Story Point of View

Choosing Between Three Different Points of View

Story Point of View

The Balance

The point of view of a story is the perspective from which a story is told. Writers may choose to tell their story from one of three perspectives:

  • First-person: chiefly using "I" or "we"
  • Third-personchiefly using "he," "she," or "it," which can be limited—single character knowledge—or omniscient—all-knowing.
  • Second-personchiefly using "you" and "your"

As a writer, you must strategically choose the point of view that allows you to most effectively develop your characters and tell your story.

First-Person Point of View

When the author uses the pronouns "I," "me," "myself," "we," or "mine" to narrate a story, this piece of fiction is using the first-person point of view. Of all the ways to tell a story, this point of view is the easiest to use because the writer is "in conversation" with the reader, and it's easy to stay in character. In this point of view, the readers experience the world vicariously through the narrator.

The advantage of the first-person point of view is that you can immediately connect with the reader. The disadvantage of using this approach is you're limiting yourself because you're writing from only one perspective.

Consider this classic example from Herman Melville's 1851 classic novel Moby Dick first-person point of view perspective. The story is told from the sailor Ishmael's point of view. It has one of the most famous opening lines in literature, "Call me Ishmael." The reader is immediately drawn in.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Second-Person Point of View

When a narrator uses the pronoun “you” or "your" to tell the story, that is a case of using the second-person point of view. The story unfolds from the perspective of an onlooker who speaks directly to the reader. For example, "You went to school the other morning."

Second-person point of view is rarely used because it's easy for this writing style to sound gimmicky—making it the hardest point of view to use. But if you work at it, it can be done and done well. 

The advantage of second-person point of view is that you can engage the reader immediately. If you feel the need to immerse the reader right from the get-go, try this approach. The disadvantage is that it's very hard to convey a story effectively when speaking directly to the reader.

Here, consider an example from Jay McInerney’s best-selling novel Bright Lights, Big City second-person point of view.

You remember how you felt when you passed this way for your first interview, how the bland seediness of the hallway only increased your apprehension of grandeur. 

Before attempting to write from this perspective, you may want to read McInerney's novel to get a feeling of how best to use the second-person view. McInerney wrote the book in the second person because the main character is unnamed, and he sought to make the experiences and challenges of his central figure as personal as possible.

Third-Person Point of View

In third-person point of view, the narrator uses the pronouns "he," "she," "they," or "it" to tell the story. Think of it as you (the writer) functioning as an outsider looking in at the action taking place.

The third-person point of view is the most commonly used perspective because of all the options it offers. This perspective affords the author more flexibility than the other two perspectives. If you write in this mode, you are the "onlooker" watching the action as it unfolds. It's as though someone was in a theatre watching a play take place with several actors.

Should you choose to write from this perspective, you can write in third-person omniscient, where the thoughts of all the characters are revealed to the reader, or you can choose third-person limited, where the reader sees into the mind of only one character—either throughout the entire novel or in specific sections. 

The advantage of the third-person viewpoint is that the author can write from a broader perspective. The disadvantage is that it can be difficult to establish a connection with the reader.

As an example, you could choose a novel such as Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Writing from the third-person omniscient perspective allowed the author to be much freer with the plot than he could have been had he chosen to write in either of the two other points of view. Here he moves from the perspective of one character to another.

Sometimes she did not know what she feared, what she desired: whether she feared or desired what had been or what would be, and precisely what she desired, she did not know.

Try a New Point of View

Despite the advantage of the third person, beginning writers tend to fall back on the first person, either because it's easier or they are writing about themselves. Even if your story is autobiographical, consider trying the third person. Doing this will help you view your story more dispassionately and allow you to tell it more effectively. It might also show you directions for the story you hadn't considered.

When choosing between a limited and omniscient perspective, it may be easier to use third-person limited, which still adheres closely to one person's point of view. You can start with third-person limited, then, if you like, switch over to omniscient if you find you need more than one point of view to tell your story. This opportunity to switch gears should make it easier for you.

If your story keeps hitting a wall, consider switching the point of view. Beginning writers may groan at the idea of rewriting an entire story, but that's how many professional writers first learned which point of view works best for them.