Sunday, 9 November 2014

Telling your story with the right point of view

Where is your story taking place? When is your story taking place? And how are you going to tell your story in such a way that your audience is right there with the characters in the time and place of your story? Those who know a bit more about storytelling, will immediately answer: “Show, don’t tell!” And yes, this golden rule of storytelling is very important. Don’t tell me that your story takes place in southern Norway, but show me the location: present it in such detail that I’m there, walking along the fjords with the low winter sun colouring the large patches of snow on the mountains a soft pink and turning the long narrow stretch of water into a glistening golden highway, reaching for the sea in soft bends and turns. If you’ve never been to Norway and still want to include this scenery, research is necessary – in fact, even if you have been there, you may want to check your details, because your audience might know this place better than you do. (And as Parisian readers of Dan Brown will tell you, there are few things as irritating as a detailed description of a place getting it wrong.)

But through whose eyes are we seeing all this natural beauty? Do we get to know if this landscape is boring, exciting, if it calls forth childhood memories or if it is completely new and unknown? This is the question of point of view, an essential issue we need to consider when engaging in storytelling. Point of view does not just encompass what’s seen in the story: it also concerns what’s smelled, felt, heard – in short, from whose perspective the events in the story are experienced. The point of view helps you to make storytelling a real experience that will grab your audience. You therefore need to consider carefully which point of view you will choose.

Point of view with a narrator-inside-the-story

Remember what I said two weeks ago about narrators? There are two kinds, narrators-inside-the-story and narrators-outside-the-story. The type of narrator you choose has consequences for the type of point of view you can offer your audience.  If you’ve chosen a narrator-inside-the-story – if, in other words, your narrator is a character in the story as well – you’re tied to their point of view: the story can only be experienced from the perspective of this character. What they can’t see, hear, smell or feel, can’t be told. Beginning storytellers sometimes forget that this includes the appearance and behaviour of the narrator themselves: we cannot see ourselves and thus, the narrator can’t directly describe the way they look or behave. When we read “I ran my hand through my blonde hair”, we realise this is a weird thing to say – we don’t reflect on our own hair like this. And this is true as well for a sentence like “I looked confident”. So if we want do describe our narrator, we have to come up with a narrative trick to do so. Of course, there’s always the possibility of a strategically placed mirror, but I’m sure you can come up with something more original than this.

Point of view with a narrator-outside-the-story

With a narrator-outside-the-story we have three kinds of point of view. First, we can leave out a specific point of view: we don’t smell, hear, see or feel what’s happening from the perspective of any character. The narrator is detached, only describing what can be seen from the outside.

Second, we can present the story from the point of view of one single character. This is a fixed point of view very similar to that of a narrator-inside-the-story. Here, we need to remember that if we chose this point of view, we’re facing the same kind of limitations as with a narrator-inside-the-story: the appearance and behaviour of the character from whose point of view the events are experienced, cannot be described ‘from the outside’. We can’t say “he felt nervous and ran his hand through his blonde hair”, because we can’t just go from ‘inside’ a person to ‘outside’ a person.   

Third, we can have the classic ‘all-knowing’ narrator-outside-the-story, who can look inside the heads of all of their characters: a variable point of view. However, a classic beginner’s mistake is to use a variable point of view in an all too... well, variable way. Because even with this kind of point of view, you can’t just change point of view mid-sentence or mid-paragraph. We can’t say “he felt a tugging in his stomach, a feeling as if he was going to be sick. He narrowed his dark brown eyes”. The switch from inside to outside is too abrupt, the reading will be too jarring. “Mary saw him narrowing his dark brown eyes” wouldn’t work either – except if we would put that sentence at the beginning of a new paragraph. And this is a good rule of thumb when you’ve chosen a variable point of view for your storytelling: only change point of view if you’ve started a new passage or scene. What I said last week about “guiding your audience” is true for a change of point of view as well: your audience needs to be guided through this too.  

So now you know the three possible points of view: no point of view, fixed point of view and variable point of view. Make sure you choose the right one for your story!

This is the fourth post in a series of seven articles about storytelling.

Read the other articles here: 
1. The Four Elements of Storytelling
2. Ten Esential Building Stones for a Good Story
3. Telling Your Story With the Right Voice