Point of View

Next up on our Foolscap Global Story Grid is the space to fill in point of view.

Point of view is the vantage point the writer chooses to tell the reader a Story. Your point of view choices will dictate the tenor of each beat, each scene, each sequence, each act and the entire work. They are crucial choices. (I’ll do a follow up post to this on Free Indirect Style next for more on how best to approach the literal telling.)

Let’s say that you have two characters in a scene. Two brothers. The younger brother is the prodigal son. He’s left town years ago and now has decided to come home to the family farm. He’s coming back—not because he’s broke and destitute and in need of help—rather because he’s wealthy beyond whatever he expected out of life. But his material possessions have brought him no happiness. He’s coming home to rekindle his love for his dear brother who stayed behind to take care of the family while he went out to make his fortune.

The older brother is the workhorse farmer who has sacrificed his own individual ambitions in order to care for the extended family. The farm survives only by his efforts.

How will these two greet each other? What will they want from one another? Will one get what he wants, while the other doesn’t? One of the best places to begin to answer these questions (if you haven’t already) is by approaching them through point of view.

You’ll have four point of view choices to describe this “coming home” scene. Your choice of global genre will dictate which choice to make, hence why I’ve spent so much time laying out the genres. Knowing what point of view will best serve your genre is the key.

You could:

  • Place the center of the narrative “inside the mind” of the rich younger brother coming home, and share his thoughts as if there were a magical parrot sitting on his shoulder capable of hearing and repeating the character’s inner world to the reader. [See the Free Indirect Style post coming up next].
  • You could put the parrot on the farmer brother’s shoulder.
  • You could alternate between the two brothers’ points of view and their respective magical parrots.
  • You could place the narrative center above the world and describe the scene as if you are the child at play with two dolls and a farm set. This reportorial/neutral point of view is the strict third person omniscient voice that does not tell the reader what is going on inside the heads of the characters. Or if it does, it does so from a God-like perspective. (Again, read the upcoming post Free Indirect Style for more on this.)

How do you decide?

If the younger brother is the protagonist of your story—your novel could be a modern Society/Redemption story about the corrupting powers of ambition—I’d suggest you follow everything that happens from his point of view.

If your story is a Western/Testing story about the difficult choice someone might make to safeguard the lives of others at the expense of his own “self-actualization,” I’d suggest you follow everything that happens from the farmer brother’s point of view.

If your story is a Domestic Drama/Sentimental story about the pressures of shifting from one kind of family dynamic and back again, then perhaps using both points of view would serve your purposes well. In this case, both brothers would serve as protagonists and antagonists, depending upon the particular circumstances of the global family saga story’s arc. See Giant by Edna Ferber.

If your story is not about either of these brothers, but is a Historical Drama/Punitive story about a plague and the effects it has on regular people, you’ll probably want to write it as strict third person omniscient with perhaps a smattering of indirect speech to invest the reader emotionally with one or more characters.

Here’s my advice to get you started. If you are writing a traditional Archplot structured novel, write the first draft from the point of view of your protagonist. Either in the first person or by using third person omniscient (all knowing/Godlike) Free Indirect Style.

Quick reminder:

First Person means the story is told by the narrator…I saw my brother in the field.

Second Person means that the story is told with the narrator referring to the reader as you…You saw him in the field.  Rarely do novelists use the Second Person.  Jay McInerney did a remarkable job with it in Bright Lights, Big City.

Third Person means the story is told from a narrative distance–Jim Smith saw his brother Luke in the field.

If you can sustain interest in the trials and tribulations of that one character and use the inner life of that lead character to best effect, you’ll get the most out of the Archplot form. But after you’ve finished the first draft, you may find places in the story that would benefit from a shift in point of view. That is, you may need to get story events onto the page that the protagonist is not privy to. Or you’ll want to layer in another character’s thoughts to counterbalance those of your protagonist.

For example, in The Silence of the Lambs Thomas Harris makes use of ten points of view. Primarily Clarice Starling (the protagonist), but he also gives at least two chapters/scenes to Buffalo Bill/Jame Gumb (the antagonist), Jack Crawford (the mentor) and Hannibal Lecter (the anti-mentor).

Starling is the dominant force of the novel. But if Harris did not stretch out and use the POVs of the other three characters, the reader would have a very generic sense of the forces aligned with her and those against her. Without seeing Buffalo Bill/Jame Gumb prepare to harvest his victim, the novel would lose a great deal of tension. Starling would not be privy to that preparation so if Harris strictly maintained her POV, we’d lose a very chilling scene.

You’ll notice though that Harris does not give us the antagonist’s POV until the Middle Build portion of his novel, nor does he give us Hannibal Lecter’s until even later on in the book. He does give us Jack Crawford’s POV in chapter five. That choice allows the reader to attach to Crawford emotionally. Harris understood that Crawford’s actions up to that point are very stoic and dictatorial, if not Machiavellian. By giving us his world early, the reader can’t help but see that his behavior is a mask. A mask to cover up the horrors of his personal life experience. And thus, the reader allows him his misanthropy. Empathizes with him.

You’ll also notice Harris using minor characters points of view with free indirect style to ratchet tension in critical moments. He does this so seamlessly that the reader does not mind the POV shifts.

Big caution: Too many POV shifts are irritating.

Especially in the beginning hook of a story. You need the reader to get attached to your protagonist before you can branch out. Finding the perfect mix is the challenge. The simple rule to follow is…if the POV shift takes the reader out of the global world and confuses them for even a millisecond…don’t do it.

Free Indirect Style is up next and then, we’ll get into Controlling Idea/Theme.

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


15 comments on “Point of View

  1. Joel D Canfield says:

    I ask myself, what do I want the readers to know? What will make the story’s revelation best for them?

    This leads my mysteries to be 1st person every time, so the reader knows only what the protagonist knows. If I were leaning more toward an action/adventure or thriller, I’d definitely want some 3rd person omniscience, to give the reader some terrors on behalf of the protagonist.

    In his Wolfgang Schmitt books, Larry Brooks does something interesting: they’re told in 1st person, inside Wolf’s head. But occasionally, there’s a little vignette at the end of a chapter which is clearly set off from the rest of the text, and which is 3rd person omniscient. We get the limited knowledge of 1st person, but with injections of information as controlled by the author. Unconventional, but it works.

    My half-finished coming of age novel is 3rd person because it’s all about the family dynamic, and I want to simply show people acting and let the reader figure out why.

    1. Tina Goodman says:

      In SUMMER SISTERS, Judy Blume put individual characters in a “booth” and they spoke their minds to the reader about what was happening in the novel. These were short monologues or confessions scattered throughout the novel. Today’s readers will be used to this sort of thing if they watch reality television.

  2. Will Douglas says:

    The Al Zuckerman book landed on the mat this afternoon. Thanks for the recommendation. From a brief perusal I think I’ll learn a lot from it.

  3. Mary Doyle says:

    My WIP, a Domestic Drama, is being written from multiple POV’s, but now you’ve got me wondering if I’ve introduced the main POV’s too early, so I’ve got to go back and take another look. By the way, the Zuckerman book is great!

  4. Michael Perkins says:

    Great post.

    What about writing in the past tense vs. the present?

    Is past tense always the way to do it, or could it be appropriate to write a scene using the present tense?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      Never say never. Past tense is the standard form, but there are always exceptions. It depends on the work, obviously, but present tense is certainly a valid choice.
      All the best

  5. andrew lubin says:

    Put the parrot on the shoulder of a narrator, say an orphan friend of the brothers who grew up in their household (think Tom Hagen in The Godfather, Xeo in Gates, Hardy in Bagger)) and have him tell the story; let the readers decide if the younger brother is a weasel, or the older brother has a martyr complex. Then any other characters you introduce are also 3rd-party, and can be used to compare & contrast the brothers.

  6. Will Douglas says:

    Shawn, are there any other books similar to Al Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel that you would recommend? I’m three quarters to way through Mr Zuckerman’s book and I wish I’d read it 20 years ago! It has really pointed up what I need to do to my manuscript to turn it into a professional piece of work. Thanks for sharing your experience, it really is invaluable, and you can be sure I’ll be buying The Story Grid on publication day.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Will,
      My friend Noah Lukeman (also an agent) has written some good practical stuff too. Don’t have his titles off the top of my head. Worth a read.

      1. Will Douglas says:

        Thanks. He has a website with his books on sale.

  7. Refreshing to see POV discussed not in terms of likely reader engagement with/empathy for the protagonist, but the type of story that is being narrated. In any given story, there are a multitude of actors who are each after their own goals – in my mind, it is how the universe of the narrative provides (mutual and mutually exclusive) assistance and obstacles to these goals and how the character responds to these prompts, that will ultimately decide the type of story. So, the story of the corrupt CEO who has everything (and everything to lose) is a punitive story of just desserts, whereas the story of the young scrapper who takes the CEO down is an admiration/sentimental story of triumph. With that said, is it the theme of your story – “karma is a bitch” or “the good guy always wins” – that will decide your POV? i.e would there ever be a good reason to tell the karma is a bitch story from the POV of the scrapper? Or will the character who is central to the theme always be the best POV?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Mikhaeyla,
      Some of my favorites use tangential POVs to highlight the core character of the story. GREAT GATSBY is one of course. So is GATES OF FIRE and TIDES OF WAR, among many others by Steve Pressfield. You can definitely play with POV and create deep resonance too.

      1. GREAT GATSBY is an interesting example – and maybe one that identifies a delineation between the main character and the protagonist? i.e. While it is clearly Gatsby’s story, the character arc (development/evolution/change) is Nick’s – who is interested, then enamoured, then disillusioned by Gatsby’s world…
        Would it be fair to say that the theme is articulated by Gatsby’s story, but effects change in Nick’s? Or is this distinction irrelevant? (more inside baseball…)

      2. Thinking more about this – is GATSBY a tale of two protagonists? One with a conscious want (archplot of Gatsby wanting Daisy) and the other a subconscious need (miniplot of Nick finding his own truth about the celebrity world of Gatsby)?
        In which case, what an elegant and subtle way to introduce layers and complexity… (typical of the genius that was F Scott Fitzgerald)

        1. Tina Goodman says:

          I think Gatsby’s conscious object of desire is Daisy, but she is an illusion and represents his unconscious desire of being part of a world that he admires but doesn’t fit in.

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