It’s All in the Lens: Choosing Your Story’s Point of View

If the events of your novel unfolded like a movie, who would be holding the camera?  Is it some unnamed cinematographer?  Or is the camera in your main character’s hands? 


If the events of your novel unfolded like a movie, who would be holding the camera?  Is it some unnamed cinematographer?  Or is the camera in your main character’s hands?


I like thinking about story point of view this way, because it reminds me just how much of a baseline consideration it is.  POV is not only a question of using “I” versus “she”… it dictates the scope of your story, how much we get to see of the behind-the-scenes footage, and the level of intimacy we have with your characters.  Choosing the right POV can highlight the strengths of your novel and allow you to tell your tale in the way you want to tell it.  A quick run-down of some POV options, and what they can do for your story:


First person

Your main character is holding the camera – and because of that, we only get to see what they see, and experience what they experience.  But we also have access to this character’s innermost thoughts, dreams and insecurities, which can help make the story feel more intimate and immediate. 


First person POV often works well in novels where the narrator’s interior life is crucial to the story (see Markus Zusak’s I AM THE MESSENGER) or in stories where the main character can naturally be in every scene (or can at least effectively communicate what’s happened off-camera) (see HUNGER GAMES).  First person is tougher when important information just can’t come from the main character (such as in a mystery, where clues might be dolled out slowly to the reader from many sources).


Third person

There are a couple of types of third person POVs:


Omniscient, where your narrator “cameraman” can film anyone, anywhere at anytime (and can often dip into anyone’s head at any given time.  See HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY); and


Limited third-person, where the cameraman basically films a documentary of your main character: he closely follows that character and can only share that character’s thoughts.


With third person, the cameraman can put his own “narrative spin” on the story.  In other words, instead of writing in the voice of your main character, you can write your novel in your own prose (see Laini Taylor’s DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE), or write through an alter ego narrator with his own voice and personality (like Death in Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF).


Second person

While first person and third person points of view are by far the most common, there is also a “second person” POV, where the reader (or another person not the main character) is directly addressed throughout the novel (see Rebecca Stead’s WHEN YOU REACH ME, where the main character addresses a mysterious letter writer throughout the story as “you”).  Because it’s so unusual, a second person POV might be difficult to nail, but when done well and when it’s crucial to the story it can really be fantastic (like in WHEN YOU REACH ME).


Multiple Points of View

My personal favorite: two (or more) people pass the camera back and forth – whether through alternating novel segments, sections or chapters. I’ve noticed that agents and editors often note that multiple narrators can sound similar, so I think with this POV option, it’s important to make sure that having multiple narrators is important to your story.  For example, in my forthcoming novel about two sisters – MANHATTAN SAVAGES –one of the “themes” of the book is the notion that there are two sides to every story… hence it was really important to me that each sister got to tell her side.


After talking with some writer friends, I’m finding that almost everyone has a “default” POV they feel most comfortable with.  But I think it’s super important to listen to what’s right for your particular WIP.  One story might demand first-person to allow you to explore a character’s inner world in depth, while another project with a large cast of characters might be much more manageable told in third.


If you’re not sure which POV is right for your story, try writing the first chapter in first, and then in third.  Or during revisions, try another POV.  Does one ring truer?  Why?  What is it about one of the POV options that maximizes the strengths of your story? 

Once you settle on who should be holding the camera, the rest will come into focus.


What’s your go-to POV?  Continue the conversation with me all week on Twitter @leeykelly!

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