How do I know which point-of-view (POV) to use when writing my story?  It’s a question I’ve heard over and over again in workshops and/or critique groups I’ve participated in.  And yes, I’ve raised my hand alongside everyone else in hopes that someday a profound, no-fail formula will sprout up to demystify it for us all.  Sad to say, I haven’t come across one yet.  In the meantime, here a few things to consider when making the choice of who can best tell your story:

Point-of-View centers around two decisions one must make up-front:

  1. Whose story is this? From whose perspective will the story be told?
  2. How much distance will the POV character/reader have from the events of the story?

Point-of-View can be broken down into four categories:


Seems pretty obvious, but in first-person the main character is referred to as “I.”  The character can either be the protagonist, a participant, or if it suits your fancy, a disinterested observer.

Most times the first-person POV is written in the past tense, simply because the narrator must know how the story will end, which means he/she can never die in the story—that is, unless the narrator is a ghost or some other-worldly being.

The main advantage to writing in first-person is the intimacy it provides the reader.  The story unfolds simultaneously for both character and reader, thus allowing the reader to personally invest in the story.

This, however, can also be considered a disadvantage, since the reader is then restricted to only the knowledge and/or information the POV already possesses and makes the character unreliable at best.

There are a few other things to consider when you choose first-person. The POV character must be in every scene; otherwise, there’s no story.  Also, the POV character can never physically describe him/herself from the outside. Everything must rely on introspection—that is, unless there’s a mirror or shiny surface nearby.

Still, if you ask me, the intimacy and the degree of emotional resonance the first-person can create for the reader–well, it might be worth giving it a try.


In second-person, the POV character is referred to as “you” or “your.”

The one main advantage to the second-person POV is that it allows the reader to totally immerse and become a participant in the story.  This works well for shorter pieces, such as flash fiction, but can be difficult to maintain over, say, 300-pages.

Second-person can also be used to step in for a first-person narrator who feels alienated from him/herself.  Many of the stories in Lorrie Moore’s collection, Self-Help fall into this category.  Check them out and see how they make you feel as a reader.  What do you notice?

Third-Person Limited

The third-person limited character is referred to as “he” or “she.”

Third-person limited allows the reader to focus more on the story at hand rather than on the specific worldview of the narrator.  You also have the ability to withhold information to maintain suspense.

One disadvantage, of course, is the perceived distance between the narrator and reader.  Yet, there are different lens at the author’s disposal:

  1. Close Third-Person, which resembles first-person in that the events are narrated from a point closely related to that of one character but told in plain English instead of in the character’s own diction. To read an example of close third-person, try Mary Gaitskill’s “Tiny Smiling Daddy.
  2. Third-person Objective, which uses a cinematic approach, describing the events from a camera-like perspective where the reader is limited to what can be seen and/or heard without going into the consciousness of any of the characters. A good example of third-person objective is Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”

You’ll find that most contemporary literature is written in third-person.  It could be because it’s the most forgiving.

Third-Person Omniscient

The third-person omniscient narrator is not a character in the story, but simply the all-knowing presence telling the story as it plays out. The reader has the ability to observe the story from many angles and perspectives at once.  There are zero restrictions.

This POV is probably most associated with classic literature. Think Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. There aren’t too many writers who use this today, even though it sounds fabulous to have the ability to know and see everything taking place.  Who doesn’t want to be a god, right?

So, there you go—point-of-view in a nutshell.  Still, unsure which is the best fit for your story?  As an exercise, try taking a piece of your own writing and rewrite it in a different viewpoint.  How does it change the story?  How does it relate to your reader?  After doing this a few times, one will begin to grow on you.  Trust me.



The pen is the tongue of the mind. — Horace


This weekend I found myself on the search for pens.  Not just any ordinary pens, mind you; but, Pilot G2 Retractable Premium Gel Ink Roller Ball, fine line, in the color black, please.  What can I say?  I love the way they balance in my hand.  And the ink—glides like a figure skater on new ice.  My writer’s journal almost groans in ecstasy when I break one out of the package.

Oh, I’ve used other pens—absolutely hate ball point pens.  They skip all over the place.  And don’t get me started on those ones that bleed ink right through the paper.  For our anniversary one year my husband gave me an elegant silver number with my name engraved on it.  It sits in a fancy leather box on my desk because I love him.  The pen, though, too heavy.

Now I don’t need anyone to tell me I’m a bit obsessive.  I know it.  But hey, I’m in good company, especially when you take a look at the quirks some of the more recognizable authors have possessed over the years.

It’s said that Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain had a thing for wearing only white, even after Labor Day.  Poe, of course, wore black.

Lewis Carroll, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf preferred to stand while they wrote.

Balzac drank at least fifty cups of Jo a day.  Faulkner went for the whiskey.  Be still my heart, Jane Austen nibbled chocolate.

Thoreau and Dickens wrote best after a long jaunt.  James Joyce had to lie flat on his stomach.

Nabokov wrote his novels out in pencil on index cards that he kept in a slim box next to his bed.  Only Bristol index cards and a sharp, but soft tipped pencil with an eraser head on top would do.

And Rudyard Kipling shared my proclivity for the blackest black ink.  I once read somewhere that he fantasized about keeping an ink-boy around to grind him the best Indian ink.  Hmm…

Yes, those quirks and idiosyncrasies make writers an interesting lot, or at least a fascinating case study for anyone in the psychology field.  Quirks or not, what one has to remember is that these writers created an environment conducive to writing and well, wrote.

How about yourself?  What do you need to be the best writer you can be?  Do you need to listen to some Soundgarden to get you started?  Read a few sonnets by your favorite poet?  How about a cup of tea?  Do you work best in your husband’s old college sweatshirt?  Don’t be embarrassed.  Whatever it is, go ahead, flaunt it for all it’s worth.  A happy writer is a productive writer, even when the ink runs dry.






Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life by Judy Reeves; New World Library; Revised edition (August 24, 2010)





photo of woman holding book
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People did not want to hear about simple things.  They wanted to hear about great things–simply told.   — Jane Addams

What makes a story worth reading?  I decided to conduct my own ‘unscientific’ poll and here’s what the reading public at large had to say:

  • “Oh, it has to absolutely grab me from the first page or forget about it.”
  • “Hmm…good characters, interesting events and of course, some risks along the way.”
  • “I like the kind of suspense that keeps me up at 2 a.m.”
  • “I think it’s important to make a connection with the main character.  I like stories that relate.”
  • “I want a story that’s going to make me sit back and say I never thought of it that way.”
  • “Two words: gripping plot.”
  • “When I get home from work all I want is an escape for a while.  A good story will do that for me.”
  • “I think one of the purposes of a good story is to remind us that life is indeed manageable.”
  • “Stories that begin well, usually end well.”

And my all-time favorite:

  • “Why don’t you ask J.K. Rowling?  I think she has it figured out.”

With writing comes an awesome responsibility, wouldn’t you say?  Just look at this list.  Compelling characters, gripping plots, nail-biting suspense—and oh, make it look au naturale.

Well, I have some good news and some bad news.  The bad news is that I couldn’t get a hold of J.K. Rowling.  The good news is that there are a few things one can do to help heighten the chances that your story will be found compelling from page one.

Have frequent conversations with your characters

Get to know your characters.  Sit down and ask them questions that not only pertain to the story, but also ones that help you understand the passions and motivations that drive your character.  Your readers might not give a wit about George’s favorite meal, but maybe there a difference between how a ‘meatloaf & mashed potatoes’ guy responds to a situation than, let’s say, one who embraces a low-carb diet.  Talking to a character also helps the writer become aware of the character’s voice and body language.  William Faulkner once said he knew his story was working once his character stood up and cast a shadow.  When characters become real people to you, they’ll also become real people to your readers.

Keep the background in the background

Imagine how silly it’d be if we walked around wearing billboards that not only explained our origins, but also in short order listed all the experiences we’ve encountered along the way.  Pretty ridiculous, huh?  The same holds true for your characters. Sure, as the author, you know the whole story, but don’t explain more than necessary.  Ernest Hemingway called it the “Iceberg Theory,” or as it’s sometimes known the “Theory of Omission.”  Basically, the theory states the deeper meaning of a story should not be evident on the surface but be made transparent implicitly.  Allow your readers to inhabit your character’s world through action and dialogue.  In other words, ‘show, don’t tell.’

Let your characters speak for themselves

Don’t merely write dialogue, but let your characters speak for themselves.  Listen to what they have to say.  Pick up on the nuances and rhythms.  Write only what you hear.  Allow the character to create the story and never, never, never manipulate a character to make a plot work.  It’s not fair to the character or the story.

Start your story at a critical point

To pique your readers’ interest from the get-go, place your character at odds with something much larger than him or herself by the end of the first page, if not the first paragraph.  What does your character yearn for?  What are his/her needs or desires? What obstacles stand in the way?  What are the stakes? If there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

Write out of passion

Many times, writers are given the advice to write what they know.  That’s all fine but think how much more exhilarating it is to write about something you love.  If you write about the things that move you, you’ll soon find your readers following you on the journey.


What kind of stories keep you reading?  Feel free to leave a comment.  I’d love to hear from you.