Boost the Power: Shifting Perspective in a Story

Now that the Pitch Wars submission window has closed and the pressure is eased a bit, I’ve turned my attention to other projects. One of those, a short story entitled “29 Langwood Street,” has been lying around waiting to find a home. I admit I don’t like to write something and “trunk it” (put it in a drawer and forget it). I want all my babies to eventually be seen. But 29 lacks…something. I’ve read and tweaked, read and tweaked, read and tweaked. I’ve given it to beta readers and workshopped it.

Still, something was missing.

Yesterday, it occurred to me that if I changed the point of view from third person limited to first person—i.e. went from telling the story from Joe’s perspective (he, him, his) to “becoming” Joe and telling it from my POV (I, me, my)—the reader would be drawn in to a closer intimacy with the narrator.

Only in the last year have I begun to play around with POV. When I first began writing, I fell into what I’m told is an amateur trap: the omniscient narrator who knows all, sees all, tells all. From what I’ve read since, the omniscient narrator used to be quite popular. However, these days third person omniscient books are a hard sell because they don’t do well in the market.

So I revised my novel to a third person limited, meaning the reader sees everything filtered through the eyes and experience of one character, or a few, and never more than one in any given scene. Reworking the story in this way presents a challenge. The character has a limited perspective; they can’t know what they look like (without a mirror) or how they sound to others. They can’t see what’s happening outside their range of view, or hear what’s being said in another place. Their knowledge is, by necessity, composed only of those details to which they’ve been exposed in the narrative. In any revision of a third person limited story, the writer has to be sure and catch all the slips that don’t fit that narrow confine.

Since then, three of my short stories were written in third, three in first. I have to say that first person POV is fun to write. Even so, it comes with its own set of limitations. It can never be omniscient. It provides a degree of unreliability, because no one character can know everything about everything in the story. Thus it follows that first person POV carries bias, because the narrator’s opinions, choices, and decisions are all based on and colored by their personal experience.

I imagine writing a whole novel in first person would be quite the challenge. Others have done it masterfully: Suzanne Collins with the Hunger Games and its sequels. Gillian Flynn with Gone Girl. Paula Hawkins with The Girl on the Train. But it would require an eagle eye and a strong voice.

I haven’t yet tried to write anything in second person POV, where “you” the reader are drawn in as the protagonist. That might be a fun project to tackle over the winter, but for now, I’ve converted “29 Langwood” to first person. I like it much better. It feels much stronger, more focused. I’ll let it sit a while as I work on the next new story, then workshop it in October in my next fiction critique class.

What about you? Which perspective do you prefer as a reader? As a writer? Why?