In a story someone is always between us and the events unfolding – a viewer, a speaker, or both. Stories are always mediated. One of the larger considerations in how we mediate the telling of a story is the Point of View (POV). This is the focus how the story is told – the point from which the people, events and other details are viewed. There are 3 generally accepted POVs:
- 1st Person
- 2nd Person
- 3rd Person
And 1st and 3rd person come in two different flavors. Let’s talk about 2nd person first – this is where “You” do things and is generally only used for choose-your-own-adventure books or experimental literature. Second person can also be done through the gathering of information like clues, a collection of letters between characters, discovered journal entries, etc. It can be done well, as was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, it often isn’t and unless you truly have a vision, I would advise avoiding using this POV.
1st person is told in the “I” tense – “I opened the door,” “I felt a chill.” 1st person has the benefit of being immediately immersive into the story. The first flavor of 1st person is the framed story, where the beginning sets the stage for the story being told, think Rose telling the love story of her and Jack during the sinking of the Titanic. The second flavor of 1st person is when the story is told as if there is a chip inserted in the brain of the narrator and we are along for the ride, this is called ‘central consciousness.’
The internal focus of 1st person allows for character sympathy to be quickly built. However, it is limited in nature. It can only tell the reader what the person telling the story, the “I,” can experiences or notices or thinks; there is no telling the ‘bigger picture.’ Because of this, the 1st person can also create what is considered an ‘unreliable narrator.’ This indicates that what is being told isn’t necessarily reality as it exists but reality as it is perceived to be by the narrator and therefore the story we are being told may be false in some way.
3rd person comes as ‘omniscient’ and ‘limited.’ Omniscient is when the narrator is all knowing and will share the actions and thoughts of all characters as the events unfold. Dune is an exceptional example of this. When done well, it builds the tension of ‘how will things unfold’ because there is little mystery about who is going to do what. When not done well, it makes the story feel more distant, so that immersion is difficult for the reader to achieve.
Limited 3rd person is when you are able to pan out to tell the larger actions of the story, but overall the story is still limited to being told from the view point of one character at a time. In this style, you can have the same event described differently by two different characters. It is best suited for stories with a pantheon of characters where 1st person would only serve to confuse which “I” is speaking at any given time. The Game of Thrones series is an exceptional example of 3rd person limited. When not done well though, when changes from one character to another are too frequent, it forces the reader to work harder and makes immersion more difficult.
As writers we are very much used to thinking of a story in terms of its plot, so to give a plot summary is how we summarize a story. However, if you shift the POV, you will find that the story itself has changed. POV is one of the fundamental decisions that will help define the story you are telling just as much as deciding on the plot. I recommend that you take a scene from your current work in progress and try writing it in different points of view to get a feel for how it changes the tone of your story. Experiment often to find out which style suits your voice.