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Points of View in Novels

Many writers prefer to narrate their story in the third person. This can be done either using an omniscient narrator or, more commonly in contemporary novels, from the perspective of one or more of the key characters in the book. An omniscient narrator can tell the reader the actions and thoughts of all characters in the book. Using the point of view of several characters gives the author a freedom that first person point of view does not.

If your novel is written in the third person, try to keep the number of points of view quite small. Normally, the story would be told primarily from the outlook of the main protagonist but using other viewpoints in scenes where the main protagonist does not appear. In these scenes, you may want to consider keeping the points of view as consistent as possible across the book so that a given narrative strand is always told from the same outlook unless there is a practical reason why this is not possible. But there are no absolute rules.

There may be a good reason to narrate a scene from a different perspective as this might provide the reader with new insights into the story. Equally, you may want to hold back information about what a character thinks or feels about a piece of action and therefore you decide to narrate the scene from another character’s point of view. Alternatively, you may want to change things about and if you stay with the outlooks of just one or two characters throughout the whole book the reader may begin to feel almost claustrophobic. Only you can decide what works for your book. Just bear in mind that, if the point of view shifts too often or if your story has too many viewpoints, the reader may be distracted or confused.

If your book is written in the third person, it would be sensible at this point to go through your chapter plan and note, for each chapter or scene, the viewpoint from which the story is told. Add this information into your chapter summary. In order to do this, ask yourself:

* Is the point of view clear in each scene or chapter?

To check if the point of view changes, read the scene back to yourself as if it were written in the first person. If the first-person character changes, you have a point of view issue that needs to be fixed.

* Make a note of how many viewpoints you use across the book?

If you are using a several, review those that recur least often and think about whether there is a justification for using them, or whether you can reduce the overall number of outlooks.

* How often does the point of view switch between chapters?

Even a small number of different viewpoints, if changed frequently, may be confusing or distracting to the reader.

* Is the story told largely from a small number of points of view?

If most of your story is told from only one or two outlooks, consider whether you need the other points of view. It may be that you do, but just ask yourself whether the additional points of view contribute positively to the telling of the story.

Of course, there are some instances where writers use a mixture of first and third person to tell their story. This can be a most effective technique if you want to tell some parts of the story from a particularly restricted point of view but want to exercise greater freedom in other chapters of the book. Some readers like this, but it must be skillfully handled, otherwise it can be distracting and a bit gimmicky. If you choose to use a less conventional technique like this, be completely certain that it is appropriate and effective in the context of the story.

Val Penny

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