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Writing with a Point of View

What’s the Point of View/Narrative Device?

Continuing the journey of the things you should know about your novel before you get started. Next up is the Point of View, or POV, and Narrative Device. These matter because settling on who is telling your story and how they tell it answers questions you might have about what to put in it.

For example, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is told in the first person. It also includes a unique perspective on the inner thoughts of other male characters, called Noise. When deciding how to describe the background of the world world, or exposition, Ness was limited to only describing what the main character, Todd, thought and saw. Meaning we, as readers, are left to infer things rather than told outright what’s going on.

Perhaps obviously, the POV is the vantage point through which the story is told.

Every level, from the global story down to the micro beat, should be consistent in POV. POV directs the flow of the story. If a novel starts out in first person and switches to third person in the middle of the book, readers will be left confused and probably put the book down.

Additionally, and while Shawn does not mention it (to my knowledge), I’d also add in time period to the discussion on POV. I think it’s also very jarring to read a book that is set in the past tense, but switches to present at various times (unless there is a specific reason for doing so). This is my biggest critique of Silence of the Lambs, though I probably only notice it because I’m picky.

From the first paragraph of the first chapter of Silence of the Lambs: “Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half buried in the earth. Clarice Starling reached it flushed after a fast walk…”

See how it starts out present tense, but then moves to past tense after one sentence? That’s not the only example of it, though I won’t include more. I can’t begin to understand Thomas Harris’s technique. The intellectual part of me knows he was probably setting the scene as if it were currently happening only to switch to Starling specifically. However, it pulls me out of the context of the story. I obviously noticed it enough to remember that it bothered me.

It’s important to note that POV and tense should remain consistent throughout a piece. You don’t want to pull your readers out of the world you’re creating.

There are, of course, exceptions (and different rules apply for different genres as well as nonfiction). Just look at Silence of the Lambs. It’s not any less popular because it switches tense. Maybe I’m the only one who’s bothered by it at all. Still, a good rule of thumb is to remain consistent.

What are the different Points of View for any given story?

First, Second, and Third Person. All have to do with which character you frame the story’s perspective from. First person uses “I” to describe the events that happen to a specific character. Second person uses “you” to tell the reader what is happening as if it were happening to them. It’s the most under-used of the three because it’s very hard to pull off. And third person uses “he/she/it” to describe the events of the story at varying levels of insight into the minds of those characters.

Third person can show a birds eye view and only describe the events from an impartial narrator. Or, it can get as close as knowing what a certain character is thinking using Free Indirect Style. Free Indirect Style is a great way to add a level of empathy between your readers and a character. Or, it can be used to add dramatic irony.

As a refresher, mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony vary the information the readers vs the characters receive. All amp up the narrative momentum and keep the readers wanting to know more about your story.

  • Mystery: the characters have more information than the readers
  • Suspense: the reader and the character have the same amount of information about what’s going on
  • Dramatic Irony: the readers have more information that the characters

But how do you decide which POV to use and why does it matter?

As I said earlier, choosing a POV can help answer some questions about what’s going on in your story and what scenes you should include. If you are writing in first person, like Ness, you can’t explain the world to your readers inorganically. Todd, for example, already understands and lives in it. How weird would it be to include a description of Noise or Spackle or his illiteracy to himself or another character?

Instead, it starts as if Todd were thinking to himself, “The first thing you find our when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.” Not only do we know right away that this is a different world than we’re used to, one where dogs can talk, we know something about Todd as well. He speaks English, but either doesn’t care about being grammatically correct or doesn’t know how. We know he has a dog and, maybe, that he doesn’t really like him that much because he doesn’t have anything interesting to say.

That last interpretation might be a stretch because I know the book. But that’s still a lot we know from just the first sentence. Telling us about the things Todd already knows would only pull us away from our suspension of disbelief. Instead, Todd doesn’t have to tell us he has a dog that talks and that he doesn’t live on Earth, we find out about that as we go along.

So, your POV will determine what kind of story you’re trying to tell and how you can tell it.

A Narrative Device can help with that determination because Narrative Devices are the techniques you use to tell the story. Will you write letters? Use a cliffhanger? A flashback? Flashforward? All of those are considered devices you can use to tell the story and all are useful in their own right.

Sometimes, a particular narrative device will pair well with a particular genre. MacGuffins and Red Herrings are have been used so often in mystery/crime/thriller stories that they are now a convention of those genres. Other times, you have a choice of what narrative device you can add in to your story and what that will mean.

Harry Potter

As for POV, that, too, will depend on what it is that you want to say. In another version of Harry Potter we could have seen the stories from Neville’s free indirect POV. Or Hermione’s. Ron’s. Dean Thomas’s. JK Rowling had so much information built up she could have used any one of her characters to tell a compelling story.

She choose Harry, I presume, because she wanted her story to be about the contrast between good and evil and what happens when they collide. Love and Hate are two powerful emotions and were representative in the Harry vs. Voldemort rivalry. Ultimately, Harry’s love and Voldemort’s lack of change and need for power led to the defeat of evil. What’s interesting is that there are so many levels to that story that I could talk about it forever, and they could have been represented in other characters.

But because we see as Harry does, we are privy to his life as he grows up. We get to see him mature and make choices, and we understand them because we know what he’s thinking. At the same time, Rowling can explain things without needing Harry’s opinions of them because she uses third person.

Final Thoughts

Think about what story you want to tell and how you want to tell it. Will using first person limit you too much such that you won’t get the perspective of another character that means a lot to your story? Or, do you just abhor writing in third person? Maybe your own preferences will instead determine what kind of story you will tell because you’re limited in how you can tell it. Whatever style works best for you and your story, that’s the one the one you should use. Play around with it to decide what’s best. But, at some point you’ll have to take a chance and just start writing. You never know what might come out of it.

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