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A Crash Course in Point of View for Creative Writing

When you think about point of view in creative writing, the first thing that probably comes to mind is what pronouns you use as the narrator to tell the story. Do you get inside your character’s head and use “I”? Are you telling the story from the outside and using “they”? Or are you getting super unique and crazy by putting the reader in your character’s shoes and using “you”? Picking first-, second-, or third-person is a big part of point of view (more on this later), but that isn’t all it’s about where creative writing is concerned. 

Point of view is like a camera lens for your narrative, framing how your readers experience your story. It's a crucial storytelling element that can dramatically shape how your characters, plot, and themes are perceived. Think of it as the different filters on the camera app on your phone—whether a picture is in bright colors, sepia tones, or black and white, it changes the viewer’s experience. 

It’s why many filmmakers, including Orson Welles, Eliza Kazan, and Christopher Nolan, fought for the decisions they made in terms of film type or the use of color or black and white. I mean, Citizen Kane in color? It wouldn’t pack the same punch without that stark, angular photography.

Similarly, your chosen point of view sets the tone, paints emotions, and crafts experiences, lending vibrancy and depth to your story. Think about your favorite book. What point of view choices does the author make, and how would the story be different if those decisions were different?

Point of view is an intentional literary choice that impacts every other aspect of your story. It’s also an area where I get a lot of questions from readers and clients. So, let’s dive in and cover the basics to get some answers to some burning point-of-view questions.

What’s the Deal with the Different Points of View?

Let’s briefly cover this first-person/third-person stuff. A first-person perspective might be your best bet if your story demands an intimate, raw exploration of a character's psyche. On the other hand, if you desire to paint a broader canvas, presenting various angles and perspectives, third-person could be your go-to. There's also the less-traveled road of the second-person point of view, where the reader becomes the protagonist, offering a uniquely immersive experience.

Nonfiction has some different conventions of point of view. You will likely use the first person if you're writing about yourself. However, I’ve seen some dynamite essays written in the second person, forcing the reader to vicariously experience unique and even terrifying events, giving them a greater ability to empathize with the author.

Then there’s literary journalism, which often creates real people as characters and uses narrative devices like point of view to engage readers’ interest and imagination. Because the author often imagines their way into the lives of real people, the third-person is the typical choice for this genre.

Remember, there's no rigid rulebook. Experiment and see what resonates with your narrative and artistic voice. 

Which Character is Telling the Story?

Remember that kids’ book The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs? In this classic picture book, readers get a front-row seat to the Big Bad Wolf’s account of the events surrounding the demolition of two pigs’ homes and the Wolf’s ultimate downfall. 

The musical Wicked is another example. We all know what went down with the Wicked Witch of the West and that bucket of water, but once you know that her name was really Elphaba and she and Glinda were BFFs in college, watching The Wizard of Oz hits different.

Your point of view character matters. In Wicked, Dorothy is no longer the central figure. In fact, apart from some scant references in Act II, she isn’t in it at all. Same story—different angle. How does your story change if a different character is the focus?

The general point of view you choose also impacts this. Does your story require the intimacy of first-person, or do you think it works better to use third-person? You should consider these decisions in light of how you want your story to impact readers.

Exploring Narrative Distance

Though often overlooked, narrative distance plays a pivotal role in shaping your story’s point of view. It's like the invisible thread connecting your reader to the unfolding action of your story. Imagine it as a telescope; at times, you might want your reader to be up close and personal, taking in every detail. Other times, you might want them to step back to grasp the larger picture. 

Manipulating this narrative telescope allows you to choose how closely your readers engage with your characters and events. It's your secret weapon in controlling the intensity of the reader's involvement, deciding how much they know and when they know it. 

Time also plays a critical role in narrative distance. You need to consider whether your story takes place in the past or present. Is your character relating events that happened a long time ago? If so, enough time has passed that she can reflect on what happened and see the significance of it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example—the narrator is speaking about her childhood from a distance of many years, allowing her to provide insight into events that, as a child, she did not fully understand.

Then there’s the present tense, where the events unfold in real-time, and you and the character are experiencing them together. I want to give a shout-out here to Inkling client M.E. Duffield, who masters the first-person present tense viewpoint in her novel Awake in Olaiya. The main character, Nat, is in an unusual situation where she struggles to remember things from day to day. Using this viewpoint allows readers to be as confused as she is and then gradually gain clarity as, for her, the story’s events come into greater focus.

So, play around with it. Adjust the lens. You have the power to pull your readers in or let them drift, creating an immersive or detached narrative experience as needed.

Tips for Choosing the Right Point of View

At this point, I’ve thrown a lot of information at you, and deciding on your narrative's perspective probably feels like a formidable task. To ease the process, here are some handy tips: 

  • Think about the key pieces of information in your story. When and how do you want to disclose them? Your point of view can be an effective tool in this strategic unveiling.

  • Consider which viewpoint will most effectively hook your reader. Will they be drawn into a first-person introspection, or will a multi-dimensional third-person perspective captivate them more?

  • Don't hesitate to dabble in different viewpoints before making your final call. This experimentation can offer surprising insights into your narrative's needs.

  • Trust your gut. More often than not, your story instinctively leans towards a specific perspective. Pay attention to these subtle nudges. 

Remember, choosing the right point of view is not about adhering to hard-and-fast rules but about understanding the story you want to tell and letting it guide you.

Need Some More Help Understanding Point of View?

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