Who’s Telling This Story?

If you’re about to begin writing a novel, you will have definitely thought about which point of view you’re going to use.

Whether you’re writing a short story or a full-length novel, you have to decide:   

  • What is the best point of view for your story?
  • Whose point of view will engage the reader most effectively?

In the olden days, when things were so much easier, we’re told, novels were often written from an omniscient narrator’s point of view, hopping from head to head to get everyone’s perspective. This strategy gave the reader access to all the characters’ thoughts and feelings as the story progressed, and allowed them to be in on the action from inside the heads of all the characters.

This device gradually lost favour as ‘head hopping’ was deemed confusing, and the novels that followed used either the 1st person pov, where the reader is inside the head of the main character –the ‘I’ of the story – and all the action is seen through their eyes, or the close, or limited, 3rd person, where the story is told from the perspective of one character – usually the ‘he’ or ‘she’ of the story. In practice, this means that the reader only sees and hears what that character experiences. We can’t solve the problem or guess the ending ahead of time because we don’t have all the story. It can only unfold as the character discovers each element.

Unlike TV and movies, where the camera can focus on secondary characters and convey an enormous amount with a single facial expression or gesture, the narrative in a novel will only concentrate on the character who is telling the story. 

However, I’ve noticed in my reading that many modern novels are bucking this trend. They aren’t going back to the old omniscience per se, but they are presenting the story from various directions, moving between the various characters’ heads through the chapters. The reader is kept abreast of the action as it develops within the lives of the main protagonists, though the characters themselves are kept in the dark about the way the rest of the story is unfolding until everything dovetails in the last pages.

They say that trends resurface every seven years and this is a way of reinventing a good idea. The technique avoids the use of clunky, revelatory dialogue and awkward chunks of flashback to fill in the backstory and when used skillfully it can be a satisfying method of working through a complicated, many-stranded plot. It also gives the writer the opportunity to tell several stories that would have been almost impossible to explore using a more traditional one character point of view.

This leapfrogging is a very effective device but it needs careful handling to maintain tension and keep the reader guessing (and drawing the wrong conclusions). Reveal too much, too soon and the suspense is diluted, or dissipated entirely. It makes for a very satisfying ending for the reader as they disregard the red-herrings and put all the pieces together successfully.        

I wonder if the omniscient narrator is making a comeback, albeit in disguise.

5 thoughts on “Who’s Telling This Story?

  1. The POV of two or more main protagonists is the way I chose to tell Life Class and Buried Treasure. I’d taken on the mantra about POV earlyish in my writing career, when I was told off by a literary agent for head hopping. A definite No No back in the day, and something I know I did without even realising it! Telling from one POV is satisfying to me, because it mirrors reality. In real life you don’t necessarily know what’s going on, what those around you are thinking, feeling or hiding. But limited third has it drawbacks however and I experimented with first in Fly or Fall – mainly because there were too many secrets, and telling it any other way, became too complicated and clunky In Buried Treasure the simplest way to convey the story, which included the main characters’ back-stories was to divide the telling between them.

    • I agree, Gilli. The working title of my WiP is ‘Secrets’ and, like you, I couldn’t tell all the stories convincingly from one point of view. So I’m telling it from the perspectives of three main characters (which brings problems of their own) but easier than trying to shoehorn in large tracts of relevant backstory. Leapfrogging chapter by chapter seems to be working. x

  2. My John Williamson series is told in the first person, which I found a challenge, but one I enjoyed. The James Burke books are mainly told from Burke’s point of view but sometimes change to that of his “henchman”, William Brown. The plot often involves Brown and Burke splitting up and this approach allows me to follow both lines of the story.

    My latest, ‘Dark Magic’ has quite a large cast for a novella and I move cheerfully between them. I found it huge fun to write like this and I don’t think it becomes confusing. In fact, the Amazon reviews suggest that my approach has helped people keep the characters separate in their minds. “The author manages to give us a sense of each of the people with a few deft touches”; “… packed with interesting characters”; “The characters were distinctive and the banter fun.” It makes me think that the rule against “head hopping” is one of those “rules” that we should be ready to break when we think we can improve our story-telling by doing so.

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