narrative viewpoint

What’s your narrative viewpoint in fiction writing?

Please welcome today’s guest writer, N. Strauss, editor of the website Creative Writing Now.

Narrative point of view is the perspective you use to tell a story. It’s like the location of the camera in a movie scene.

You can write a story from the point of view of just one character so that the reader watches the story’s events through that character’s eyes. Or you can alternate between multiple points of view. You can even choose an omniscient point of view, which moves around freely.

Point of view is a powerful tool in fiction writing. Here are a few of the ways you can use it in your stories.

1. Draw readers into a scene.

Limiting the point of view in a scene to one character at a time can help your readers feel as if they’re actually there. When readers imagine the scene, they know where to place themselves.

For example, let’s say you’re writing a scene from the point of view of a character named Bertha. Someone has just broken into Bertha’s house, and she is hiding from him under her bed. When readers imagine this scene, they imagine it as if they were lying under the bed too.

To pull this off, you have to be very careful about the details you include. You can describe the dust bunnies under the bed and the thud of footsteps in the next room. Since you’re writing from Bertha’s perspective, you can’t describe the intruder’s appearance — not while he’s in a different room and she can’t see him. Nor can you describe the look of terror on Bertha’s face — she can’t see her own facial expression.

When the intruder enters Bertha’s bedroom, you can describe his shoes and trouser cuffs, which might be the only part of him she can see from her hiding place.

2. Establish empathy with a character.

When you limit a story’s point of view to just one character, this creates intimacy between readers and that character. Readers identify with the viewpoint character; they feel as if they are that character in the world of your story.

If you choose instead to use multiple points of view, you complicate this relationship between reader and character, dividing the reader’s loyalties. The reader knows information your character doesn’t, and this distances the reader from the character.

3. Show a character’s thoughts.

Not only do readers see through the viewpoint character’s eyes, you can choose to give readers direct access to the character’s thoughts. For example, as Bertha lies under the bed, you can show her remembering a recent argument with her boyfriend. He wanted her to have an alarm system installed, and she accused him of being paranoid. Boy, is she sorry now.

There are also more subtle ways to show what a character’s thinking.

Remember that when you’re writing from the point of view of a particular character, you include only the details in a scene that your viewpoint character observes. This not only shows the character’s physical location (e.g., under the bed). It also shows what the character is paying attention to. And that says a lot about the kind of person this character is and what’s on his or her mind.

There are an infinite number of details in every scene; the human brain is not capable of processing all of them. We pay attention to the ones that matter to us and filter out the rest.

For example, imagine two different people observing the same man in a bar. A character named Jim is wondering if the man is dangerous. Jim is likely to notice the bulge in the man’s jacket pocket. Is that a weapon?

A character named Diana finds the man attractive and is thinking of going over and flirting with him. So she notices that the man is wearing a wedding ring. Jim might not see this detail at all — it is irrelevant to him.

4. Withhold information.

If you’re writing a story that contains surprising twists, you may want to hold information back from the reader so that you can reveal it later. One way to accomplish this is to write from the viewpoint of a character who doesn’t have all the information yet.

Mystery novels are generally written from the point of view of characters who are still looking for the answers. If you wrote a mystery from the viewpoint of the criminal, you’d have to do a lot of dodging around to hide the solution from the reader. And the reader would likely feel manipulated.

For this reason, crime novels that include the criminal’s point of view are likely to fall into the suspense or thriller genres, rather than being true mysteries. From the very beginning, readers know the identity of the criminal. They’re reading not to find out information about past crimes, but to find out what will happen next — will the criminal get caught or strike again?

5. Create suspense by switching viewpoints.

Many thrillers use multiple points of view as a tool to create suspense.

For example, maybe Bertha hasn’t realized that there’s an intruder in her house.

The story starts from the point of view of the man who has just murdered Bertha’s boyfriend and is now climbing in her attic window. Standing in the dark attic, he takes his knife out of his jacket pocket. Then he heads down the attic stairs.

Now the story switches to Bertha’s point of view. Bertha sits in bed with her laptop, writing an email to her boyfriend. “I’ve been trying to call you all day, but your phone’s turned off,” she writes. “I hope everything’s fine. I’ve been thinking — we should spend a weekend together in Paris.”

She sends the email, then goes onto Google to search for medical advice about her itchy elbow. Will the itching go away on its own, or should she see a doctor? She tries unsuccessfully to get a good look at her own elbow, then goes to the mirror on her closet door to check it there.

Because readers have information that Bertha doesn’t — there’s a killer in her house — they’re likely to feel nervous as she goes about these activities. If the whole story were written from Bertha’s point of view, her actions would just seem mundane.

You can use the same technique in your fiction to create irony. The idea is that the reader knows more than the character, and this changes the reader’s attitude to what the character says and does.

Narrative Viewpoint Exercise:

Here’s a writing prompt you can use to practice some of these narrative viewpoint techniques.

A real estate agent takes a couple to visit a house that’s for sale. The wife thinks the house is wonderful. The husband thinks it’s a real dump. Write the scene first from the wife’s point of view, then write it again from the husband’s.

Think about how two people can see the same thing and reach totally different conclusions. What details does each of them notice? What aspects of the house does each of them consider important?

About the Author: N. Strauss is the editor of the website Creative Writing Now, which offers ideas, training, and support for fiction writers and poets. Their new e-book, Fiction Boot Camp, will show you how to improve over 100 aspects of your fiction writing and increase your chances of getting published. 

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