Welcome to our third lesson from Building a Short Story from the Ground Up. We are offering two options for this class:
- You can simply read through the class and take it on your own. No strings attached. Challenge yourself with the homework assignments if you like or not. The entire class is on your own, assignments and all.
- You can do the lessons and homework and receive feedback for each lesson, along with a critique of your final short story for the price of $47, paid via Paypal. If you choose this option, you will need to send homework assignments to <firstname.lastname@example.org> along with your name (and if your Paypal contact name differs from your name, include this as well for verification).
Lesson 3: Choosing Point of View
Point of view is the angle through which a story is told. Think of it as the eyes through which the reader sees the story unfold, or the emotional focus the writer chooses to develop the story action.
The three main points of view
- First-person. The thoughts and actions of one character are expressed using the pronouns “I” and “me.” The writer, in essence, “becomes” the character, which results in a more emotional closeness. The story has a more personal feeling. The “I” lends itself to a more empathetic relationship with the reader. The one caution with choosing this POV is the character must be able to carry the weight of the story. (More on that below.)
- Third-person limited. The story is told through the eyes of one character, with thoughts and actions expressed using “he” or “she,” “him” or “her.” By far the most commonly used POV. While reader identification can occur, third-person limited allows for more emotional distance than first-person POV.
- Third-person omniscient. The narrator of the third-person omniscient story knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters. Reader identification is made harder because the story doesn’t belong to one character, which is why this POV is no longer popular. More suited for novels than short stories, third-person omniscient works better for plot-driven stories, where “the story is the thing.”
Variations of the three main points of view
Not for the faint of heart, these variations of the three main points of view are best in the hands of the seasoned writer—or the brave one.
- Single minor character. The narrator is a minor character within the plot who tells the main character’s story. Also called the observer point of view. Think Nick in The Great Gatsby. While certainly a challenge to write, this POV can be useful when the main character is unsympathetic to readers. The narrator becomes entangled in the main character’s problems, has a stake in what happens, and offers perspective to the actions of the main character.
- Multiple viewpoints. The story is told from the perspective of two or more major characters involved in the same or similar problem as they move toward the story’s climax. Basically, two or more story lines emerge and converge along the way to a conclusion. One problem with multiple viewpoints is that reader identification is divided between several characters. Also, telling two or more stories simultaneously can interrupt the continuity. However, a compelling story written well can overcome these obstacles.
Whose story is it, anyway?
How does the writer decide which character should be the viewpoint character? Here are a few points to consider.
The character should:
- Dominate the action
- Have the most pressing problems to solve
- Be able to solve those problems
- Develop the author’s message
- Have the most to win or lose
Rx . . . for when you’re stuck
A friend and fellow member of my critique group had been working on a novel which, in many ways, mirrored his own life. For years he worked on the story, writing in the first person. The problem with his novel in progress was that the story often came across as lacking emotion, as if the details of the story were reported rather than experienced. When he sent the manuscript off to an agent, the agent suggested he change to a third person POV, and, surprisingly, this helped give him enough emotional distance to write the story. The lesson he learned: If you’re having POV problems, try writing a couple of paragraphs in a different POV, whether switching from first to third (or vice versa) or even changing POV characters.
By now you’re starting to develop scenes in your head, so let’s get to the writing! Write a scene from your story, preferably one with a lot of energy, and experiment with different points of view. For example, you can write the scene with a first person POV, and then try third person. Or, you might want to try third person omniscient and third person limited. Maybe you’re ambitious and want to try all three of the main POVs or something more difficult like multiple viewpoints or single minor character. The point of the exercise is to experiment with POV to find what works best for your story.