Short story writing: point of view, part 1
When a reader begins a story he automatically and unconsciously asks himself: 'Who's point of view am I sharing?' and by the end of the first paragraph he should have found the answer. There are four possible answers. I shall illustrate them by presenting a simple dramatic situation in the four modes.
1) The 'omniscient' or detached narrator point of view
This approach assumes that the narrator theoretically knows everything about all the characters, and can tell us about them in an objective way, or switch between them, showing us what each is thinking and feeling at any given time. This technique, which needs very careful control, is often used in novels, and is the method usually used in films and TV drama (in which the camera functions as the narrator).
John, a bearded paediatrician who had been at the hospital for six years, looked up from his meal as Janet, a pretty Scottish nurse who had just joined the hospital staff, entered the cafeteria.
A passage like this is in the 'omniscient author' mode, in which the author tells us about the characters, including any information about them which he wants to pass on. This technique is frequently used in short stories, but in my opinion stories are stronger when presented from a single point of view.
2) A split point of view
Janet felt nervous as she entered the cafeteria for the first time. All the tables seemed to be occupied and she didn't know where to sit.
John looked up from his meal to see a beautiful girl come into the cafeteria. She looked lost and he wondered if he should invite her to join him.
Here we have two points of view. The author is switching between them, showing us what each is thinking in turn. This technique is sometimes used in novels, with the point of view being split over many characters, but in my opinion it should be avoided at all cost in short stories.
3) The point of view of the central character in the story
Here the story is ostensibly being presented by a narrator, in that we read 'he did this', or 'she did that', but the narrator's point of view is merged with that of the central character, so that everything in the story is seen through the central character. This is the most common way of presenting a short story.
Janet felt rather nervous as she entered the cafeteria for the first time. All the tables were occupied and she didn't know where to sit. As she looked around she noticed a young man sitting alone at a table in the corner. He seemed to be watching her and she wondered if he would mind if she joined him.
Here we are not removed from Janet's subjective experience by being made aware of an omniscient narrator coming between her and us, giving us extra information such as that she is Scottish or that she has recently joined the hospital. Nor are we wrenched away from her by being shown what john was thinking or feeling. Instead we stay with Janet, sharing her immediate thoughts and perceptions. This approach is highly recommended for short stories.
4) The first-person point of view
This is the purest form of the single point of view. With this approach the narrator is 'I', and conveys the story through his or her own subjective experience of the events. This is a good method of presenting a short story, and has the advantage of lending an implicit air of authenticity.
I looked up from my lunch to see a beautiful girl enter the cafeteria. She looked lost and I wondered if I should invite her to join me.
Here there is nothing at all to come between us and the central character's experience. This approach is highly recommended for short stories, and in my opinion it works well for novels too.