Editor Roundtable: Bite Size Edition – Choosing Your POV

Welcome to the Bite Size Edition of the Editor Roundtable Podcast. Here on the Roundtable we’re dedicated to helping you become a better writer, following the Story Grid method developed by Shawn Coyne. In these episodes we bring you some shorter solo articles and interviews on topics that interest us as writers. 

I’m Leslie Watts, and today I’m bringing you a deep dive into how to choose your POV, based on a talk I gave at Story Grid Live in Nashville in September. 

So join me for a quick bite of writing insight, starting right now.

Last year, I wrote two articles on Narrative Device and Point of View (You can find them here and here). I did a fair job of synthesizing information and ideas on the topic and cataloging possibilities, but I fell short of providing a clear method to help writers choose their POV. 

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I’ve come upon a solution that several writers have told me is really useful. The key is to tie your POV choice to your Controlling Idea or Theme.

I’ll say more about that in a moment, but first I want to take a step back and define the problem. As a fiction writer, you have to make a POV choice for your story and the choices are pretty clear—usually first person, third person, or omniscient—but what’s less clear is what information you can rely on to help you make a good decision for your story. 

Every technical choice you make supports or undermines the story you want to tell. But POV is a special case. As Shawn Coyne has said, “Your point of view choices will dictate the tenor of each beat, each scene, each sequence, each act and the entire work. They are crucial choices.”

I’m willing to go out on a limb and say POV is the most important decision you make about your story after the Global Genre because, if the Global Genre is what your story is about, POV is how you present the story to your reader.

There’s a lot riding on this decision. 

The good news is, as Shawn explains, “When you figure out what suits your story best, you’ll find immeasurable relief.”

So, how do you choose? 

  •     Many writers go for what seems easiest, or what their most comfortable writing.
  •     Other writers will consult masterworks in their chosen genre.
  •     Plenty of writers just go with their gut.

These methods won’t necessarily lead to a wrong result, but they won’t help you with the tenor of every beat, scene, sequence, act, and your entire story or help you decide how to choose character actions, character dialogue, and details of the setting. These methods don’t help you with the contents of your story.

There has to be some way to make an informed choice. There is, and it’s through what Shawn calls your narrative device. POV and Narrative Device combined are “the vantage point the writer uses to tell the reader a story.”

Again, if your genre is what your story is about, your narrative device/POV is the how you present the story to your reader. So, within the story, 

  •     Who is telling the story? 
  •     To whom are they telling the story? 
  •     What form does the story take? 
  •     Why are they telling the story?
  •     When are they telling the story in relation to the story’s events?

Linking the what, your genre, to the how will help you solve your problem of making a wise POV choice.

In fact, your Narrative Device/POV choices should be as unique and specific as your controlling idea, and the two are deeply connected.

Let’s look at a specific example to help this make sense. I’ll use Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, one of three stories Shawn analyzes in the Level Up Your Craft Course. 

What’s the point of view choice in Bridget Jones’s Diary? First Person.

Why did Helen Fielding make this choice? We can’t know for sure on what basis Fielding made her choice, but first person makes sense because the narrative device, that is how Fielding presents Bridget’s story, is through Bridget’s diary. Bridget records the events of her life over the course of a year.

So, what does this tell us in technical terms?

Who tells the story? Bridget tells the story. She is the protagonist and therefore a character within the story, not someone from the outside. This tells us that she’ll be objective about some things (for example, her mother’s behavior) but will have less objectivity when it comes to herself. And since we know this is a love story and that there is a Maturation arc built in, Bridget’s ability to see herself and her actions clearly is likely to improve as she gains sophistication over the course of the story. 

Who is Bridget’s audience? Bridget herself is her audience, and so we expect her to be fairly forthcoming about what she’s thinking and doing.

In what form does Bridget tell the story? A diary. Again, this is meant to be private, which means she’s as honest as she is willing and able to be. This is a written account, as opposed to speech or thoughts. 

When does Bridget tell the story? Bridget describes events shortly after they happen. She possesses some hindsight, but not a lot. If she were writing about the events happening in the distant past, she would write about them differently. Later in the story, she gains greater perspective for events that happen earlier in the story. And this is significant because as Bridget changes, the way she sees the earlier events changes too. 

Why is Bridget telling the story? Because she wants to track how well she is following her New Year’s resolutions. 

It’s significant to note that Bridget as the narrator didn’t set out to write a Love story. That was Helen Fielding’s goal. Because their goals are different, it’s important to keep them separate. A different purpose or goal changes the information you present and how you present it. 

Similarly, your desire to write an engaging Love story or Action story or Performance story, isn’t specific enough to guide you in making technical narrative decisions. 

Your specific narrative device combined with your Controlling Idea provides specific constraints that allow you to present your story consistently. Why is that? Because when the form and content are aligned, your story is more cohesive.

What about the Controlling Idea / Theme?

The Controlling Idea or Theme of your story is a simple cause and effect statement about the change that happens as the protagonist experiences specific challenges to their basic human needs. And often it’s the distilled message the narrator wants to pass along to their audience. Sometimes that is also the narrator’s purpose when they begin telling the story. This is especially the case when the narrator relays events from the distant past. 

When the narrator is also the protagonist or is writing about events in the present or recent past, the Controlling Idea can be the lesson that flows from the narrator’s experience of writing or telling the story. So, while Bridget’s purpose in starting the diary is to record how successfully she sticks to her resolutions, what she learns in the end is the Controlling Idea:

 “Love triumphs when we learn to respect ourselves.”

Of course, you, as the writer, might agree with your story’s Controlling Idea, and it might be your purpose to share this message, too. But you are in a different position from the narrator. Your purpose to tell a great story won’t necessarily help you make key content decisions. A specific narrative device choice can help you choose wisely.

Let me show you what I mean with a specific content example from the story. Bridget’s diary entries include her alcohol and cigarette consumption. These details often produce a comedic effect, but that’s not necessarily a reason to include them. They are consistent with the narrative device—Bridget is tracking her New Year’s resolutions, which include limiting her alcohol and cigarette consumption. But these details also make sense in light of the Controlling Idea because Bridget’s consumption is a barometer of her self-respect. If you tracked these details with a line graph, I bet it would look an awful lot like a Story Grid Infographic of Bridget’s Worldview-Maturation arc. 

These details make sense in the story as written. But what if Fielding had chosen a slightly different narrative device? For example, what if she kept Bridget as the narrator but gave her a different audience?

How would Bridget present this story differently if she wanted to send the message or Controlling Idea to her teenage daughter? Bridget (and therefore Fielding) would likely include different details to teach the lesson and demonstrate the change in herself. In this hypothetical, we haven’t altered the genre, the basic events of the story, or the narrator-protagonist. But changing the audience changes the details that make sense in the narrative and how we present them. 

How does this help the writer? With her specific narrative device and the basic events of the story, Fielding can ask herself, what would Bridget write in her diary after experiencing these events? The diary as narrative device gives Fielding a clear opening for each scene, and she can eliminate whole categories of information (for example, character actions, character dialogue, and details about the setting) because she knows who is telling the story, to whom, in what form, why, and when. These constraints are your friend. 

Overt vs. Covert Narrative Devices

Fielding uses an overt narrative device: As readers, we know Bridget is writing in her diary. What if you don’t want the narrative device to be so obvious to the reader? The reader doesn’t need to know, but you should make a clear choice anyway. 

Tim Grahl tells a story about how he struggled with writing emails to his list. He had the same problem we all have when we sit down to write: What do I include and how do I present it to my audience? What finally worked for him was writing each email to a specific person. So, when he began drafting an email to his list, he wrote, “Dear Karen.” He knew what to say and how to say it because he knew what he would to tell Karen to help her solve a specific problem. When he finished the email, he simply deleted “Dear Karen” and hit send. 

You can do this too. Your narrative device doesn’t need to be revealed to the reader, but you should be clear about who is telling whom, where, when, why and in what form. 

Make a Choice

As I said earlier, your Narrative Device should be as specific and unique as your Controlling Idea, and the two are deeply connected. 

Failing to decide is the technical equivalent of failing to choose your genre. It’s a huge mistake that makes the writing harder. And that’s precisely the mistake I made with my prior POV articles. They were written from my point of view, to help me understand the options available, and they were useful for Fundamental Fridays readers to a point. But I wasn’t paying attention to my audience, and so I fell short on specific, actionable advice. 

That’s why this follow-up is so important. So how do you choose your Narrative Device? If you know your Controlling Idea, think about who might want to deliver that message and to whom. Or if you’re not sure what your controlling idea is, think about who could observe the events of the story and might want to share some important message about their take on the experience. 

You could also start with the audience. What audience makes the most sense given the message or lesson of your story combined with your genre’s Controlling Idea? Then ask, who is in the best position to observe the events and present the message to this audience? In other words, use what you know to solve for what you don’t.

I suggest creating a list of fifteen to twenty narrative device possibilities and trying them out. Write a scene from the perspective of your top choices. The Core Event scene for your genre might be especially useful, but really you could use any scene within the story that you see clearly. If you follow these threads, my hunch is you’ll find your way to the Narrative Device that works best for your story and helps you write it. 

While these thoughts are fresh in your mind, spend some time thinking and writing about your specific narrative device. I’d love to hear any questions or insights you have as you try this out, so let me know by leaving a comment below or writing to me at Writership.com.  Keep an eye out for my Story Grid Beat, POV: The Primacy of Narrative Device, in 2020. 

Join us for another bite-sized episode next week. We’ll post our season six teaser on December 11, with a full-size episode following on December 18.

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
Comments (11)
Author Leslie Watts

11 Comments

Tom says:

It seems you agree that these are not simple questions to answer. My ‘who’, ‘when’, and ‘when told’ are answered (1st-p protag-present day-told to the reader in the very recent past) but the others are thorny. ‘To whom’ is partially answered (it’s told conversationally, as if friends having a beer together—there’s an occasional crack in the 4th wall.)

What about ‘why’? With this particular narrative device choice, does ‘why’ really matter? Unlike Bridget Jones, my MC doesn’t seem to have an agenda. He is not holding info back, he’s being very candid, telling us essentially his life story. He also has no cause célèbre motivating him to impart particular information to get his audience to feel a particular way, learn a particular thing, or act in a particular way. (of course the author does indeed have an agenda—like everyone, I want to move the reader emotionally and give them an interesting story to chew on)

But I’m not sure ‘why’ applies in this case. Maybe ‘why’ can be answered for this story as if ‘there really is no why’. My protag is simply opening his mind to the reader and letting her/him in, telling a story. He shows the dialogue and action, and his internal thinking about the events that happen. His motivation only appears to be that he is a storyteller, and is comfortable and happy being candid and telling his story to the reader. But then maybe that’s just surrogacy for the mindset of the author, who may have an agenda yet has masked it—the protag doesn’t know what the author agenda might be, so he can’t tell us, other than in subtext. Or maybe it’s just ego.

Now, my brain hurts.

This is still great advice, and I think one thing that makes understanding this difficult is because the controlling idea and global genre, both of which you say are critical in answering these questions, are hard questions as well. It seems they should be no-brainers, but Shawn and others point out it can take a long time for them to be understood (I had at least two full drafts before I realized my global genre was a courtship love story, for instance. I knew it had a strong character-driven plot along those lines, but ‘global’ still was not obvious for some time).

And controlling idea, also thorny. What I feel is that my story is about legacy. So the best CI I’ve been able to come up with is ‘What is important about life is what we leave behind after we’re gone, which can be a way to live forever’. Sorry, my CI sounds a bit weak to me, and that it might not have the resonance that will help me write the story.

Sorry I’ve made this all about me, but maybe others have similar issues with their writing, so maybe there’s some common ground.

But thanks, because even though these questions are surprisingly hard to answer, what you’ve said here today is helping me at least start to get a better handle on how to answer them.

Reply
martine says:

Maybe the ‘why’ for your protagonist-storyteller to tell the story is that s/he wants to leave a legacy, wants to be remembered and understood. That the story is what s/he wants to leave behind.

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Leslie Watts says:

Great idea, Martine! That’s an excellent place to start.

If we decide the narrator wants to leave a legacy, then we can get more specific by asking clarifying questions: Why do they want to leave a legacy? What do they want to be remembered for? Why is it important to them? What will be lost if they don’t tell this story? Do they want to be remembered accurately with a full account (thinking of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead), or do they want to emphasize certain events and leave out others? Getting specific creates constraints we can use.

What immediately came up for me when I read your comment is someone who wants to be “an absolute legend.” (I’m hearing comedian John Robins say this in my head.) But you were probably thinking of something more serious. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your suggestion!

Reply
Leslie Watts says:

I hear what you’re saying, Tom, but I still think the “why” is critical. If the narrator has no purpose, why would they take the time to tell the story, and similarly, why would someone listen? People generally don’t (and characters shouldn’t) act without a reason (even if it’s a bad one).

You might begin by thinking about the basic reasons we communicate with someone else–to inform, persuade, or entertain–and ask questions to help you get more specific. If I’m telling the story to inform someone, I include the information I want them to know and leave out other facts; I’ll structure the information so the person can most easily understand, remember, and apply it. But if I’m telling the story to confuse and mislead, I would choose different facts or present the same facts differently. If I’m writing to persuade, I include the details that will be most persuasive and structure them in a way to build an argument. If I want to entertain, I include details that are most entertaining and structure the story to that end. In other words, the purpose informs both content and form.

We don’t always know the controlling idea or narrator’s why right away, but the reason to keep thinking about and refining them is that they help you make the thousands of technical decisions that determine the reader’s experience.

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Tom says:

Maybe I should have been more specific. I come to you and Shawn and the other editors to learn how to do what I do, better. That is the implied promise in this website, the podcasts, and all the great work you do, all of which I am very grateful for.

That there IS a ‘why we write what we write’ is also implied. Something is there that compels us to write. If there was no why, there would be no writing.

That there IS a ‘why’ matters. That IS critical. The importance or validity of why is important. The moment there is no importance or validity, there is no writing. So I agree that It is critical, just like air is critical for breathing.

But understanding what the why is? How is that important? How can that help someone level up?

If the goal is to get better at what I do, how is understanding the nature of the ‘why’ critical? I accept that there is a driving force and I see no reason to question that there is, and no reason to quantify what it is, because neither of those questions seem to have answers that will help me do what I do, better.

Knowing what the reason for that driving force is will not maintain or support it. It either will be there or it won’t, and knowing its nature doesn’t seem to hold any power over it, or have any ability to channel it or manipulate it or leverage it as a way to improve my writing. That also won’t be a weapon against Resistance.

As you say, story is about change. But so is learning. Understanding the ‘why’ seems to not imply any sort of change, no valence shift in value, meaning I question the value of that to learning.

So understanding what that why is doesn’t seem to have any power to guide me to do what I do, better. It seems one would have to be woefully misguided to need ‘understanding the nature of why’ they are writing what they are writing for that to be of much help.

Analysis is one key to getting better at writing. But analysis of things that will not matter in the path to level up, might be energy better spent elsewhere. It can lead to paralysis.

So the better question, the one I should have lead with, is ‘what makes understanding the nature of why I write what I write helpful in guiding me along the path to get better at writing?’

Will answering that question change my reason for writing? would that even matter? Would it help me write better? I remain unconvinced.

I know it won’t help me write more—I’ve worked at this on average for 7 hours a day for every single day now, for over 4 years. Putting my butt in the chair, as Shawn says, is the least of my problems, thankfully.

Maybe I just don’t get it. Or maybe I’m just incapable of getting it. I can assure you it is not for a lack of trying.

Or, maybe the simple fact is that no one has the capability of presenting a cogent argument that can help me get it.

Another key to leveling up, or getting better at anything, is to question authority. I try to do that only with respect, so me asking what might be a harder question is done only in that spirit. I can assure you of that, as well. Any and all answers are welcome, assuming they are answers.

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Kim Barton says:

Great episode! I just finished a rough draft of a book that is in first person, which is the right POV for this story, but I hadn’t thought about who it’s being told to. After listening to your advice, I now know. My protagonist is telling it to her daughter, because the choices the mother makes in the story directly affect the daughter. So, thank you for helping me figure this out. 🙂

Reply
Leslie Watts says:

You’re welcome, Kim! Thank you for sharing your experience! I can see how knowing this one fact could help you make other decisions, right down to word choice. Fantastic!

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Brandon Hill says:

Thanks for this article, Leslie! It’s easy for me to answer the five narrative device/POV questions for a first person story (especially a diary) but not for third person, such as Silence of the Lambs, The Firm, His Majesty’s Dragon, etc. Any advice?

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Leslie Watts says:

You’re welcome, Brandon! Thanks for your question! You make a great point–it’s simpler to see the narrative device when it’s first person and especially with an overt narrator. We have a Roundtable episode coming out in January in which I look at a third person POV example (“The Bear Came over the Mountain” by Alice Munro, the film version of which is _Away from Her_.) I’ll concentrate on third person examples as I continue my studies because they are trickier–and often more interesting. I encourage you to make your best guess while looking at different examples because it gets easier with practice. Remember, it’s a subjective process, so there isn’t a single right answer. In addition to the controlling idea (asking who would want to share this message this way), I’ve found the narrative problem presented by the premise and the types of details and motifs that are used repeatedly in the story to be useful clues. Thanks again for your question, Brandon!

Reply

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