There’s Only One Rule
The Golden Rule of great writing is to entertain your reader. Every story starts with an idea, but it doesn’t stop at conception. What happens after you’re struck by your Superduper Story Idea, create a fabulous cast of characters, polish it up with intricate plot arcs, and sweat out a detailed Power Point project fueled by espresso and Redbull? How do you transfer your thoughts onto paper? There are so many ways to spin a tale, how could you possibly begin to weigh all the pros and cons of each?
Firstly, the best advice I can offer to you is this: simplify. Relax. You only have three point of view (POV) options (first, second, and third-person and honestly second person is a very unusual choice unless you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book) and three options for what “when” (which tense) you will put the action of your story. From there, you can combine them in any way you like, but I recommend you begin by choosing your POV if you don’t already know what tense you would like to use. It can give you a feel for what sort of narrative voice you want, and then you can decide whether on not this person lives to tell the tale personally, wrote their story in a journal, or someone else wrote this book about their lives—as a prophecy of what will come to pass.
Let’s forget second-person POV exists. Just toss it out the window for now. (More to come on how to tame this unusual beast in a future post.) Moving on, we’ll only compare first- and third-person POVs.
Free Indirect Style
In my not-so-humble opinion, it is a common misconception that first-person POV offers more insight into a character’s mind. A direct connection into their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. How could you possibly get into a character’s head so thoroughly in third-person as you can in first? There’s just no better way, right?
Let’s talk about my friend ‘free indirect style’—commonly referred to as “Deep POV”. Deep POV is in the here, the now. Whether you’re writing in past or present tense, Deep POV makes the action (and emotions) feel as though it’s unfolding right before the reader’s eye of the mind. It’s plastered up there on the big screen of their imagination just as vividly as last Friday’s premier at the movie theater and what’s better—this is practically a Virtual Reality experience complete with taste, touch, smell, and sounds. We aren’t just a passive audience; we become our favorite characters.
Take these two examples for instance. The first is written in a “shallow” POV while the second is in “deep” POV.
George looked to his left. He saw wide, open grassland and some grazing antelope. He could hear birds of some kind in the distance; he didn’t know what kind they were. Then he heard a gunshot. He reached for his pistol.
To his left was wide, open grassland and some grazing antelope. Birds of some kind—they sounded small—chittered in the distance. Then, a gunshot. He reached for his pistol.
In the last example, I took out all the words that would disconnect us from feeling like we’re zoomed right up close to George, feeling and experiencing everything with him. These words were the looked, saw, and could hear. I also changed something about those birds George was listening to; Deep POV allows you to insert the character’s thoughts and opinions without clunky “he thought”s or italicized phrases scattered all over the board. George may not know what kinds of birds he was hearing, but he’s an intelligent man and can guess that those parakeet-like noises are not coming from large birds of prey. Deep POV is the art of learning when you should be very specific, to capture your world in crisp focus, to share with your reader exactly what you imagine we are all looking at, while also walking the fine line of not forcing them to see too much. (More on Deep POV in a future post!)
Here’s an example of what I would consider a very clunky first-person POV, using our same example with George:
I looked to my left. All I saw was wide, open grass and some grazing antelope. I could hear birds of some kind in the distance; I didn’t know what kind they were. Then I heard a gunshot. I reached for my pistol.
To the left was a wide, open plain of grass and some grazing antelope. Birds of some kind—they sounded small—chittered in the distance. Then, a gunshot. I reached for my pistol.
Again, as in our example before this one, all those sees and saws and hears and coulds weigh down the story, making it drag on while also constantly reminding us of our narrator’s presence. This does not help to put us in our narrator’s shoes. It does not give us the opportunity to feel what he feels, breathe the same South African air that he breathes, hunt down the same ruthless poachers he is hunting in real-time. It just doesn’t make us feel like part of the team.
My simple trick for writing engaging, exhilarating first-person narrative is to write it exactly as you would write third-person, and every time you would refer to your protagonist directly (usually when he’s performing an action other than looking, feeling, or hearing,) just insert “I” instead of George or Margaret or Jean.
Side note: I would like to point out that some stories written in first-person are not meant to be experienced by the reader like a Deep POV story. Sometimes writers choose to make the story sound exactly like someone is telling it to them, and that’s okay. But just be warned, this is usually tiring after a long time and is (in my opinion) best for short stories or flashbacks within a larger story told in Deep POV.