Point of view is everything in film, television, and literature. Just watch this short clip from The Shining and notice the impact sudden shifts in camera perspectives have on you, the terrified audience member. You’re either witnessing Wendy swing a bat in terror or peeking through closed hands as Jack unravels. But what exactly is point of view? Point of view is the perspective of the narrative. As a writer, point of view means asking yourself who should tell this story? and where are they telling this story from. We’re all familiar with the different types of point of views a story can have: first person, third person, second person, but it’s also important to note some of the advantages each point of view can have in developing plot. Just as important is noting some of the possible disadvantages. Remember, point of view is on purpose. You don’t just write in first person because it’s easy, you write in first person because it’s the only way to tell your story.
Below you’ll find the specifics for each type of point of view:
First Person (central): The central figure of the work is responsible for narrating the story. Features of first person include: a unique voice, unreliable storytelling, and filtered perspective. Writers often choose first person point of view when they’ve got a character’s voice buzzing around in their head. Sometimes, in fact, the story isn’t all there, just the character’s interesting perspective of the world. Be mindful though, a first person narrator can be as funny as Ferris Bueller, or as moving as Holden Caulfield, but if there’s no plot, there’s no story. Often writers fall into the trap of spending too much time letting a first person narrator share their perspective and forgetting that something needs to happen. Of course, action doesn’t mean jumping from building to building; it can also mean a change in the character that only readers can see or a decision that the narrator is finally able to come to terms with. Small or momentous, change is necessary, so if you choose to tell your story through first person narration, be mindful of planning the conflict ahead of time.
For more insight into first person point of view, read “The Beauty Treatment,” “Bullet in the Brain,” “Bigfoot Stole my Wife,” and watch Eternal Sunshine, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fight Club, A Christmas Story
First Person (peripheral): Here you have a narrative told by a person or object on the outskirts of the action. The story isn’t really about this person; but this narrator has the access and interesting storytelling technique necessary. The best example of this type of point of view is The Great Gatsby. The story isn’t about Nick Caraway, it’s about Jay Gatsby. Yet, Nick is the one who tells us Jay’s tale. In a lot of ways, First person peripheral can be a way to have the intimacy of first person (“I”, “me” “I can’t believe…”) and maintain the complicated mystery of the protagonist. Think about it– knowing Jay Gatsby, would he have been an effective narrator? Not at all! He’s way too secretive and detached. For other examples of first person peripheral point of view, check out the beginning of Aladdin, Shawshank Redemption, Gossip Girl
Second Person: You’re writing a story. You want it to be interesting. You also want it to be something that no one has ever done before. So, you decide second person is the way to go. After all, it’s when “You” narrates. That is, the reader becomes the narrator, and you the author tell the reader exactly what to do, think, and say. Junot Diaz does this quite effectively in the short story, “Alma.” Another interesting use of second person occurs in youtube parody videos where a character talks to the camera as though the camera is another character in the skit (Think of the “Things women hear” or “Things everyone says to an Indian,” etc. parody videos). The most important thing to consider here is why. Why use second person? If it’s related to the overall theme of the work or the purpose of the work, then great! If it’s just because it’s new and no one has done it before, stop right there! You run the risk of writing something that is gimmicky.
Third Person (omniscient): This is the most traditional mode of storytelling. Think of a camera that has access to all involved in the narration. That’s third person. The narrator can tell readers what all characters are thinking, seeing, feeling, and doing. A trap though that often happens here is we forget the golden rule of creative writing: Show don’t tell! Even though your narrator has access to what people are feeling, don’t forget to show your readers through a gesture or a line of dialogue rather than tell them directly.
Third Person (limited): This is where you still adhere to the third person perspective and pronouns: he, she, they– but your narrator is specifically interested in the thoughts, feelings, and actions of a few characters or maybe even one character. Think of a Harry Potter film or novel. Sure, there’s hundreds of wizards to follow, but the narrator is only interested in following three dashing wizards.
Third Person (objective): This is a true test of how much you can show to a reader through actions and dialogue. This narrator is a reporter, and as such, can only report on what is seen and heard. In fact, this is a great practice for playwriting. We have so many examples of third person in film now given the recent surge of horror films that use technology as the “third person objective” narrator. Think Paranormal Activity, UnFriend Me, etc.