Contents


Narrative

This is the website of The Writers’ Guide, offering essential advice for the creative writer.

To buy an ebook version of the The Writers’ Guide, click the image on the right, where you’ll also find more books by the same author (me).

Alternatively, for more information, visit my author site or join my mailing list for a free ebook copy of The Writers’ Guide, and news on other offers and new releases.

Narrative

In this chapter we’ll look at:

First person
Third person-outside
Third person-inside
Omniscient
So which is best?
Mixing narratives styles and points of view
Know the limits

Before you start your story you have to choose the narrative style in which you’re going to tell it. Selecting the best point of view is important for any creative writer, but is more of an issue for the novelist or short-story writer.

There are four main types of narrative:

First person
Third person-outside
Third person-inside
Omniscient

There is a Second person narrative style, but it’s rarely used. In the Second-person the writer directs the reader, for example, “You go down to the beach and pick up a stone. Leaning back you fling it into the water…”

First person


Hero With a 1,000 faces image - Flowerpot hero

An example of First person narrative would be:

“I climbed out of the boat and stood on the jetty. The sun was hot and I was already working up a sweat. John was waiting for me at the end of the pier — the jerk. A large trunk sat at his feet. I groaned to myself. It looked heavy; this was going to be thirsty work.”

Here you (the author) are inside the head of your character describing your thoughts and sensations. You’re experiencing everything from that character’s point of view. On the big screen the closest you’ll come to First person is documentary-style footage such as that seen in The Blair Witch Project where the action is relayed through the viewfinder of a camera.

In the everyday world the vast majority of stories are told in the First person (few people relate their walk to the shops through the eyes of an alter ego) so it’s natural for the first-time writer to choose this style. However, First person narration can be tricky for a number of reasons:

• You have to ensure your voice is authentic. If your character is a 17th-century Spanish nobleman you have to ensure you play the part convincingly. This doesn’t mean peppering your dialogue with ‘thees’ and ‘thous’, but you have to make sure your outlook is appropriate. For example, a modern visitor to a 17th-century Spanish city might be horrified at the pitiful beggars swarming the streets; in contrast your nobleman would barely notice them, unless one happened to be spectacularly ugly or coughed up blood on his tights.

• You have to put your character in the thick of the action. It’s no good tying your First person narrative to a character who gets locked in a dungeon while all the fun stuff is happening outside. You can swap the point of view between characters, but this brings its own problems (see below).

• Emotional scenes can get tricky. If you, as Don Juan Antonio Hernandez de Urrutia y Aran dos Alamos, are overcome with grief at the death of your favourite hunting Chihuahua, do you have the necessary skill to express this heartache on paper? If they’re handled badly highly emotional scenes can come across as melodramatic.

• There are fewer surprises. It’s rare for a First person character to die so there’s less at stake within the story and less tension as a result. There are also fewer opportunities to introduce twists. If your First person character digs a pit trap to snare a villain, it’s no surprise if the villain later tumbles into it. You could have your First person character wander off with a shovel then come back without telling the reader what they’ve been up to, but that’s cheating. There should be no secrets between the First person character and the audience.

• How reliable will they be? Because you’re seeing things through the eyes of one person there’s the possibility that they’re offering a biased view. As the writer you have complete control over the action, but if you decide to make your First person character unreliable you have to signal this to the audience. If you present all that they see and do as the complete truth and only later reveal that much of it was distorted (and do this without a good reason) your audience will be annoyed at being misled.

Third person-outside

The jetty scene written in the Third person-outside might read like this:

“She climbed out of the boat and stood on the jetty. The sun was hot and she’d already worked up a sweat. John waited at the other end of the pier, a large trunk by his feet.”

In Third person-outside you describe what your characters can see and hear, but you don’t describe their thoughts and feelings because you’re not inside their heads. If you want to put across emotion in Third person-outside you can do it only through dialogue, or descriptions of telling movements such as a clenched fist or a scowl. Think of Third person-outside as a parrot’s-eye view of the action: Polly sits on your character’s shoulder and sees and hears what they do.

Third person-inside

Here’s a version of the scene written in the Third person-inside:

“She climbed out of the boat and stood on the jetty. The sun was hot and she was already working up a sweat. John was waiting for her at the end of the pier — the jerk. A large trunk sat at his feet. She groaned to herself. It looked heavy; this was going to be thirsty work.”

Here you’re inside the head of one of your characters describing what the character can see and hear and what they’re thinking and feeling. Third person-inside is virtually the same as First person; in this case all we’ve really done is swap the ‘Is’ for ‘shes’. Think of it as the parrot’s-eye view again, but this time Polly is a mind-reader.

Third person-inside offers the same intimacy as First-person but has fewer of the disadvantages. For a start there’s more freedom. Killing off a First-person character is a drastic measure, but if a Third person-inside character is squished by a truck the point of view can easily be picked up by someone else. Third-person inside is also more immediate than First person. In First person the character is essentially telling you what they’re doing step-by-step; in Third-person inside there’s no time lag, you’re watching the action as it happens (it’s another ‘show, don’t tell’ situation, see Writing tips).

Omniscient

In First and Third person narratives the information revealed to the audience is very closely tied to the experiences of a few focal characters. In Omniscient narrative the point of view is tied to no-one and can reveal things that none of your characters are aware of. If Third person narratives are parrots, Omniscient is an albatross — it soars above everything, going where it pleases, swooping down for a closer look when it feels like it. For example:

“She climbed out of the boat and stood on the jetty. The sun was hot and she’d already worked up a sweat. John waited at the other end of the pier with a large heavy-looking trunk at his feet. Far beyond them, near the headland, the rolling sea parted in a streak of white foam as a periscope rose from the cold brine, its grey steel dripping water as it turned its glassy eye landward…”

So which is best?

In First person the audience is always conscious they’re being spun a tale and this distances them from the story. It’s the same problem with Omniscient; the broad point of view means the audience is always reminded they’re being told a story. Third person-outside is also distancing because you never get inside anyone’s head and have to rely on description (often longwinded) to get across emotion. In contrast, Third person-inside offers a good combination of intimacy, narrative freedom and directness making it the most popular of the narrative styles used in modern writing.

Whichever narrative you choose, make sure you get the most out of it. There’s no point writing in First Person if you don’t use it to reveal emotion and state of mind (you might as well be writing in Third person-outside). In the same way, why use Omniscient if all your action is centred on the lives of only one or two people?

Mixing narratives styles and points of view

There’s nothing to stop you including different narrative styles within your story and/or changing points of view, but it can get confusing. As a rule stick to one narrative style and limit the point of view to one person or share it between a handful of characters.

Many stories benefit from being told entirely from the point of view of a single protagonist as this helps to build an emotional connection between them and your audience. Constantly swapping between characters can be confusing and spoil the flow of a story. However, if you do decide to write from multiple points of view, stick to one point of view per scene and when you switch make sure it’s clear whose head we’ve moved to (are we still Don Juan or the scabby old beggar capering in the gutter?)

Know the limits

Once you’ve established a narrative style for a character make sure you don’t stray from it. For example, if you’re in First person describing Don Juan’s stroll down a beggar-strewn street, don’t mention the enormous cut-throat waiting for him round the corner. Don Juan is doubtless a man of many talents but even he cannot see round corners; he and the audience should not be aware of the cut-throat till he strikes. It’s easy to make mistakes of this sort so check that any descriptions you offer are within the limits of your chosen narrative.


Main image: Jacob Lund c/o Shutterstock

Back to the Welcome page.


Leofrice: Land of the Franks Leofrice: Sword of the Angles Leofrice: Sacrifice The Writer's Guide cover Jack Bleacher cover Covent Garden Ladies 1788 cover Covent Garden Ladies 1793 cover