Welcome to this series on how to write fiction from a conservative point of view. These posts can simply be read, or you are invited to join a guided writer’s workshop to practice and critique with other writers. To join the workshop, please email me, Jamie, at kywrite at gmail.com and request an invitation.

So you want to tell a story. It seems simple, but when you start writing, it’s not quite so easy – and when you start to research how to write, you discover there are dozens of moving parts: world-building, plotting, characterization, outlining, dialog, pacing, description, style, theme, structure – it’s exhausting!

But there is a place to start. Before you start writing your first line, answer two questions:

* Whose story is it?

* Whose eyes will you be looking through?

Sometimes, though not always, these questions have the same answer. In Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, for instance, everything is viewed from the narrating character Spenser’s eyes; this is pretty typical for mystery and thriller novels. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, on the other hand, are told almost entirely from his friend Dr. Watson’s point of view – the main character (about whom the story is told) and the story narrator (through whose eyes the story is told) are two different characters.

If you have siblings, you will immediately understand why this is an important distinction. Let’s say you and your brother were rough-housing and broke Mom’s favorite vase. You’re both guilty – but you will tell Mom different stories about the same event. If you tell it, your brother’s arm swung wide and he knocked the vase right off, and YOU were the one who cleaned it up. If he tells it, then you hit his arm which caused the vase to fall, and HE cleaned it up. The narrator choice often makes all the difference.

(A great example of this is Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” This story uses an unreliable narrator – one whose point of view you can’t really trust – to tell a very funny and very southern tale.)

Not all stories use a single main character or narrator. Romance novels are about a relationship, so most romances swap freely between the hero’s and the heroine’s points of view. Epic fantasy is often written from the points of view of several characters – Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is told through the various points of view of the hobbits, which is why he needed four in order to follow all the story threads.

So whose story is it, and who is telling it?

While you don’t have to decide the answers to these two questions right away, it does prevent a lot of rewriting later on. Imagine rewriting The Hobbit with Gloin or Gandalf or Gollum as the main character – not only do you miss a lot of the action, but rewriting it to make Bilbo the focus would be almost as much work as writing the novel the first time.

Keep that in mind while you develop your story.


Once you have the two questions answered, you need to determine on what level of intimacy and in what voice your story will be told. You have multiple options for each of these:

Voice: First, Second, Third, Omniscient

Intimacy: Interior, Close (or Limited), Surface, Omniscient


Examples of voice:

First: “I was minding my own business, playing my tunes and bobbing my head, when the truck hit me.”

Second: “The horse throws you first. You stand and dust yourself off, glowering at the chuckling cowboys who line the wooden paddock fence.”

Third: “Robert didn’t know why his wife was so angry all the time. Once it had been so good – he’d come home and find his dinner hot and waiting on the table, her face sweetly smiling as she kissed him. Now, though, he was lucky to find lunchmeat to make himself a sandwich as she scowled at him over her novel, acting as if he were an intrusion into her solitary space.”

Omniscient: “Joan and Buck were both lucky that night, partly because the trip took them away from the midnight volcanic eruption that destroyed their respective homes and partly because they found one another on a quick trip to the pool bar, their hands accidentally touching as they both reached for the same Blue Hawaiian, laughing away the awkwardness and beginning the conversation that was to last for the rest of their lives.”

First-person POV (point of view) allows for a stunningly intimate view of the speaker’s thoughts and experiences, and it’s easier for most beginning writers than the other two POVs. However, the writer, is in general limited to that person’s point of view throughout the story, and the reader knows going in that the narrator is most likely going to survive his or her harrowing experiences. There are exceptions – Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones used first person narration from the point of view of a girl who is murdered – both before and after she dies – and in one memorable novel by a horror writer, first person narration was established for the first quarter of a book – only for that character to be abruptly murdered, the author continuing from a completely new character’s point of view in third person limited voice.

Second-person POV, which makes the reader the narrator, is rarely used because, frankly, it’s creepy. I wrote one really messed-up story in that voice, making my reader live in the mind of the half-sane villain. It’s difficult to write because it’s so intimate, more intimate even than first person. It’s a perfectly acceptable choice, but it can wear readers out.

Third-person POV is the most commonly used character perspective today. With deep third, you can enter the character’s thoughts and memories easily, communicating his feelings in few words and achieving almost the same level of intimacy as with first-person POV. It’s also easy and non-jarring to switch from one character to another, so you can show your detective deducing, then switch to your murderer as he leaves the scene of yet another victim, then switch to the cop who thinks the detective is actually the murderer.

Omniscient, the POV that once was the most common in storytelling, conceives the narrator as an overarching intelligence that can dip into character after character, telling the story of each in turn. The omniscient POV, sometimes called the authorial voice, can break the fourth wall, dear reader, and is empowered to know the breadth and depth and height of the story. This POV can dip into the thoughts of any character in the story, gleefully skipping from head to head, or it can, in Hemingwayesque style, simply tell the surface story in a very utilitarian fashion. A lot of beginning writers use this technique at first without thinking about it, which is why it’s usually done dreadfully.

Now intimacy. I’ll retell the same story in all four to make it easy to see the differences:

Interior: “Her broken body, her blood, it always colored everything I saw red so that little was visible beyond the package I held, the package that I had worked on for hours and days and weeks. This one would bring death to the Policemen, those violent emissaries of the dictatorship that had usurped our rights and brought us nothing but misery, and I limped, but I would not run from this, no, and when it happened, I would rejoice in the split second of agony before everything went white and my daughter came running to my arms once more, her little fairy wings bobbing in time to her steps.”

Close/Limited: “He arrived in the dark, and the platform was deserted. It would be ten minutes now until the train arrived. Robert needed at least fifteen to get to the right spot, set the bomb, conceal it, and get away with any certainty of safety. He thought about his daughter, only three, in her ballet costume at her first recital, then bloody and broken on the street after the soldiers left, and he decided that it would be no great thing to die.”

Surface: “Robert stands on the darkened platform, a package in his hands. He glances at the clock across the tracks, then from side to side. He seems to hesitate a moment, then strides to the down staircase.”

Omniscient: “Robert had ten minutes to do fifteen minutes’ worth of work, and he moved efficiently to get it done, keeping in mind his little girl, how her broken body was only the first of hundreds that followed when the rebellion was put down so ruthlessly. He did not know about the man who had followed him. The man was a Policeman of the Interior, one of those who had cut his daughter down though even the policeman did not realize this, and he certainly did not notice when the policeman followed him silently down the tracks.”

You may notice that this intimacy range moves from deep within a character to well outside him. If this were a movie, it would be the difference between an extreme close-up – from an artsy one of, say, a single pore, to one that captures an enormous face that fills the screen – to a wide panoramic shot. This is the best way to visualize character intimacy.

Interior, at its worst, is James Joycian, a stream-of-consciousness narrative that follows the thoughts of the main character, filtering absolutely everything through his brain. It can be done well in small doses – when a character is dying, for example, or during periods of fierce action. Because it’s so intimate, however, this technique makes it harder to describe things that the reader is unlikely to be familiar with, and it’s an exhausting style to read for any length of time. In the hands of a virtuoso, like Anthony Burgess, it’s transcendent. But it’s hard to do well. Use sparingly and with caution. In movie terms, this is an extreme close-up.

Close, or limited, point of view is much more manageable. The author is free to dip into a character’s thoughts while describing his actions or giving backstory, but everything is carefully balanced so that the reader does not fall too deeply into the character’s stream of consciousness. In movie terms, this is a standard character shot.

Surface point of view is more like a wide shot. You don’t see inside the character at all, but you do observe his actions, and you may even spot subtle things the character himself is unaware of. But it still focuses on the character, leaving out things the character could not possibly know. I always think of this intimacy as being like a play – you still have a focal character, but absolutely everything inside the character is up to viewer (or reader) interpretation.

Omniscient is the wide panorama shot, often in Technicolor, swooping and diving deep to capture all the detail the author wants to share. It delivers a little of everything – interior retrospection from multiple characters, foreshadowing, action, backstory – but in a way that risks feeling clunky and overwhelming. You may find this, as with omniscient point of view, to be attractive – but be careful. Overusing it can lead to lazy – and very bad – writing. Ask yourself before using it if there is any other way to communicate this information to your reader – or if in fact that information needs to be communicated at all.


Past, Present, and Future Tense

You can also tell a story in past, present, or future tense.

Past: “The solder thought that today would be a good day to die.”

Present: “The soldier thinks this would be a good day to die.”

Future: Tomorrow, the soldier will think it is a good day to die. Tonight he will lose his entire paycheck and his favorite red silk bandanna while playing cards, and the pretty French girl he thought loved him left with the bandanna, which now graced Willis’s throat.”

Now, these tenses aren’t directly related to point of view, but you do need to choose one to tell your story. Most, by which I mean nearly all, genre writers use past tense almost exclusively. Present is used to make the story feel as if it’s happening right now (and is growing more prevalent in YA literature, for some reason). Future is almost never used.

For now, the most important thing to remember is to choose a single tense and stick with it.




Exercise: Determine which of these options is best for a story you have just begun, or one that is in progress. Write the beginning of this story with these options selected – main character, narrator, and two-part POV combination – and tell us why you selected these options. Keep your assignment between 300 and 500 words in total.



To respond to this exercise in an online workshop, please send your email address to kywrite at gmail.com so I can add you to the Slack channel for this course.

Resources: Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint from Writer’s Digest Books, https://www.amazon.com/Characters-Viewpoint-Elements-Fiction-Writing/dp/1599632128


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