Beginning writers often struggle with point of view; even more accomplished writers can slip into their author voice when they’re not paying attention, or neglect to draw their narrative deep into the POV of their character. Point of view affects storytelling as well as craft, and in some ways is the most basic part of writing: point of view is the story.
A Brief History of Storytelling
Stories began with an oral tradition, which was always “telling” in a distant third person (In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.) The Psalms of the Bible stand out in part because they are in first person, based on hymnals meant to be sung, rather than stories meant to be told: The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer… Jokes are the modern version of oral storytelling and are usually in distant third person: A priest, a rabbi, and a scientist walk into a bar… (Note: stand-up comics often use first person, which allows them even more range in their story telling. Also hilarity.)
For a long time, written stories were primarily a transcription of the oral tradition. Only with advent of cheaper printing methods did storytelling start to transform, giving the writer new point-of-view tools with which to tell their story. Suddenly the written page separated the storyteller from the storylistener, and the writer could do all sorts of new tricks, including convince the reader that they were the character. That enabled storytelling to become much more personal.
Whether you’re using first person or third person (or heaven help you, second person), you can still use the distant storytelling style of the past, but modern stories tend to be more personal (there are of course exceptions to this). Many modern stories use Deep POV, which is just a way of saying your story is tightly bound to your POV character. Where beginning writers struggle is in confusing the two, mixing distant POV with Deep POV, or generally being unclear about whose POV we’re in. It’s important to have a strong grasp of this, because your choice of a point of view character answers the question: whose story is this?
I absolutely adored the snippet at the end of the new Spiderman movie, where Peter Parker is in class and the teacher in the background is lecturing on storytelling. She says, “There are many who will say there are 5 or 7 or a dozen basic stories in the world. And some who say there is only one: Who am I?” That captures the essence of what I love about Spiderman and other superhero movies – they are character studies written larger than life.
How to Do This – The Basics
There are two parts to this: 1) choose a POV character (or two or three, if using multiple POVs) that the story is mainly about and STAY IN THEIR HEAD.
- Stay firmly in your character’s head; don’t stray off into other heads, including your own (i.e. don’t narrate the story as if you’re talking into a microphone).
- Only switch POVs at scene changes (if using multiple POV characters); no “head hopping”
- Color every thought, action and description with your POV character’s perspective
- it’s not just a red velvet chair, it’s the chair her grandmother used to knit scarves in
- Don’t describe things your POV character can’t possibly know, or wouldn’t normally remark on
When you’ve mastered how to do this, then feel free to head-hop (Artemis Fowl), switch POVs in 1st person (The Red Pyramid), write from a distant perspective (A Series of Unfortunate Events), and break any other rule I’ve listed. Because you will know what you’re doing, which is the only real rule for writers.
And the More Complicated Stuff
Once you’ve mastered the mechanics of staying with your POV character(s), then make sure you do the second part: 2) TELL THEIR STORY.
- Don’t hold forth at length on the politics of your storyworld (unless your character is a philosophy professor), except when it relates directly to your POV character’s story
- Don’t describe the wonderful mechanics of your phase blaster unless it’s misfired and your character is taking it apart to try to figure out why
- Don’t inventory the contents of a scene like a Pottery Barn catalogue (unless your character is an interior designer); describe all your scenes through character-colored glasses
- Don’t withhold information that your character knows, just to build suspense. The suspense should come from inside your character, the one whose story we are telling (writerly slight of hand, where you make your character think something that happens not to be true, is completely acceptable.) 🙂
- Make sure your POV character is the most compelling/dimensional character in the story (don’t let a secondary character steal the show); if another character’s story is more interesting, perhaps you should be telling their story, from their POV.
(Only a couple more Critique Wednesdays left before summer runs away.)