“Style,” said poet Richard Eberhart, “is the perfection of a point of view.” And he’s right—which is why determining the viewpoint of your story makes all the difference. Need to shake up your editing? Consider what effects different points of view might have on your readers.
There’s a point of view for me…
Example #1, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “The street lights were fuzzy from the fine rain that was falling. As I made my way home, I felt very old, but when I looked at the tip of my nose I could see fine misty beads, but looking cross-eyed made me dizzy so I quit. As I made my way home, I thought what a thing to tell Jem tomorrow. He’d be so mad he missed it he wouldn’t speak to me for days. As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra.”
1st person narration allows the character to tell his or her own story.
It’s intimate. It’s personal, confessional. A good 1st person narrator feels like a close friend.
And it’s biased as all get-out. Not that narrator bias is a bad thing—look what kind of incredibly creepy things Edgar Allan Poe did with unreliable narrators—but 1st person point of view is limited in what it can cover. It is subject to the prejudices, knowledge, and even linguistic quirks of your viewpoint character. Often, this is all endearing, as in the case of young Scout Finch, but if your narrator isn’t likable, or if your character is all inner monologue and no action, 1st person narration can be a turn-off. Pick the right character, though, and balance thought with action, and your readers have a fictional friend for life.
and a point of view for you…
Example #2, Margaret Atwood’s “Bread”: “Imagine a piece of bread. You don’t have to imagine it, it’s right here in the kitchen, on the breadboard, in its plastic bag, lying beside the bread knife. The bread knife is an old one you picked up at an auction; it has the word BREAD carved into the wooden handle. You open the bag, pull back the wrapper, cut yourself a slice.”
2nd person point of view turns the reader into a character through the use of you and your.
Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books from your childhood?—The Cave of Time and House of Danger? The reason they were so fun is that they pulled you into the narrative and made you a participant in the game. Your response to the story was immediate and visceral. This is what 2nd person narration does well. On the other hand, because of the 20-year run of Choose Your Own Adventure and the success of tabletop RPGs, the aura of shtick tends to hang around 2nd person perspective. Additionally, it might make readers uncomfortable with assuming the position of character—that’s a big logical sacrifice to ask of a reader in a hyper-realistic world.
Still, there are reasons you might want to break the proverbial fourth wall. You’d be in good company—luminaries like William Faulkner and Italo Calvino have both been known to use 2nd person in their writing. It’s surprising. It shakes up not only the reader, but the writer. In fact, if you’re struggling with a passage in your writing, try rewriting it from 2nd person perspective to see what comes out.
Next time we’ll cover the 3rd person points of view. Until then, happy narrating!
Need some perspective? Click here to learn about Pink Umbrella’s editing services. Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and junior college level.