Tag Archives: first-person point of view

Narrative point of view: who can best tell the story? #amwriting

Sometimes, one of the most difficult things for me when writing the first draft is getting the right narrative point of view. Usually, it unfolds naturally from the proper POV, but sometimes, it does not.

WritingCraftSeries_narrative modeSome stories work best with a first-person point of view, while others are too large and require an omniscient narrator.

I usually begin writing the story the way I see it in my mind’s eye, recording the events and conversations as if I were a witness.

But sometimes, I hit a wall – I can’t figure out how to show what I envision. It helps if I look at it from another perspective, a different narrative point of view. It’s surprising how the mood and direction of a story are altered when you view it through a different lens.

Every story is comprised of several narrative modes. Each is fundamental to the story.

A narrative point of view is the perspective, a “lens” (personal or impersonal) through which a story is communicated.

Narrative time is the grammatical placement of the story’s time frame in the past or the present, i.e., present tense (we go) or past tense (we went). We will talk about time in the next post.

Narrative voice is how a story is communicated. It is the author’s fingerprint. Next week, we will talk about voice and what that encompasses.

Other aspects of the story that are affected by the narrative mode:

  • Action
  • Description
  • Dialogue
  • Exposition,
  • Thought and Internal dialogues

Today, I’m working on the narrative point of view in one of my ongoing projects. I am trying to decide who can tell the story most effectively, a protagonist, a sidekick, or an unseen witness.

In this story, I have more than one protagonist, so I used an omniscient point of view in the first draft. Each character’s thoughts and conversations are separated by hard chapter breaks. I make hard scene breaks when the narrative point of view changes because it’s easy to fall into head-hopping, which is a serious no-no.

UntitledHead-hopping occurs when an author switches point-of-view characters within a single scene. It sometimes happens when using a third-person omniscient narrative because each character’s thoughts are open to the author.

The Third Person narrator has four main subsets. In writing, some people will use the words objective narrator (outside observer) and omniscient narrator (god view) to describe non-participant voices. This writer’s tool is like a good wrench: it can be used in several ways for our descriptive passages.

  • The third person point of view provides the greatest flexibility. It’s the most commonly used narrative mode in literature.
  • In the third person narrative mode, every character is referred to by the narrator as “he,” “she,” “it,” “they,” or other gender terms that best serve the story.

The third person omniscient narrative mode refers to a narrating voice that is not one of the participants. This narrator views and understands the thoughts and actions of all the characters involved in the story. This is an external godlike view.

I try to use a less expansive mode—third person limited. In this mode, the reader enters only one character’s mind. When I must change viewpoint characters, I start a new chapter and keep only to their POV for that entire section.

Third person limited differs from first person POV because while we see the thoughts and opinions of a single character, the author’s voice, not the character’s voice, is what you hear in the descriptive passages.

David remembered Selina’s instructions, but things had changed. He turned and dropped the gun into the nearest dumpster.

Some third-person omniscient modes are also classifiable as “third person subjective,” modes that switch between the thoughts, feelings, etc. of all the characters.

This mode is also referred to as close third person. At its narrowest and most personal, the story reads as though each viewpoint character is narrating it. Because it is always told in the third person, this is an omniscient mode.

Close third person is comparable to first-person in that it allows an in-depth revelation of the protagonists’ personalities but always uses third-person grammar. Remember what I said about head-hopping? This is the danger zone.

Rosler-LeFlaneur

Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842.

The final aspect of the third-person narrative mode is often the Flâneur (idler, lounger, loiterer.) This is traditionally a form of third-person point of view found in more literary pieces, but it can work when setting a scene.

Sometimes an outsider’s perspective is the right one. If you have had some advanced writing courses or studied theater, you have heard of it as third person objective or third person dramatic.

The flâneur is the nameless external observer, the interested bystander who reports what they see and overhear from the sidewalk, window, garden, or any public place where they commonly observe the protagonists. They are an unreliable narrator, as their biases color their observations. In some of the most famous novels told by the flâneur, the reader comes to care about the unnamed narrator because their prejudices and commentary about the protagonists are endearing.

On Saturday mornings, at seven o’clock, Wilson passed my gate, walking to the corner bakery. He bought a box of pastries, which he carefully held with both hands as he returned. I imagined he served them to his wife with coffee, his one thoughtful deed for the week.

This brings up the two terms, reliable narrator and unreliable narrator. The first-person narrator and the flâneur are unreliable narrators, as are all participant narrators/observers.

The first-person point of view is common and is told from one protagonist’s personal point of view. It employs “I-me-my-mine” in the protagonist’s speech, allowing the reader or audience to see the primary character’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

I like writing in the first-person point of view. The story is revealed through the thoughts and actions of the protagonist within their own story, as if they are telling it to me.

Although it will involve a lot of re-writing, my current story needs to be told by the protagonist. I’ve tried to write it from an omniscient POV, but it just won’t come together.

But there is one more narrative mode to look at:

The second-person point of view is commonly used in guidebooks, self-help books, do-it-yourself manuals, interactive fiction, role-playing games, gamebooks such as the Choose Your Own Adventure series, musical lyrics, and advertisements.

Second-person POV is where we guide the reader using “you” and “your” rather than other personal pronouns. It is rarely found in a novel or short story. However, it can be an effective mode when done right.

IfOnAWintersNightOne example of a bestseller written in second person POV is If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by the late Italo Calvino.

I have to say it is a brilliantly written book. I warn you, it is literary fiction written by an Italian author and translated from Italian to English. (It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve mentioned before that I am an Odd Duck when it comes to my reading material.)

Anyway, in second person POV, the reader sees the story unfold as if through their own eyes.

You think, “I could have changed that.” It doesn’t matter. Here you are, stumbling over the wreckage of your life.

When I am stuck trying to go forward in a first draft, I try changing the narrative mode. I am always amazed by how a story’s tone and direction are altered with each change of point of view.

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Subtext and First Person Point of View #amwriting (revisited)

We are winding down to the  final week of NaNoWriMo. This has been a busy month, and this week, being Thanksgiving week here in the US, is even more jammed. Today’s post is on First Person Point of View, a literary mode I have found myself using more often lately. This first posted on November 26, 2018, and expands on employing good subtext, which we discussed last week.


Third-person omniscient has been my usual mode to write in, but I’m not limited to it. When we write in third-person omniscient mode, the story is told from an outside, overarching point of view. The narrator sees and knows everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling.

This works because the narrator holds much of the information back from the reader, doling it out as the protagonists need it.

But what if we want to create a sense of intimacy, of being in the character’s head? And what if we don’t want the reader to know everything that is going on until the last minute?

This is where the literary devices of point-of-view and subtext come into play. It’s fairly easy to keep the reader guessing what is going on in either narrative mode if you make good use of subtext.

The first-person point of view is fairly common and is told from one protagonist’s personal point of view. It employs “I-me-my-mine” in the protagonist’s speech, allowing the reader or audience to see the primary character’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

A limited first person point of view is stream of consciousness. This is a narrative mode told from a first-person perspective, showing the thought processes as well as the actions and spoken words of the protagonist.

In real life, we can’t be all-seeing and all-knowing—witnesses are notoriously unreliable. First-person point-of-view employs the unreliable narrator which I like when the author understands how to make the subtext work.

Disbelief paralyzes me, but then my emotions coalesce into one thought—Ricky…of course.

Through the use of interior monologues (thoughts), we show the inner desires and motivations of the protagonists. We also offer the reader the incomplete thoughts they express to themselves but conceal from the other characters.

At times, we see the POV character’s rambling thoughts about a situation or person, as well as witness their conversations and actions.

How do we fit subtext into our narrative if we’re using a limited first person point of view? Subtext is the hidden story, the hints and allegations, and the secret motives of the entire cast. Subtext is the content that supports the dialogue and gives private purpose to the events each character experiences.

We don’t want to just lay it all out for the reader in the first paragraphs. Just as in all other narrative modes, in a limited first person point of view we have several ways available to reveal the subtext, the hidden motives and desires of our characters.

The Double Entendre: a word or phrase open to two interpretations, one of which is usually risqué or indecent. “My, those are some plump loaves you have rising there, ma’am.” This can be too in-your-face for many readers, especially if the author is heavy-handed. Many classic Noir detective novels of the 1930s through the 1960s employed the double entendre to convey ideas and intentions that referenced sexual matters and which the censors wouldn’t have allowed to be published.

Sarcasm: the use of irony to mock or convey contempt. “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.—Mark Twain.

In my writing, I sometimes use sarcasm as a way to show subtle aggression and tension. Also, sarcasm, especially that which is self-directed, can highlight the dark humor of a bad situation.

Lying: The point-of-view character may be guilty of habitually telling falsehoods. “Sorry I’m late. Traffic was a bitch.” But perhaps the first page showed the character oversleeping, so this lie is a clue that the character is not always truthful.

In a first person narrative, if the protagonist is shown lying to others in small, insignificant ways, the reader should consider that what he tells us may be a lie too.

We can also employ the use of allegory, words, and images that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. Animal Farm, written by George Orwell, is an allegory that uses animals on a farm to describe the overthrow of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, and the Communist Revolution of Russia before WW I.

Symbolism: using an object or a word to represent an abstract idea. An action, person, place, word, or object can all have a symbolic meaning. Literary Devices.net gives us these examples:

  • The dove is a symbol of peace.
  • A red rose, or the color red, stands for love or romance.
  • Black is a symbol that represents evil or death.
  • A ladder may stand as a symbol for a connection between heaven and earth.
  • A broken mirror may symbolize separation.

For me, writing is as much about rewriting as it is writing new words. Sometimes I have a story that I think might have potential, but I can’t decide if the plot should continue down the bunny trail it’s on or not. I will share it with my writing buddies to see what they think about the premise.

Usually, I get good feedback that helps me steer the narrative in the right direction when I am embarking on the second draft.

I consider all feedback good, even when the first readers of a scene or short story don’t “get” what I am trying to convey. If the readers don’t see what I mean, their comments aren’t directly helpful.

That lack of comprehension shows that the reader missed the point of the story entirely—my subtext failed to do its job. The scene or story must be completely rewritten. My protagonist’s intentions must be made clearer to the reader.

The struggle to express my ideas is just part of the process, and having good friends who are willing to read and give honest, thoughtful feedback is priceless.


Credits and Attributions:

LiteraryDevices Editors. “Symbolism” LiteraryDevices.net. 2013. http://literarydevices.net/symbolism/  (accessed November 24, 2018).

Quill Pen, PD|by author, BWCNY at English Wikipedia.

Underwood Standard Typewriter, PD|75 yrs image first published in the 1st (1876–1899), 2nd (1904–1926) or 3rd (1923–1937) edition of Nordisk familjebok.

IBM Selectric, By Oliver Kurmis [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

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Subtext and first person point-of-view #amwriting

Third-person omniscient has been my usual mode to write in, but I’m not limited to it. When we write in third-person omniscient mode, the story is told from an outside, overarching point of view. The narrator sees and knows everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling.

This works because the narrator hold much of the information back from the reader, doling it out as the protagonists need it.

But what if we want to create a sense of intimacy, of being in the character’s head? And what if we don’t want the reader to know everything that is going on until the last minute?

This is where the literary devices of point-of-view and subtext come into play. It’s fairly easy to keep the reader guessing what is going on in either narrative mode if you make good use of subtext.

The first-person point of view is fairly common and is told from one protagonist’s personal point of view. It employs “I-me-my-mine” in the protagonist’s speech, allowing the reader or audience to see the primary character’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

A limited first person point of view is stream of consciousness. This is a narrative mode told from a first-person perspective, replicating the thought processes as well as the actions and spoken words of the protagonist. In real life we can’t be all-seeing and all-knowing—witnesses are notoriously unreliable. First-person point-of-view employs the unreliable narrator which I like when the author understands how to make the subtext work.

Disbelief paralyzes me, but then my emotions coalesce into one thought—Ricky…of course.

Through the use of interior monologues, we show the inner desires and motivations of the protagonists. We also offer the reader the incomplete thoughts they express to themselves but conceal from the other characters. So, we see the POV character’s rambling thoughts, as well as witness their conversations and actions.

How do we fit subtext into our narrative if we’re using a limited first person point of view? “Subtext” is the hidden story, the hints and allegations, and secret motives of the entire cast. Subtext is the content that supports the dialogue and gives private purpose to the events each character experiences.

We don’t want to just lay it all out for the reader in the first paragraphs. Just as in all other narrative modes, in limited first person point of view we have several ways available to reveal the subtext, the hidden motives and desires of our characters.

The Double Entendre: a word or phrase open to two interpretations, one of which is usually risqué or indecent. “My, those are some plump loaves you have rising there, ma’am.” This can be too in-your-face for many readers if the author is heavy-handed. Many classic Noir detective novels of the 1930s through the 1960s employed the double entendre to convey ideas and intentions that the censors wouldn’t have allowed to be published.

Sarcasm: the use of irony to mock or convey contempt. “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.—Mark Twain. I sometimes use sarcasm as a way to show subtle aggression and tension. Also sarcasm, especially that which is self-directed, can highlight the dark humor of a bad situation.

Lying: The main character may be guilty of habitually telling falsehoods. “Sorry, I’m late. Traffic was a bitch.” If the first page shows the character oversleeping, this lie is a clue that the character is not always truthful. In a first person narrative, the reader should consider that what he tells us may be a lie too.

We can also employ the use of allegory, words, and images that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. Animal Farm, written by George Orwell, is an allegory that uses animals on a farm to describe the overthrow of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, and the Communist Revolution of Russia before WW I.

Symbolism: using an object or a word to represent an abstract idea. An action, person, place, word, or object can all have a symbolic meaning. Literary Devices.net gives us these examples:

  • The dove is a symbol of peace.

  • A red rose, or the color red, stands for love or romance.

  • Black is a symbol that represents evil or death.

  • A ladder may stand as a symbol for a connection between heaven and earth.

  • A broken mirror may symbolize separation.

Writing is as much about rewriting as it is writing new words. Sometimes I have a story that I think might have potential, but I can’t decide if the plot should continue down the bunny trail it’s on or not. I will share it with my writing buddies to see what they think about the premise.

Usually, I get good feedback that helps me steer the narrative in the right direction when I am embarking on the second draft. I consider all feedback good, even when the first readers of a scene or short story don’t “get” what I am trying to convey. The readers don’t see what I mean, so their comments aren’t directly helpful as they have missed the point of the story entirely.

What that kind of feedback tells me is this: the scene or a story must be completely rewritten because the subtext failed to do its job. My protagonist’s intentions must be made clearer to the reader.

That struggle to express my ideas clearly is just part of the process.


Credits and Attributions:

LiteraryDevices Editors. “Symbolism” LiteraryDevices.net. 2013. http://literarydevices.net/symbolism/  (accessed November 24, 2018).

Quill Pen, PD|by author, BWCNY at English Wikipedia.

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First-person Point of View #amwriting

A month ago, I mentioned the problems I was having with a short story I had been working on. I couldn’t seem to get into my main character’s head. So, I rewrote it in the first-person present tense narrative mode, but because I was unused to that mode, it felt like I had written a walk-through for an RPG (geek-talk for role-playing game).

Apparently, it read that way too.

But after a lot of help from my writer friends, and a lot of rewriting, I got into the swing of things. Finally, the story drew me into my character’s mind, which was what I had wanted all along.

In traditional first-person POV, the protagonist is the narrator. One thing I had to keep in mind is that no one ever has complete knowledge of anything so the narrator cannot be omnipotent. At first, this was difficult for me. When I chose to have the reader experience the story as the protagonist does, I had made a fundamental change in my style of writing, and my finished product has required several rewrites.

After all, in real life, we aren’t all-seeing and all-knowing. Any lawyer will tell you, even eye-witnesses are notoriously unreliable.

We each see and interpret things from our own perspective. The human mind is hardwired to fill in the blanks—this is why eye-witness accounts of a single event will often vary so widely.

That lack of information is why I now love writing in this point of view for short stories.

What I had to figure out:

Who is the best person to tell the story? I could easily have told it in third omniscient POV, but I had a compelling main character with a real, gut-wrenching story. It didn’t feel as close, as intimate as I wanted it to be when written in my usual narrative mode of Third Person. She had to tell her own story.

What was the inciting incident? That was also difficult – deciding where the story actually began was the first step to getting it on track. Because this story is intended for submission to an anthology, I have a specific word count to fit the story into, and the anthology’s theme must be strongly present throughout. After reading the first draft, a writer friend pointed out that the narrative had to begin at the point of no return, as there is no room for backstory.

They were right. Thus, I had to scratch the first half of the story and begin at what I had thought was the middle. That was when things began to fall together.

What does she actually know? She isn’t omniscient, so she can only know what she has witnessed. That was also a problem for me, as I know everything. Just ask me. But I had to figure out what she really could have witnessed, and then work only with that information.

What does my protagonist want? At first glance, it seemed obvious, but the truth is that her quest is to find herself as a human being, as much as it is to honor a promise made and quickly regretted.

What was she willing to do to achieve it? I didn’t know. She didn’t know either, and until I wrote the last line in this tale, I didn’t know what she was capable of or if she had the backbone to accomplish it.

I am once again approaching the finish line on rewriting this tale. The submission deadline is still several months out, so I’m not rushing. I still have to rework and condense a few things at the front end of it, but now I know what changes I want to make. Writing this story has been an awesome adventure for me, and once this is ready for an editor’s eyes, I might attempt writing another in the first-person point of view.

Sometimes writing a story with a finite word-count limit and a specific theme to adhere to is as time consuming as writing a novel. But finding ways to work within these constraints is making me a stronger writer, so even if this isn’t picked up by the publication I hope it will be, I will have a good marketable story.

I’m grateful to have the company of talented authors to help me brainstorm sticky problems.

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First-Person POV #amwriting

Third-person omniscient is my usual mode to write in, but I am currently writing a short story in first-person present tense, and it’s not going well. When we write in third-person omniscient mode, the story is told from an outside, overarching point of view. The narrator sees and knows everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling.

As authors, we want to create a sense of intimacy, of being in the character’s head.

First-person point of view is fairly common and is told from one protagonist’s personal point of view. It employs “I-me-my-mine” in the protagonist’s speech, allowing the reader or audience to see the primary character’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

One way to create intimacy is to use stream of consciousness, a narrative mode that offers a first-person perspective by attempting to replicate the thought processes as well as the actions and spoken words of the narrative character.

This device incorporates interior monologues and inner desires or motivations, as well as pieces of incomplete thoughts that are expressed to the audience but not necessarily to other characters. Consider this passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

“A dwarf’s face, mauve and wrinkled like little Rudy’s was. Dwarf’s body, weak as putty, in a whitelined deal box. Burial friendly society pays. Penny a week for a sod of turf. Our. Little. Beggar. Baby. Meant nothing. Mistake of nature. If it’s healthy it’s from the mother. If not from the man. Better luck next time.

—Poor little thing, Mr Dedalus said. It’s well out of it.

The carriage climbed more slowly the hill of Rutland square. Rattle his bones. Over the stones. Only a pauper. Nobody owns.”

In this narrative mode, we see the POV character’s rambling thoughts, as well as witness their conversations and actions. Stream-of-consciousness is a tricky device to do well, and the only time I have employed it was in a writing class.

When they want to tell a story though the protagonist’s eyes, many authors employ a simple first-person point of view to convey intimacy. “I walked to the corner, thinking about what she had said.” The narrative is more structured than stream-of-consciousness yet flows quickly from the pen. As a reader, I prefer structured prose to unstructured, which is why I’m writing my new short story using a first-person POV.

I like the fact that stories in this mode are told from the view and knowledge of the narrator-character, and not of other characters. The author must keep in mind that no one ever has complete knowledge of anything.

In real life we can’t be all-seeing and all-knowing—witnesses are notoriously unreliable. By allowing the reader to discover information as the protagonist does, a story can be engrossing. Best of all, the narrator may not be honest with the reader. As in Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, she might withhold secrets, offering small bits of information in subtle ways.

So I know I am right not to settle, but it doesn’t make me feel better as my friends pair off and I stay home on Friday night with a bottle of wine and make myself an extravagant meal and tell myself, This is perfect, as if I’m the one dating me. ~~ Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

As I mentioned before, my intention with my current short story is to put the reader into my main character’s head. The problem I have as I read the first draft is this: written in the present tense narrative mode, it feels like a walk-through for a “choose your own adventure” book.

First-person point of view employs the unreliable narrator, which I do like. While this story has to be told from the main character’s first-person point of view, it might not be best  to tell  it in the present tense. I will keep the point of view but will change the narrative to a more reflective tense, rather than present tense.

For me, writing is as much about rewriting as it is writing new words. When something feels awkward, I rewrite it. If it still feels awkward, I set it aside for several weeks or even months. When I come back to it, I’m able to see what needs to be done more clearly. Sometimes that means it must be completely rewritten again. That struggle on my part is just part of the process.


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Narration,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Narration&oldid=777375141 (accessed May 7, 2017).

Quote from Ulysses, by James Joyce, published 1922 by Sylvia Beach

Quote from Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, published 2012 by Random House.

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