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.
Some 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:
- 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.
Head-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.
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.
One 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.