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Narrative 101: Choosing The Best POV For Your Story

Happy Thursday writers! Today is the start of our June writing series about Narrative and Grammar. We appreciate your patience with the slight delay in the release of this series, as we were postponed by online protesting that we felt compelled to be a part of. This month we'll be covering topics that explore these two categories to help bring you tips and examples that will help further develop your skills as a writer. Here we will learn how to best tell our stories, and how to ensure that we make as little mistakes as possible while doing so. In today's post we'll begin by introducing some background information on narrative and then explore the world of Point-of-View (POV's).

A narrative or story is a representation of events and experiences told in a way that is knowledgeable and skilled. It is the technique in which the narrator speaks directly to the reader. These stories can be true, such as those seen in episodes, vignettes, travelogues, memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies or fictitious like fairy tales, fables, stories, epics, legends, and novels. It is also one of the four rhetorical modes of discourse along with argumentation, description, and exposition.

One of the first methods of narrative storytelling was oral storytelling. It was used to guide a society on proper behavior, cultural history, and formation of a communal identity and values. Today narrative is found in all types of art and entertainment: Speech, literature, theatre, music and song, comics, journalism, film, television and video, video games, radio, game-play, unstructured recreation and performance, painting, sculpture, drawing, photography and other visual arts.

Narrative can also be broken down into several categories:

  • Nonfiction (including creative non-fiction, biography, journalism, transcript poetry and historiography)

  • Fictionalized historical events (such as anecdote, myth, legend and historical fiction)

  • Fiction proper (such as literature in prose and sometimes poetry, such as short stories, novels and narrative poems and songs)

  • Imaginary narratives (as portrayed in other textual forms, games or live or recorded performances)

You can also find narratives in unsuspecting places such as within other narratives, for instance an unreliable narrative like those typically found in noir fiction.

Everyone loves a good story. But in order to tell one, you have to use narrative. Narratives are an engaging form of storytelling that lures a reader in and invites them to participate in the story. Its purpose is to welcome discussions and thought long after the reader finishes reading. It ensures that your story has a long shelf life. It allows your story to be told, retold, changed, and continued. Narratives are also a direct reflection of our humanity. They allow us to communicate shared experiences and connect with others on a large scale, creating the sense of unity and bonding that transcends most boundaries and differences.

Point of View (POV) is the perspective through which the story is told. It is what the character or narrator can see and experience directly. This is a specific tool that the writer can use to determine how a story will be told, as different characters will have various views on events that happen within. These can be full, partial, omniscient, etc. Most stories feature a first or third person narrative, but these are not the only types of POV's available. It is also important not to confuse the narrator with the author themselves, as they are not mutually exclusive and do not necessarily share the same opinions.

There are several different types of POV's. Each serves a specific purpose and create a different experience for your characters and the story overall. Below is a list of the types.

First Person:

PRO'S: A perspective where a character (usually the protagonist) is the narrator. It is distinguished through the use of the word "I" and relies on first person pronouns. With this type of narrator, we expect that the character is either directly involved in or closely related to the action taking place in the story, which means that we're able to experience things on a personal level and able to understand the inner workings of that character's mind. This is the ultimate form of literary intimacy.

CON'S: It is limited by the perceptions of that particular character. This means that whatever assumptions, biases, and perceptions that your protagonist has will come through and color their narrative. It also means that you can only see or be privy to information that they themselves know or discover.

EXAMPLES: The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mocking Bird, Jane Eyre, Lolita, The Catcher In The Rye, Gone Girl, and The Lightning Thief.

Second Person:

PRO'S: A perspective not often used in novel-length work, it focuses on the use of the word "you". This draws the reader in because they are being directly addressed by the narrator, and thus are made to feel like part of the story. This is mostly a stylistic choice.

CON'S: One of the more difficult narrative point of views, if you choose to use it, it will definitely help you grow as a writer. Remember that once you start writing in this perspective, you have to carry it through to the end of your work. This may get tricky, but it's do-able if you really put your mind to it.

EXAMPLES: Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Romeo and/or Juliet by Ryan North, The Sweetheart by Angelina Mirabella, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, and Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi.

Third Person:

PRO'S: A perspective where the narrator tells the story about the characters using the pronouns "he/she". This can be subdivided into Third Person Omniscient and Third Person Limited. Depending on which one you choose, the scope of information received by the reader differs. This perspective is much more flexible than first or second.

CON'S: It can lack a certain level of depth, as it prevents you from using any direct character "thoughts" and sensory details in any of your scenes. If you're writing a story with heavy emphasis on a character's emotions or mental state, you may want to choose something other than third person to tell it.

EXAMPLES: Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone, The Wrath and The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, and A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab.

Third Person Omniscient:

PRO'S: This is the "all-knowing" narrator, the one who sees and hears everything about the story and it's characters. This type of narrator can enter anyone's mind, move freely through time, and give the reader their own opinions and observations as well as those of the characters. They also know things that the characters don't know about themselves, making it a fun secret between readers and narrator. This is like the fish bowl experience. Readers get to see everything going on from a distance, regardless of who specifically is privy to said info within the story.

CON'S: It can be detrimental for certain types of stories to be written in the third person omniscient. Things like mystery series and romances benefit from having first person perspectives because they retain an air of mystery and emotional connection. When you try and write these from the omniscient perspective, sometimes they lose some of their charm and appeal. That's not to say that you can't write using this form of narrative in those genres, it all depends on what your story requires.

EXAMPLES: Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Gossip Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar, The Diviners by Libba Bray, Little Women  By Louisa May Alcott, Strange The Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Ripper by Isabel Allende, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, and Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan.

Third Person Limited:

PRO'S: A unique perspective where the narrator sticks closely by one character but remains in third person. Also known as a "close third", this style allows a reader to know what a character is thinking, feeling, and other sensory details, giving a deeper experience of the scenes and character. This is like the zooming in of a camera lens. The reader gets to see the details you want them to focus on, but are kept from seeing the larger picture.

CON'S: Another difficult narrative to write in, this one can be challenging because it needs to be kept consistent. Because it skates the line between first person, third person, and omniscient, it can be hard to pull off correctly. Best to consult experts like Hemingway before attempting this stylistic choice.

EXAMPLES: Hemingway, 1984 by George Orwell, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, The Giver by Lois Lowery, The Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M. Romero, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Thanks for the Memories by Cecelia Ahern, Be Safe, I Love You by Cara Hoffman, and The Quest by Nelson DeMille.

Now that we've discussed what kinds of POV's there are to use, you may be wondering how you're supposed to decide which one is right for your story. The truth is that it can be difficult to figure out what works and what doesn't. Here are 4 tips to help you decide what's best and what to do once you've found it:

1. Try different POV'S: The only way to find out what works, is to try on different perspectives. It's a little like trying on a pair of shoes. You may like the look and feel of one type, but find that another fits just a little bit better. It's the same with finding your POV. Focus on what sounds better, what flows, and in general when things become easier to write. These are all indicators that you've found the right one.

2. Establish your POV from the beginning: Once you find a POV you want to work with, don't waste any time using it. Begin from the very start of your story writing in your chosen style. Your readers need to know from the first paragraph what perspective you are communicating from. If you're writing from Third Person, use your protagonist's name in the first sentence. Keep in mind that consistency is key. If you're writing a scene in first person and find yourself sliding into third person midway through, go back and correct it. Leaving it is a mistake because it is jarring to read and therefore pulls a reader out of the scene rather than keeping them enthralled like it should.

3. Pay Attention to the CON'S: Knowing what limitations your chosen POV has is important. You can't use a First Person perspective to tell us the thoughts of a secondary character. Likewise you can't use Third Person Omniscient and not tell us everything about your scenes and characters.Whichever you choose, make sure you understand how to use them properly. Each type has limitations that need to be respected in order for it to work.

4. Mix It Up: You can be a writing rebel if you feel the need. It is possible to jump from one POV to another, for example first to second or first to third. Just keep in mind that you need to fulfill whatever promises you make to your readers. Keep things in a consistent POV and finish out your chapter before switching to a different style and make sure that if you are going to leap between different ones that there's a good reason for doing so, and not just because you think it's cool.

Finding your narrative style isn't easiest thing in the world, but it's crucial for your story. By trying different perspectives, being consistent, knowing the limitations, and mixing it up, you'll find that once you discover the best fit writing becomes simpler.

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