The Artistry and Craft of the Bard
(IV)© 2002 by Lifetrekker
Choosing a Point of
So youíve got a story to tell -- the great what
if: "What if there were three brothers. Two were cheap and lazy, and
they built their homes out of straw and sticks. The other, the
eldest and more responsible, built his home out of brick and river
rock. Letís say a great wind-blowing demon came to town bent on
eating the three brothers. How will the brothers combat this great
demon and protect themselves?
Great story! Four great characters! (Okay, maybe
not, but for the sake of this discussion, pretend.)
Now, who tells the story? Do you choose one
character, perhaps the older brother? Okay. You choose him. Do you
have him tell the story? A first-person narration?
As the sun beat unmercifully on my head, my hands
chapped and blistered, I wanted to give up. Look at my brothers, my
mind kept teasing. From Calvinís back yard, I could hear the splash
of water as they played the afternoon away in his pool. Oh how I so
wanted to join them: cold beer, good conversation, the refreshing
coolness of the water playing over my steamy body.
Was this, as Doug had accused, pure ego? After all,
once completed, my home would be beautiful, a point of
one-upmanship, my need to show off that I was better than they were.
Look at their homes. Theyíre but straw and sticks. Mine is of brick
and stone. Look at me! They could have done this, too, but no, they
wanted to finish quickly and play the rest of their summer. Not me.
I couldnít be so pedestrian or live in such a sty. I had to be
better. I had to build a small castle. I had to show everyone who
drove by who was the older, no the better brother.
Or do you use third person? If so, which? Do you use
a third-person objective narrator who only reports on what the
older brother does with no access to his thoughts or
The sun was looming directly overhead and its rays
beat without mercy on Charlieís head. He wiped his face with the
back of an equally sweaty arm and set the round rock into the mortar
his chapped and blistered hand troweled smooth. He wiggled and
tapped the rock so it sat perfectly then he took another trowel full
of mud and repeated the process. And so it went.
The splash of water caught his attention.
"Hey, Charlie!" Charlie perked when he heard
Calvinís voice. "Doug and I are done," said the jovial voice. "Weíve
called Polly and Petunia. Come over when youíre done."
"Or give up," added Doug.
"Weíve got Hogsí Ale, a cool pool, and
"I canít," said Charlie. He wiped his face with the
back of his hand. "I want to finish by night."
Dougís quip was followed by the sound of a large splash. From where
he stood Charlie could see a spray of water arc above the fence
dividing their backyards.
"Damn, snoot." Charlie cursed under his breath as he
returned to his task. "Maybe I should," he continued to talk to
himself. "What am I trying to prove? Look, theyíre already done and
what am I doing? I could have built my house out of straw or sticks,
but nnooo. I canít be so pedestrian or live in such a sty. I have to
be better. I have to build a small castle. I had to show everyone
who drives by whoís the older, no the better brother."
Or do you choose a third-person limited viewpoint so
the reader can hear his thoughts?
The sun was looming directly overhead and its rays
beat without mercy. Damn, Iím drowning in my own
sweat, thought Charlie. He wiped his face with the back of an
equally sweaty arm. Oh, like thatís going to do any good. He
set the round rock he held in a chapped and blistered hand into the
mortar. Iím going to have to soak them a week in hand lotion.
He wiggled and tapped the rock so it sat perfectly then he took
another trowel full of mud and repeated the process. And so it
Or do you choose a different brother? Perhaps itís
Calvin, who wants to be like his oldest brother, but is swayed by
Dougís desire to have fun? Maybe this is a story about making
choices and it is Calvin who has to decide. Or, maybe you choose
Doug, who learns that always taking the easy way out is not the
best. Then you have to decide first person, third-person objective,
or third-person limited to a single viewpoint. Or, maybe when the
demon comes, you need to see each brother in action, for the
narrator to be as a camera in a movie, like in the Aliens
series. Or do you need to do more? Be in the heads of the
characters? Be more knowing and omniscient? Choices: how does one
Choosing the point of view of a story/novel is
probably the most important decision an author has to make. Yes,
plot and character are important, but choosing the wrong viewpoint,
and subsequently the poor execution of viewpoint, can lessen the
connection and relationship you want with the reader.
So how do you decide?
- Ask yourself, whose story are you telling? This
character is usually, but not always, the protagonist. This
character is changed the most or learns the greatest lesson by
what happens--the one who undertakes the journey. In
third-person limited stories, this is the "I" or the character
through whom the narrator usually operates.
- Even if you donít know the entire plot, lay out
what you can. Look at the scope of the journey.
involved? For instance in my above examples, the plot is a basic
thriller. Iíve decided that I want Dougís obstinacy to cost him
what he holds most dear, the life of Calvin. Also, Charlie must
come to terms with his innate pride and how this pride has
driven Doug to avoid taking responsibility. This occurs as the
trio fight against a demon known as, "The Wolf." The wolf
appears as a wind and steals the souls of its victims. The only
way to kill the demon is to cut out its heart, which is located
within the core of its essence.
On its face this is a small
story, only four major characters, maybe more if I add a couple
of significant others. If I have trips to the hardware store,
police officers who come out to investigate a prior feeding,
there may be minor characters who might add texture or flavor.
- Decide which character(s) would best be able to
tell the story.
The logical choice for the example would be
one of the three brothers or maybe all three.
At this point,
there are no set rules. You must make the choice.
- Once you have made that decision, you need to
select the viewpoint: first person, third-person objective or
limited central or limited shifting, or omniscient. And yes,
depending on the technique or style you might be playing with,
there can be some mixing. Ninety-nine percent of authors pick
one and stick with it. Those who do this have a good mastery of
the craft and have a plan. Shifts are seldom or never made mid
scene. With that proviso said:
As you are writing, pay special attention to point
of view. If the point of view you've chosen doesn't work, you can
always go back and try another. Unless you must meet a deadline,
writing is more often a long-term commitment and an endurance
marathon, than a sprint. Donít become frustrated. If necessary,
experiment and work on a story from several viewpoints and figure
out which works best. When writing, remember: play is
Why donít you try your hand at playing with point of
- Write a scene from your favorite fairy
taleóLittle Red Riding Hood, Snow White, or Cinderellaó from
different points of view. Donít just change characters, try
using the same character and switching from first person to
third- person limited, to third-person shifting, to objective,
- If you have written a short story, take that
story and write it from another viewpoint.
- For some additional exercises try this
Besides writing, read. But donít just read to read.
Read as a writer and study the craft. (Caution: After you start to
do this, it is a habit that becomes difficult to break.) What
techniques work for the writer? What doesnít work? Look at word
choice, sentence and scene structure, and since we have been looking
at point of view, look at point of view.
Next month I hope to look at some of the common
mistakes bards make when working with point of view.
Until then may the Muses be with you!
Back to Article