How to Write Short Stories from Inside Your Character's Head
This page explains narrative point of view and how to write short stories from the best "camera angle." This is just one of many pages on this website about different elements of a story. For a complete list and the chance to take free creative writing courses, see the links at the bottom.
How to write short stories from different points of view
Your story's narrator is the voice that is telling the story.
For example, read the same scene described by three different narrators:
- I pulled out the gun and showed it to the cute blond bank teller, who gave a little yelp of surprise.
- This bald guy came up to my counter and reached into his jacket. Suddenly, I realized he was holding a gun.
- A bald jerk cut in front of me in line. I hate cutters, so I was about to go say something, when he pulled a gun on the blond lady behind the counter.
All of these examples use first person narrators. That means the narrator is also one of the characters in the scene, and he or she tells the story using the words "I," "me," etc.
How to write short stories in the first person
There are certain things a first person narrator normally shouldn't say. For example: "My bald spot looked particularly shiny that day." Why? Because you can't see your own bald spot unless you're looking at yourself in a photograph or a mirror at just the right angle.
Another thing that sounds strange in the first person voice: "I have no idea that..." Your first person narrator can't give information he doesn't know. If your narrator has been locked in the trunk of a car, it will be hard for him to describe what the police are doing just then to solve his kidnapping.
Also always an awkward statement: "Then, I died."
How to write short stories - advantages of a first person narrator:
- Directness - You can give the reader a first-hand perspective on the story.
- Voice - If your narrator has a colorful or appealing way of talking, this can add flavor to the story-telling.
- Intimacy - Your reader has the chance to get to know the narrator by listening to him.
How to write short stories - disadvantages of a first-person narrator:
- Limited scope - Your narrator only knows what she knows. She doesn't know what the other people around her are thinking. She doesn't know what's happening two miles away. That limits the information she can supply to the reader.
- Limited voice - If your narrator is a seven-year-old, she can't talk convincingly about politics. One thing that drives me crazy is when a first-person narrator who is supposed to be a child, or an uneducated farm worker or manual laborer suddenly launches into a poetic description of the weather using twenty-dollar words and references to Greek philosophers. I mean, come on.
- Difficulty withholding information - If the narrator knows something that you don't want the reader to know yet, she might have to be tricky or evasive. For example, let's say your narrator killed his brother, but you want to keep the murderer's identity a mystery until the end. How is the narrator going to inform your reader about the murder without this little detail coming up?
Note: some stories have narrators who mislead the readers or lie to them outright, known as unreliable narrators. This option can work well if it's handled right, but you have to make sure the readers don't feel cheated or manipulated by the story, even if they have been manipulated by the narrator. One strategy is to drop hints from the beginning that the narrator's account might not be totally trustworthy.
- Question of how the narrator came to tell the story. If your first-person narrator's a ghost or a dog or someone who's been buried alive in the desert, how did the story come to be written? I've noticed that some writers choose to ignore this logical problem. But it always bugs me when they do, and I'm probably not alone. So if you're writing a story in the first person, please, please don't have your character die in the last line.
How to write short stories in the third person
A third-person narrator might be completely outside the action. A third-person narrator tells the story using the words, "He," "she," "it," they," etc. For example: "A bald man suddenly cut in front of the teenager boy, who looked like he was about to protest until the man pulled out a gun and pointed it at the blond teller."
A third person narrator might even have a supernatural ability to be in more than one place at once, seeing everything that's going on. Example: "Customers screamed and ducked to the floor, unaware that police cars were already surrounding the building. Across the city, Miriam paced back and forth across their small living room, wondering if Jack would possibly manage to pull off the robbery." This kind of narrator with unlimited vision and knowledge is called an omniscient narrator.
Third-person narrators may also have limited or complete access to one or more character's thoughts. It's common to locate the narrator partially inside a particular character's head. Example: Jack felt faint as he hurried out of the bank, wondering if the police were already outside. What would happen to Miriam if he were arrested? The thought was unbearable; he tried to push it out of his mind."
The effect here is almost as if this had been written in the first person, with Jack telling the story. But with a third-person narrator, I'm not limited by Jack's voice. I might choose to limit my third-person narrator to Jack's perspective. This would give readers a sense of connection to Jack, as if they are living his particular experience. Or I could move from one character's mind to another. If you switch points of view in the same story, you have to be careful not to confuse or disorient your reader. You might decide to limit yourself to one viewpoint for each section of the story and use line breaks or another visual cue to let your reader know when you're switching.
Tip: readers will often feel more intensely involved with a particular character if you limit the story to that person's point of view.
How to write short stories in the second person
A story written in the second person treats the reader as the story's character. The narrator talks all the time about "you." "Nervously, you walked up to the bank counter, then reached for your gun." Second-person narration is more unusual than the first or third person, and it's harder to use without seeming contrived or defying the reader's common sense (I know that I didn't rob a bank!)
Similarly unusual in fiction is first-person plural narration, where the narrator uses the word "We" to tell the story. Two wonderful novels written in the first-person plural are Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. But, again, what these authors have accomplished is very difficult to pull off successfully.
How to Write Short Stories - Next Steps
What would you like to do now? Choose one of the links below.
Go to the CWN Free Online Writing Courses page for a complete course in how to write short stories.
Use these short story topics to start writing from different points of view.
See more pages about how to write short stories.
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