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Write On! Point and Shoot!

Encouragement, Coaching and Prompts for Writers

A monthly blog by Eve West Bessier, Poet Laureate Emerita of Silver City and Grant County, New Mexico

Let’s talk about Point of View

If you’ve hung around creative writers for even a few hours, you have likely heard someone use the term, point of view, sometimes abbreviated as POV.

Point of view is all about perspective and voice. Who is narrating and what type of lens are they using to capture the story? Is it a selfie? A close-up, zoomed-in shot? A wide-angle panorama?

You probably learned about point of view in high school, and were told that there are four types. I’m adding a fifth, which is recognized though rarely used, but has a special significance for Americans. Since tomorrow is our Independence Day celebration, it seems appropriate to include it here.

Recognize this quote from the preamble of the United States Constitution? It’s written in first-person plural point of view.

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

So, there are five points of view. I will provide a brief introduction to each and address some salient details that will help you use them to your advantage. I’ll include a brief description, an example sentence, and a few pros and cons for each point of view. All quoted examples are my own creations unless otherwise noted.

First-person Singular. Most of us wander around in our life experiences solidly in the first-person singular. This point of view will have the pronoun, I generously sprinkled throughout. Example: “I poured myself a bowl of Coco Puffs, then realized I was out of milk.” This point of view reverses the camera lens so that you can take a selfie.

This point of view is not limited to memoir writing, however. First-person singular can be used in a fictional narrative where the story is told by either the protagonist, or by another character who is experiencing the events of the story or novel and relaying them from their own perspective using the first-person voice.

This is a very intimate and personal voice. It can bring readers deeply into the narrative. When a reader sees the word I in a narrative, their brain tends to associate closely with the word, thus creating a bond between reader and author that is unique to this point of view. There is a vulnerable quality to this voice which can build trust, but beware.

The vulnerability of this voice can shift into a confessional tone and turn maudlin. This is especially problematic in memoirs, but can also leak into fictional narratives. Like a selfie on your cell phone, the lens may distort reality as you, or the main character of the fictional story, can’t quite get far away enough from the lens to get a good angle on the shot. Readers may initially be drawn into the narrative by the intensity and closeness of the first-person voice, but just like a distorted selfie, the portrait can become a bit disturbing. If disturbing is what you’re going for, then great. If not, then be aware.

First-person Plural is rarely seen, but offers an antiquated and lofty feel to a narrative. “We lived in abject poverty, but we were mostly unaware of our suffering, as we tended to imbibe the whiskey and ale in generous portions.”

You can also use this point of view to add a more omniscient view to the narrative. “Madame Boudoir was having an affair with her landlord, a perhaps foolhardy arrangement, as her thriving bordello might find its employees and patrons on the street if things went awry in Madame’s own boudoir.”

This point of view might be fun to use in a shorter piece, or to sprinkle into a longer one, but can quickly become harder to manage than an iron anvil in a novel-length work.

As I’ve already addressed by quoting the Preamble to the United States Constitution, this point of view can be a powerful voice in legal documents and statements. Academic writing can utilize this voice as well in articles describing the results of scientific studies when the research team addresses those results as a group. “We have found that smiling increases the happiness quotient in most people.”

Second-person is a rarity the welcome of which will wear thin quickly, and wear out your reader soon thereafter. This is a narrative voice that addresses the reader directly as you. Here’s an example.

“You walk into the darkened bedroom, searching for a light switch but finding none. You smell something foul and your instincts tell you to run, but you are curious.” This can set up an intriguing ambience and could be used as an introductory point of view to a piece, but you can see how this might begin to irritate the reader after a while. You can see that, can’t you?

Of course, the second-person is perfect for “How To” essays and books in which you are telling the reader how to do something. “You need to make sure the electricity to the room is turned off at the fuse box before you rewire the light fixtures.”

Third-person Limited is the most common point of view for fiction narratives and journalistic writing. In fiction, the narrative voice talks about what a character is experiencing from a distance, but does not reveal anything beyond what that character knows.

In fiction, this voice narrates without personal involvement or opinion. “Margaret carried the cheese platter out to the patio.” In journalism, it stays objective in its description. “The gathering crowd threatened to close down the hamster meat processing plant.”

Third-person Omniscient is a very popular point of view in fictional narratives. It allows the writer to convey information to the reader about the story or characters while keeping the characters themselves in the dark as to their destinies.

Here’s the same sentence I provided as an example above, but with the omniscience added. “Margaret carried the cheese platter out to the patio, unaware that the afternoon rain had caused the redwood deck to become extremely slippery.”

This point of view is not the best choice for mystery stories, as the narrator could accidentally give away the “who done it.”

For general fiction, however, this point of view is extremely useful. As the author, you can add details and depth to the story that your characters themselves cannot provide through their dialogue or their thoughts portrayed on the page because they simply don’t have access to the information, but you do!

Use this point of view with some restraint. You don’t want the narrative voice to sound like the voice of God. Unless, of course, the narrator of your story is the voice of God.

There you have it! Now it’s time to play with point of view.

Here’s a writing prompt. Tell a brief story from your own life experience using first-person singular. Keep it no longer than two or three paragraphs. Then tell the same story using each of the other points of view. If you’re feeling adventurous, tell the story using more than one point of view within the same narrative. Switching point of view within a single narrative can be intriguing and illuminating, but like rubbing your tummy while patting your head, it takes considerable focus and coordination! Have fun!

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

Eve West Bessier

Eve is a poet laureate emerita of Silver City and Grant County, New Mexico; and of Davis and Yolo County, California. She has served on the steering committee for the Southwest Word Fiesta, and was a presenter during two festivals. Eve is a retired social scientist, voice and life coach. She is a writer, jazz vocalist, photographer and nature enthusiast living in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
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We respectfully acknowledge that the entirety of southwestern New Mexico is the traditional territory, since time immemorial, of the Chis-Nde, also known as the people of the Chiricahua Apache Nation. The Chiricahua Apache Nation is recognized as a sovereign Native Nation by the United States in the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Friendship of 1 July 1852 (10 Stat. 979) (Treaty of Santa Fe ratified 23 March 1853 and proclaimed by President Franklin Pierce 25 March 1853).

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