The Revisionist: Whose Story is This?

posted in: Writing Advice | 0

Point of ViewI’ve been thinking a lot about revising lately, because I’ve been giving some of my writing the work-over trying to get it ready to go out into the world. When I think about revising, I tend to think about story structure, about pacing, about whether the five senses have been covered. And I think about whose story this is – and one of the biggest things I then wrestle with is, who’s telling it and why?

This is usually called Point of View, and that’s not really about “whose” story this is, it’s about how it’s being told. Essentially, who is narrating? Is it being told from a distance, from a God-like or bird-like remove, where the narrator has access to what’s happening in all rooms, in all heads, in all hearts?

Or is it being told still at a remove, but only within the scope of a single character: in her room, in her head and in her heart? Are we seeing only what she sees and do we know only what she knows?

A second party might be the narrator, someone who has a limited perspective on it, reporting only what he knows from observing the actions.

Or we might become part of the story through the use of the pronoun “you,” effectively making me, the reader, part of this narrative, essentially as the main character.

Or is it told from the point of view of one character, using the “I” pronoun, telling us how I feel and what I saw and what I know?

What makes this tricky is that in many stories, any of those points of view would work. The question to ask is, what is gained – and conversely, what is lost – by telling your story from this particular frame? Often, we launch into a story without really thinking about it. We’re moved and so we write – but the revision stage is a chance to ask yourself whether you’ve made the best choice.

With the omniscient point of view, we gain perspective, being able to dip into all characters and explore the inner wants, needs and desires of the characters who make up the story. But we can lose voice with a dispassionate, distant narrator. Does your story warrant that sort of broad, sweeping perspective? Is it reading as too cold? How can you bring us closer? Is it feeling imbalanced between characters? Has the benefit of being able to see inside all characters been used to its fullest effect?

With the “close third” POV – in which the story is still told at a distance, but almost as if it’s a mind-reading parrot sitting on the shoulder of one of the characters, reading their thoughts and emotions but seeing only what they’re seeing – we can gain some of that passion and a single perspective but lose the breadth of the storytelling powers of omniscient. This is a POV that allows us to show a bias – although, I’d argue you can show bias in any of these POVs – in the sense that we only show the reader what we think the character would want them to know. What we show and tell ultimately says something about the character, because it’s what they would see and remark upon. It’s filtered through their lens.

When we have a neutral second party telling the story – a true narrator, telling you the story as though you’re sitting at the next barstool – we have an opportunity to really flex our voices. We can pepper in as much commentary as we like!as I’ve learned, this is a tool best used sparingly. In a lot of stories, we want the narrator to sort of blend into the story. Too much focus on the narrator can take away from the story itself. With a second party telling the story, we’re limited to what this witness knows, thinks, feels. We’re working harder to show what the characters in our story are not only doing, but how those actions and reactions reflect what they’re feeling – because there’s no other way for our narrator to know. Plausibility is a concern with this perspective, as your narrator can’t be inside the head and heart of the characters she’s describing.

I find the “you” pronoun the trickiest. In my view, it should also be used sparingly, in exceptional circumstances, as it can be really alienating to a reader who doesn’t identify with the “you” in the story or the actions “you” are taking. It can also feel really gimmicky really fast. But it is the best way to implicate a reader in a story, to put them in the shoes of your character and to lead them deeper and deeper into the story.

I tend to move between first person, third person and close third as my POVs of choice. But of those, I find first person the biggest challenge. First person needs to have a reason to be told that way, in my opinion. It also needs to have a really strong voice, a really clear sense of the character. This is fully their story – it’s almost being told in a confessional manner. You, as though the author, must fully inhabiting the character.

Take a look at what you’re revising and ask yourself, have I really thought through what I’m gaining by telling the story in this way? What am I losing – and is that something that helps the story? If I told it from this POV, what would change? What would become technically more challenging, but also more exciting? What would this do to the likeability of my character? What would it do to the reveals and twists in my story?

If you’re in the midst of revising, try rewriting a portion of your manuscript in another POV, just to see what changes and whether anything clicks.

A couple stories to consider:

  • There is a companion piece for this on the Masters Review blog, which is well worth a read, about why this story works so well as told in the first person.
  • If you’re struggling to wrap your mind around how the second person perspective works, Junot Diaz has a masterful example in Alma.
  • And I really loved this Mavis Gallant story told in omniscient voice about ghosts filing complaints that they’re being haunted in “From the Fifteenth District.” There is a distance here that works, yet rich details that give the ghostly characters distinctive voices.

(photo courtesy of Unsplash)

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