Plot through the prism

One early step, after maybe a few long pages of throat clearing and consideration and finishing a few shitty first drafts, in writing a story is to identify an appropriate point of view (POV). Sometimes the POV comes naturally in the first person. But your first instinct will not always be perfectly suited to telling your story.

Readers naturally wonder about the identity of the storyteller. Is this person trustworthy? The opinions and perspective of your narrator color and distort the text. If your narrator is inconsistent, reveals future events too soon or relevant backstory too late, the spell of your story easily breaks.

Text must distort through the prism of some specific voice with a some certain perspective, agenda and worldview. Even the most convincing or abject voices are under girded with ideas about the nature of reality, space and time.

Stories flow, cause and effect one into another, through the perspective of a narrator. The narrative is the structure of those events, the overall facts that make your story plausible and keep it consistent. The plot is the basic drama, the rise and fall of the action: the girl meets the boy, gets pregnant, marries or aborts or whatever. These elements of composition are all governed by the POV you choose to tell your story.

We have three basic narrative modes available to develop a sense of POV and authority: 

First Person uses the pronouns I, me, us and we. It’s oral history in text, and it places the narrator as a central character in the plot. 

Second Person uses “you” as the subject. You write at your reader. It’s tough to make this work through a long plot, because it often reads as a list of instructions.

Third Person describes characters from a distance. It can convey a sense of clairvoyance, or unreliability, depending on how it’s used. Often broken down into “limited” and “omniscient” categories, the third person is versatile and often used. 

Whatever POV you choose, consistency is key. Whether the narrator is omniscient, conjuring a new world in a reader’s imagination, or like a security camera, ignorant to everything outside of its frame of reference, your narrative needs rules to succeed. When you write a story, the narrative mode or POV you use sets the rules and the tone for your story. You can always add new rules, but it’s very hard to nix a rule once established. 

Take 15 minutes, and just write down something that you experienced in the first person. Then rewrite the same story from the perspective of another person involved, or write it in third person omniscient or limited perspective. In your rewrite think of the narrator as a character. What can they know and what can’t they know?

When I attempted this writing prompt at The Longfellow House, it turned out to be much more demanding than I anticipated. In fact, this prompt will probably take several sittings to complete, depending on the length of your story. But it will be worth the effort. Let’s spend some time writing a story, a true story that you have told before. 

You might find, reading back, illogical shifts in perspective or disconcerting leaps in time and place. Plow forward to finish a rough draft. Get out the plot and characters. Then revise and rework what you’ve written with special attention to who is telling the story in relation to the characters and the plot. 

Here are a few examples of stories that use POV in interesting ways:

An Occurrence on Owl Bridge, Ambrose Bierce


Sevastopol, Leo Tolstoy


Three Soldiers, Bruce Holland Rogers