Choosing the right point of view for your novel has an impact on its dramatic effect.
Drama can make a vital difference to how a story unfurls, how it’s told, and how it moves its readers. In essence, though, how to write drama all depends on your narrative point of view, which again depends on the sort of story you’re writing.
The author Neil Gaiman has suggested that you only ever learn to write the novel you’re working on, so perhaps your natural choice is first-person narration. That’s fine, but you still want whatever lends most dramatic effect to the story you’re writing.
Here’s a little run-through of narrative options available to you, and why to think about which may work for you.
Think about first-person narration
First-person narration is intimate and it needs a protagonist with a voice readers can become immersed in.
Much depends on your aims as writer, but a story like Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary wouldn’t work well if Bridget’s tale weren’t written in diary form.
Even if the material (i.e. Bridget’s love life) is there for a compelling romance, Bridget shares hilarious secrets in her diary she’d never share elsewhere, so first-person narration is vital to its sharp comedy. The detachment of third-person narration would distance us, and it would make Bridget’s story less funny, possibly more sentimental, if Helen Fielding had chosen this distancing instead.
A thriller like John Fowles’ The Collector also wouldn’t work if told in third-person. Split between two urgent, conflicting first-person narratives, Fred Clegg and Miranda Grey are protagonist and antagonist to the other. We’re immersed in both voices, as each shares their side of his kidnapping her.
A suspenseful horror narrative or ghost story like The Woman in Black by Susan Hill is also perfect material for first-person intimacy, because we experience Arthur Kipps’ building foreboding at Crythin Gifford and terror at Eel Marsh House.
A coming-of-age story like Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is also ideal. Protagonist Charlie’s voice is key to his journey, creating immediacy and intimacy with readers through his adolescent ups-and-downs at school, which is the heart and focus of Chbosky’s plot. Charlie is the story.
Everything will be confined to your protagonist’s view, however, when you choose first-person narration. You’ll need to release story information for readers in character. You can’t share what the protagonist themselves can’t know yet, but this also can add to the drama. Arthur Kipps doesn’t know what’s coming for him at Eel Marsh House, for instance.
Is first-person a good fit for your story, too? Or should you consider alternatives?
Think about third-person narration
Third-person narration is traditional, and gives you a distinct advantage, i.e. you’re able to share everything. Is this right for your tale?
Third-person limited, as opposed to third-person omniscient, means putting us in the viewpoint of one character, e.g. Harry Potter, since readers see the magical world unfolding through Harry’s eyes. It’s Harry whose viewpoint we keep to, just as other characters and events remain much of a mystery to Harry until he begins to know and understand characters like Snape or Dumbledore over time.
There’s a sense of mystery that lingers with us, that builds tension, so third-person limited is perfect for building suspense, adventure and intrigue around Harry’s world.
In J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, by contrast, her third-person omniscient narration allows her to sweep over different characters’ perspectives in the quaint town of Pagford. Her free indirect style exposes secret prejudices, indicating which characters are powerless and which are complicit (maliciously or otherwise) when a drug clinic closes, bringing disastrous consequences.
J.K. Rowling’s premise and point is that no one is a saint, that nothing is ever simple in Pagford. Third-person omniscient is, perhaps, the only suitable means of telling The Casual Vacancy.
Could third-person narration work for your story?
Think (carefully) about second-person narration
There’s a reason second-person narrative isn’t typically approached.
Second-person narration is one of the trickiest means to tell a story, but that’s not to say that this can’t work.
In YA novel Stolen, for instance, Lucy Christopher’s protagonist Gemma (who might or might not suffer from Stockholm Syndrome), pens a letter to her captor Ty after he’s kidnapped her at an airport. She’s writing since her escape, since returning to her family from the Australian outback.
Stolen opens accusingly:
You saw me before I saw you. In the airport, that day in August, you had that look in your eyes, as though you wanted something from me, as though you’d wanted it for a long time. … I felt someone move up behind me. I turned. ‘Let me buy it,’ you said.
There’s drama and an attempt for teenage protagonist Gemma to put across her traumatic story. She tries to assert herself against ‘You’, the feared predatory presence of Ty in her life (which lingers also in her mind) – and so second-person narration works here.
Lucy Christopher’s narration is realistic, an echo of therapeutic practice, as Gemma explains at the close of the book. She’s penning a letter she’ll never send, expressing her feelings to try and ‘let go’.
Just approach second-person narration with care. Have a reason before you dive in with this more difficult narrative method.
Think about unreliable narrators
This brings us to unreliable narrators.
In a novel like The Collector, Miranda and her captor Fred share a narrative (the book is split into sections, his voice and hers, and each tells their side of her kidnapping). We see how Fred manipulates events, his blaming Miranda as he attempts to justify acts. Fred hides information that Miranda shares with us.
Similarly, Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower hides information, but he is unaware of doing so. Readers eventually grasp Charlie has suppressed information in his mind, rather than deliberating evading readers as Fred does in The Collector. Charlie’s narration, in the end, is fighting to remember. Fred’s is fighting to forget.
In both stories, though, we’re straining to see, to look past unreliable narratives, but gripped enough that we want to do the extra work. Unreliable narrators are the best at explaining these tales because of story content and much depends on your own stories and characters.
Unreliable narrators can be very useful in building suspense, much depending on your storyline. Just have a reason.
Think about what best creates drama
Will you narrate in the third-person with omniscient narration? Will you narrate from the head of your protagonist? Will you share from a secondary character looking in on events?
Take the classics Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Both are dramatic and both are told as best serves each story.
Jane Eyre is a first-person narrative. The rich voice in it is decidedly Jane’s (or Charlotte in character as Jane). It could still have been a moving romance if Charlotte had told it differently, e.g. in third-person limited narration.
However, in first-person, Jane is impassioned and insistent in her determination for a freer life. Without Jane’s voice, the fierceness of Jane Eyre wouldn’t resonate. The novel wouldn’t be the same in the third person, or if Jane’s story had been shared – for instance – by Thornfield’s housekeeper.
In contrast, Nelly Dean, as narrator and housekeeper of Wuthering Heights, is uniquely positioned (an outsider looking in) to share the family histories of the Earnshaws and Lintons, the tragedy of Cathy and Heathcliff. Nelly Dean’s priggishness also amplifies the uniqueness of Cathy and Heathcliff.
We feel the ‘fall’ of Cathy and Heathcliff as much as we do Jane’s victory, arguably because Emily Brontë gave Nelly, not Cathy and Heathcliff, control of their story, of the narrative – just as Charlotte Brontë gave Jane triumph in her story, so it makes sense for Jane to own her narrative, too.
Choose your narrative point of view
Ultimately, this is down to whatever feels right for you. You may like to experiment.
You just need to choose whatever narrative style best makes your story dramatic, most pressing, to readers at the end of the day.
You’re here to move your readers, so just write in the way that does this best, as best suits the novel you’re on, and do look up more advice on narrative viewpoints to help you decide.
Happy planning. Happy writing.