Who’s Telling the Story?

Which sentence grabs your attention the most?

(1) I wasn’t sure which way would lead me home; I just knew that I had to keep walking, putting distance between myself and… them.

(2) He wasn’t sure which way would lead him home; he just knew that he had to keep walking, putting distance between himself and… them.

(3) You weren’t sure which way would lead you home; you just new that you had to keep walking, putting distance between yourself and… them.

Obviously, the only thing I changed was the PoV (point of view)–aka, who’s telling the story. The sensation while reading them, though, is different for each one.

The first example is more personal. You might not know who the narrator is yet–but you know that they are telling the story directly to you. The added intimacy makes it more engaging.

In the second example, you–the reader–are separated from the main character. There’s an added aura of mystery–since you’re left asking who “he” is, as well as “them.” The second example is like reading an account, such as a newspaper article. In contrast, the first is like being whispered a tale around a campfire.

The third example is something that is hardly ever seen in literature. (And it’s a real shame, because I feel like this kind of style would be really cool to play with.) Here, there is no separating you from the story–here, the writer is literally making you a character. This type of engagement adds to the suspense.

These are the three types of PoV: First, second, and third-person. Most stories are written in either first or second, for obvious reasons. Second-person can be limiting as, unlike third-person, you don’t have the advantage of being an observer from time to time, and, unlike first-person, you as the author can’t be privy to the character’s every thought.

So, unless you’re playing with some experimental fiction (which can be a lot of fun to read and write), chances are you’re going with first or third-person.

So… what difference does it make?

Well, for starters, first-person tends to be the most natural. Whenever we tell stories to family and friends, that’s how we tell them: “I was on my way to the store when….” If you’re wanting your story to have a more one-on-one feel, then this is a good way to go. In addition, first-person can also be an effective choice if you’re really wanting to get inside your main character’s head–focus on their thoughts and psyche.

On the flip-side, third person can also have its advantages. Maybe you want the reader to be separated from the main character. You can see more and experience more if you’re not stuck in just one person’s head. That said, there are different levels of third-person.

In third-person omniscient, the narrator (read: the author) knows everything. You tell what everyone is thinking and feeling. You can even express your own opinions. (This works particularly well with satire.)

In third-person limited omniscient, the narrator tends to stick with one character. He doesn’t jump around too often (though he may from time to time). His role is more that of an observer.

In third-person limited, the narrator is more neutral. He’s not diving into everyone’s heads. Instead, he is just relating the story as it happens.

All of these have their own advantages and disadvantages: How closely do you want your reader to know your characters? What tone are you looking to achieve?

Sometimes, the PoV comes naturally. You have a story in your head and you just go for it. Other times… it doesn’t. My biggest tip I can give is this: If you’re writing a story and it doesn’t seem to be working, try switching PoVs. You’d be surprised the difference it can make. (I once had a 100-page draft that wasn’t “feeling right.” I ended up trashing it and rewriting the entire story in first-person. After that, it just flowed.)

So… do you have a preferred PoV? Have you ever had to ditch a 100-page manuscript? Share your writing stories in the comments!

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