Writing a Novel? You Should Know This About Point of View

Sophie Playle

What point of view should you use to tell your story? It’s an important decision, one that can result in your novel being either an immersive page-turner or a literary flop – and here’s why.

Point of view (POV) refers to who is telling or narrating a story. The three most common viewpoints used in novel writing are: first person (using the pronoun ‘I’ to tell the story), third person limited (using the pronoun ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ or ‘they’ to tell the story, but from a particular character’s perspective), and third person omniscient (using ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ or ‘they’ but the narrator is an all-knowing entity).

For a more detailed look at these last two types of viewpoint, see: What’s the Difference Between Omniscient and Third Person Narration?

When choosing who should narrate your story, keep this important fact in mind:

Two characters will never describe the same events in the same way.

Even if a multitude of characters are experiencing the same events, they will tell different stories. Simply put, your experience of the world is different to mine.

I might notice things you don’t, or have knowledge of something you don’t, or have experienced something in life that makes me think about things differently to you – and all these things will mean I interpret the world in a unique way.

Because of this, the point of view from which you tell your story will affect the story you tell.

Even if you’re using an omniscient narrator, as the author, you’ll need to decide what knowledge to portray to the reader and when. You’ll need to decide which character’s heads you’ll dive into and when – if at all. Because using an omniscient narrator doesn’t mean anything goes, and wherever you align the point of view of your narrator has dramatic ramifications.

Because when you limit knowledge, you create drama and mystery.

Let’s look at an example.

Say you’re writing a scene with two characters, one of which has a secret that the other wants to know. What would be more exciting? If you were aligned with only one of the characters – sharing their thoughts, their worries, their observations and interpretations, every skipped heartbeat, every bead of sweat – or if you jumped from head to head, effortlessly finding out the answers to each of the character’s concerns?

For example, Bert might be thinking, ‘She held my gaze for a moment longer than necessary – oh my God, she knows’ while Gina might be thinking, ‘Ah, he has such pretty eyes’, instantly dissolving the tension caused by Bert’s concerns.

Think carefully about the point of view you choose. Because the perspective from which your story is told is not an arbitrary decision. Get it right, and you’ll create tension and mystery. Get it wrong, and you’ll send your reader to sleep.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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