How do we determine the best point of view to use in any given story? Suppose a story in which two people are having lunch at a café. Suppose neither knows that there is a ticking bomb underneath the table. Should we tell the reader or not?
This is the underlying concept of the Bomb Theory defined by the great film director Alfred Hitchcock. And it also speaks to the way in which our purpose in our storytelling guides our point of view.
The significance of purpose in point of view seems like common sense, in the way that everything we do in crafting a story is done with purpose. But it’s also an undervalued aspect of determining the best point of view for each work. As writers we tend to focus broadly on what form feels right—if the story reads better in first-person or third-person, and if we’re more comfortable with “I” or “she”—without considering the experience we want for our readers and how much of that experience is driven by the point of view we choose.
In the second installment in my series on point of view, we’re going to consider the impact of point of view and what purposes can and should guide these decisions.
But back to Hitchcock.
Hitchcock posited that not informing the viewer of the bomb in the café—Hitchcock, of course, was working in a visual medium—generates fifteen seconds of shock when the bomb goes off. Yet informing the viewer—enabling them to spend the scene worrying about the characters, increasingly anxious that the bomb may go off—generates fifteen minutes of suspense. So Hitchcock, the acknowledged Master of Suspense, concluded that “whenever possible the public must be informed.”
Setting aside voice-over, dream sequences, and the like, most film is basically in third-person objective point of view, and this provides viewers access to visual details like the presence of a bomb. In the context of a novel, this could also be third-person omniscient, as third-person omniscient allows writers to present basically any information. Knowing that our characters are in danger, but aren’t aware that they’re in danger, absolutely generates suspense that we would not have otherwise.
But where I disagree with Hitchcock is in the notion that this point of view should be used whenever possible. The reason is that it depends entirely on the story you’re trying to tell.
Surprise Party Theory
I have a different theory.
Suppose our protagonist has reached her apartment. She opens the door. She turns on the lights. And all her friends shout out: “Surprise!”
In this instance, it’s quite likely that the purpose of the scene is the experience of the protagonist. You want the reader to engage with the scene the same way the character does. And if that’s your goal, then suspense isn’t what you’re looking for. Surprise better suits your intentions.
If the reader knew about the party in advance, as with the bomb at the café—if our perspective were third-person omniscient or objective rather than first-person or third-person limited, as is probably the case if we’re focusing almost exclusively on this one character—it would be impossible to experience what the protagonist experiences. You could show that the protagonist is surprised, but readers wouldn’t be surprised.
Yet the scene can support any number of purposes. Maybe it’s about the party planner who spent the last month ensuring this moment would go perfectly. This, too, may be a first-person or third-person limited point of view, but a different one. And this one likely would have suspense, not from knowing about any danger but from wondering alongside the planner how the party will go.
Or maybe this is an ensemble piece about a whole group of friends. In this case, our purpose is to show their interactions with one another in the context of this party. The resulting third-person omniscient perspective may not be about surprise or suspense, or at least not in the specific context of the surprise party. The party may be a prism through which we discover more about the characters.
The Best Point of View for Your Purpose
So, what’s the best point of view? What would make the best scene?
There is no right answer to that question—and that’s the beauty of point of view. You can write a great scene about two friends unaware of the bomb right beneath them. Or you can write a great scene in which two friends are killed by a bomb neither saw coming. You can write a great scene in first-person, third-person limited, third-person omniscient, third-person objective, or even second-person if you have an idea that especially suits it.
In much the same way that point of view helps you focus your narrative, so does your intended narrative help define your point of view.
This is also the reality that can guide you through the complexities of third-person omniscient. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, third-person omniscient can be very difficult to manage because of the infinite possible perspectives at your disposal. But still the world is filled with great books that feature multiple perspectives, and what enables that to work is that each perspective is chosen with purpose, based on the author’s intent and the needs of the story.
So when you’re crafting your story, ask yourself these questions:
1.) What experience am I going for in this story or scene?
Suspense and surprise are only two options. Maybe you want a raw emotional breakdown, or a careful emotional distance.
2.) What character best communicates that experience?
Sometimes an entire novel includes only one answer to that question. Sometimes there are many. It depends on the story. What character is breaking down? What character is keeping that distance?
3.) How might other points of view change the story or scene?
Don’t assume you have it all figured out! Maybe you start with an emotional breakdown, but in the writing realize that something emotionally reserved would actually carry more impact. Entertaining the idea of other perspectives may bring you a purpose you didn’t see before.
These questions will help you discover the purpose in your writing, and with purpose comes the point of view that will bring your intentions to life.
We’ll talk more about point of view and the unreliable narrator next. In the meantime: How does your usual point of view choice support your intentions? Or how does it not? Let me know!
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.