Viewpoint, or point of view, should always be the starting point for any story.
When you understand the five ways viewpoint underpins your short story or novel, you will seldom end up with a messy or confusing first draft.
Before You Write A First Draft…
When you start writing a story, the first thing you should focus on is the viewpoint.
Who will be telling the story? Why did you choose this point of view? Will there be multiple viewpoints? If so, why?
5 Reasons To Start Writing A Story With Viewpoint In Mind
Here are five important reasons for starting with viewpoint.
Start With The Viewpoint That Will Best Serve Your Story
Viewpoint should always serve your plot, characters, setting, and theme.
Imagine you wanted to write a story about the Wild West, a period of tumultuous change, conflict, and adventure on the American frontier.
You know it is teeming with ideas for stories – and you want to write one! In fact, you may already have strong ideas about plot and characters for the story.
You may know what the story is about, but maybe you don’t know how to tell it.
Well, this can be solved through viewpoint.
If you hope to write an epic, multi-character novel about the Old West, an omniscient viewpoint will enable you to capture the vast scope of the story.
Your viewpoint, in this case, will become a collective one that embodies the mindset, folklore, and culture of this period.
If your story is a historical romance, then you would probably choose a dual-character third-person viewpoint.
In a shorter novel about fur traders on the frontier, you might decide on a different approach. Here perhaps you would only focus on three or four third-person viewpoints to tell the story of this community.
If you wanted to write about the Native American wife of a fur trader, well, you may choose a single first-person point of view.
Start With A Viewpoint That Has The Right Degree Of Subjectivity
All viewpoints in fiction are, of course, subjective. Without subjectivity, you won’t have a story as much as a Wikipedia record of events about the pioneer era.
But we sometimes forget that there are degrees of subjectivity.
The viewpoint you choose to write in will affect just how subjective the story is.
Just what are you trying to say about this period of history?
For example, in a story of the American frontier, you may want to write about the determined pioneers and rebellious cowboys to create sense of pace and adventure. Or you want to write it from a Native American perspective.
This alternative viewpoint would provide a reverse angle on Western expansion, focusing on the encroachment upon tribal traditions and cultures rather than progress – you may want to talk about change and loss rather than adventure.
One thing is for sure. If you were to write either story today, you would likely analyse the historical events through a more modern, critical, and objective lens.
For balance, you might even choose to explore the relationship between white settlers and Native American tribes, resulting in a broader concurrent or dual point of view.
This approach could carry the narrative to a point of conflict, where the two dominant forces ultimately shape a new culture, landscape, and merged American identity.
Why not experiment with different viewpoints?
Start With A Viewpoint That Will Lend Structure To Your Story
Now, the viewpoint you choose will also influence how you structure the story. If done correctly, it will help you create an overall picture rather than just focusing on individual details.
As a writer, you want to build the forest and not just the trees and theme is a great way to build that forest cohesively.
If we can argue that viewpoints in fiction are subjective, then it follows that the main subject or theme of the story is as important as the subjects or characters themselves.
To create a powerful piece of fiction, the viewpoint should come from both the story itself and the characters within that story.
For example, you may say, ‘In my story, I want to follow the journey of a daring time traveller who embarks on an adventure to the untamed lands of the American West in the 1780s, after the American Revolution.
‘To give the story structure, I will use a first-person viewpoint in the form of a diary or logbook.
‘Within her diary, the traveller will record the birth of new settlements from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River.’
When you have the structure sorted, you can now start creating a coherent outline and timeline.
Start With A Viewpoint That Will Engage The Reader
The viewpoint you choose will impact how readers experience your story. It sets the tone and establishes a connection between readers and the events in your story.
If we look at the example of the time traveller’s viewpoint, the diary narration will create an intimate and immediate connection with the reader – they are experiencing history as if it is happening in the present.
As your narrator records first-hand the hopes, ambition, and courage of the characters she meets on her travels, the reader will empathise with their emotions and become far more engrossed in the story.
But, for a moment, let’s say you wanted to tell the story in the form of letter narration – perhaps heartfelt letters between a resilient young settler and a younger cousin residing back home in the East, you would have a different emotional engagement with the reader.
Separated by vast distances but united by the bonds of family, the two narrators would be able to see, judge, and feel this period in time.
The settler’s letters would be a window into the new world of the West, while the cousin’s responses would be a reminder of a culture and tradition that is being left behind in the East.
Perhaps the cousin’s longing for the adventures experienced vicariously would resonate with the reader, too.
Start With A Viewpoint That Will Give Your Story A Voice
Most importantly, starting with a clear viewpoint in mind gives your story a distinct voice.
When you hear the voice of the story in your imagination, it will help you gain confidence and find a rhythm of writing.
A well-defined viewpoint allows you to understand how the story should be told, find the right tone, and connect with the characters and their world.
It provides direction and purpose, keeping you focused and maintaining a consistent narrative flow.
Perhaps you want the voice in your Wild West tale to be that of a rebellious outlaw, an outsider who lives by his own code and own rules.
This narrative voice, whether first or third person, would give you the power and freedom to explore the theme of your story in an unrestricted way.
Both you, as the writer, and the character would be unbound by the shackles of societal or storytelling norms.
It could be a voice that challenges the very foundation of the West, questioning the authority of those who claim to uphold justice.
This rebellious voice would be your point of reference – and the reader’s guide – into the raw emotions, violent actions, and untamed desires of this character.
▀ Buy the Viewpoint Workbook – a comprehensive 100-page guide to all things viewpoint.
Exercises To Try
- Write a short story from three viewpoints – the jewellery thief, the rich victim, and the frustrated detective.
- Choose a character found in your favourite historical period – perhaps 18th-century Venice or the Space Race of the 1960s. Give them a point of view about what is happening during this time.
- Write about a time you were scared at a fireside chat in the first person. Give it a unique voice – sad or sarcastic, light-hearted or dramatic, etc.
- Have a character write a letter to a friend about how they feel about the electric chair as capital punishment.
- Write 5 pages of a romance novel set during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Final Word
A good way to think about storytelling is to ask, ‘Whose story am I hoping to tell?’ and not ‘What story am I telling?’
The first will lead you to a compelling viewpoint. The second will lead to a flat and unfocused narrative.
More Posts From Anthony:
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- Action Is The Hero
- 5 Fears That Keep You From Finishing Your Novel
- 5 Ways To Look At Viewpoint (Slightly Differently)
- 5 Fresh Starts To Your Writing
- 8 Ways To Uncover Your Character’s Motivations
- Which Way North? 5 Methods To Outline A Novel
- Writer In Search Of A Novel – Finding Your Genre As A New Novelist