which means we move closer to the character, concentrating on the action around him as though the narrator is standing right next to him; and then we must have an invitation, which moves us even closer to the character’s head. The invitation is done by having the character touch his face or head, speak, or mention something about his face or head. This is done quite invisibly to the untrained reader, but it allows the omniscient narrator to slide smoothly into a character’s head without the reader realizing that something technical has occurred to allow for such a smooth transition.
It is critically important for the writer to imagine the omniscient narrator as a physical entity. Because, even though he has superpowers, the omniscient narrator still must physically move from one location to another and from one character to another, and we as writers must account for this movement. We must always know exactly where our narrator is. Is he floating near the ceiling, looking down on the action? Is he standing in the corner? Is he right next to a character, ready to pop into his or her head at the first opportunity? Realize the omniscient narrator has the power to jump from inside the room to outside the building, but controlling that power means you move him there gently, step by step, creating a transition. One word of caution: although third person omniscient allows the most flexibility, it is difficult to manage. Besides visiting the heads of different characters, we can also see into the future or see things that none of the characters can see.
Even within third person omniscient, we should have only one viewpoint character at a time, only one character whose thoughts and mind we visit. We have the option of changing viewpoint characters, but we must do it carefully, preferably at a scene or chapter break. However, if we must switch “heads” within a scene, we should clue the reader to what we are doing and allow for a transition. I prefer to do this by ignoring the previous viewpoint character for a sentence or two, then have the new viewpoint character touch his face —rub his forehead, scratch his ear, any action as long as it involves his face or head —to clue the reader that this is our new “head.” Once the switch is made, stay with it. “Head-hopping” is confusing for the reader and should be done only when absolutely necessary.
During the late 19th century and early 20th century, the omniscient point of view was popular, and many books were written using it. Most notably may be Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .” Today, most readers have little patience for editorializing and want to get one with the action. Most writers who use the omniscient point of view do so with little control. Bottom line: unless you thoroughly understand how to control this point of view, DO NOT USE IT.
Third Person Controlled Omniscient - Now, having said all that, and having seen every imaginable point of view (I think), I’ll have to admit that my favorite point of view is a combination of the controlled third person and the omniscient, which I will call the controlled omniscient point of view. The omniscient point of view carries much power—too much power—and taking advantage of all the power it allows is extremely difficult to handle. Therefore, the trick is to keep the omniscience subtle and not flaunt it. Select the narrator as your major viewpoint character who has just a few special powers. Pretend that the narrator is an invisible character who sees and hears everything IN THE ROOM OF YOUR SETTING FROM WHERE HE IS STANDING. He doesn’t bounce around from one location to another and he doesn’t bounce around from one character to another. He has the same limitations as any human, except he has the power to go inside of other characters’ heads—but only when “invited” or when he’s already a “pseudo” resident. Pretend that it takes great effort for him to enter another’s mind, so he does so only when necessary, and he never makes a leap directly from one mind to another—he must always return to his narrator role first. This ensures a proper transition.
A character can “invite” the narrator into his head by touching his face or head. This sends a subtle signal to the reader that the narrator is approaching the character’s brain. The narrator is a “pseudo” resident when he focuses on a particular character so that it is clear he is standing very close to that character, seeing and hearing and smelling what that character sees and hears and smells. Therefore, the transition into what the character is feeling or thinking appears natural and smooth. But even better, change viewpoint characters ONLY when there is a scene break or a chapter break, and make sure to establish your viewpoint character in the very first paragraph(s). And, to make your scene feel “complete,” make sure the last sentence of your scene is from your viewpoint character’s viewpoint.
Using a controlled omniscient point of view will allow you to see all the character’s expressions and actions without accounting for how the viewpoint character knew it. It will allow you to describe any character without using cheesy tricks like looking into the mirror or having him examine himself. And finally, it will sharpen your prose and remove that last hint of amateurism, letting the world know that yes, you are a professional writer and you can tell your story unimpeded by the rules made for a novice.
Oftentimes when we get a vague feeling that something isn’t right but can’t quite put our finger on it, the problem is a breach in point of view. This means we have inadvertently changed viewpoints or switched from one type of point of view to another. So study point of view. If you’re not happy with the way your story is reading, try changing the point of view or try changing your viewpoint character. And read and study as many quality books as you can, paying close attention to how the author handles point of view.
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