Writing

How Do You Choose The Right Point Of View For Your Story?

I am re-writing a novel and it occurred to me that since first starting it, I have changed the point of view three times. The first edit started life as a short story and I wrote it in the third person singular tense. At the time, I remember feeling like it didn’t work. It was flat, but what I now realise is that it lacked a narrative voice. The story focused on a sixteen-year-old boy called Jake and I tried to bring out his voice via the dialogue, but I showed none of his character traits when writing scenes around him. I used words that a sixteen-year-old boy wouldn’t dream of using and this was a mistake. This viewpoint is supposed to be the world as seen through the main characters eyes, using all five senses. Even though you write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’, you still need to consider how your character would see, feel and think about the world around them and convey this through the descriptive writing as well as in the dialogue.

This is an example of what I wrote, in a scene that introduces Jake’s connection to his dead grandmother:

Over the years, Jake had become used to looking at his grandmother’s photo and locking eyes with her. It was a strange sensation of falling, similar to the moment when you leave the highest point of a roller coaster. He never once felt scared, even though he never knew her because she died when he was a baby. Catherine told Jake that he had a special psychic talent that he would one day use to help people. She had been nurturing this talent ever since she first appeared to him when he was four years old.

I went on to change my story to the first person tense, with the view that I needed to get inside my character’s head. What I soon discovered was that this point of view can be limiting because you can only write about what your character sees, feels and thinks etc. and no one else’s. I also found that I reverted to a lot of retrospection, in an effort to fill in the gaps that the reader didn’t know.

This extract is again, an introduction to Jake’s connection with his dead grandmother written in this tense:

It is not as if I am plagued by dead people trying to connect with me. My grandmother is the only other dead person I have seen and she has visited me since I was four years old. When I was younger, I thought I was crazy for being able to talk to my dead grandmother and I’ve been trying to hide my weirdness ever since it first happened. It is one of my earliest memories. I remember I was sat at the kitchen table having a snack whilst my mum was outside hanging out some washing. I looked at the photo of my grandmother on the kitchen dresser, opposite where I was sitting and I was transfixed.

As the story progressed, I added another two more points of view in order to fill in the gaps. It became a triple narrative and it started to get a bit confusing. What I had to ask myself when I finished it was whose story is this? For a story to work, you need to be clear about this. The reader needs to know beyond all doubt: who are they are routing for, who has a problem they need overcome/fixed as the story progresses?

Looking back, I could have gone for a third person plural viewpoint. It’s difficult to pull off though and you have ensure that your characters take it in turns, so it doesn’t get confusing. It’s also similar to the triple narrative I ended up with and it may have once again taken the focus off the main character and his plight.

One thing that I haven’t tried yet is the Omniscient point of view. This way of writing takes a wider view of the experiences of each character and the narrator can add information that an individual doesn’t know i.e. something that is about to happen to them. It can also add information that none of the characters knows about. It’s like God looking down from above.

For this latest edit, I wasn’t sure which way to go. I have identified that this is Jake’s story and it made the most sense to go for a single person narrative. When I started writing though, something else happened. It flowed out in the present tense and it seemed right this way. My aim is to bring in any relevant backstory information through the present tense dialogue, rather than holding up the flow of the story by adding it in in a retrospective way.

This is an extract in this tense, again using the same scene with an introduction to Jake’s grandmother and his ability to connect with the dead:

I’m just about to turn on the TV when I see something out of the corner of my eye. It’s something, or should I say someone I haven’t seen for the last five years and I’m not sure if my mind is playing tricks on me. So I freeze, spoon mid-way between the bowl and my mouth.
‘Jake, it’s me.’
I don’t move.
‘Jake, don’t ignore me, I know you can see me.’
I still don’t move.
‘Darling I’m sorry. I know I promised to leave you alone after all the trouble I landed you in, but something really important has come up and I need your help.’
I start to lift the spoon to my mouth, but I’m not hungry anymore. The ghost of your dead grandmother trying to talk to you sure seems like a great way to curb your appetite.
She walks over towards me. Well it’s more like a shimmer really as her image moves closer. Yes, it’s weird, but it’s not as though I haven’t seen it before, so it’s not a shock to me. I have had visitations from gran since I was four.

Do you struggle with getting the right viewpoint for your stories? How do you choose which way to tell them?
I’m sharing this for What I’m Writing.

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20 thoughts on “How Do You Choose The Right Point Of View For Your Story?

  1. Great post Nicola and one I can completely identify with. Ideally I’d like to write in the first person present tense (much like the Hunger Games which I’m reading at the moment). I wrote about half of my latest book in that tense and then decided it wasn’t working at all. Then I wanted to include another character’s viewpoint and show things the main character didn’t know about. It meant an ENORMOUS rewrite – I estimate it took me a month of intense work – just to get it all rewritten in the third person past tense. That’s the POV I feel most comfortable writing. But for my next book I’d love to write present tense switching between characters – as you say you need to be clear who the main character is in this case. The omniscient one is an interesting one as the narrator can have a voice too, a number of Charles Dickens novels are like that. I think you have to write in the way which flows for you and I think your second two paragraphs read better than the past tense one.

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    1. It’s horrible when you realise you want to change it all to a different tense. There should be an app for that! I think Roald Dhal made a good narrator, which I think would be the Omniscient POV. I think the narrator needs to have an interesting voice for this one to really work.

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    2. The Hunger Games trilogy is a good example of the advs and disadvs first person POV, I think. In the first two books the main character is at the centre of what is going on so First Person works brilliantly to make you feel totally caught up in the action. Then in the third book lots of action takes place away from the main character which, as a reader, made me feel on the sidelines like I was missing out!

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      1. I don’t think the author should change the point of view in a series. That happens in the middle of twighlight and I found it annoying because I was used to reading the story from the first person perspective. You also get used to the way the author writes and it seems weird if they change it.

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  2. I do have this same struggle as I always want the advantages of each point of view– without the disadvantages! I used to write a lot in the third person, but more and more, I’ve started using the first person. My upcoming novel, “Close to Destiny,” is in the first person so we’ll see… With this book and other recent works, I’ve gone with the voice that comes naturally to me. Good luck!

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    1. My Nano novel is in third person and I really enjoyed writing like that. I’m reading the fourth book in the Game of Thrones series and George R.R. Martin does this really well. Each chapter focuses on a different character and he has a unique voice coming through the narrative for each one. I don’t know how he managed to pull it off though – so many characters!

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  3. Really interesting post. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, wondering if I’ve got the right POV as I approach this edit… I initially wrote it in a strictly limited third person (past tense, though with events unfolding in the present if that makes sense?), very much only seeing things from my main character’s perspective. I think I need to largely stick to this so that I can build the tension and withhold certain information, but I’m also considering opening out the narrative a little bit to allow me to include things that my main character wouldn’t necessarily observe herself. There are also some sections that I’m looking at writing in first person present tense, so we’ll see how that goes… It’s all fun and games isn’t it? And certainly not easy… x

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  4. I really find first person easiest. Whenever I write in third it’s all very wooden. But maybe that’s because I’m self absorbed and tend to try and be the character therefore feel like I’m talking about me?! Who knows!

    I love this post, I love a post that makes people think. x

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    1. I was all for first person until I wrote a manuscript for nano in third and found this worked so well. It gives you a lot of scope to bring out your character’s traits but not limit everything to what’s going on inside their head, if that makes sense!

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  5. Yes, every time I write it’s form the first person as it seems to come naturally. But that’s not to say that I don’t fancy experimenting. I think I may be a little self absorbed like Aimee suggests!

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  6. I love the version at the end of this – the first person present tense is very immediate and engaging. I definitely want to hear more from Jake!
    You got me thinking about POV and I’ve just had a quick look through some of my stories and realised I almost always write in the third person. The same is true of my novel. I do have a ghost story that I’ve changed the POV on three times and I still can’t get it right! I keep trying to decide which is scarier ‘She’ feels like you’re watching her, where as ‘I’ feels more like you’re actually there… I think…
    You’ve motivated me to have a play around with this actually! Thanks for linking to #WhatImWriting

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    1. It’s tricky not to slip into the past tense though, but I hope that it will keep moving the story forward this way. It’s good to play about with different POV’s – it’s all practice!

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  7. Interesting post Nicola, for me it depends what I’m writing (i.e. the children’s fiction I’ve dabbled in is all in third)….but then I’d probably say that I lean towards third person overall and it’s probably down to the capturing multiple viewpoints thing. But I can see how first may lend itself to developing a strong protagonist. Of your three versions above I like the third option best.

    Also thanks for your advice re sharing my writing on the blog. It inspired today’s blog post!

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  8. The point of view was a real struggle for me to begin with, I think I redrafted the first chapter three times before I worked out which I wanted. I love that last snippet, it works really well and I was immersed. It sounds like an interesting story. 🙂 #WhatImWriting

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  9. Nicola~I’ve struggled with the same dilemma. I have a story that’s been re-written twice: once from the protagonist’s point of view and one from an omniscient narrator. I found that the omniscient pov gave the story more depth, because you’re right: a singular point of view is constricting at times. I think POV is a sacrifice–is the story character or plot driven?

    Whatever you choose, the story sounds interesting. I hope you share more of it!

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    1. Thanks. It’s good to know you are not the only one struggling with this. The best thing about it is that by experimenting, you soon find out what works best and also what suits your own writing style.

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  10. Excellent post. I’m always intrigued to see what other authors change when they do edits.
    I usually write first person or third person singular. I do have the beginning of a first person written addressing second person, and it’s almost too close for comfort (this is intended but makes it an emotional battle to write).
    I like being restricted when I write. Keeping inside the confines of one character makes the process more simple, I think. However, any viewpoint done well can work.

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