Point of View: The Director’s Cut

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (Bellman)

Most writers are familiar with the various points of view. First person, the “I” view, is the most intimate. The story is narrated by the point of view character. The first person character is often, but not always, the main character of the story. Second person, which is the least used, is the “you” view. This casts a character known to the narrator, or sometimes even the reader, as an intimate recipient of the story. The third person point of view is the “he/she” point of view—it is an external point of view. (For more on the basics of point of view, see “Point of View: Who’s Telling Your Story?“)

Many people wrestle with what point of view is best for the story they want to tell. Usually they can get it down to “first, second, or third” by feel or experimentation. As they work with the story, they get a sense of which point of view is better for that story than the others.

I’d like to offer a different way of approaching the various points of view. What if you thought of your story like a play that was being staged, or a movie you were filming? What would the points of view be? Could using this analogy help identify which one is most appropriate for the job, especially when it comes to picking which of the various third person points of view are available?

Because first and second person point of views are not easily adaptable for stage and screen, I’ll just touch on them briefly. Movies that are filmed through a character’s eyes or camera, such as The Blair Witch Project, are a reasonable equivalent to first person. The only action the audience sees is what the camera character sees. Everything else has to be found out through other characters. Plays in which the audience members are directly addressed by the characters have some aspects of second person point of view.

The stage/screen analogy works best when considering the various third person points of view. The difference between the three is similar to the difference between the actor’s view, the audience’s view, and the director’s view.

Background Image: Pierre Corbucci/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Tight Third Person: The Actor’s View

Tight third is an exterior view that is heavily rooted in a specific character. It’s almost like first person, in that the actions, the interpretations, and the exposed thoughts all belong to the main viewpoint character—the writer just uses third person to describe it. Here is an example of tight third from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn.

Miles woke in a blink to broad daylight, a canvas roof, and a curious feline face staring into his from a cat’s breath away. Glad to discover that the weight on his chest was not some alarming new medical condition, he lifted the three-legged beast off and gingerly sat up. Post-drug headache, check. Fatigue, check. No screaming angels, double-check and an exclamation point or two. His vision seemed clear of all unrealities, and his surroundings, though odd, were not out of any nightmare he owned.

You can think of writing tight third as writing the story as if you had an actor’s view of a play. A good actor will get so into the character’s head that the actor will view all the action in the same way the character would. The actor is not the character, but is filtering everything he or she does through the character. If you are writing tight third, you need to do the same work as the actor. You have to get into the main viewpoint character, and see the world through that character’s eyes. You aren’t writing as the character (that would be first person), but as the person playing the character.

In general, you would expect an actor to be the same character throughout an entire scene of action. The same holds true for tight third point of view. An actor usually views a scene through one specific character. The actor (and thus the character) doesn’t truly know what other actors (and characters) are thinking, only what they are saying and doing. They can guess at others’ thoughts, but they cannot know. The same restrictions apply to a tight third POV character.

If an actor stops acting like their own character, and starts acting like a different character in the scene, this would really confuse the audience. The same thing happens to your audience when you switch tight third POV characters in the middle of a scene. Let your inner actor/writer play out the same part until the scene is finished. But just as an actor can play dual roles, and be another character in another scene, you can focus on a different character—just be that other character, and only that other character, in a new scene.

Objective Third: The Audience’s View

Objective third is much as it sounds: an objective view of what is going on. You present actions and dialogue, but you don’t get into the character’s heads at all. The reader has to infer what the thoughts are from what is presented. The example of objective third below is from The Two Towers, by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. ‘I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,’ he said. ‘I am sorry. I have paid.’ His glance strayed to his fallen enemies; twenty at least lay there. ‘They have gone: the Halflings: the Orcs have taken them. I think they are not dead. Orcs bound them.’ He paused and his eyes closed wearily. After a moment, he spoke again.

‘Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.’

‘No!’ said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. ‘You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory! Be at peace! Minas Tirath shall not fail!’

Boromir smiled.

‘Which way did they go? Was Frodo there?’ said Aragorn

But Boromir did not speak again.

Notice how everything is external. You aren’t privy to anything that an outsider watching the scene couldn’t observe. You can think of objective third stories as stories that are told from the point of view of an audience member who is watching a play or movie. The audience can see what happens to all the characters as they play out their scenes. They are not limited to one viewpoint or one set of mental interpretations. Objective third offers a broader view of what is going on in the story.

But it’s also a less intimate view. The audience can’t see the all the work the actor put in, the motivations, the thoughts. They can only see the results: the words, the way they are spoken, the body language, the actions, the interactions. Everything else has to be inferred. If you are choosing between tight and objective third, consider whether you want to sacrifice the intimate view for wider access to the broader picture.

Omniscient Third: The Director’s View

Omniscient third is a point of view where the reader can know anything—they are not limited to the actions of the characters, or limited the head of only one character. With omniscient third, you can describe events that none of the characters witnessed, or show emotions or inner thoughts of multiple characters in a scene. Here is an example of omniscient third, taken from Leave it to Psmith by P. G. Wodehouse. Note that there is no scene break between the paragraphs below, and the two characters end up interacting with each other before the end of the scene.

With an aching sense of what might have been he thought now of his lost Lizzie. Regretfully he admitted to himself that she had always been the brains of the firm. A certain manual dexterity he had no doubt possessed, but it was ever Lizzie who had been responsible for the finer work. If they still had been partners, he really believed that she could have discovered some way of getting round the obstacles which had reared themselves now between himself and the necklace of Lady Constance Keeble. It was in a humble and contrite spirit that Edward Cootes proceeded on his way to Market Blandings.

Miss Peavey, meanwhile, who, it will be remembered, was moving slowly along the road from the Market Blandings end, was finding her walk both restful and enjoyable. There were moments, it has to be recorded, when the society of her hostess and her hostess’s relations was something of a strain to Miss Peavy; and she was glad to be alone.

Omniscient third is the director’s view of the story. The director is aware of everything on some level—what motivates all the characters, everything that is going on both on and off stage, the inner workings of the scene. Think of the director’s commentary that accompanies the movie on a DVD: “I wanted him to be really mad in this scene.” “At this point, she realizes that he’s not coming back. It was a devastating performance.” “We cut a scene where the town got razed. He’s just hearing about that now, but she already knows about it.” The director’s view enhances the audience view, providing more insight into what is going on, and what has gone on that the audience didn’t see.

Omniscient third is much more remote than tight third. You are told about the characters’ thoughts, but you don’t really experience those thoughts from the inside. The director is aware of the actor’s motivation for a scene, but not as deeply involved in the scene as the actor is. It is this distance that enables the writer to dip in and out of the heads of multiple characters in a scene. Omniscient third, when done properly, is less jarring than switching tight third points of view midstream. Readers are following along inside the head of the narrator, rather than the head of a character. So they are looking at the scene from a more complete perspective than they would be in a tight third story. With a tight third, on the other hand, the narrator takes a back seat to the character perspective, so shifts are much more unsettling. However, many readers still find the shifts confusing, and omniscient third is used much less frequently than it used to be.

Which View is for You?

Each point of view provides a different atmosphere, and serves a different narrative feel. They also present different expectations for the reader. With tight third, the reader is very involved with the point of view character, and can feel the story along with him or her rather than just watching it. With objective third, there is much more the reader has to infer about what’s inside the characters, but the reader has access to more of the overall vision. With omniscient third, you are taking the reader behind the scenes as they watch the show.

When you are choosing a third person point of view, think of how you want to tell the story. Are you following a character, getting into his or her head? Then stick with tight third, and be the actor for that character. Are you telling the story as whole, and staying out of people’s heads? Think like an audience member, and use objective third. Or do you need to be in complete control of all the action, all the thoughts? Then be a director, and use omniscient third.

Final Poll Results

Point of View:
Who’s Telling Your Story?

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

Recently, I was working on a short romance story. The idea swam around in my head for a few days, and I was excited about writing it down. When I did start writing, though, something didn’t seem right. The character, who was so real and vibrant in my head, just wasn’t coming alive on the page.

This is how my story began:

Andie had never believed in psychics.

But her friend Joanne did, and when Andie asked her what she wanted for her birthday, this was it. A psychic reading.

She’d checked the Internet and found out there was a large “spiritualist community” nearby. She selected one of the names at random and made an appointment. She figured they’d spend the day together, have lunch. But Joanne wouldn’t let Andie get away with just taking her; she’d insisted that Andie have a reading done too.

I wrote about half a page and stopped. It just didn’t feel right. The story wasn’t flowing the way I wanted it to. It felt stilted, forced. After a few more days of mulling it over, it hit me. The point of view was all wrong. The third-person approach I’d chosen was too distant. I wanted the reader to identify with Andie, to feel like they were right there with her. I decided to try shifting to first person. This is what I came up with:

I never believed in psychics.

But my friend Joanne did, and she’d asked for a psychic reading for her birthday. I’d poked around on the Internet, and found out there was a large “spiritualist community” just an hour away from Buffalo on Lake Erie.

So even though I thought it was a waste of money, I told Joanne I’d take her. It was her birthday. I figured we’d make a day of it, have lunch. I randomly chose one of the “registered mediums”, Reverend Gladys Mitchell, and made an appointment. But I couldn’t just pay for Joanne’s reading and be done with it. Oh, no. I had to go too.

The rest of the story flowed almost effortlessly. I had a first draft down in hours.

Background Image: Phil/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Somewhere along the way, we all learned the basic rules of point-of-view. Some English teacher or creative writing professor set out the “rules” for us to follow. They explained first person and third person narrators, limited and omniscient points of view. They teach the basics, but most never cover that elusive, more difficult question:

How do you choose?

At some point in every short story or novel, we, as writers, must make a fundamental decision-who is telling this story? Is the narrator inside the story, telling it as it happens? Is she an unnamed, detached observer? Will we keep the reader inside one head, or will we use several point-of-view characters?

Sometimes this decision is easy-the story flows out and we fall into a point-of-view and stick to it. Other times, it isn’t. But before we talk about those choices, let’s review the basics.

In an essay on the subject, author Robin White referred to POV as “the hidden persuader behind any story” which “focuses your narrative, involves your reader, and temporarily suspends all other realities.”

The most common points-of-view are first person and third person. A first person narrative is told from the “I” perspective. The narrator is clearly involved in the story, and is most often the central character. The following example is from Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale:

The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet. As long as I don’t move. As long as I lie still. The difference between lie and lay. Lay is always passive. Even men used to say, I’d like to get laid. Though sometimes they said, I’d like to lay her. All this is pure speculation. I don’t really know what men used to say. I had only their words for it.

I lie then, inside the room, under the plaster eye in the ceiling, behind the white curtains, between the sheets, neatly as they, and step sideways out of my own time. Out of time. Though this is time, nor am I out of it.

The narrator tells this story, as it happens. First person narrators can also be mere observers, outside the main story, or detached, as if looking back on past events.

The biggest advantage of first person narration is that it fully involves the reader in the life of the central character; we experience her thoughts, her feelings, and we see what she sees. Certainly, it’s the point of view that best allows us to get completely inside the head of a character. First person can sometimes be limiting, though. Some writers struggle with a first person narrator, because they find themselves wanting to tell the reader what’s going on inside the heads of the other characters. The decision to use first person involves a certain amount of trade-off.

It is also important to remember that the “I” of the story and the writer are not necessarily the same. In fact, first person can actually be too close. I wrote an autobiographical short story when I was in college, using a first person narrator to tell the story. I found I had a problem with separating the narrator from myself. She was me, which made it difficult to write, and even more difficult to accept criticism. My professor made comments about my narrator, which I of course took personally. I now know that I probably would have been better off using a third person narrator, thus distancing myself from the story.

Third person narrative falls into three main categories, limited, objective and omniscient. The third person limited narrator tells the story through the eyes of a single character. The third person objective narrator simply tells the story without allowing the reader to take part in any character’s thoughts or feelings. The omniscient narrator can tell the story from the viewpoint of a number of different characters.

Here’s an example of a third person narrator, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:

Harry lay flat on his back, breathing hard as though he had been running. He had awoken from a vivid dream with his hands pressed over his face. The old scar on his forehead, which was shaped like a bolt of lightning, was burning beneath his fingers as though someone had just pressed a white-hot wire to his skin.

For the most part, the Harry Potter novels are told from Harry’s point of view. Rowling uses a close third person POV, which can sometimes be quite similar to first person. So why not use first person?

Most likely, Rowling chose the close third person POV so that she would have the ability to occasionally change point of view characters. Some chapters and scenes are told from the point of view of other characters, giving the reader access to information that Harry couldn’t possibly have. This POV is known as “episodically limited”. The “who” of the story is determined by the scene. It’s the point of view most commonly used in genre and mainstream novels. In a novel, it is acceptable to have several POV characters, but you should be careful not to use too many. Generally, point of view shouldn’t change during a scene. This practice, known as “head hopping”, can alienate your reader.

In short stories, it is usually best to stick with a single POV.

The third POV, far less commonly used, is second person. A second person narrator addresses the reader directly as “you”. This POV is difficult to use effectively, so very few writers use it.

So now you’re probably still wondering, “but how do I choose?” Unfortunately, the answer just isn’t simple. Think about what you want to accomplish, and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each choice. Beyond that, the best advice I can give is to trust your instincts. If it doesn’t feel right to you, it probably won’t feel right to your reader either.

If you’re struggling with the piece you’re working on, try rewriting it from another point of view. Switch from first person to third, or vice-versa. Try telling the story from the point of view of an entirely different character. Keep trying new things until you’ve got something that fits.

When you’ve found the one that fits, you’ll know.

Final Poll Results