Today’s publishing market is more competitive than ever.
To stand out, us writers are constantly asking ourselves how we can tell our stories in a way that no one else can. How can we narrow the gap between a story’s ultimate potential and its ultimate execution? If we expect our books to sell in today’s oversaturated market, we need to make every one of our stories exceptional.
Everything we write at Sterling & Stone starts with this basic query:
What is our point of view (POV)?
Writers tend to give plenty of attention to plot, of course. Same for characters, and setting. But POV is something many authors don’t consider nearly enough. Pick the wrong one, and you cut your story’s potential off at the knees.
But pick the right POV, and you can capture the true heart of your story, resonate with your ideal reader, and find the most appreciative audience.
When I published Sterling & Stone’s first six-episode serial in the summer of 2011, my writing partner, Dave, and I agreed that our story would have six characters, and that we would each handle three POV’s.
Dave told his half from the perspectives of an everyday reporter, a damaged teenager, and a secret agent. Mine were told from the mind of an eight-year-old boy, a mother trying desperately to protect her daughter, and a serial-killing monster.
These people had nothing in common, except that they were all people, and by using a wide variety of perspectives, we were able to craft a narrative that felt epic, right out of the box.
It paid off. The series sold more than half a million copies.
Years later, I’ve been a ghostwriter, a copywriter, and a bestselling author. I’ve written more search engine optimized articles than I can count, or care to admit. I’ve penned letters of complaint, and even wedding vows. I understand what works and what doesn’t.
After writing and publishing more than ten million words, here are the five most important things I’ve learned about POV.
1.) Know your “why” and consider multiple perspectives.
Whether your goal is to write a bestseller, garner critical acclaim, or simply communicate to your colleagues or loved ones, you need to figure out your why.
If you know what type of story you’re trying to tell, as well as your expectations for what that story is supposed to do — either for you as the creator, or for the readers who will consume it — you’ll have a sharper narrative that works as hard for you as it will for the reader. Once you’ve nailed that down, it’s time to think about how you want to tell your story.
A lot of authors write in a single POV because they think it’s easier, but really, it isn’t.
This keeps the scope of their story restrained, and allows a budding author to prevent themselves from getting lost.
If you’re writing a first-person or single perspective narrative, you only have access to the things that character knows. Opening your story to the richness of everyone’s thoughts is a fantastic device, if you know how to use it.
It’s absolutely worth learning, and there’s no better way to improve at character design. Distinctive dialogue, tics, patterns of thought and speech, passion, vices, and secrets — all of it helps you to become a better writer.
I got lucky my first time behind the story because I was naturally attracted to dramatic changes in perspective. And this drew readers aplenty.
Since then, I’ve worked on honing the art of multiple perspectives.
2.) Shift perspective with intention.
Once you’ve decided to use multiple POV’s in your story, ask yourself which parts of the narrative each character should be a vehicle for.
My three characters in that first serial had to play well with Dave’s. Since we were on a high-wire and I couldn’t yet see what he was doing, I could only be responsible for those ways in which my characters interacted with or affected each other.
Knowing I’d have a trio of POVs to work with, I chose to give myself a pair of extremes, along with something more moderate in the middle.
An eight-year-old boy who was both innocent and lost is an interesting character all by himself, but he’s much more interesting when juxtaposed against a serial killer. The mother and daughter were my avatars for normality. A duo to act as a stand-in for anyone reading the serial. With the two extremes, the story needed a character readers could immediately relate to.
A small child to help them remember, a serial killer to trigger their fear, and a family to remind the reader what was at stake.
Switching between these perspectives is a bit like determining the order of tunes in a mixtape. Put all the loud songs together, and you have no variance in tempo or rhythm. Fiction’s the same. You need to ratchet the tension before you release it.
The inhale and exhale of your narrative is an essential element to the overall enjoyment of your story.
Television is a terrific medium to study. Scene changes aren’t arbitrary. They exist to drive interest with a shift in scenery and provide contrast for any emotional experience the viewer might be having.
If our small child is lost and scared, wondering what might be hiding in the dark–a quick switch to our killer can feel jarring to the reader. The converse is also true; spend a little time with a murderer, and most readers will feel grateful for the reprieve once back in the mind of that child.
It’s all a balancing act, not just in the way each POV is organized, but also the total number you put in your story. Because, yes, there is such a thing as “too many POV’s.”
3.) Know when you have too many perspectives.
The number of POVs you have is largely dependent on the story you’re trying to tell.
The six perspectives we started with in our post-apocalyptic epic quickly sprawled to twice that. In the science fiction dystopia co-authored by my other writing partner, Johnny B. Truant, there are even more. The audiobook for that title was nominated for an Audie — the Oscars of audiobooks — for Best Sci-Fi Book of the Year.
Despite the quality, that series sold poorly in comparison to the post-apocalyptic epic.
One of the biggest reasons was that there were too many POVs for the average reader to follow. We were patterning our sci-fi serial off of what we love to watch in television while missing the visual cues that benefit viewers on TV.
Sure, some people want a more complicated story, and perhaps those are the readers you’re looking to please. But even they don’t want to get lost.
The audio production for the second book in that series cast a whopping eighteen narrators. That’s clearly ridiculous, and too much for the average reader to manage.
Knowing what we do now, we would have structured our serial differently, and focused on fewer POVs.
Always keep your readers in mind, and never stop putting them first.
Most of all, know your market.
If you’re in a genre that enjoys a lot of different perspectives—fantasy, sci-fi, or young adult, for instance—have at it. If not, then writer beware. You could be costing yourself sales, read-through, positive reviews, and the word-of-mouth writers require to create sustainable careers.
To eliminate the wrong characters, and hold onto the right ones, go back to the earlier question about whose perspective a story should be told from. Think about who is telling themselves the biggest lie, the character with the deepest secret, or maybe the person with everything to lose.
It’s about quality, not quantity.
Rather than adding the perspective of every character, think about the most interesting ones. That will drive a reader’s fascination, and keep them on the page.
4.) Watch television to help you know when to cut.
If you want to get better at cutting between perspectives in order to create the strongest possible narrative, I recommend watching TV.
Today, the language of film and television has infected our collective vocabulary. For more than a century, TV and movies have seeped into every nook and cranny of our culture, and YouTube turned everyone in the world into a potential content creator.
These days, a story must be visual.
And often, POV can make those visual complications easier to execute.
You’ve probably heard we’re in the Golden Age of television. Anyone studying story structure should be paying attention to the best of what’s out there, with the understanding that you can’t create if you never take the time to consume.
Pick a program and pay close attention to the narrative baton being passed from one character to another. A well-written scene will have a focus, a perspective, and a sharp cut at just the right time.
Let’s say a mom and her daughter are shopping together.
The beginning of the scene could be Mom giving little Lucy a warning to stay close. The middle could be the mother’s frantic search for her now missing child. And the end is Mom finding her in the frozen section, staring longingly at some ice cream.
If we’re opening a new wound, then Mom gets closer and realizes that the little girl she’s found isn’t her daughter.
If we’re shifting POV’s, now is the perfect time to cut. We can go with either scenario A or B, then jump into the most appropriate perspective. If that isn’t her daughter, we want a cut to Lucy’s POV, or a kidnapper, perhaps another family member who snatched the poor girl away.
If it is her daughter, and Mom is now relieved, we could give her and the reader both an exhale at the end of the chapter by making everyone feel okay about everything.
Now we’re with Dad, whose day has been an absolute disaster.
This is the type of structural rhythm readers are used to, and even subconsciously expect. Whether you watch television or not, most people do, including the readers you want to be buying your books. Their expectations for how stories unfold are being shaped by television as much as it is by books.
Once you’ve nailed that, you can focus on voice.
5.) Make your perspectives distinct.
Yes, having several POVs can make your story fly by, but if the narrative isn’t going anywhere, then what’s the point?
If you’re not sure of the point, your reader definitely won't be, so good luck getting her to tell everyone she knows about your book.
When you have multiple perspectives, you’ll want to make them as distinct as possible.
The classic coming-of-age film, Stand by Me (based on Stephen King’s short story, The Body) is told from the perspective of four adolescent boys about the same age. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is told from the perspective of four girls, also about the same age. These stories work exceptionally well because the individuals in the narrative each stand on their own. There is never any character confusion when reading.
Each perspective must work independently, while also adding to the whole.
Consider your family. Despite sharing a significant amount of DNA, the separate members of any family are different. Together, you make a distinct whole. But apart, you are individuals, each with your own story that can easily stand on its own.
Always remember these two things when it comes to POV.
You can never really understand someone until you consider the world from their perspective, and nothing is ever good, bad, or indifferent from every point of view.
Perspective makes the world go round, while also keeping your story straight.
Use it well, switch it often, experiment with different POVs over time, and turn yourself into a much more powerful storyteller.