How to Write a Book: Point of View

One of the most difficult lessons I struggled with when learning how to write a book was in the area of point of view. In other words, from whose eyes will the reader see the world as portrayed in the book?

A person writing autobiography or their own memoir has it easy. They simply write in the first person, and everything is described from their own point of view.

I wrote the history of a family, based on interviews with the various members. The difficulty I ran into was not having enough detail to write compelling scenes about certain events. Eventually I got around this by having different members of the family take turns telling part of the story. Then if story about the grandfather lacked some detail that he should have known (since he was there), it didn’t matter, since the granddaughter was telling the story. I brought it to life by adding her feelings or commentary about the event. So even a narrative with the grandfather as the main actor was told from the point of view of the granddaughter.

But what about a novel? One of the reasons people often say “the book was better than the movie” is because the novelist can show the inner world of the characters. Whether writing in the first person or the third, the reader is privy to the thoughts of the characters.

Jane Austen’s Emma does a masterful job of showing the village of Highbury to the reader through the eyes of rich, pampered Emma. She assumes her values and opinions are shared by one and all. The words and actions of others gradually change her views, and the reader gets glimpses of the village and its inhabitants that change as well. While occasionally the narrator shifts to other characters’ points of view, the emphasis is on Emma and her view of the world.

Most novels written in the third person use what’s called the limited point of view. This means that the narrator only reveals what that character can know or observe. Others use the omniscient point of view, which lets the readers in on the thoughts of all of the characters. While this can be effective, it can also be confusing to the reader. Misuse can lead to mistakes such as:

Mary smelled the baking cookies, which Jane prepared to atone for picking a fight with her earlier.

Whose point of view is in force? If it’s Mary’s, then how does she know Jane’s motivation for baking? If it’s Jane’s, then why are we concentrating on Mary and what she can smell? This sentence shifts from one point of view to another (unless Mary—and the reader—have some reason to know what Jane is up to.)

Whatever point of view is chosen, it’s important to be consistent, and make sure any shifts are clear to the reader. Most authors start a new chapter if they change point of view.

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