The Rolling Stones famously sang “It’s the singer, not the song.” Regardless of how you feel about The Rolling Stones, I think we can all agree with the sentiment of this lyric. Narrative voice is potentially more important than the story we’re telling. The most interesting and compelling story in the world can easily fall flat when the narrator is someone bland and inappropriate for the task. Conversely, a dull story can come across as irresistible if the narrator knows how to convey a story.
- There are only four points of view to worry about: first person, second person, third person and omniscient. Each of these allows the reader a different level of closeness with the narrator or the narrating character and your choice should be made depending how much closeness you think is appropriate for the story you want to tell. The most popular in current fiction are third person and first person but don’t be swayed by the market: write the story that feels right to you.
- Choose the correct point of view for the story you’re telling. Sometimes this can require writing and rewriting until you get it exactly right but it’s worth the effort.
- Try to avoid head-hopping. (This is when we suddenly shift from the perspective or thoughts from one character to another.) I’m not going to say head-hopping is wrong. We can see examples of head-hopping in classic fiction from all over the world and each story will take the route it needs to take. But head-hopping can be distracting. Part of the fun with a well-written story is that we’re limited to the perspective of a single character so we’re unable to know the important train of thoughts hurtling through that other character’s mind. Head-hopping can destroy that tension in a single paragraph.
- Never underestimate the value of an unreliable narrator. Edgar Allan Poe begins ‘The Tell-Tale Heart with the following paragraph: True! — nervous – dreadfully nervous, I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? Hearken! And observe how calmly I can tell you the whole story. (Well, the reason why we say you’re mad is because you’re nuttier than a squirrel turd and I think most readers have come to that conclusion by the time they get to the next paragraph). This example of an unreliable narrator takes us into a story where we see the world through the eyes of a crazy person – which makes the whole experience even more unsettling.
- Whenever you’re reading, take a moment to distance yourself from the book and think how and why the author has made the decision to use a particular point of view. If we do this with our favourite authors, we can learn how and why something works for us. If we do this with authors that we don’t enjoy, we can see what sort of things we should be avoiding with our writing.