Scene in Detail
April 7, 2011
Point of View: Third Person – Part II
April 17, 2011
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Point of View: First and Second Person – Part I

Point of view simply identifies whose perspective a story is told from. But, think about how important perspective is to any story. Imagine you see an old friend on the street one day and she tells you that she went to her ex husband’s fiftieth birthday party the night before. Her perspective of the party will be clouded by her experiences during their marriage and divorce. Then, imagine you step into the post office and run into the ex husband’s new girlfriend. She describes the party from her perspective. Those two characters both watched him stagger off to bed after he blew out the birthday candles, but their description of the scene may be completely different. The ex wife may have thought his actions were reprehensible, while the new girlfriend found his actions humorous. Think carefully about who you want telling your story.

I wrote my first two books with no conscious thought to point of view. I had a story to tell, and characters I wanted to write about, so I just wrote. When I attended the Tin House Writer’s Workshop (see Tin House post) I learned that I tended to move in and out of characters heads within the same scene. I didn’t realize it was a problem until it was pointed out to me in my critique. Once I understood the subtleties of third person point of view I began to recognize it in other’s writing, and I learned to stay consistent in my own stories. Once the basic forms are understood, the subtleties become apparent.

Will the narrator be a distant observer, or will he have a specific voice as if he were a character in the periphery offering his own view of the events? Maybe the narrator should be invisible, allowing the POV character to rule while they are on the page. Or, you may want your narrator to be a side character relating events she experienced in the past. The choice of narrator dictates how a story is told, and there are numerous possibilities. Trying your story with a variety of different narrators can help you determine where the real conflict is hidden.

Getting the POV wrong is like a speed bump for the reader. The reader may only recognize it on a subconscious level, but it will register. For just a moment, they will be pulled out of your world, just long enough to question your skill as a writer. An agent, however, won’t take the time to question your skill. They will reject. It is a red flag for amateur writing.

 The Basics

  1. First Person: I, me, us, we
  2. Second Person: you and your
  3. Third Person: he, she, it, they

FIRST PERSON is easiest to identify because the narrator is the main character and tells the story using the pronoun, I. First person is found in memoir, blogs, autobiography and both fiction and nonfiction. The narrator can be the protagonist (main character in the story) or someone who plays a smaller role, such as a narrator who tells someone else’s story through their own eyes.

First person allows the reader to get to know the narrator in great depth, but the reader is limited to this character’s point of view. The first person narrator may or may not be reliable. The reader discovers the narrator’s character as the story unfolds. Keep in mind though – if you start writing a book in first person, you typically stick with it till the end, so you better like your narrator.

Example:

“I walked into the kitchen after taking my morning run and found Tom, dead at the kitchen table, bullet hole through his forehead. I was the last person to see him alive. And the one person who wanted him dead.”

SECOND PERSON is the least common point of view in fiction, primarily because it is difficult to sustain for any length of time. As the example below illustrates, second person pulls the reader into the story as an active participant. It is arresting, exciting, and can be very annoying in short order.

Example

“You walked into the kitchen after taking your morning run and found him, dead at the kitchen table, bullet hole through his forehead. You were the last person to see him alive. And the one person who wanted him dead.”

Next week – I will finish POV with my favorite, third person. I’ll talk about the three forms of 3rd, and why I chose it to write The Territory.