Four Nonfiction Points of View

Moving down the Foolscap Global Story Grid for The Tipping Point we’ve now reached Point of View.

Just as in fiction, the choices the nonfiction writer makes about Point of View in Big Idea Nonfiction are make or break decisions.

What is the best way for the writer to address the reader for his particular thesis?

 How will the choice of POV effect the conventional requirement of establishing a consistent and trustworthy Ethos throughout the work?

The way Malcolm Gladwell chose to answer these questions is a major factor in the success of the book.

And the brilliant way he introduces each point of view choice very early on in the telling sucks the reader right into his Story.

Remember my post about the need to have the three forms of argument (Ethos/Logos/Pathos) made in a Big Idea book? Well the Ethos part takes form in the writer’s choices of Point of View.

So what POVs does Gladwell actually use in The Tipping Point?

1. He uses Third Person Omniscient, the Authorial Journalist Point of View. Or simply the “reporter’s” POV.

For example, from the very beginning of the book, the introduction, here are the first two sentences:

For Hush Puppies — the classic American brushed-suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole — the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995. The brand had been all but dead until that point.

The above represents journalism’s standard form—simple declarative statements. The point of view is that of the professional, the seasoned reporter. The subtext is that the reporter has done the work necessary to confidently state the “facts” and has the notebooks from interviews and research to back them up.

We read these sorts of sentences all of the time and we subconsciously recognize them as the voice of the professional.

2. He uses the First Person Plural, “We.”

Here is the first sentence from the third scene of The Tipping Point:

A world that follows the rules of epidemics is a very different place from the world we [emphasis mine] think we [emphasis mine] live in now.

Using the first person plural takes real courage because it cedes the usual virtual lectern that journalists step onto when they report their “objective” findings.

Just 1,059 words into his book, in the above sentence, Gladwell tells the reader that what he’s going to share with us is as difficult to comprehend for him as it will be for us. He’s telling us that he walks the same ground that we do.

We’re used to reading nonfiction as proclamations of “truth” and/or “fact” and subconsciously we place the author on a pedestal. And we’re comfortable learning from the writer in that formal manner. It’ similar to the way we’ve been taught since we had to not fidget while penned into a wee desk as children while passively absorbing lessons from our teachers.

We’re accustomed to reading books written by braniacs who have gone into the darkness and have returned with universal truths, which they then bestow upon us, the not so smart unenlightened.

Gladwell could easily have restructured that sentence to abide that standard nonfiction professorial convention. He could have put on the cloak of the genius and written:

A world that follows the rules of epidemics is a very different place from the world as it is lived in today.

But he didn’t. He broke convention and innovated the form. He chose to be one of us, one who struggles understanding why things happen seemingly so suddenly as we do.

3. He uses the First Person Omniscient, “I.”

The use of first person allows the journalist to make himself a character in the reporting. It’s New Journalism 101.

Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved (published June 1970 in Scanlon’s Monthly Vol. 1, No. 4) is a wonderful example of the writer stepping in front of the report to give you the context of what it took to gather the pieces of the story. You know the writer has a payoff in mind as you follow the narrative, but you’re not quite sure where he’s going to take you.

For example on page 13 of The Tipping Point, Gladwell writes:

I remember once as a child seeing our family’s puppy encounter snow for the first time.

Compare this to the first sentence of Thompson’s article:

I got off the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal.

Both of these first person statements imply that the narrator is setting up a story…one that contains valuable information. The author knows something you don’t. He’s omniscient. And it is the implication that he’s got a payoff in the offing. That promise keeps you reading.

4. He uses the Second Person Singular, “You.”

Like using the first person plural, speaking directly to the reader is another risk. Especially for a journalist. It’s something we were told never to do when we learned how to write the objective “essay” form in High School. The reason being that the writer’s use of “You” can easily come off heavy handed and didactic or worse still, glib and smarmy.

But when it works…

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy 

 When they kick out your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun

–The Clash

Gladwell wisely introduces his use of the second person singular in the third scene, just as he does with first person plural and first person omniscient.

He gives the reader what they expect in his first two scenes (the first 1059 words) to establish the fact that he is a seasoned journalist capable of playing it straight…but then he jumps down from the lectern, pulls out a chair, sits down next to us and starts to talk. Like he’s one of us.

This on page 10:

I [first person omniscient] made some of you [second person singular] reading this yawn simply by writing the word “yawn.”

We’re not even out of the introduction to The Tipping Point and Gladwell has us in the palm of his hand. This is not an accident. It’s an expert use of POV.

Gladwell’s point of view choices required careful planning. Just as his choices to tell an Action Adventure Story while hammering home the data and case studies necessary to support his Worldview Revelation genre/Big Idea Nonfiction do.  Make no mistake.  The structure and form of The Tipping Point was so thoroughly conceived that it seems invisible.

When we track The Tipping Point’s scene-by-scene construction in The Story Grid Spreadsheet, we’ll be able to see exactly where he used each of these four POVs.  More importantly we’ll see how using one or more serves the Story and Gladwell’s thesis.  It’s these little things that Gladwell does that make a huge difference.

Here’s our Foolscap Page up to date:

Foolscap Story Grid for The Tipping Point

Foolscap Story Grid for The Tipping Point



For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of the Storygridding The Tipping Point posts and The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.





10 comments on “Four Nonfiction Points of View

  1. Joel D Canfield says:

    I wonder how much of the choice to use 4 POVs was intentional, and how much was simply (or not-so-simply) Gladwell’s natural style, based on a lifetime of clear thinking and smart writing?

    It’s easy for me, analyzing after the fact, to see intent and preparation where there was only clear thinking. But doing so makes me worry whether I’m putting enough thought into my planning my writing.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Joel,
      Here’s what I think. I agree that like all of us, Gladwell probably sat down with a bunch of stuff he had to scratch out. He wrote in his natural voice and probably 80% of it (because he’s a seasoned pro) was pretty much as it is in the final book. But the order in which he edited the first draft definitely brought in the analytical decisions necessary to bring the reader into his story in the best possible way. Hence his leading with the familiar third person omniscient for the first thousand words and then transitioning into his other POV choices. If he had begun the book with something other than the third person, readers would probably not have the confidence in him in the way that they do presently. Those two hook pieces (Hush Puppies and Crime in NY) are textbook journalism inciting incidents–they present a question to the reader that he will desperately want answered. And then the familiar approach bonds the reader to the writer and hooks him on the adventure story. He’s meeting a compadre who has gone to the Emerald City and has returned with some information. Now he’s offered to bring the reader along with him to reveal the secret knowledge that underlies the opening two bits.
      Anyway, this is stuff that is all discovered and manipulated when you are wearing the EDITOR hat. Did Gladwell purposefully say to himself…Gee I’m going to lead with 3rd person and then transition into first and second etc.? No. He pulled all of his research together knowing his ultimate destination and then banged out a first draft. He went for a walk after he finished that draft and pulled on his editor’s hat the next day. And that’s when he considered his POV choices etc. At least that’s my gut.
      All the best,

      1. Joel D Canfield says:

        Yeah, in retrospect that sounds like what any good writer would do.

  2. I’m struck by the same thought, Joel. I’m beginning to realize a well-crafted book is just the tip of a very large iceberg.

  3. Mary Doyle says:

    Okay, my head is spinning again because I didn’t realize how many POV’s Gladwell employed until reading this post. I’m raising my hand now and about to ask what might be a stupid question, but is Second Person Singular the nonfiction cousin of the Fourth Wall in cinema or theatre? As always, thanks!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Mary,
      I think that’s a pretty good analogy. The writer addressing the reader as “you” is very much akin to an actor stepping off the stage and addressing a theatergoer. For my own personal tastes though, I much prefer the familiar address and breakdown of the wall when I’m reading than when I’ve come to see a performance. Nothing makes me cringe more than “audience participation” theater.
      All the best,

      1. Mary Doyle says:

        Thanks Shawn! I have to confess that I love the use of the Fourth Wall in House of Cards.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          You’re right Mary. When something is done right, it’s irresistible. And boy is it done right in House of Cards…

        2. Doug Walsh says:

          Those sideways glances to the camera and occasional roll of the eyes for our benefit should win Spacey a lifetime of Emmys.

  4. Marvin Waschke says:

    It’s interesting how different people take things in different ways. For me, shifting into 1st or 2nd person in non-fiction is a signal that something is going on, sometimes special emphasis or conviction, but it can cover a lapse in the argument and be the equivalent of a sales rep waving hands and trotting in the smoke and mirrors. My hackles raise automatically when I see it. I don’t think it means that they should never be used, but caution is required. I do use 1st or 2nd person sparingly in my own non-fiction, which is nowhere near Gladwell’s league, but my editor usually slaps me down, justifiably, I think.

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