Deciding how to tell a story is a critical part of the writing process. The voice that comes through accompanies readers throughout your story, allowing them to connect with your characters and engage with the plot.
For some writers, point of view comes naturally and perspectives emerge without much thought or consideration. For others, it's a conscious choice that contributes to the overall storytelling. There are four different types of narrative points of view. Most writers choose one and stick with it throughout the story, but there are no hard and fast rules. Plus, it's possible to use more than one point of view within a story, as long as it's clear to the reader. Let's start by explaining the particulars.
The 4 types of narrative point of view
These are stories told in the voice of your main protagonist. What happens in the book should only ever be from their perspective, as this point of view is highly personal and limited to their experiences. These kinds of stories are always told in the first person, which means the writer uses "I" when attributing dialogue or description.
First person narrative is an effective tool for writers working on highly-personal stories or who want to limit information to the reader for narrative purposes. As long as it makes editorial sense, and the voices are separate and distinct for the reader, there can be more than one character using the first person in a story.
Read it in action: I knew the moment I walked up the steps to my new school that this year was going to be a disaster.
The second person is the least-used narrative technique. It's more often a tool for educational textbooks and instructive writing. Second person is immediately recognizable because it's always written as "you," putting the reader immediately into the heart of the story.
Read it in action: You are about to take a long and perilous journey. Do not stop to say goodbye to your family. Do not even consider speaking about this with your friends.
Third person - omniscient
This is the most widely used narrative tool for novelists and storytellers alike. It allows the most freedom in terms of how to tell the story and gives the most room in terms of perspective. Essentially, the narrator sees, knows, and hears all. They are omnipresent (present everywhere) in terms of the story.
Read it in action: The three girls worked up the courage to go on stage. Their first gig! They couldn't imagine a better start to the year - rocking out at summer camp, their guitars echoing all across the lake. Piper couldn't stop shaking, but Lorrie held her hand tightly while Erika grabbed the other.
Third person - limited
While the narrative voice is the same as third person omniscient, this perspective is often tied to one character, namely the protagonist. This allows a writer to maintain some distance from the character.
Read it in action: The three girls worked up the courage to go on stage. Their first gig! Piper couldn't imagine a better start to her senior year, with her two best friends beside her. She squeezed both their hands as the MC made the announcement.
Bonus: tips and tricks for seamless storytelling
- Two different points of view should never exist within the same paragraph, and should always be separated by a structural element, like an editorial or chapter break.
- Readers get easily confused if a writer slips back and forth between different points of view without a reason for doing so. Make a choice at the beginning and stick with the point of view that will best suit your story. Do you want to tell an intimate story of a highly-personal nature? Use the first person. Do you want to reveal bits and pieces of the larger story as you go along, making sure your reader knows more than your characters? Third-person omniscient is the way to go.
- Sometimes, if a story isn't working or feels inauthentic, the voice is the issue. Feel free to make a switch and start telling it from a different perspective.