Who Should Be Telling This Story?

From Writer Unboxed:

Every story is told from a point of view (POV). Who is telling the story determines the story that can be told, because it determines what the reader can know about actions, characters, events, thoughts, and motivations. The more limited the viewpoint, the more limited the reader’s access to information and the more personalized that information is. The more diffuse the viewpoint, the more comprehensive the reader’s access to information, but also the less personalized that information is. If you want to write a sweeping historical saga, a close first person viewpoint might not be the easiest. If you want to write an intimate story of personal transformation, distant third person will make your work harder.

What POV should your story be in? If the story is told through more than one character’s viewpoint, which character should be telling which scenes? Asking these simple questions can provide a strategy for editing and refining as well as drafting a story.

I am revising a work in progress from distant third person to close third person POV. I’ve already written a post about how writing in closer third person breathed more life into the characters and how that changed the story. In my revisions, I also discovered that sometimes the problems with a chapter or a scene stemmed not from whether it was ‘close enough’ third person, but whether it was being told by the wrong character. I solved several of those problem scenes by rewriting them from a different character’s POV.

The first step in that revision was choosing which character should be telling the story or scene. Particularly for complex scenes with many characters and many interwoven plot details, the best POV character was not always obvious. Each knew pieces of the story puzzle, but not all; each was there for their own reason, but didn’t know why some of the others were there.

I developed two questions that helped me determine which character provides the best POV for a scene. One question is about the emotional impact of the scene, the other is about the information needed to understand the scene.

Emotional Impact.

Which character is the most affected by the events of the chapter? That character is a good candidate to provide the point of view because their viewpoint can add the most emotional engagement to the actions and events.

Critical Story Information.

Which character knows the most—the actions, events, and information—and can reveal to the reader the essential story elements necessary to understand what’s happening in the scene and to follow the story arc into the next? That character is a good candidate to provide the point of view because they can directly impart that information to the reader as the story unfolds.
While it’s obvious that telling the scene through the most emotionally affected character keeps the stakes high, if that character can’t tell the reader the information necessary to understand what’s going on in the story, then the author has to find another way to impart that information. Those ‘other ways’ are often places where the writing breaks down. The necessary information is offered to the reader through head hopping (temporary shifts in POV), through often intrusive narrative or expository sequences, by (not always believable) fortuitous plot circumstances, or by some other contrivance. How many scenes have you read where some coincidence or red herring character imparts the missing action or information necessary to lead the characters to the next step in the plot? (Don’t get me started about Tolkien and eagles.) In any story, a couple of these coincidences are believable, but they are noticeable, and after awhile they become glaring.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed