StreetWrites writers workshop presents information and examples on different point of view narative styles.

POV (Point of View)

One of the basic questions in fiction is "Who's telling this story?" It seems like a simple question to answer, but there are a number of fascinating changes that can be rung on the answer.

First Person POV

I watched him set pale bare feet on the floor, his elbows on his knees and head low. Sweat trickled over shoulders and arms well defined for a man his age, and my eyes drifted down knees and calves, to tapered ankles still imprinted with the weave of his socks. He ran his fingers though wet silver hair and leaned back in the chair.

"Christ," he muttered, wiping his face and neck with a towel. "I'm too old for this crap."

-- From Point of Origin, by Patricia Cornwell

First-person POV is a story told in "I" form. "I woke up with a feeling of dread, a certainty that something was completely abnormal about the world. Sure enough, the sun was shining. In Seattle."

Using first-person POV is usually the easiest way to get the reader emotionally involved in your story. It also has drawbacks.

It makes describing your narrating character tricky. It's much simpler to say "Johnny walked in with his usual swagger, his brown hair charmingly rumpled, one lock falling across his bedroom eyes." If your narrating character is Johnny, you have to say something like "Some folks say I swagger ... I don't fuss with my hair much; women usually fuss with it for me ... Julie said she liked my 'bedroom eyes.'"

It makes it easy to tell the reader what's going on behind your main character's eyes, but more difficult to describe what's going on behind other character's eyes. You are also limited to describing the scenes and action that your character witnesses directly.

The challenge of first-person narration has been taken in some interesting twists. A famous novelist wrote a famous mystery in which the character doing the narration was the murderer; by extremely skilled narration she managed to never lie, describe all vital clues, yet make the solution a surprise.

Another interesting twist is the "undependable narrator". The author has the narrating character describe the action in such a way that the reader understands that the truth is quite other than the narrator sees it, while the description says loads about the person describing. Examples are the narrator who enthuses about all his best friend does for him, while the reader sees clearly that the narrator is being exploited and duped; or the bigoted narrator who puts the worst possible explanation on everything done by a black character, while the reader recognizes the black character as the only one acting honorably.

Second Person POV

She gazes at her son like a lover. He hasn't disappointed her a bit. You have. She looks at you through a veneer of resignation. Her eyes glow; her lower lip is barely trembling. And well she might fear you. Her son has defied her to risk this marriage between East and West. And isn't that what you wanted in a man all along.

-- From The Bride Wore Red by Robbie Sethi

Describing the main character as "you" is rarely done; this technique is more often used in nonfiction, when you are trying to get the reader to see something personally. In fiction it can have the opposite effect of making the reader feel distanced. When done well, however, it is uniquely suited to stories about characters alienated from their environment, or from themselves.

Third Person POV

Maxine knew she ought to get up but the pillow seemed to be calling her name. Lying in bed, she felt casual and unrushed, and it took her a few moments to remember that she was right in the middle of a workweek. She had to get up soon, but she wanted to enjoy the moment. Besides, there was no way she could move without waking her husband. Her back was pressing against his chest, his arms were crisscrossing her breasts and resting against her belly, and his legs, wrapped around hers, were holding her tight. The closeness of his body was soothing to her, like a slow song just getting into the groove.

-- From Singing in the Comeback Choir by Bebe Moore Campbell

This is the most commonly used point of view: "he", "she", "they". It is easiest in may respects, but there are some traps in it.

There are basically three different styles to the third person POV. You can limit yourself to what any external observer could see of the situation; "Danny and Joe slowly tossed the baseball back and forth in the summer heat." You can, as in the excerpt from Bebe Campbell, describe the view from behind one character's eyes, including their thoughts and emotions: "Every time Danny tossed the ball back he hoped that Joe would finally say 'That's it, let's go get a drink.'" Or you may choose to be an omniscient narrator, dipping behind the eyes of all characters. After Danny's observation, you could say, "Every time Danny slowly lobbed the baseball back, Joe wished he'd put some fire into it. They were never going to win a game this way. The nerd was probably hoping he'd call the practice and go for drinks."

The temptation of most writers is to tell the reader everything that all characters are feeling. The irony is, this distances most readers from the story. Describing dialogue, facial expression and action, then letting the readers figure out the thoughts & emotions themselves, makes the readers feel more involved in the story.

The effect of switching POV too often has been called "POV whiplash."


Try each of the POV's for yourself. See what different effects you can achieve with each of them. Here is a beginning exercise:

Situation: A study room at a library. A man and a woman people are sitting at a table, talking, with books and papers in front of them. Another woman walks in.

Make up whatever "back story" you want to imagine: one of the two at the table is a current or former lover of the woman who just walked in; the two women are working on a research project together that could be important when published, and one of the women seems to be sharing the research with an oputsider; the woman who walked in is in search of specialized information and only these two people can help her find it; or a situation for a story you are working on.

Write a short description (50 to 100 words) of the same occurrences from each of these POV's:

You may also want to try the omniscient POV. Give yourself more space for that one, though: at least 300 words, not over 500 words.

Optional: Write a short analysis of your experience with each POV: how hard or how easy was it; did you notice different things about your characters with each form; were certain moods or themes easier to communicate with one form or another?

Please submit each POV exercise separately, to make critique and discussion easier. Use subject headers showing the POV style used and your name (or initials). Example:

(this would be Anitra's exercise using first person POV)

Guidelines for Critique

The important thing to note in critiquing each other's exercises is how they fulfill the technical requrements. Is something submitted as "POV 2" actually second person POV?

You can critique the subs by all other criteria when it is helpful, but these are unlikely to be working parts of an eventual story.

A useful aspect to discuss is how each POV affects the way you felt about and reacted to the story.


POV in Poetry

Point-of-view is not used only in prose. A poem must, after all, be written from some point of view.

Most of my own poems are written from first person POV:

From ancient dreaming I woke up at two
I wandered waking into street-baked night
to hang between the walls of man
and mind

I have also played with the "unreliable narrator" technique:


Damn the child that screams and bites
Answers late kindness with bitter anger

Damn all prey turned predator
Children claiming streets and alleys
Tiny faces with feral eyes

Damn the women who prowl
With stolen jaguar claws
Who refuse to come inside

Save our pity for the

I have only used "you" when explicitly addressing another person in a poem, as in "Father's Day 1996":

You're still out there.
Adrienne would call me if you died.
Or had another heart attack;
when you had the first one
she even called Gregor,
and she hadn't talked to him for seven years.

This is not the same thing as having your narrative voice cast as "you". But most of Stan Burriss's poems do use the second person voice:

Mountain Climber
Standing in a line, you turn
   away . . . but, you're the last.
No . . . there never was a plan. But,
   you've been cast

as someone to avoid, whose children
   can't be trusted. Strange!
You only want to do your SHARE, and
   share it. Even, change!

Third person seems less common in poetry than first or second. One of my poems is omniscient in POV through most of it, but goes back to first person POV at the end:

Downtown Bus Stop at 11PM

"This isn't City.
All the stores are closed.
This is Night,
and I am safer in my book."

"This is the place between work and home: the long dull ride
between frustrating boredom and irritation."

"This is the Main Street,
this is the Hot Time,
this is the Bad Dude,
you ain't gotta Clue!"

"This is the Feeding Ground.
There's a likely pocket.
Soft Touch; Too Strong;
That one's Broke."

People start to glance my way,
A woman on the bus
darts sharp, quick glances at me
as she reads car ads.
This is the Danger Ground
between safe burrows.
I am possibly Falcon.

I have discarded layers of gags over my mouth;
I never noticed
the silent press of the Gag Order on Eyes.

Much poetry is completely "show, don't tell", describing a scene and events from an objective POV:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

-- William Carlos Williams


Anybody up for a bit of blasphemy? This exercise, should you choose to accept it, is to take The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams and rework it from each POV (point of view): first person, which is speaking as "I"; second person, which is speaking about "you"; and third person (limited) which is speaking about "he" "she" or "it".

You may also try writing a longer poem from the omniscient POV, perhaps giving the perceptions of the wheelbarrow, the rain water and the chickens.

The Red Wheelbarrow
by William Carlos Williams

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Guidelines for Critique

Please have fun with this one. Critique on whatever seems useful, but keep it light. Please do pay close attention to whether the point of view being attempted is actually carried out.


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