The first one is a suggestion I got from my previous question. The second one is a version based on the character's viewpoint. Which version is more likely to attract the interest of the reader (and yours)?

('No one' is also a valid answer.)

At four o'clock in the morning, the psychiatric clinic is dark and silent and empty, like a morgue. In the middle of the cafeteria, a lone young man sits in a chair drinking cheap vodka, his emotionless face illuminated only by the moon.

Its four o'clock in the morning. The psychiatric clinic is dark and silent and empty, like a morgue. No, maybe the only thing that is dead in this hall is my hope of healing anyone. Anyways, do I really care about them? (he takes a sip of his vodka, and thinks for a while) Did my disease make me stop caring or stop caring gave birth to it?

(They don't show exactly the same elements, but every word is connected with the ending). (I'm not really sure how to properly insert the parenthesis part).

6 Answers 6


I like that you're playing with different viewpoints here. The first one is (in this one paragraph) an aloof third person. If it stays aloof, it may be tricky to engage the reader. But this narrative distance may be temporary, and perhaps subsequent paragraphs will move us closer to the lone young man.

The first version does raise some intriguing questions. Why is he drinking alone in the cafeteria? Why are the lights off? I want to know about those, so I'm hooked at least enough to read the next few paragraphs.

The second version nicely takes us almost directly into the character's head. We see right away that his life is at some kind of turning point, or maybe a crisis or even an existential quandary.

This version also raises questions, but they're different from the first version: Why can he no longer heal people? What disease? How did he stop caring? And will he stop caring that he's stopped caring? Again, I want to read on.

The bit about him thinking for a while is tricky to do in first person present. You're trying to summarize, which requires some way to get a bit of narrative distance, but it's in the midst of a highly immediate point of view. You can sometimes do that with past tense, as if the character is telling the story long after it happened. For example, you can sometimes carefully pull back from the character's immediate experience in order to summarize--e.g. "I took a sip of my vodka and thought for a long while."

But with first person present tense, there's no distant perch from which to observe the character. I suspect it's possible to do this, but I don't read enough first person present tense to know how good writers manage it. I'm sure other folks can advise well here.

However it's done, the shifts in narrative distance will have to be both rare and gentle. Frequent or jarring shifts will pop the reader out of the trance.

If you're up for some more experimenting, try several more versions: first person past tense, close third person past tense, close third person present tense, ... Notice how each viewpoint makes some things easier to say, and some things harder.

  • thanks for the suggestion. Everyone is telling me to use past tense. I guess is for some reason.
    – wyc
    Commented Mar 15, 2011 at 9:38

I'm interested to note that the users who expressed a preference went with the first version. I will add my vote for the first to the others.

A writing tutor once pointed out to me that the first person is easier for authors, it involves getting into a mental groove and just stream-of-consciousness monologuing in the viewpoint character's voice. However, the down side is that the character runs the risk of coming off as a whiner.

When someone says "I don't care about this" then you immediately evaluate that as someone separate from you making a statement about something. So you judge the statement and the person as if it were something outside of you that you are reacting to directly.

If you say "he wondered if he had become numb to this" then you, the narrator, are presenting an absolute fact for consideration. The reader avoids the psychological trap of instant reaction.

A character explaining why he doesn't care sounds like someone rationalising. In fact, a character explaining anything kind of is rationalising. A narrator explaining things the character may or may not be aware of is presenting a fact and it doesn't reflect poorly on the character unless it is meant to.

So, in summary, first person perspective necessarily introduces the risk of reflecting poorly on view point characters even if it's not meant to. Third person gives the narrator more control about how to present a character but is a tougher mental groove to get into.

For this reason when a novel is in first person I always feel a bit depressed and wonder if I'm going to end up with that grating feeling. Whereas in third person I always know I've got a better chance of not being irritated by the material. That's just because I'm a technician about these things, though. It's like asking a painter to comment on a painting style they've decided that they personally have difficulty with as a practitioner; they're unlikely to be able to get beyond that unless the execution is particularly masterful.


Definitely, I like the first one.

I have no problem with omniscient narrator viewpoint but the second example looks a little bit jerky. (Maybe, the narrator is mentally ill or just loaded with something. I do not know the context.)

  • what do you mean by 'little bit jerky'?
    – wyc
    Commented Mar 15, 2011 at 9:39
  • Something like "forced humour", an effort to be funny at any cost.
    – Nerevar
    Commented Mar 15, 2011 at 14:34

I think the problem is that your second example isn't really in pure first person - the bits in the bracket are in third - which makes it feel awkward and, as someone else said, jerky.

But assuming that you're trying to chose between either distant third/omniscient or tight third/first person, I don't think you can make this decision based on two short excerpts. What are the demands of your story? Are you trying to get right inside one character's head and show how the events affect just him, or are you looking for a more dispassionate, removed examination of a strange situation and its effects on a variety of characters? DO you want readers to feel as if they, like your MC, don't have enough information to fully understand things, or do you want the readers to see the big picture and watch as the characters figure it out?

Choice of POV isn't just about the way that individual paragraphs feel, it's about the goals for the whole book.


I prefer the first one, too, although I don't think it's the POV making the difference. In the second version, it feels like you're trying to cram too much information into a short paragraph. It might be more effective to pick just a couple of key details and present those in a way that makes a big impact. You can "reel out" the other information later in the piece.


My re-write of number two, adding in lost details from #1. This is how people actually think, they don't refer so directly to things. We still know something is killing him, but now we're wondering what it is...This is first person POV, straight up. If you want to be in his head that much, it might need to be from his POV.

It's four o'clock in the morning. The psychiatric clinic is dark and silent and empty, like a morgue. There's nothing dead in here, nothing except my hope of healing anyone. But here I am, sitting in the dark, trying to stop caring about not caring, with my own prescription of vodka. I take a sip, and grimace, because it's too cheap to enjoy. But, it's not as though I'm drinking it for the taste. At least it can't kill me any more than what I've already got.

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