From a Certain Point of View
Aloha, you astounding so-and-so! And welcome back to my eight-part series on Writing the Story Only You Can Write.
Here’s what we’re looking to accomplish this week:
- Learn how to choose the right point of view for your story;
- Read a story that takes a very familiar plot and twists it into something brand new—just by changing the point of view; and,
- Rewrite a story we love by choosing a different main character and telling the story from their perspective.
What I Told You Was True…
In the film Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker confronts the ghost of his dead mentor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and demands to know why the old hermit lied to him about a pretty important bit of history.
Kenobi retells the story he told long ago, incorporating the new “fact” that Skywalker has uncovered, then ends by saying “what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.”
Skywalker protests, but Kenobi—like the master swordsman he is—is ready and waiting with a counter. “Luke,” he says, “you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
And though he’s being an asshole about it, Kenobi is right.
…From a Certain Point of View
As you’ll see in today’s reading, a change in point of view changes everything about a story. The same Cinderella plot that’s been told a billion times throughout the history of our species changes significantly when Gregory Maguire writes his Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. In fact, Maguire has made a whole career out of this. If you haven’t heard of Stepsister, surely you’ve heard of the Tony Award-winning musical Wicked. It was adapted from Maguire’s novel of the same name.
A change in point of view can also rescue a story that’s otherwise languishing. When I brought my story “Revelation” to my college creative writing workshop in 1996, there was a great deal of love for it. But everyone thought there was something missing.
My mentor at the time, David Crouse, wisely suggested that the problem was one of point of view. I’d written the story, then called “Christbearer,” from the perspective of an angry young atheist. When the atheist fights and dies and is proven right at the end of that original draft, it’s satisfying to its angry young atheist author. But it’s not satisfying—or at least not as satisfying as it could be—for the reader.
“What if,” David asked me, “you wrote it from the perspective of the pious landlady instead?”
That would be harder, for sure, but I knew in my heart that David was right. Mrs. Henderson, the landlady, was the one person in the story who could actually be affected by the events. And though it took me years to find my way back into the story through the eyes of that little old landlady, it was that change in point of view that saved the story from the scrap heap. (You can find it today in Those Little Bastards.)
You’ve Got Options
The question of point of view in fiction is, as summed up by Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction, really four questions:
- Who speaks?
- To whom?
- In what form?
- At what distance?
Let’s address the question of who speaks first. It’s the one you may be the most familiar with. The basic answers are:
- 1st person (“I did that.”).
- 2nd person (“You did that.”).
- 3rd person (“They did that.”).
And, while 1st and 2nd person don’t really get more complicated than that, there are actually three variations of 3rd person:
- 3rd person limited, where the author/narrator sees events objectively, but also has access to the thoughts of one character;
- 3rd person objective, where the author sees events objectively and cannot enter the minds of characters; and
- 3rd person omniscient, the God-like voice of the Bible and classics through the 19th century—the P.O.V. that can see what everyone is doing and what everyone is thinking.
The answer to the second question, “to whom?,” is most often “the reader.” That’s you and me or our pal listening to the book on audio to pass the time on their interminable commute. But the person being addressed might also be another character, a specific reader or listener.
That brings us to the third question: “in what form?” Most stories are told as just that: stories. But even there, there is room for experimentation. A story told out loud by a campfire is a very different story than the one written down painstakingly, sentence by sentence, over the course of months in front of a typewriter.
Then there are all of the other possibilities.
My friend Jen Petro-Roy’s novel P.S. I Miss You is told through letters, Jennifer Egan’s brilliant short story “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” is told through a PowerPoint journal kept by a thirteen-year-old in the 2020s, and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl Interrupted is told through a juxtaposition of personal recollections and medical records.
Diaries, news reports, speeches to the self or to a gigantic crowd—you’ve got options.
The final question—“at what distance?”—is both a question of distance in time and of emotional distance.
“How long has it been since the events in the story happened?” Yes, that’s a crucial question to ask. But also: how “over” the events is your character? How hung up on them are they?
Read Mari Ness’ story “In the Greenwood.” It’s a re-telling of a famous folk tale, but from a different point of view than we’re used to.
After you’ve read it, jot down some notes on how familiar elements from the folk tale are changed by the change of point of view. If necessary, read the story a second time. It’s short, and it’s good.
Think of a folk tale, fairy tale, or legend that you can recite pretty much from memory. They key words there are “pretty much.” Don’t feel bad if you have to look up the details.
Now rewrite that story from the perspective of another character. It should be a character that’s already in the story, but it might be a character that’s so minor they’re only ever hinted at.
Good luck! And we’ll see you back here next week.