When I first started writing, one of the hardest things for me to understand were the different points of view. I figured that if I was confused, probably some of you are/were, too, so I decided to post a basic overview of the different viewpoints. Let me remind all of you that the stellar examples are copyrighted, in case anyone considers stealing my genius. Editors, agents: I’m available for representation.
With this viewpoint, you tell the story from one person’s point of view, using the pronoun I. I, whoever that may be, is the narrator.
“Would you please focus? We’re supposed to be studying here.” I rolled my eyes. I couldn’t believe I got stuck with James as a research partner.
“Fine, fine,” he muttered, picking up his book.
Jeez, working with him was like being partnered with a toddler. Thank God he was back on track.
“Hey, look!” he said as the door whooshed open. “It’s Jan. JAN!”
“SHHHHH!” I hissed. “You’re in a library, idiot!”
This viewpoint includes an implied narrator; someone is saying ‘you’, but we don’t necessarily know who it is. The reader is the main character, and the story utilizes the pronoun “you”.
“Would you please get to work?” you ask.
James rolls his eyes and retrieves his encyclopedia. You hate being the heavy in this situation, but the report is due tomorrow and James hasn’t done doodly. You turn back to your paper, writing a total of ten words before James is distracted yet again.
“Jan! HEY, JAN!”
You wince and shove him. “This is a library, idiot! Be quiet!”
Here, we also have an implied narrator, but they’re saying ‘he’ or ‘she’. For me, this was where it got complicated until I realized that the third person viewpoint runs along a sliding scale. The scale starts at the limited side, where a story is told through the eyes/ears/brain of only one character. As you slide along the scale, you encounter writing that includes the thoughts/opinions of more than one character. The far end of the scale is the omniscient end, where literally anyone/anything/any event in the world can be commented upon.
Third Person (limited end of the scale)
The story is written inside one character’s head. No other character’s thoughts are accessible—only the things observable by the main character.
Rita resisted the urge to scream. “James. Would you PLEASE focus on your research? This paper is due tomorrow.”
James rolled his eyes, but opened his book. She thought about telling him to stop being such a child but didn’t want to interrupt him now that he was working. She’d read about three sentences before he was off track again.
“Hey, look! It’s Jan!” He stood up, waving his arms.
Now Rita was the one rolling her eyes.
Third Person (omniscient end of the scale)
The story is written from the viewpoint of several different characters.
Rita leaned over and forced herself to speak calmly. “James, I hate to be the adult in this situation, but you have to get back to work. We’ve only got an hour left.”
James rolled his eyes; the only reason he’d finagled Rita as a partner was because she was so smart. Yet here she was, expecting him to actually participate. He pulled his book closer, eyes listlessly scanning the page until the library door opened.
“Hey, it’s Jan. JAN!” he yelled.
“SHHHH!” Rita whispered. “You’re in the library, idiot!”
The story is narrated from outside the scene. The narrator has unlimited access to the characters’ thoughts and actions, past and present, and to events that have nothing to do with the viewpoint characters and are outside their realm of experience.
The library was a haven of academic serenity. A sophomore accessed the internet, looking for information on Prohibition. Behind glass doors, a study group rounded a table and clarified the finer points of a chemistry conundrum. A lanky boy lounged on a sofa, reading a motorcycle magazine. The picture of quiet industry, all.
Except for the couple at Table Fourteen.
“Listen,” Rita hissed, tired of researching, tired of babysitting her partner, and tired of doing all the work herself. “This paper’s due tomorrow and you haven’t done a blessed thing to help. Either gather your scattered thoughts and write something useful, or just go home and take a zero.”
James rolled his eyes. Rita was the proverbial “brain”: overachieving and bossy. He hated when she talked to him like he was stupid, but he couldn’t afford a zero on this assignment. He pulled the encyclopedia to him and tried to read, but it was so boring. When the library door swung open, he looked up.
“Hey, look, it’s Jan.” He waved his arms. “JAN!”
Rita jerked him back into the seat—how had she gotten saddled with such an incompetent? “Shut up, idiot! You’re not supposed to yell in the library!”
So there you have it. Granted, identifying the different viewpoints is only the first step; next, you’ve got to figure out when to use each one. But that’s another post for another day.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.