Designing Principle #6: Storyteller

DP 6_Storyteller

The final category in my series on designing principles is the storyteller.

Who is your novel’s storyteller?

At the outset, it might not seem like the point-of-view or the narrator you chose to tell your story would have a large impact on its structure, but it does. Imagine if how differently the The Usual Suspects would be if it wasn’t told from the POV of Kevin Spacey’s character sitting in a New York City police station. Or imagine how the design of The Book Thief would be different if it wasn’t narrated by death. Or how the structure of The Hunger Games changes when you move out of the first person narration of Katniss’ mind in the book, to the omniscient eye taken in the movie? The choices of what is put where, and why, changes.

Additionally, consider the design effect of having multiple POV narrators as done in the book Will Grayson, Will Grayson which has two narrators, or Jumped which has three, or Tangled  which has four, or Keesha’s House  which has eight. How does one move from POV to POV? By alternating chapters? By telling the whole story of one and then the whole story of another? Or maybe weighing the POV of one over another?

The storyteller of your book is going to affects it pacing, its linearity, its patterns of repetition, and the breadth of knowledge and experience the storyteller has access to. It has ramifications in all your other design choices and shouldn’t be chosen lightly.

Hopefully, these six categories have helped you to think about how to structure and plot your own novel in a way that is organic, instead of plugging your characters in to a pre-designed template. Have fun exploring all the alternate plots and structures at your fingertips, and remember that using them should come organically from your premise and characters!

I know this has been a long series (thanks for hanging in there with me). I’ve only got a few final notes before wrapping it all up.

Up Next: Structural Layering (because yes, you probably won’t pick one structure and be done!)

Want to know more about designing principles? Try these links:

The Voice of Point-of-View

“I’m looking for great voice!” That’s what every editor and agent in the business keeps saying over and over. Yet, at the same time they have trouble describing voice. “I can’t describe it,” they say. “But, I’ll know it when I read it.”

But what is it? And how do we writers find our voice?

This is a complex topic. But I’ve discovered that one great way to discover the power of voice (and what it is for that matter) is to experiment with point-of-view. Choosing a point of view for your story will greatly influence the narrative voice of your novel. It’s a lot more than pronouns. It’s about perspective, and “who” is telling the story. The story of one event will be told differently depending upon the POV. Choosing to tell a story from inside a protagonist’s head (first person) or from an omniscient narrator is going to create vastly different voices.

Don’t believe me? Try the following exercise and see what happens.

Point of View Exercise:

Step One: Find two paragraphs of your present work-in-progress that includes an event with multiple characters and no dialog. (Or write two new paragraphs).

Step Two: Identify the POV you wrote those paragraphs in (i.e. first person, third person limited, omniscient etc.) and skip the step below that is the POV you originally used.

Step Three: Rewrite your paragraphs from the POV of your protagonist using first person.

Step Four: Rewrite your paragraphs from the POV of another character interacting in the scene using third person limited.

Step Five: Rewrite your paragraphs using dramatic POV.

Step Six: Rewrite your paragraphs using omniscient POV.

Step Seven: Rewrite your paragraphs from the POV of a character outside the action, who watches but doesn’t interact. Use the third person limited.

Step Eight: Now compare your paragraphs. What changed in each POV? How did the voice change? How did the diction and word choices change? How did the distance from the scene change? How does the narrator or character’s attitude change the voice?

Now tell us how it went!!!

Also, check out these other great links on voice and point of view:

Limitations of Writing in the Omniscient POV

Are there limitations in writing in the Third Person Omniscient point of view? After all the author is “God” and has full reign over the story! Could there possibly be any reason not to use this point of view? Of course, every point-of-view choice comes with its advantages and disadvantages, omniscient does as well. I published a post earlier about the advantages of using the third person omniscient POV, so lets look at look now at some of its limitations:

Issues One Might Run Into Using Third Person Omniscient POV:

1) Transitions: When the author has free reign over their whole world they have a lot of information at their disposal. It can become tricky to decide when to show action and when to transition into the mind of a character (and which character’s mind for that matter). In What’s Your Story by Marion Dane Bauer, she states that “often, writers learning to use third person have trouble moving inside the main character to reveal thoughts and feelings. More stories fail because the writer’s don’t get inside their main character than for any other reason.”

2) Moral Heavy-Handedness: When a writer opts to use a God-like perspective in a novel, they may start to offer God-like judgement for their characters. Beware! Too much “narrative” judgement can turn off a reader and cause them to feel like they’re being preached to.

3) Who’s Story is This? With the ability to pop in and out of multiple character’s thoughts and feelings it may be hard for the reader to know who the protagonist of the story is. Perhaps that’s the point, maybe one is writing an ensemble piece. But be aware that it may take extra care to let the reader know who’s side (if any) they should be on.

4) Distance: The omniscient POV can often be the most distant from the reader. First person offers intimacy, where third omniscient creates a distance. A skillful writer can still get inside a character’s head and offer emotions and feelings, but some writers find this difficult (this relates back to the first limitation of transitions). Distance can also be created through the omniscient voice as well as the narrator voice that tells the story.

What limitations have you found while using the Omniscient POV? What about as a reader? Do you prefer this POV or do you like one that’s closer? Why?

What is Dramatic Point of View?

Have you ever heard the term “Dramatic Point-of-View” thrown around? Possibly you’ve heard it called Third Person Objective. Maybe you’ve never heard of it at all.

So what is it?

Dramatic Point-of-View is a specific style of writing in which the author chooses to only share the action of a scene and not the internal thoughts or emotions of a character. Some people refer to this as the “fly-on-the-wall” POV, where the narrator is a fly observing the events but not commenting upon them. I like to think about dramatic POV in terms of playwriting or screenwriting. In both of these styles of writing the author provides setting information, actions/stage directions, and dialog. This is all the information given to communicate the content of a scene. As a fiction writer, an author can also make a similar choice to show only the “dramatic” information in a scene.

John Gardner describes Third Person Objective as “identical to third person subjective except that the narrator not only never comments himself but also refrains from entering any character’s mind. The result is an ice-cold camera’s-eye recording. We see events, hear dialogue, observe the setting, and make guesses about what the characters are thinking.” (The Art of Fiction).

Why Would You Use This POV?

1) To Create Objectivity. Maybe an author doesn’t want to “muddy” a scene with specific emotions and the filter of a specific character’s point of view. Maybe the author wants the reader to make his/her own assumptions based on character action alone.

2) To Move the Action Forward. The choice to use the dramatic POV in action scenes can really move along the plot and content of a story without tripping it up with emotion and reflection.

3) To Create Contrast. Author and creative writing teacher, David Jauss, has some interesting opinions on POV. He thinks that Point of View is not about first, second, or third person but instead it is about distance from the reader. In his essay “From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance and Point of View in Fiction” in Alone With All That Could Happen he discusses how the use of dramatic POV can be used to create focus and contrast. For example if a story is told mostly in the dramatic but occasionally jumps inside the mind of a character, then those specific moments of contrast (when we know a characters thoughts) become even more important to the story. Thus each shift in POV and distance becomes about emphasis and specific story information.

4) Power without Sentimentality. The ability to create an emotional reaction in a reader while using the dramatic POV says a lot about the power of the scene one is writing. Creating emotional reactions through action and dialog alone can really help cut through the sentimental jargon that may come from character thought and reflection. Study film scenes to see how power is created through action and dialog alone.

Have you ever used the dramatic point of view in your writing? Why did you choose it? What was the effect?

Five Advantages of Third Person Omniscient POV

To continue my series on the point of point of view lets take a look at the use of the third person omniscient POV. In previous posts we discussed the pros and cons of using the first person, now lets consider the use of third person.

There are multiple types of third person POV including:

**Note: There’s also Third Person Objective or Dramatic POV. But I’m going to talk about that later in another post.

Were going to focus on the omniscient POV for this post, which is when the author is “God-like” and can see everything that is happening and is no longer limited to the POV of a single character. Some distinct advantages to this type of point-of-view include:

Five Advantages of the 3rd Person Omniscient POV:

1) It’s Traditional – Once upon a time there was a… Most of the stories we were told as children were created in a third person point of view. There was a narrator and he/she told the story. Therefore it seems very natural to hear a story told in the third person. It harkens back to our deepest concepts of storytelling.

2) Getting to Know Multiple Characters – Third Person Omniscient POV allows the author the freedom to get out of the “claustrophobia” of a single POV and expand our scope. An omniscient POV is able to get inside the minds of multiple characters and delve deeper into emotions and relationships. We move away from a limited filter of a story (remember everyone will tell the events of a story differently) and are able to see how multiple characters react/interpret the events. John Gardner (an advocate for the omniscient POV) says: “In the authorial omniscient, the writer speaks as, in effect, God. He sees into all his characters’ hearts and minds, presents all positions with justice and detachment, occasionally dips into the third person subjective to give the reader an immediate sense of why the character feels as he does, but reserves to himself the right to judge.” (The Art of Fiction).

3) Authorial Voice – One of the draw backs of first person POV is that the voice of the text is the voice of the character. Using the third person, however, allows the authors voice to take the front seat. Marion Dane Bauer says: “There are no limits to your language in third person. You can write about a three-year-old or about a lion in your own language, not theirs. You don’t have to make your story sound as though someone other than you is telling it.” (What’s Your Story?). In effect, the narrator’s voice becomes the voice of the story. The author now has more freedom in crafting that narrative voice.

4) Epic Storytelling – Omniscience seems a natural choice for stories of an epic nature. If you are telling a story with lots of characters, that spans many years, covers many lands/areas, the omniscient POV is going to be your friend. Limited POV (first person, third limited/subjective) is — well — limiting. Gardner states that other points of view “achieve little grandeur” outside of the omniscient POV. Limited perspectives only allow for certain threads of a story to be told, and from particular filters and opinions. An omniscient POV can broaden the scope of a story. It’s perfect for grand and fantastical adventures like The Lord of the Rings.

5) Action! Action! Action! – The third person really helps the writer to get into the action. The third person creates more distance from the character and his/her thoughts. Therefore the writer can focus on the actions of the character. First person POV can become a bit of a “tell-fest” (tell, tell, tell), but third person really puts the action back into the scenes. If you struggle with showing instead of telling, maybe changing up the POV could help. Marion Dane Bauer agrees in her book What’s Your Story wherein she states: “In the third person, most writers, even beginning writers, have little difficulty moving directly into action.”

Do you write in the third person omniscient? Why? Are there other advantages that you’ve found? Or have you avoided the omniscient POV? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Works Cited:

Bauer, Marion Dane. What’s Your Story: A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction. New York: Clarion Books, 1992. Print.

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. New York:Vintage Books, 1983. Print.

Six Limitations of the First Person POV

In my last post I discussed five reasons to use the first person POV for your writing. This post will explore how that choice might limit you.  Please refer back to my first post the point of point-of-view to learn all about the different points-of-view available!

Six Limitations of the First Person Point-of-View:

1) It Imprisons You In One Character: In the first person POV the reader hears all the protagonists thoughts and everything is filtered through their perception. The reader only gets one interpretation of events. John Gardner writes that “first person locks us in one character’s mind, locks us to one kind of diction throughout, locks out the possibilities of going deeply into various characters’ minds, and so forth.” (The Art of Fiction). Is it important to understand other character’s motivations in your novel? If so, first person may not be the right choice. Remember all events will be distorted by the protagonists perception of them.

2) It’s Narcissistic: Again, I’m going to quote Gardner here (who had an uncanny loathing for first person POV) in his book The Art of Fiction he states that the first person POV “can achieve little grandeur. It thrives on intimacy and something like gossip. It peeks through a keyhole, never walks through an open field.” He continues to say that the first person is claustrophobic and creates narcissists of us all. In some ways this is true. We are trapped in one perception constantly saying “I did this,”  “I felt that,” “I,” “I,” “I”! The first person POV is introspective and explores only a single character’s experience. It is very limited in scope. First person POV might not be the right for you if you are writing a grand epic.

3) What Gender is Your Narrator? Writing in the first person POV can make it difficult for the reader to know the gender of the protagonist. When one writes in the third person the pronouns of “he” and “she” quickly identify gender.  In first person, however, the narrator has to specifically mention their gender or relate themselves to someone of the same gender (or compare themselves to the opposite gender) in order for the reader to be clued in. Have you ever read a first person POV book and you were certain the main character was female, only to find out on page 15 that they are male? I have. Of course this could also be used to one’s advantage. The book Written On the Body by Jeanette Winterson never identifies the first person narrator’s gender, and thus the story becomes an interesting reflection of the reader’s concepts of what actions they deem as male or female.

4) The Tell Tell Tell Trap: It can be very easy to stop showing what happens in a story, and start telling the story when you use the first person POV. It will seem very natural. After all the story is from the POV of one character, and its easy to let the character tell what happens. So a writer needs to be very conscious that they are able to get into the action and show what is going on. Beware of first person POV taking over and telling your whole story! 

5) It’s Hard to Set the Scene: Because the story is told from the protagonist’s perspective, and the reader is inside the head of the protagonist, it’s hard to describe the setting. One isn’t able to pull out of the main character’s head and describe a room, a village, or the way the sun sets. All of these things must be done through the protagonist’s filter. The protagonist must view those images (with his/her eyes) and choose to talk about them. They must also reflect the protagonist’s attitude and feelings, when they describe them. Some readers are also pulled out of the story when a protagonist notices a plethora of specific details of a scene. Do you notice every detail in every room/space you walk into? I doubt it.

6) You Must Write in the Character’s Voice: In first person POV the voice of the story is the voice of the character. When working in third person omniscient or limited the author has the option to vary the voice of the story, exploring both an authorial voice and a character voice. In the first person, the authorial voice will take a back seat or disappear all together. The language of your story will also likely be limited by the language of your character.

Has anyone used the first person POV and found themselves limited? What did you do about it? Did you change to a different POV. Did you make it work in your favor? I’d love to hear your experiences!

Five Reasons to Write in the First Person Point-of-View

To continue with my series on Point of Point-of-View, I thought I’d explore the pros and cons of writing your novel using the first person perspective. In this post I’ll lay out the strengths of using  the first person point of view, and reasons why you might want to choose it for your book.

Again, using the first person point-of-view means the story is told directly through the eyes (and thoughts) of the protagonist. Whatever your main character sees, thinks, and feels, the audience is a part of. The first person perspective will use the pronoun of “I” and it will give the audience the experience of being inside the character’s head.

Five Pro’s to using the First Person Point-of-View:

1) Immediacy and Connection with the Protagonist. Because the audience is given the experience of being “inside” the protagonist’s head, there is a direct link between protagonist and the audience. Emotions don’t become filtered through the distance of a third person narrator, instead the emotions happen in the moment, as the protagonist feels them. As the protagonist reveals his/her thoughts and fears to the reader an intimacy and connection is created. It is as if the protagonist is confiding in the reader, telling them their innermost secrets like they would a best friend.  A lot of young adult novels use first person for this exact reason, it creates an immediate connection with the reader.

2) Believability. Due to the connection created with the reader mentioned above, there is an inherent believability that is created through the first person perspective. In addition, a story told in the third person has a “narrator” and the audience (on some level) will always be aware that they are being “told a story.” The first person perspective breaks down that barrier and the reader has a sense that they are getting a direct account of the events from a primary source. Readers have a tendency to give a first person voice more authority when they hear it.

3) Helps  to Develop Character. Since the only view-point of the novel is the protagonist’s the reader is able to spend a lot of time with one character and get to know them. The protagonist is directly telling the story, therefore the “voice”  of the book is directly related to the voice of the character. The first person perspective allows for opportunities to show if the protagonist is funny, or philosophical, hyper, or laid back? The author has the choice to share these traits through word choice, sentence structure, and diction. In a way, the first person perspective allows the reader to see how the character thinks and experiences the world around them.

4) It’s “Easy” to Write. “Easy” is a misleading word. What I mean to say is that writing in the first person can seem very natural. Often it is the first instinct a writer has. After all, saying “I went to a movie. I thought it was good,” and using “I” statements relates to how we communicate every day of our lives. As one starts a novel, the first person perspective can also simplify the choices available. For example: it is usually easier for most authors to wrap his/her head around one character’s point-of-view than many. It is also a simpler way for the author to get “inside” the character’s head, and convey thoughts and emotions.

5) Creates a Clear Perspective or Filter For the Story: The choice for a first person point of view immediately tells the reader whose story this is. This establishes quickly who the reader should care about and root for.  As every event of the story is told through the protagonist’s filter,  the reader is able to create a context for events and evaluate the weight of those events and how they impact the character’s life.

It could be a good choice to tell your story in the first person point-of-view if…

  • Your novel is an intimate character study.
  • You want the reader to really understand the protagonist’s motivations/actions.
  • You want a clear hero for your story.
  • You want to create intimacy between the reader and the protagonist.
  • This is your first novel, as it allows you to focus the story on one character.
  • There are hundreds of other reasons to use the first person perspective!

Have you written a novel in the first person? Why did you choose that POV? What advantages did you find in using this perspective?

Quote of the Week: Point-of-View

Since I’m exploring point-of-view right now it seemed like it would be a great idea to stick to theme with this week’s quotes:

“The third person narrator, instead of being omniscient, is like a constantly running surveillance tape.” – Andrew Vachss

“The choice of point-of-view will largely determine all other choices with regards to style, diction, characteristic speed of sentences and so on. What the writer must consider, obviously, is the extent to which point-of-view, and all that follow from it, comments on the characters, actions, and ideas.” – John Gardner

“View point must always serve as filter for the voice that is revealing the story.” – Uma Kirishwami

“Consider the difference between the first and third person in poetry… It’s like the difference between looking at a person and looking through their eyes.” – Diana Abu-Jaber

“I like to write first-person because I like to become the character I’m writing.” – Wally Lamb

The Point of Point-of-View

It has come to my attention that Point-of-View is one of the most important craft choices one will make in regards to his or her novel. It’s a big all-world encompassing decision that will affect every subsequent choice there-after.

That said, can you believe that I randomly chose a point-of-view for my first novel?

The word randomly is perhaps a bit misleading. It’s not like I had a dart board with the words first, second, third limited, and omniscient written on it and I started chucking darts at the wall. I did, however, follow a certain gut instinct, which wasn’t a complete disaster, but perhaps it’s better to be mindful than lucky. The truth is I didn’t realize I needed to think about point-of-view at all. I picked what felt natural and I went with it. But just because something feels natural and it flows, doesn’t mean it’s the best decision for your story.

So what is this silly thing called Point-of View? Why is it so darn important? And how can I use it to my advantage? These are all important questions and I’m going to spend the next few blog posts trying to find some answers. This is a huge topic, and I know I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. But hey, we’ve all got to start somewhere…

What is Point-of-View?

  • It’s the perspective through which the story is told.
  • It is the eye of the story.
  • It is the filter (often a person) through which events are perceived.
  • It is where the “camera” is placed.

What Types of Point-of-View Exist?

  • First Person = The story is told through the POV of one character and filtered through his/her thoughts and emotions. First person narration uses the pronoun “I” and the audience sees the world directly through that character’s eyes only.

Example: “I was scared, so I ran away from the clown.”

Some YA books written in first person include:  The Hunger Games, Looking For Alaska, and Speak.

  • Second Person = The narrator is telling the story of another character, and that character is “you.” This is not common in fiction as it involves the reader so directly and can feel too intimate.

Example:  “Scared, you run away from the clown.”

Some novels written in the second person include: Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas and The Things They Carried.

  • Third Person Limited = The story is told by a narrator, but the narrator is limited to only the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist. Third person limited is also called third person subjective and uses the character’s name as well as the pronouns “she” or “he.”

Example: “Ingrid was scared, so she ran away from the clown.”

A novel written in the third person limited is Percy Jackson: The Lightening Thief.

  • Third Person Omniscient = This is the point of view of a god-like narrator. Similar to third person limited the story will use character’s names and the pronouns “she” and “he.” But the narrator is no longer limited to one character’s thoughts; instead the narrator knows everyone’s thoughts and actions. The story can move to different locations and isn’t tied to a single character.

Example: “Ingrid was scared, so she ran away from the clown. What she didn’t know was that the clown was her father, and he wanted to surprise her for her birthday.”

Novels in third person omniscient include: Lord of the Rings, and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Why is Point-of-View so Important? (This is the fun stuff, which I’ll get into more in subsequent posts.)

  • POV creates the narrative voice of your story. Changing POV from first person to omniscient will change the entire voice of the book.
  • POV affects style – sentence structure, syntax, and diction.
  • POV determines the scope of the story – grand epic vs. intimate character study.
  • POV will affect story structure.
  • POV will create the filter through which all events are interpreted.
  • POV creates distance or intimacy with the characters.
  • The list goes on and on and on….

Are you starting to see why this is such an important decision? Who knew! Stay tuned, as I explore these ideas further in coming posts.