Writing True Stories: Using Viewpoint in Your Narrative Nonfiction Writing

Unlike prescriptive or practical nonfiction, which is written from the perspective of the author and addresses readers directly (using “you” and “we”), narrative nonfiction writing requires authors to select a viewpoint that most effectively conveys the story.

Narrative writing employs three main viewpoint (or point of view) perspectives:

1. First-Person Narrative
The first-person perspective injects the author into the story. The writer becomes a character in the story with feelings, thoughts, opinions and biases related to the subject or topic. First-person perspective is used best in memoir and autobiography. Inserting “I” in the narrative of other types of stories can be challenging for the writer and distracting for the reader - critics of John Kraukuer’s books (Into Thin Air, Into the Wild) cite his constant interjection of himself into the stories as annoying and unnecessary. While the use of the first-person narrative in The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson, works because the author presents himself in the story as the “everyman” and becomes that character for readers. “As told to the author” books also employ the first-person narrative.

2. Third-Person Objective Narrative
The third-person objective narrative presents a more journalistic, unbiased approach to the material. The story is conveyed through a neutral narrator (using “he”, “she”, “they”), devoid of the characters’ feelings, thoughts, or opinions. Truman Capote uses this technique for In Cold Blood:

“The black Chevrolet was again parked, this time in front of a Catholic hospital on the outskirts of Emporia. While Perry waited in the car, Dick had gone into the hospital to try and buy a pair of black stockings from a nun. This rather unorthodox method of obtaining them had been Perry’s inspiration; nuns, he had argued, were certain to have a supply.”

3. Third-Person Subjective Narrative
The third-person subjective narrative tells the story from the perspective of a narrator (using “he”, “she”, “they”) and presents the feelings, thoughts, opinions, biases and knowledge (time, people, places, and events related to the story) of one (limited perspective) or all characters (omniscient perspective.) Author Anthony Flacco uses this method in The Road Out of Hell: Sanford Clark and the True Story of the Wineville Murders:

“Thirteen-year-old Sanford Clark felt his stomach lurch when he realized that his mother was really going to send him away. He stared down at the floor and fought to control his breathing while his brain reeled from the news. Everything about it felt wrong. The atmosphere in the room took on a poisonous feel, as if a thin mist of acid had just rolled in through the window. He knew that his mother and uncle were telling him a pack of lies. It was so off-kilter and strange that the moment belonged in a bad dream.”