As we continue this editing series how we can develop a great story, I hope you’re able to see that the elements of storytelling hinges on more than concept and characters. By having all the layers in place before actually writing, you can have a clearer idea of where your story is going. Or if you’ve already written your book, how to make sure all the layers are in place so that you give your readers a delightful reading experience.
The third layer in developing a great story is developing your story’s point of view.
Point of view doesn’t stop with characters, but also comes through in inanimate and animate objects like setting and weather. Let’s discuss some possibilities!
How to Edit the Point of View
- Who has the most at stake in this story?
- Whose perspective offers the best story in this scene?
- How will your chosen POV impact your characters, the plot, your readers?
Who has the most at stake in this story?
In storytelling, it’s really all about what’s at stake for the main character. And it’s not what they’re grilling, either. Unless, of course, it’s a camping novel, and then it works.
Which character has the higher stake? The butcher who is forced to sell his butcher shop because his wife is sick, or the daughter who must leave her school to travel with her family so they can get medical help for mother? It depends.
We must ask ourselves the following potential questions:
- Who is your audience?
- Which character is speaking to you the most?
- Which character has the most to learn by the end of the story?
- What is the takeaway for your readers?
If it seems as if storytelling is comprised of asking lots of questions, you’re right. It is. As writers, we must don our analytical hats and comb every journalist-style question as we map out the story basics.
Whose perspective offers the best story in this scene?
Perspective is everything. It’s the difference between telling the story from Boo Radley’s eyes or from Scout’s eyes; the old man’s eyes in UP or his wife’s eyes; or Turnley Walker’s eyes.
Even if you are not familiar with the characters I just named, you might have noticed that the perspectives are all very different from each other. There’s first person, third person, and second person.
To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee tells the story from Scout’s perspective in first person. Everything that I experience in this story is as if I were viewing the world from Scout’s vantage point. I get inside Scout’s head and notice everything, feel everything, do everything, and think everything that Scout does. I’m affected by the arguments of the era, the racial disputes, and the events around me.
Writing in first person is a great way to share cultural and social issues with readers because of the depth of voice you can write from. You can also write your story from a first-person heroine and a third-person hero (in separate chapters, of course), if you’d like to switch it up a bit. Additionally, teen readers often relate to stories written in first person, as my friend Kara Swanson has done in her amazing, Pixie sparkling Peter Pan retelling, Dust (July 2020, Enclave Escape, a division of Enclave Publishing).
Writing in second person is often discouraged. I’m not quite sure why, other than it can feel a bit clunky on the page. My friend Angela Hunt, author of biblical historicals, says that writing in second person “is the bubble gum flavor of ice cream. It’s delicious, but a bit annoying because you have to work on holding the bubble gum in your mouth while trying to swallow the ice cream and cone” (Unmasking the Mystery of Point of View, Angela Hunt, 14).
But sometimes I think that second person (you) tends to sound narrative in tone, which can be a fun way to tell a story. So if your story feels narrative in nature and your characters aren’t good at telling their own story, you might consider writing in second person. Or if your story has an ultimately unique perspective or subject matter, then maybe telling the story in second person works. Keep in mind, second person also requires the present tense verb. Let’s read an example from a book published in 1950.
Rise Up and Walk by Turnley Walker. It’s the personal story of a man who contracted polio, a crippling flulike virus, and he chose second person voice to tell his story. I think it’s effective because it puts readers in an empathetic mood. Turnley opens the story like this,
“The regulation hospital bed is thirty-four by seventy-four inches. In the beginning that much space is allotted to each polio—the new name you get after Infantile Paralysis slugs you. That thirty-four-by-seventy-four inch area is a place that poliomyelitis allows you, and even though you have been a much-traveled man in the outside world, you learn to live in it” (Rise Up and Walk, Turnley Walker, 7).
There are a few things I notice about this opening and the second-person viewpoint:
- The subject matter is interesting
- The tone is reflective and conversational
- The tone displays empathy
Now, lest you think second person is a great idea, please think again. It’s not often used, and when it is, it can be difficult to manage because it also requires writing in present tense. Still curious? Go ahead. Give it a try. See how it works for you—and then ask a beta reader or skilled editor to ensure the story’s worthy of second person.
Writing in third person is the most-used option for POV for several reasons. It’s easy. It’s fun. And you get to explore the world through multiple characters’ eyes. Besides, most authors write in third person.
Telling the story from the viewpoint of she or he or they or it adds life to a story because it allows readers to experience the story from a bird’s-eye view while also getting inside the head of the main character in the story at the moment.
Nan, in Elizabeth Berg’s The Pull of the Moon, sets off to adventure the world at fifty. As she gets into her car and drives across the country, she explores places, meets people, and discovers herself along the way. And I imagine the author wrote this book from Nan’s perspective, making this book an exceptional insight into the life of one character.
Writing in third person requires using the five senses and the journalist’s five W’s and H, and for the best reading experience, showing readers the world from that character’s POV. This means—what they see, hear, feel, say, think, do—whatever they experience is only told from their eyes. Only. Head hopping is not an option here. It’s more confusing for readers to experience the same scene from two characters or more. (Watch for a future blog post on that topic!)
How will your chosen POV impact your characters, the plot, your readers?
Choosing the correct POV is as important as choosing the correct plot trajectory or characters to act out the story. The correct POV is the mood of the story, the flavor you want readers to taste, the mountain you want them to view.
If you’re writing in a voice that seems “off,” try switching gears and write in another voice. There isn’t a wrong way to write a story, but there is the right viewpoint that tells the best story.
Secret Sauce to the Best Point of View
Elizabeth Berg, author of The Pull of the Moon, says, “I have wanted you to see out of my eyes so many times.”
And let that be true of your manuscript, however you choose to tell your story and whomever to use to tell your story—whether first person, second person, third person, deep point of view … or if you choose to let an animate or inanimate object tell the story, so be it.
Each writer and author benefits from exploring their characters inside and out, while asking “what if?” at every turn when crafting their novel’s plot because it’s really the secret sauce to writing a great story that captivates people, agents, editors, readers, marketers, and the person who wouldn’t necessarily pick up a book and read it.
Who is your audience, and what do you hope they gain from reading your book?
Which viewpoint do you think is best to tell the story you’re writing, and why?
Drop a comment in the comments, I look forward to hearing what you have to say…