Challenging Narrative Structure: Who’s Telling Your Story


In my experience, the hardest part about writing a novel is figuring out who is going to tell your story and what point of view will be used. Because I write stand alone novels, I have the freedom to change my narrative structures with each succeeding book. Depending on the type of novel you’re writing, POV becomes crucial to meet your plot’s obligation.


I like first person because it allows me to create a character with a unique voice. Everything in the novel is seen through the lens of this first person character. Using this technique, I can make my character as bold and opinionated as possible, and my readers will know that they’ll be going on a wild ride through this character’s eyes. It’s fun because it gets readers inside the character’s head like a doppelgänger. The reader is presented with the same roadblocks and obstacles as the character, forcing them to decide if they’ll make the same decisions as the character. The only bad thing about this structure is that the reader is exposed to only one POV. A good writer, however, knows how to use dialogue to make the satellite characters come alive.

The use of the second person POV is rarely used. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerny was probably the most recent successful novel using this structure. You are literally the character. An example of this would be, “You walk into the bar and see the dame. She’s more beautiful than you ever expected. You pull up next to her and tell her she’s beautiful. She replies by slapping you in the face.” Writing in this style is not recommended for most writers for a variety of reasons. First off, it’s somewhat limiting, although like anything else, I’m wagering that a clever author might reinvent this POV. The biggest reason not to write this way is because most readers, agents, and editors hate it. But if you think you’re game, I say go for it. I’m always looking to read books with fresh narrative takes.

Okay, the classic model is third person POV. Today, most agents and editors want close person POV. That means you’re telling the story from the character’s viewpoint. This way a writer can tell a story from the minds of a few different character’s’ perspectives. This is the standard model for most novels these days. Back in the day, ominiscient third person POV was a popular technique, but it has since fallen out of favor. Basically, the author is telling the story from a distance, as if he or she is all knowing. I find this type of storytelling too intrusive and less emotional.

But here’s where things get tricky—and fun! Two of my favorite books use a first person POV and then have the narrator segue into the 3rd person POV of the character’s they are observing. The first book is & Sons by David Gilbert and the other is London Fields by the brilliantly talented Martin Amis. This technique is very difficult, as the POV transitions can be confusing if not done properly. But it allows the 1st person POV to utilize a unique voice while at the same time using 3rd person to allow the reader to experience many different unique perspectives.

Many authors use multiple 1st person POV. This is an effective technique because it allows strong voices to coincide with multiple viewpoints. However, this technique is tricky. If not done properly, it can make the novel seem jarring, schizophrenic, and too confusing. Done well, it’s fantastic fun and very riveting. In my upcoming novel, The Neighbor, I used the two alternating first person perspectives of husband and wife, similar to the best selling novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Then there’s using the conventional third person POV interspersed with 1st person POV, like I’m doing in the current novel I’m working on. It can be an effective tool when you want that 1st person voice to interrupt the narrative with commentary designed to jar the reader out the narrative trance. I found using this structure to be daring and a lot of fun, especially since my 1st person interrupter is such an evil witch.

One of my favorite books this year was reading Marie Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette, which is coming out as a movie this spring. Semple brilliantly uses emails, personal messages, letters, and social media to tell a hilarious and riveting story of a brilliant but reclusive architect who’s gone missing. I could not put this book down and was amazed at how this author could weave together such an amazing tale using a unique and creative approach to narrative,

I absolutely loved You by Caroline Kepnes. Her literate but sociopathic antihero serial killer uses the term ‘you’ in a highly unconventional way. Reading the novel, it’s almost as if Joe, the 1st person narrator, is speaking directly to the woman of his dreams. It’s creepy, addictive, and doesn’t end well for You. But you’ll find yourself laughing at Joe’s perspective, and at the same feel horrified at yourself for laughing at such evil. The good news: You is set to become a Lifetime drama this spring.

Of course everyone will be drawn to the structures they are used to reading and enjoying. If I’ve missed any other techniques, please let me know. Some readers are plenty happy with the traditional approaches and traditional mystery set ups. If you’re an adventurist reader like I am, take a chance on some of these clever writers who see fit to challenge the status quo. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised


About joesouza

I am a writer of crime novels
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4 Responses to Challenging Narrative Structure: Who’s Telling Your Story

  1. Barbara Ross says:

    I’m so looking forward to The Neighbor. You’ve got me off to download Where’d You Go Bernadette as I love that kind of novel.

    • joesouza says:

      Thanks, Barbara. I think you’ll love Where’d You Go Bernadette. I have your fist one in my reading que and I’m excited to read it. It’ll be my first cozy.

  2. bethc2015 says:

    I have recently read a couple of books that use the multiple first person point of view. In each case , I didn’t feel that I knew any character well until the end of the book. Ii lost track of which character was speaking at the time and had to repeatedly backtrack to jog my memory. It takes a skilled writer to do it well.

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