What is point of view?
Simply put, it’s the lens through which a story is told. In general, it considers three things: person (first, second, or third), scope (objective, limited, or omniscient), and tense (past or present).
Later this week, we’ll take a look at how you can choose the best point of view (POV) for your story and how you can use that point of view intelligently to strengthen your story’s voice. Today, let’s start by taking a look at some examples of common POV forms.
When you write a story, you get to choose whether you’re writing as the POV character, to the POV character, or about the POV character. Grammatically, this choice is defined as first, second, or third person.
Stories that are told in first person can use the singular (I, me) or plural (we, us) forms to refer to the story’s main characters from their own viewpoint. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is a good example of first person narrative:
“Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way.”
Here, the narrator is the main character, Huck Finn. He is relating his own story to the reader, so he refers to himself as “I” and explains what happened to him throughout the book.
It’s less common to see stories written in second person (you). In this kind of story, the narrator is speaking to a character or reader as the writing progresses. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is largely told in third person, but the opening passage uses second person to involve the reader in the scene:
“‘What kind of circus is only open at night?’ people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet as dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates.
You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.”
Instead of leaving the reader to observe the crowd from the outside, the passage includes the reader in that crowd. The second person character (the “you” in the passage) is the one whose thoughts and feelings are revealed on the page.
Third person is one of the most common forms of storytelling, especially since it can be broken down into different scopes, as we’ll see later. In a third person story, the characters are always referred to as “he,” “she,” or “they”—never as “I” unless it’s in dialogue. The Giver by Lois Lowry is an example of a story written in third person:
“Jonas, nearing his home now, smiled at the recollection. Thinking, still, as he wheeled his bike into its narrow port beside the door, he realized that frightened was the wrong word to describe his feeling, now that December was almost here. It was too strong an adjective.
He had waited a long time for this special December. Now that it was almost upon him, he wasn’t frightened, but he was…eager, he decided. He was eager for it to come. And he was excited, certainly. All of the Elevens were excited about the event that would be coming so soon.
But there was a little shudder of nervousness when he thought about it, about what might happen.
Apprehensive, Jonas decided. That’s what I am.”
This passage is about Jonas, but the narrator speaks neither as Jonas (using the first person “I”) nor to Jonah (using the second person “you”). Jonas is referred to as “he,” which means that this story is in third person.
Point of View: the Scope
When you write a story in third person, you have a choice of whose thoughts and emotions (if any!) you will reveal to the reader. Whether you reveal everyone’s knowledge, nobody’s, or something in between, there is a literary term for your POV choice.
The objective point of view observes the story objectively, from the absolute outside of any characters’ heads, feelings, and knowledge. This POV is also called cinematic because of its similarity to movies, in which you can see what’s going on and hear what’s said, but you can’t see what any of the characters are thinking or feeling. Some short stories, including multiple by Hemingway, are written entirely in objective POV. Some novels are close to truly objective, but others use it only in scenes. This excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is an example:
“The first man stopped short in the clearing, and the follower nearly ran over him. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat-band with his forefinger and snapped the moisture off. His huge companion dropped his blankets and flung himself down and drank from the surface of the green pool; drank with long gulps, snorting into the water like a horse. The small man stepped nervously beside him.
‘Lennie!’ he said sharply. ‘Lennie, for God’ sakes don’t drink so much.’ Lennie continued to snort into the pool. The small man leaned over and shook him by the shoulder. ‘Lennie. You gonna be sick like you was last night.’
Lennie dipped his whole head under, hat and all, and then he sat up on the bank and his hat dripped down on his blue coat and ran down his back. ‘Tha’s good,’ he said. ‘You drink some, George. You take a good big drink.’ He smiled happily.”
Here, the reader watches the scene from the outside. Only from the characters’ expressions, actions, and dialogue can we see what they’re thinking and feeling about the situation. We’re not viewing this scene through either of their eyes, and we can’t tell just from this passage who the protagonist might be. It’s entirely objective.
From a limited point of view, the author interprets events through one characters’ eyes at a time. We can see inside that character’s head to know what they’re thinking and feeling, and the author doesn’t tell us anything that that character doesn’t know. In Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the POV character is young Ender Wiggins:
“The monitor lady smiled very nicely and tousled his hair and said, ‘Andrew, I suppose by now you’re just absolutely sick of having that horrid monitor. Well, I have good news for you. That monitor is going to come out today. We’re going to take it right out, and it won’t hurt a bit.’
Ender nodded. It was a lie, of course, that it wouldn’t hurt a bit. But since adults always said it when it was going to hurt, he could count on that statement as an accurate prediction of the future. Sometimes lies were more dependable than the truth.”
This story is third person, which means that the author writes about Ender, not as Ender. However, because the POV is limited, the reader gets to view events through Ender’s eyes. We hear what the lady says to him, and we feel him nod. Then, we see the situation interpreted through Ender’s understanding of the world. The narrative itself is from Ender’s POV, meaning that every line represents Ender’s observations and thoughts.
With an omniscient point of view, the author can dip in and out of different characters’ thoughts, feelings, and knowledge as seems appropriate for the story. It’s important to note that this is not the same thing as switching points of view at scene or chapter breaks. A story can have multiple perspectives and still be considered limited POV—the difference is that such a story is only in one person’s head at a time. An omniscient narrator knows and tells more than any one character knows, as seen in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring:
“That was Gandalf’s mark, of course, and the old man was Gandalf the Wizard, whose fame in the Shire was due mainly to his skill with fires, smokes, and lights. His real business was far more difficult and dangerous, but the Shire-folk knew nothing about it. To them he was just one of the ‘attractions’ at the Party. Hence the excitement of the hobbit-children. ‘G for Grand!’ they shouted, and the old man smiled. They knew him by sight, though he only appeared in Hobbiton occasionally and never stopped long; but neither they nor any but the oldest of their elders had seen one of his firework displays — they now belonged to the legendary past.
When the old man, helped by Bilbo and some dwarves, had finished unloading. Bilbo gave a few pennies away; but not a single squib or cracker was forthcoming, to the disappointment of the onlookers.
‘Run away now!’ said Gandalf. ‘You will get plenty when the time comes.’ Then he disappeared inside with Bilbo, and the door was shut. The young hobbits stared at the door in vain for a while, and then made off, feeling that the day of the party would never come.”
This omniscient narrator acknowledges things that Gandalf knows that the hobbits don’t (“His real business was far more difficult and dangerous…”) in the same scene that he reveals private thoughts of the hobbits that Gandalf doesn’t know (“…feeling that the day of the party would never come”). Omniscient POV can be tricky to get right without disorienting your reader to who knows what, but some authors, like Tolkien, use it carefully and intentionally.
When you write a story, you can choose whether to write it in past or present tense. This changes the point of view in time from which the story is told and has its own unique effects on the perspective the reader is left with. Both tense examples below are from first-person stories.
Present tense is a less natural but increasingly common way for an author to tell a story. In first person, it helps portray a certain type of suspense in which the narrator doesn’t know what is going on. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a popular example of present tense narrative:
“It’s time for the drawing. Effie Trinket says as she always does, ‘Ladies first!’ and crosses to the glass ball with the girls’ names. She reaches in, digs her hand deep into the ball, and pulls out a slip of paper. The crowd draws in a collective breath and then you can hear a pin drop, and I’m feeling nauseous and so desperately hoping that it’s not me, that it’s not me, that it’s not me.
Effie Trinket crosses back to the podium, smooths the slip of paper, and reads out the name in a clear voice. And it’s not me.
It’s Primrose Everdeen.”
As the scene unfolds, the author uses present tense (“It’s time”; “She reaches in”) instead of past tense (“It was time”; “She reached in”) to suggest that this story is happening as the reader reads it. It can suggest an unknown future and unfinished story.
Past tense is the way we have always told stories to each other by mouth, and it is the most common tense for written tales. In past tense, it allows for specific portrayals of time. In first person, it can convey the sense of a completed story being related, as in Maya Angelou’s memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:
“I hadn’t so much forgot as I couldn’t bring myself to remember. Other things were more important.
‘What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay…’
Whether I could remember the rest of the poem or not was immaterial. The truth of the statement was like a wadded-up handkerchief, sopping wet in my fists, and the sooner they accepted it the quicker I could let my hands open and the air would cool my palms.
‘What you looking at me for…?’
The children’s section of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church was wiggling and giggling over my well-known forgetfulness.
The dress I wore was lavender taffeta, and each time I breathed it rustled, and now that I was sucking in air to breathe out shame it sounded like crepe paper on the back of hearses.”
Even though this scene also unfolds step by step, the language used (“I couldn’t bring myself to remember”; “I was sucking in air”) is in the past tense. This is usually the most appropriate for a memoir, as it emphasizes the fact that the recorded events have already happened and are done.
Point of View: Person, Scope, and Tense
Now you have the basic building blocks of point of view: person, scope, and tense. You’ll be able to identify examples of each in the books you read and make educated decisions about how best to combine them into your story’s POV. Imagine what your story would sound like if you switched any one of these three elements—is the new effect better or worse? Why?
In my next post, I’ll be talking more about deciding whose point of view to use for your story and which of these pieces might best combine into what you’re trying to build. Until then, experiment! The only wrong way to practice point of view is to not practice at all.