So I'd like to present the first in a series of collections of my thoughts on the craft of writing, hopefully providing a little bit of more in-depth help for those who might want it in specific areas. Keep in mind I am by no means an expert, in fact I'm still learning myself, so don't expect these thoughts to be authoritative on any particular subject. Hopefully they'll provide just a little food for thought, provide a modicum of practical advice, and maybe encourage some further reading into the subjects I cover.
Viewpoint and Perspective
Viewpoint is a relatively simple issue to address. On a basic level, the viewpoint must be consistent. This is mandatory to having a story that makes narrative sense. If you are not familiar with viewpoints, I shall briefly address the three basic viewpoints here. The term first person refers to story written from the perspective of a single character, as if the person writing is that character. For instance; “I walked upstairs, I opened the door, and I switched on the light. I was scared.” On the other hand, there is second person. Of the three, this is the most unconventional. It is written from the viewpoint of the reader, as if the reader is the character. It is also usually written in present tense, as opposed to past. For example; “You walk up stairs, you open the door, and you turn on the light. You are scared.” Finally, there is third person. Third person viewpoints are written from the perspective of a narrator disconnected from the main character. For instance; “He walked upstairs, he opened the door, and he switched on the light. He was scared.” One final note is that there in fact two third person viewpoints; omniscient and limited. As the names suggest, omniscient third person is written as if the narrator is aware of everything, even things the character might not be, while limited third person is written as if the narrator’s knowledge is limited to the perception of one or more characters.
So the million-dollar question is; which perspective to use? Well, as per everything, that depends on the work. Straight off the bat, I’d not recommend that you use second person. It makes description hard, and the present tense can get confusing, to say the least. So that leaves first and third. There are arguments to be made for both. First person limits what we experience as a reader, and brings us closer to the action and emotion of the story, however it also limits the narrative complexity of a story, as many narrative threads quickly become unmanageable in this perspective – all the action must be elegantly choreographed so as the viewpoint character becomes aware of it at the same time the reader needs to. There are certain subgenres which fit this perspective better; psychological horror, body horror, or any other where plot the conflict is internal tends to suit first person better.
On the other hand, third person may give us a feeling of detachment from the events of the story, which is the last thing you want in horror, but it allows for more complex intertwining storylines, and it can be particularly useful in evoking more cinematic style through the setting of scenes and the use of “cuts”. The slasher or the classic ghost story are both sub-genres that tend to fit this perspective better; when the main conflict is external then third person is likely the way to go. One thing to note is that omniscient third person is not a good bet for horror; suspense and surprise are dependent on some things being hidden from the reader. Therefore, I’d suggest limiting your third person perspective writing to a single character or a handful of characters.
The real answer then, is to pick whichever one which works for you and your story. I know that sounds like a non-answer, but there’s nothing more jarring than a story written in third when it should be in first, or vice versa. So pick the one that best fits the style and themes of your piece, and most importantly, stick with it. When it comes to perspective, the worst thing you can be is inconsistent.
One final note on establishing viewpoint characters; don’t ever state the viewpoint character outside the fourth wall. For example, prefacing a paragraph from Bob’s perspective with “Bob’s P.O.V”. This stinks of lazy storytelling. Fortunately, writing like this is a rare occurrence, but I think it needs to be mentioned. There are hundreds of ways to establish your viewpoint character; a change in the style of the prose, dialogue, description, or even action. I’ll further discuss this when I address characters, but for now, simply note that breaking the fourth wall to establish viewpoint is never acceptable.