Sometimes it’s difficult to decide whose story to tell. You’ve got your conflict – a guy (let’s say he’s a photographer) leans over the guard rail of a bridge and may or may not be about to jump while a woman driving by thinks he needs saving and decides she’s the one to do it.
Now you’ve got some choices to make about who gets to tell the story and how that character is going to tell it.
Who’s your main character?
First, you’ve got to decide who’s your main character. Is it the photographer leaning dangerously far over the edge of the Tappan Zee Bridge to get a shot of a seagull skimming the Hudson River, or is it the women driving by who thinks the photographer’s about to jump to his death? Or maybe it’s the seagull who swoops up from the water and spies a crazy lady zigzagging across three lanes of traffic to race from her car and drag a confused-looking guy with a camera away from the bridge’s edge.
Obviously, your choice of main character will change the telling of your tale. The photographer may, indeed, have a death wish or he may just be determined to get a picture that he thinks will make him famous. The story he tells about that day on the bridge will be very different from the one told by the woman who’s driving along, maybe in a hurry to get to work, maybe a little drunk from a late night gone bad, who decides she needs to be a savior instead of just ignoring someone who’s dumb enough to lean over a guard rail on the Tappan Zee (which isn’t really that high up, right?). And the seagull, well, he’s probably thinking these humans are nuts to do anything other than focus on the fish that he’s been having a hard time catching that day.
Bottom line: Even if you’ve got the same set of circumstances, the same conflict, the same cast of characters, your choice of main character will have a profound effect on the way the story will be told because every event will be filtered through that main character’s desires, passions, motivations. As I stated in a previous post:
Character + Desire + Conflict = Plot
So your job is to figure out which character has the drive, the passion, the desire to tell the best story.
What point of view should you use?
Next, you’ve got to decide your narrative perspective. Which point of view best fits the main character you’ve chosen? There’s the first person, the “I” or “we” perspective (“we” being the first person plural, representing a collective unconscious a la “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner or The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides), that puts readers right in the main character’s head (or heads) and allows intimate access to that character’s interior landscape. The limitation of this perspective is that the narrator can only share information to which she has access, which can make it difficult to explore tales in which offstage information plays a vital role.
There’s the third person perspective, the “he” or “she” perspective, which allows more narrative distance. The omniscient third person perspective allows you to delve into all the characters’ heads, which can be helpful in establishing a broader world view for your story but feels less intimate than other POVs. Close third person perspective acts almost like a first person narration by filtering everything in the story from the main character’s POV and allowing intimate access to that character’s internal landscape. Close third can have the same limitation as first person (a narrower world view), although readers can still be more accepting of receiving information outside of the close third person narrator’s purview simply by nature of the distance wrought by the use of “she” instead of “I” or “we.”
There’s also the second person, the “you” POV, which often gets short shrift for making too many demands on the reader by insisting that the reader implicate herself into the narrative and become the main character. As writer Paula Morris points out, however, in this excellent blog post, this is a misreading of the second person. Says Morris, “The ‘you’ in a second-person story by, say, Junot Diaz is not supposed to be you-the-reader. It’s a narrator who’s talking about him- or herself, but in a way that suggests alienation from the events described, or emotional/ironic distance.” So, in fact, the second person can allow an unusual, intimate way into your main character’s perspective of your story’s events. To see the second person used brilliantly, read “Miss Lora” by Junot Diaz, published in the April 23, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
So, when choosing a POV, the questions to ask yourself are: How close do you want readers to be to your character? How much access do you want readers to have to your narrator’s interior landscape? How broad or narrow of a world view do you want to work with?
Now it’s time to play around with point of view. This exercise takes more time than my usual ones since it’s got multiple steps. Set aside about 45 minutes.
Examine the photo above and think about where these three boys are going. Where they’ve come from. What lies ahead. Are they at the end of a long journey? The beginning? Are they going somewhere carefree, work-filled, dangerous? Which boy is the leader of the three? Which is the tag-along? Which is the troublemaker, the peacemaker, the overachiever? Are they friends? Enemies? Friends who are fighting? Strangers united in a common goal? Assign each of them a role in whatever they’re about to embark upon.
Next, write 3 passages (15 – 20 minutes per passage), each one containing the line, “That day, they marched for hours.”
Start your timer. Ready, set, write!
And don’t forget to leave a comment below about how it goes.
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