How does point of view affect your storytelling?
Point of view (POV) is the vantage point or narrative perspective. The POV you choose determines how your story will unfold and through which character lens. This will set boundaries for your story.
I just read the latest release from Steven King. It’s a well-crafted, engaging story and I enjoyed it. (You can see my book review for The Outsider here.) But the story head-hops, even within single scenes. We see what character A thinks, then B, and then back to A within the space of three paragraphs. As writers, we are taught that this is a big no-no. But somehow, it works for masters like Steven King. Why? Because the narrative style and perspective supplements the story, builds a relationship between the reader and the character, and advances the story without being limiting, disruptive or confusing.
Not all writers can get away with all styles, and what you chose will impact your storyline. Below are some points to consider.
First person and limited third person – the reader knows only what the character knows
If you’re writing from first person or limited third person, the story can only contain what that character sees/hears/feels/knows. While this will establish intimacy, it limits your ability to drop other points into the story. Take a thriller or suspense, for example. The shadow behind a character, a figure creeping in the bushes, a stalker sitting outside in the car watching the house - all these details are lost to the reader if the character doesn’t know it is happening. Yes, maybe the heroine hears a car idling outside, but she won’t see that the stalker is taking pictures of her standing silhouetted in her bedroom window.
This can be very challenging. How can you build a plot with such a limited perspective? Well, the life of your character would evolve much like your own would. How do you learn things? Someone might mention them to you. (A neighbor warns that she should draw her bedroom curtains in the evening because it’s easy to see in and there was a car on the street in front of the house last night.) You could do research and gather facts on your own. (She goes on a sleuthing expedition to learn more about the history of the house and sees a photograph which captured her stalker walking past.) Mirrors, reflections, and echoes can add exciting elements. (She saw a flash in the mirror that seemed to be coming from the darkened car sitting on the street.) So can discussions with an investigator of some sort. ("Here are some facts we learned during our investigation," said Detective Smith.)
Some genres are easier to work within than others. If it's a romance you're writing, emotions are supreme so it should be easier to progress the story from only the perspective of the main character's thoughts and desires.
Multiple third-person – multi-faced storytelling
Multiple third-person offers many benefits, as it allows the characters to build credibility and affinity with the reader while at the same time giving access to numerous character's minds and more information that would be known by a single point of view. Most writing authorities caution that this needs to be crafted carefully to avoid stories feeling haphazard and whimsical, or the main character being lost in the muddle of too many minds. The most common way to do this is to carefully separate one character’s perspective from the next through having single-perspective scenes or chapters. This allows the reader time to get into the character’s head and re-align with their thoughts/desires/concerns/hates/loves.
Occasionally, an author successfully head-hops, such as in the case of Steven King’s The Outsider, but it is noticeable and sometimes takes a minute to readjust from one perspective to the next. “Oh wait, this is how Terry thinks Ralph feels about the situation, not how Ralph feels now." But it can work if done artfully and minimally.
Omniscient author – your own voice
Omniscient author gives you a voice in your story. You can tell the tale, reveal the secrets and jump across scenes and time. This may seem like a perfect solution to story writing, but what are the risks? The temptation to tell and not show will be a hard one to overcome, but this will determine if the reader believes your story and characters, or if they feel like they’re on the outside looking in. Without an emotional attachment, they’re apt to get bored and stop reading before your grand finale.
Another risk is that if too much of the author comes through, the characters themselves may be lost and the readers may perceive it as meddling in the character’s lives/world. As Anthony Varallo, the award-winning author says, "the reader sensing too much of the writer's hand in the story can risk breaking the ‘spell' of the story." In this case, showing not telling becomes critical to maintaining the balance.
Observer-narrator lets us watch the world along with the narrator, without any insight into the thoughts and actions of the characters. This puts pressure on the author to be descriptive and proficient at conveying feelings through movements and facial expressions. While this narrator type has its challenges, multiple aspects can be brought into the story quickly.
Which one is right for you?
Choosing a POV may depend on the story you wish to tell, rather than your preference for ease of writing. I have written multiple novels and have used limited third person, multiple third person, and omniscient author. While omniscient author was the easiest for me to craft the story, I think it had the least impact in terms of creating a dynamic story that pulls the reader into another world.
Limited third person was the most challenging to write, especially with supernatural suspense, as there was so much more I wanted the reader to know than just what the main character could experience. But in the end, it made for an engaging and thrilling story.
My personal preference is to write in multiple third person with large blocks of the story told from one perspective at a time. I prefer not to repeat the same scene from various angles, though this can be a crafty way to drop in new information and keep the reader on their toes as a mystery unfolds. Multiple third person also allows you to try your hand at writing from both the male and female perspectives, which can be fun and challenging.
Craft a convincing narrator
Whatever point of view you decide to use, a compelling narrator is crucial. John Mauk, novelist and writing textbook author, wrote an excellent article for Writer’s Digest entitled “3 Things Your Novel’s Narrator Needs to Accomplish.” He says that whether you write in first, second or third person, a good narrator needs to be persuasive by: creating memory (so readers "nod along and are comforted by what they already know and reminded that they belong here in this world”), creating horizon (“characters will look up often enough to remember what’s out there”), and disclosing all (“The best narrators tell all. They say so much right out of the gate, in the first five pages, for instance, that they establish an agreement with readers: if you stay with me, I’ll tell you everything as soon as I know or remember.”).
Once you have your plot mapped out, I challenge you to have a little fun and write your opening scene from multiple point of views. In the end, maybe first person is best for a thriller’s murderer or a romance’s love-sick teenager loaded with insight and emotion. But for an action-packed sci-fi, a more omniscient, multi-perspective approach could work. Whatever you chose, be consistent throughout your work and loyal to your characters, and your readers will be too.