Writing the Short Story 5: The Point of View
by Editor Magazine
Following a study of characters, setting, plot and plan, comes
naturally an analysis of view-point. In this article an attempt is made
to define the three general points of view—that of nobody's,
that of the author's and that of the character's, and to show the
advantages, the pitfalls, and the possibilities of each.
First, a story may be written as a mere recital of facts, as a pure
narration of actions, as a simple explanation. The hero did this. The
heroine did that. This resulted in a situation like this. And so on
indefinitely. There is no distinct point of view whatever.
Second, a story may be written as the author lives it. He is a
discriminating, analytical, judicious person behind the scenes. He
pulls this string and this character moves. He explains why; he
indicates the reason that character will be affected. By this method
the story works out clearly, entertainingly and realistically;
actions are depicted by a study of motives. The view-point is
that of the author, who is in reality a lecturer, a creator, a borrower
from life. Third, some character in the story follows the action from
his point of view. The reader is told what he sees, what he hears, what
he does, what he knows, what he lives. He is an actor-narrator; in the
second point of view he is an author-narrator.
The beginner in writing makes no study of view-point, and his story is
usually a wandering, aimless, shifting affair, quite lost in the hazy
changes of view-point and utterly inconsistent. A moment's
thought, therefore, will convince the author of the necessity of
determining at the outset the precise view-point of his
Stories told from no particular point of view are usually dependent
almost wholly upon the spot interest and not at all upon the character
portrayal. Brisk adventure affecting a general community may be worked
out satisfactorily in this way. Often tragedy may be depicted
graphically from no particular point of view; a death on the desert, in
the sea, on a deserted island, where there is but a single
character at the end, must obviously fall back upon this method. There
is no actor-narrator to describe the scene; first-person narration is
absurd when the character dies; the author-narrator
necessarily comes into the story to a certain extent, but the
view-point of nobody is predominant. Stories demand it when they hinge
upon the adventures of a purse lost and found repeatedly by
different characters, a pet animal that reunites separated
couples, or any one of a dozen threadbare and a thousand fresh
ideas of this type. Other forms of fiction in which the author and the
actor do not hold the center of the story-stage throughout will come
readily to mind.
The author's point of view is a dangerous one for the
beginner. Too often he forgets his story altogether, and chats
with "the kind reader," "the gentle reader," etc.; too often he uses
the story as a vehicle for his philosophy of life, clogging
the action entirely while he explains. Howells once said of Thackeray:
"He was accustomed to stand about in his scene, talking it over with
his hands in his pockets, interrupting the action and spoiling
the illusion. . . . He never hesitated to make a foray among his
characters and catch them up to show how beautiful or ugly they were;
and cry out over their amazing properties." If the work is done
cleverly and artistically, however, this method offers many
The author-narrator's point of view is from that wholly outside the
story, wholly aside from the characters. The dividing line
between nobody's point of view and the author's is very slight. Legends
and fairy-tales, for example, might be classified under either method
of narration. So long as the author explains, and displays, and
furnishes motives, and does not clog the story's progress by
introducing himself into the plot, he stands a fair chance of success.
In this classification there are two sub-divisions. The author
may be merely a spectator. He may relate his story as he sees it take
place. Again, he may be
omniscient. He may
see with his characters, breathe with them, think with them, live with
them; he may, in a word, be in turn the mind of each. Here, again,
however, the divisions encroach. The actor-nar-rator's point of view is
simply the author become the mind of some one character from first to
For the author who is just trying his skill, indeed, this last of the
three points of view offers perhaps the greatest advantages.
As the mind of one character, he sees the story enacted about him. He
tells only what that character would naturally know; through him he
views the others; about him are grouped, the elements of the plot. He
is the pivot, as it were, upon which the story revolves.
This method is best explained by asking the student to write a
first-person story, told precisely as he takes part in it. Upon its
completion, the character assumed by him, and designated by
the first-person pronoun, should be changed to some other proper name
and to the third person pronoun. This will reveal clearly what is meant
by the actor-narrator point of view.
Here, once more, are two sub-divisions. The view-point may be that of
the principal character or that of a minor. The story may be told as
the hero lives it, or as one of the secondary characters takes part in
it. The range is wider than will be imagined before the experiment of
First-person narration, it will be readily seen, is a
combination of view-points that may be designated as that of
the author-actor-narrator. At first thought, it would appear that this
offers the greatest advantages; but the pitfalls are plentiful.
In general, the stories told in the first person are divided into
straight first-person narration, which, of coarse, subdivides
once more into the hero-narrator and the minor
character-narrator, and into the letter or diary form.
The author who essays to be the hero of this tale is
usually a pompous ass. One can not describe one's own
bravery, one's own miraculous deeds, one's own ability without
bragging and strutting about the stage like a peacock.
Obviously nothing irritates nor offends the reader more
thoroughly. As has already been pointed out, the character who
dies can not consistently tell the story. The author who
becomes a secondary character often finds difficulty in
explaining his presence upon each scene, his proximity to the
principal character, his knowledge of the motives and the
emotions of the others. Provided he can offer logical and plausible
reasons for his stage-occupancy and his knowledge of each situation,
and provided he does not obtrude unnecessarily but is a natural and
essential character, he may tell the story pleasantly and artistically.
The letter or diary form is a roundabout way to the heart of the story.
To be natural, a letter or diary must tell much that is not pertinent
to the story itself. This form is designed primarily for confession and
analysis of character, for a study of moods and emotions. To make of
letters and diaries a short-story is to create a style that is verbose,
clog the action, destroy the unity, and sacrifice the force and
directness that comes from unfolding the movement before the
reader's very eyes, rather than from a late-hour recital of the plot.
This final objection brings one naturally to the story-within-a-story
construction. In most cases, this entails a similar loss of effective
presentation of action, of superfluous matter at the introduction and
conclusion, and of a study of characters that are not introduced
intimately to the reader.
As long as fiction is produced, authors will disagree upon the subject
of view-point. For the short-story, however, in its ideal form, it
seems to the writer that the actor-narrator's point of view offers the
best opportunities. In following this, certain rules accomplish clear
and easily understood results.
1. Each story
one character with
whom the reader is asked to hope, to fear, to achieve, to
fail. By establishing
a direct bond of sympathy between that character and the reader by
means of making the former the one central, dominating character about
whom the others naturally group themselves, this end is easily gained;
the method is simply the telling of the story as he or she lives it, by
the author's becoming the mind of that character.
2. Descriptions must have
view-point. Each of
us sees things a little differently from our neighbors, and
to a large extent the emphasizing of these points of
difference gives to writing what is known as
individuality. To describe a
scene as the casual observer might view it, is to make it
commonplace ; to describe it as the actor-narrator sees it, is
to make it a part of the story,
influencing him in his
actions, prejudicing him in his decisions, and in
many ways diverting the trend of the plot.
3. A story must be the pictured creation of a new world, inhabited by
new people quite apart from the author and the reader. The illusion is
complete only when the author or the spectator of this work-a-day world
of ours does not obtrude. With the actor-narrator's point of view,
neither the author nor the reader is in any way connected with the
4. A story must have
a central or principal
There is no way
to make a character
more. intimate, more real, more dominating, than to tell the story
precisely as he lives it. The
author-narrator offers the danger of the shifting point of
tends to dissipate the interest over all the characters
rather than concentrate it upon
view-point can not consistently
5. The successful short-story is a study of character
buffeted by environment, setting, action, plot,
etc. The interest centers not
on what actually takes place, but upon its effect. The character is
changed, shaken, metamorphosed; his resistance or
his furtherance of the movement are the
important points. Now,
admittedly, a study of his actions, motives, and governing influences,
first, last and all the time, can be
in no other
than from this
point of view
It has been pointed out, then, that there are three points of view:
nobody's, the author-narrator's and the actor-narrator's; that the
second sub-divides into the mere spectator and the omniscient narrator;
that the last sub-divides into the principal and the secondary
actor-narrator; that first person narration is a combination of the
actor-author-narrator view-points; that the letter or diary form is
objectionable; that the story-with-in-a-story construction offers
serious difficulties, based upon the preceding points; that, all things
considered, the actor-narrator view-point is the best for the student:
1, because it establishes
a bond of sympathy between the reader and the character;
2, because unity of view-point is demanded for individuality
3, because it heightens the illusion of the story itself:
4, because it illustrates most admirably the effect of the plot-action
upon the characters;
5, because it makes easiest the keeping of one central, principal,
Going a step further, the rules might be construed:
1. Decide at the outset
what view-point to follow.
2. Do not be content until you have tried several points of
view for the same story.
3. Adapt the point of view to the type of your story, and
note for future reference the combinations.
4. Maintain it
consistently throughout, without shifting
more than the choice permits.
5. Do not sacrifice
point of view because
of successful examples of great authors; wait until you
acquire a reputation yourself
Examples of all the view-points are to be found without number in
literature. The citing of a few examples, however, may clarify the
student's mind. For the letter or diary form, therefore, read "Robinson
Crusoe," "Marjorie Daw," etc.; for the story-within-a-story
construction, read the many magazine stories of authors like "0.
Henry"; for the first-person narration, read "Huckleberry Finn," "The
Vicar of Wakefield," etc.; for nobody's point of view, read
"Cinderella," "Jack the Giant Killer," fairy stories, fables, myths,
etc.; for the author-narrator's point of view, read the works of
Thackeray, Howells, Henry James, etc.; for the
actor-narrator's point of view, read "The Mill on the Floss," "Pride
and Prejudice," etc.; for examples of all types, read the
1. Write a story from nobody's point of view.
2. Write a story from the author-narrator's point of view.
3. Write a story from the actor-narrator's point of view.
4. Write a story from the principal-actor-narrator's point of
view. From the
secondary-character-actor-narrator's point of view.
5. Write a first-person story in which you are the
principal character, the hero, or
Write one in which you are a minor character.
6. Write a story in the form of letters or diaries.
7. Try all these plans with the same story.
8. Study the possibilities of various points of view in the
Determine in each
case why the author selected the one used.