Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: February 9, 2003
Reposted on: March 27, 2005
Point of View (POV) is an integral part of
writing, but one which is
misunderstood or misused.
What are the different POV options?
First of all, who is telling the story?
First-person: Told using "I" - the
narrator is directly involved in
(either as the protagonist, the main character, or as a secondary
witnessing and reporting the story - think of Dr. Watson in the
Holmes stories, for example.) Obviously, this narration is limited to
that one character knows, sees, or experiences (though of course, that
character can, for example, obtain extra information from someone
Second-person: Told using "you", trying to
put the reader in the
centre of the
story. Seldom used, and even more seldom used convincingly. See Jay
McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City for an example of a successful
written using second person.
Third-person: Told using he/she/they, by
an external observer.
I am currently reading Stephen King's
collection of short story,
Eventual". Some of the stories are in first person, some in third. For
example, the opening story is about a man, paralysed by a snake bite,
mistaken for dead and brought to the autopsy room. Another is about a
brought to an interrogation room in a South American dictatorship. The
story is told in first person, and would (in my opinion) be very hard
off in third person. Conversely, the second story is told in third
which makes sense to me because it maintains the suspense as to whether
character makes it out or not. Think about how the choice of viewpoint
affect how these stories, and others, are told.
Next, how much does that narrator know or
Objective: the narrator sees the story
from the outside, having no
access to the thoughts or emotions of any of the characters, reporting
through dialogue and actions.
Limited: the narrator has full access to a
single character, and
that this one character knows (but not anything this character doesn't
Omniscient: the narrator is god-like and
can access all characters.
Note that different people use different
names or descriptions for
and it's not always clear even using a single definition what POV is
being used. In Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, the narration
from character to character between chapters (alternating between a
sisters, with occasional insertions from the mother) - but each chapter
strictly told from the POV of that one character, and the other
the story (most notably the father) are only seen through those
is that story omniscient, or sequentially limited?
Each option has its advantages and
provides the most
information, but can lose unity - the reader can be distracted by POV
or feel less engaged because there's not as much emphasis on a single
character. Limited creates a stronger link with a single character, and
help the reader feel involved. Objective can be used to create
distance, or to
allow the reader more room for interpretation.
POV is covered in many writing resources,
including Web sites such
All too often, I suspect, writers don't
ask themselves which POV to
simply start writing in whatever POV seems most appropriate at that
confess I do this - and like many writers, tend to default to a single
all my stories, in my case first person.) A potential problem here is
the writer is not well aware of what POV the story is in, the POV may
unexpectedly - from limited to omniscient, for example, or from first
(note that many highly successful writers shift between first person
person omniscient within the same story. Obviously, they get away with
it can be very distracting, and at times it feels like the author is
playing sleight-of-hand games with the reader.) For example, there is
question about the popularity of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series -
readers dislike her sudden switches between the dominant first person
to third person.
So, which is the best POV to use? There is
no rule, of course, and
POVs will work best in different stories. The best way to learn this is
experiment - which is the purpose of this exercise.
So here is the exercise:
Write the same scene twice, using two
different POVs. Choose any two
(no restrictions - if you want to try writing a scene in second-person
omniscient, then go right ahead. You can even do both versions in
or third-person limited, but using different POV characters, though I
having two different ones from objective, limited, and omniscient.) The
should involve a secret or hidden information - the POV you use will
that information can be revealed (or even *if* it can be revealed.)
Tell us the POV for each version, so
critics can check how well you
to that POV.
You may find that the scenes diverge:
because things are presented
differently, our perception of the characters and of the scene may
things may progress differently. This is fine, within the scope of this
Each version should be no more than 300
Posted on: February 10, 2003
I guess I forgot to include instructions
on what to look for when
It's not simply a question of saying "this version worked best" - it's
contest, after all.
First off, when writing a critiquing, see
how well the piece sticks
stated point of view. For example, I've seen submissions labelled first
that slipped into third, and vice versa. Is the information consistent
the point of view used, if we're in a limited viewpoint? If in
transitions between characters smooth or jarring?
Then, if one version works better, then
*why* do you think it does,
case? Remember - the goal is not to pick the best point of view;
such thing. The goal is to learn the differences, that advantages and
drawbacks of each.
Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: February 15, 2003
Wow, quite a week! I was thinking this
might be a slow week, since
this is a
difficult topic, but people certainly rose to the challenge! The
have shown both the richness, and the complexity, of the various
Some of the submitters nailed their chosen
POVs, others clearly were
more - I hope everyone learned something, though, which is the purpose
exercise. (If we were all perfect writers, we wouldn't need this list,
Certainly, the submissions and critiques
showed how many different
are to tell a story, and how the choice of POV can provide both
and limitations, thus shaping how the story can be told and how it will
To be honest, my favourite submissions
were the ones where the two
came out different, showing a different picture (even if describing the
scene); in some of the submissions where the two versions were
presented the same information, I kept getting the feeling that the
POVs weren't being exploited properly, that opportunities were being
I hope we all learned something about POV,
and that in future, even
continue to have a favourite POV to use, we will give more thought to
to use for a given piece of writing (and having made that choice, that
be better able to stick to it, and take advantage of the opportunities
(Oh, by the way, I had forgotten about the
participant POVs - I'll have to check up on those, as they address one
of point-of-view I have been struggling to find a way to express. If
has a good reference on those, I would love to know about it!)
Web site created by
Rhéal Nadeau and
the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.