Ambit Creative
Adele Annesi

Adele Annesi is an award-winning editor and writer. She was a development editor for Scholastic, and is now a book editor specializing in business, culture and memoir. Her columns, reviews and stories appear in blogs, newspapers, magazines and literary journals, including 34th Parallel, The Fairfield Review, Hotmetalpress, Marco Polo Quarterly, Miranda Literary Magazine, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Southern Literary Review and Tertulia. Her "After the Sunflowers" essay is part of Press Pause Moments: Essays About Life Transitions by Women Writers . Adele conducts workshops for libraries and other venues. She is currently working on a novel and a series of short stories. Visit her award-winning editing blog for writers, Word for Words , and her online workshop at Adele M. Annesi .

Now You See It: An Editor’s Perspective on Point of View

Like the latest trends in fashion, perspectives on point of view vary with the seasons. So how can a writer determine the best point of view for a story? It depends on what you want to show.

Ideas on selecting point of view change with the latest style of jeans, and experimentation can be fun, even instructive. Yet, to avoid wasting time—and to do justice to your characters and story—it’s important to select the best point of view for your piece, and to know how to work with and edit it afterward. The good news is many of the hard-and-fast rules of the past are gone.

Let’s begin with a bit of background. Point of view, at its most basic, means person—first (I), second (you) and third (he or she). Another aspect is scope. Your narrator can be omniscient (as stories go) or limited in knowledge. Then there’s proximity, or level of intimacy. Is your narrator close to the story or distant?

One way to understand the various facets of point of view is to think of it as a camera and you as the photographer. Who’s shooting the scene—you, the main character, or someone else? Who’s in it—everybody, as in a group shot, or just one or two people? What kind of shot is it—close-up or panorama? What style is it—posed and portrait-like or casual?

Keeping the camera analogy in mind, here are questions to ask when selecting point of view. As to person (first, second, or third): Are you creating an intimate portrait seen primarily from one person’s perspective? If so, first person is best. Are you creating an atmosphere that’s intrusive and in-your-face? Then second person works well. Do you want the freedom to get into more heads than one, and is your story akin to a family portrait, with more than one main character? Third person offers the most flexibility.

Once you’ve selected person, you’ll have to select degree of knowledge. Usually, the principle is the more people in your perspective, the greater the degree of knowledge—from first person limited to third person omniscient. The rationale relates to focus. A first person narrator tends to focus on certain aspects of the story, because it relates mostly to him or her. A second person narrative has the audience in mind most of the time. A third person narrative has to do with accessibility. It gives the writer—and reader—access to any character almost any time.

Proximity, which relates to how close your narrator is to the story, is harder to explain, so here’s an example:

• Colin opened the door to his office and found the place had been ransacked, papers strewn across the floor and file cabinets overturned.

• He opened the office door. Documents littered the floor, and file cabinets lay upended.

The first sentence is a comparatively distant perspective on Colin’s situation, as if the viewpoint comes from a narrator other than Colin. The second sentence comes from within Colin. It’s also

tighter, and uses active voice. The way to decide which approach works best depends on what you want the scene to convey. If you want to keep the audience at a distance, option one is better. If you want your audience to feel what Colin feels, option two is your choice.

Here are common point of view problems and fixes:

• Mixing points of view: Generally, don’t do it. It’s confusing to the reader and largely impossible to maintain accuracy.

• Confusion in using the omniscient perspective: Switching points of view within a scene is off-putting. Readers won’t know which character to side with, nor will they grasp the main point of the scene. Varying point of view by chapter, especially for emerging writers, is best.

• Know-it-all characters who really don’t: One of the commonest mistakes, especially in first drafts, is a character knowing something he or she can’t know. For example, a serial killer knowing what his victims are thinking.

• Complete lack of a point of view: This is akin to mixing points of view. It’s as if the narrator is describing a scene from the outside, as if it were a one-dimensional photograph, rather than from within it.

To accurately select point of view, it’s best to have a firm grasp on your story and characters. Is yours a personal tale, or objective? Is one character dominant, or do you have an ensemble cast? These choices may seem academic, but they’re key serving the work and the One who gives joy in that work.


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