How Do You Choose The Right Point Of View For Your Story?
I am re-writing a novel and it occurred to me that since first starting it, I have changed the point of view three times. The first edit started life as a short story and I wrote it in the third person singular tense. At the time, I remember feeling like it didn’t work. It was flat, but what I now realise is that it lacked a narrative voice. The story focused on a sixteen-year-old boy called Jake and I tried to bring out his voice via the dialogue, but I showed none of his character traits when writing scenes around him. I used words that a sixteen-year-old boy wouldn’t dream of using and this was a mistake. This viewpoint is supposed to be the world as seen through the main characters eyes, using all five senses. Even though you write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’, you still need to consider how your character would see, feel and think about the world around them and convey this through the descriptive writing as well as in the dialogue.
This is an example of what I wrote, in a scene that introduces Jake’s connection to his dead grandmother:
Over the years, Jake had become used to looking at his grandmother’s photo and locking eyes with her. It was a strange sensation of falling, similar to the moment when you leave the highest point of a roller coaster. He never once felt scared, even though he never knew her because she died when he was a baby. Catherine told Jake that he had a special psychic talent that he would one day use to help people. She had been nurturing this talent ever since she first appeared to him when he was four years old.
I went on to change my story to the first person tense, with the view that I needed to get inside my character’s head. What I soon discovered was that this point of view can be limiting because you can only write about what your character sees, feels and thinks etc. and no one else’s. I also found that I reverted to a lot of retrospection, in an effort to fill in the gaps that the reader didn’t know.
This extract is again, an introduction to Jake’s connection with his dead grandmother written in this tense:
It is not as if I am plagued by dead people trying to connect with me. My grandmother is the only other dead person I have seen and she has visited me since I was four years old. When I was younger, I thought I was crazy for being able to talk to my dead grandmother and I’ve been trying to hide my weirdness ever since it first happened. It is one of my earliest memories. I remember I was sat at the kitchen table having a snack whilst my mum was outside hanging out some washing. I looked at the photo of my grandmother on the kitchen dresser, opposite where I was sitting and I was transfixed.
As the story progressed, I added another two more points of view in order to fill in the gaps. It became a triple narrative and it started to get a bit confusing. What I had to ask myself when I finished it was whose story is this? For a story to work, you need to be clear about this. The reader needs to know beyond all doubt: who are they are routing for, who has a problem they need overcome/fixed as the story progresses?
Looking back, I could have gone for a third person plural viewpoint. It’s difficult to pull off though and you have ensure that your characters take it in turns, so it doesn’t get confusing. It’s also similar to the triple narrative I ended up with and it may have once again taken the focus off the main character and his plight.
One thing that I haven’t tried yet is the Omniscient point of view. This way of writing takes a wider view of the experiences of each character and the narrator can add information that an individual doesn’t know i.e. something that is about to happen to them. It can also add information that none of the characters knows about. It’s like God looking down from above.
For this latest edit, I wasn’t sure which way to go. I have identified that this is Jake’s story and it made the most sense to go for a single person narrative. When I started writing though, something else happened. It flowed out in the present tense and it seemed right this way. My aim is to bring in any relevant backstory information through the present tense dialogue, rather than holding up the flow of the story by adding it in in a retrospective way.
This is an extract in this tense, again using the same scene with an introduction to Jake’s grandmother and his ability to connect with the dead:
I’m just about to turn on the TV when I see something out of the corner of my eye. It’s something, or should I say someone I haven’t seen for the last five years and I’m not sure if my mind is playing tricks on me. So I freeze, spoon mid-way between the bowl and my mouth.
‘Jake, it’s me.’
I don’t move.
‘Jake, don’t ignore me, I know you can see me.’
I still don’t move.
‘Darling I’m sorry. I know I promised to leave you alone after all the trouble I landed you in, but something really important has come up and I need your help.’
I start to lift the spoon to my mouth, but I’m not hungry anymore. The ghost of your dead grandmother trying to talk to you sure seems like a great way to curb your appetite.
She walks over towards me. Well it’s more like a shimmer really as her image moves closer. Yes, it’s weird, but it’s not as though I haven’t seen it before, so it’s not a shock to me. I have had visitations from gran since I was four.
Do you struggle with getting the right viewpoint for your stories? How do you choose which way to tell them?
I’m sharing this for What I’m Writing.