Craft Week: Giving Your Story the “Right” Point of View

lobster-shack-view-cape-elizabeth-meWelcome to Craft Week at The Debutante Ball!

No, put your potholder bands and knitting needles away—this is the writing craft we’re talking about, the best craft there is, because what you’re making is BOOKS.

Class, I’d like to talk to you about point of view.

No GROANING now. Point of view isn’t just about whether or not your story is told from the first person “I” or the third person “she.” Point of view is everything.

Why? Because point of view is how you control your story, and telling a story is all about control. Don’t believe me? Then explain why “author” and “authority” sound so cousinly. To gather in a reader and keep her turning the pages way past bedtime, you have to be the authority of your story.

And the sword you wield to do that is point of view.

Technically speaking, point of view (or PoV) is the vantage point of your story. Who speaks? Where is that person in relation to what will happen in the story?

Your options aren’t exactly limitless, but you have several, and each helps you tell a different story. There’s first person, of course, which is natural to most writers, but limiting in what a character can see and know. It’s also very easy for early writers to slip into too much summary and not enough scene/action using this tool, and if the character isn’t interesting, uh oh, you’re stuck inside his boring head. There’s second person, which is a high-wire act that, bonus, also annoys a lot of readers. You use it at your own risk. And then there’s third person, which is where you have some additional choices to make: how close is the “camera” of the story to the third person narrator?

The thing is, there’s no wrong answer. People have their favorites, even—ack—second person. The right answer is the PoV that works best for your story.

So, ask yourself a few questions:

-What pivotal moments might I have to show? Who needs to be there?

-Who is most central to the conflict of this story?

-Whose thoughts do readers need most?

-Whose voice is the most interesting?

When I was writing The Black Hour, the PoV started out simple. I imagined a first-person account of a professor who’d lived through an act of campus violence. Dr. Amelia Emmet started speaking, and boy was she peeved. Peeved was interesting.

Amelia suffers through an anxious meeting with a new graduate student she’s supposed to advise in the first chapter. About fifty pages into the book, that grad student had something to say.

I wasn’t exactly thrilled with this development. But after giving this new PoV character a chance, it turned out both of them had plenty to do and say. The bad news? Writing alternating first-person accounts is a bit of a high-wire act, too. Each character needed to have a distinct voice and his and her own ambitions. The good news? Switching back and forth between Amelia and Nathaniel kept things moving and gave the story its structure and pace. Even more enjoyably, the dual protagonists started to keep information from each other. In the end, having two protagonists changed the trajectory of the entire plot in a way I hadn’t planned

If it sounds like I lost control of my story, well—yes. In the way we all hope they do, these characters took over and ran away with the book. I wish it for all of you, because it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Has one of your PoV characters ever done something unexpected while you were writing?

 

Photo from retroroadmap.com

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Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery THE BLACK HOUR (Seventh Street Books, July 2014). She grew up in central Indiana, but now lives in Chicago with her husband and very spoiled dog.

15 thoughts on “Craft Week: Giving Your Story the “Right” Point of View

  1. I agree about the author/authority thing. Writing is the art of withholding information from readers. 🙂

    My novels have been in third person– and I don’t take any credit for making a decision there since there was no other option. Way too much happening, in different times and places (sometimes decades apart), and no one character who would have been present for all of them. So, that was easy.

    My mysteries are written in first person, from the POV of the detective’s assistant. This was mostly because it’s a classic way to tell the story while baffling the reader — since the assistant never knows as much as the detective knows — but it’s had the benefit that readers have really taken to his voice. He’s very much an observer (though sometimes with a wry commentary on what’s going on and his employer’s peculiarities), but more than one reader has commented that, looking through his eyes, they’ve become curious about him, the person doing the watching. That’s a good situation to be in.

    I’m very intrigued by the alternating-narrator thing, I must say. That’s a bit of a high-wire act, too.

  2. Oh yes. I’ve written first person and alternating third person. I love it when the character steps in and says, “You know, I wouldn’t do it that way at all. Instead, let’s do this.” That tells me I’m really in the story.

  3. A high wire act you pulled off expertly, Lori! My series character bosses me around a lot. The first time he started inserting himself in the narrative I thought, “OK this is it. I am now certifiable.” But I’ve come to worry a lot more about the writing days when he’s not talking-to me than when he is. Usually it means I haven’t fully internalized what he wants and what he’ll do in a given situation to get it. My best scenes always come when I’m there with him in the moment. And I especially love the days when he does or says something that makes me laugh.

  4. The very first novel I completed was told (in early drafts) partially in second person, from the POV of an inanimate object. It was ambitious and experimental and eventually enough people told me they couldn’t get past the 2nd person, but that they loved the voice, so I changed it to third. It was an important lesson in how POV and voice aren’t always the same thing…and how you have to be willing to let go of a POV you might really connect to, but readers don’t.

    • Woah. You are not one to shrink from challenge, are you? Good point about voice and PoV. Although I’m interested what kind of voice the inanimate object had.

  5. Looking forward to reading your book! It sounds terrific! Alternating points of view can be so great for the reader, but I’ve never tried it myself.

    BTW, some of my favorite books when I was a kid were all written in second person….Choose Your Own Adventure, anyone?

  6. I’m fascinated by how your PoV expanded, and it must have gotten truly fun when the narrators started lying to each other! I love that kind of thing.

    And, eh hem, tell me all about Malice? 🙂

  7. Love this. I’d add that the second person is sometimes best read as a kind of displaced first person–a narrator’s attempt to give uncomfortable actions and thoughts to someone else. I ask my students to be alert to moments when they slip into second person in discussion–and it almost always happens when they’re unsure of what they’re saying. In writing, then, second person isn’t just an umbrella choice, but also a way for a writer to help complexity a first- or even third-person narrator (if the third person is being funneled tightly through a particular character’s consciousness) with occasional “slips.” For an example, see the scene in Alice Munro’s story “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” in which Johanna buys a dress. That third person scene has two lines in second person, and they come when Johanna is looking in the mirror and hating what she sees. Devastating.

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