From Margaret Atwood's MasterClass

Who Tells the Story: Narrative Point of View

Choosing the right point of view to tell your story from involves a lot of trial and error. Margaret explains the impact this decision has on your story, and offers an exercise to help you explore the effects of various points of view.

Topics include: Choosing Your Point of View • You Can Use Multiple Points of View • You Can Always Change Your Mind • What Does Your Narrator Know? • An Exercise in Point of View

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Choosing the right point of view to tell your story from involves a lot of trial and error. Margaret explains the impact this decision has on your story, and offers an exercise to help you explore the effects of various points of view.

Topics include: Choosing Your Point of View • You Can Use Multiple Points of View • You Can Always Change Your Mind • What Does Your Narrator Know? • An Exercise in Point of View

Margaret Atwood

Teaches Creative Writing

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Who are you writing this for? And what do you want to tell them? I think there might be a bit too much theory kicking around in the world, that it has to be this. It has to be that. But the first thing is writing is a voice. And so it's a way of recording the human voice. Whose voice is it that is doing the talking? And to whom are they speaking? Because there's always someone. So once upon a time, it was either an omniscient third person narrator who would tell you about the characters and tell you what they were doing, and in some instances, what they were thinking. The he is she, you can either be a narrator taking a long shot. And the omniscient narrator knows everything. So the omniscient narrator can say, little did Red Riding Hood know, but behind the tree, there was lurking a wolf. And there was nothing that would please him more than eating not only Little Red Riding Hood, but also her grandmother. And that's what he was scheming to do. As the know-it-all narrator, you can say those things. But if you're not going to be that know-it-all narrator, you can go to Little Red Riding Hood. She was happily picking flowers when out from behind a tree stepped a gentlemen clad in a rather hairy tweed suit. Oh, my goodness, said Little Red Riding Hood, et cetera. So you're not necessarily telling all, but you're seeing that encounter through the eyes of one person. You can move it around in whatever way you wish in order to tell your story. We also have stream of consciousness that entered. It's not exactly a first person narrative, but sort of the flow of ideas that goes through the character's head. So who is talking? To whom are they talking? Are they talking to the reader? Are they talking to somebody else in the book? [MUSIC PLAYING] There's no rule that says you have to have one point of view. I think I've mentioned "The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner before, in which there are four different narrators and four different points of view. And some of them are first person. And some of them are third person. And the perspective keeps getting further and further away. So the first person is-- you're smashed right up against that character. You're right in their mind. And then we move back a bit. And by the end, we're seeing an overview. We're seeing a long view. The films and cameras really influence the novel quite a bit. So this would be a novel in which the shot moves back. you're looking at the same thing but from further away. [MUSICPLAYING] How do you decide who's going to tell your story? Learn by doing. You pick a likely candidate and start off. And if that is not going well, maybe you need to reconsider. So if it's not going well and you started it in the third person, try switching to the first. If you started in the first person and that's not going well, try switching to the third. If that character isn't working out for you at all, maybe you need to come at it from the point of vie...

The art of powerful storytelling

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.

Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Margaret Atwood has a marvelous, dry sense of humor in addition to her obvious gifts of intelligence and writing skill. It was extremely interesting to listen to her talk about her writing process and what she thinks is important about writing. I especially appreciated her recommendations about books.

OMG. I am speechless. I am a Norwegian author, just published my 4th novel (excuse my somewhat poor English). I felt Atwood was confirming a lot I had thought and planted a lot of new seeds. What I would not give to be able to invite her for some cinnamon rolls and coffee ;)

Insightful, thought-provoking, inspiring introduction.

The class was well paced for me, the lessons in nicely sized chunks to assimilate. The work sheets had great resources and invited me to do things that generally I would not consider. Ms. Atwood is a charming, engaging teacher. I am just beginning to take my writing seriously and she was a great start to doing so. I cannot thank her and MasterClass enough for the opportunity.

Comments

Angela K.

This is such a helpful chapter, I can't even tell! I've never asked myself what the narrator knows and whether she or he knows more than the reader or the other way round. That's an interesting fact I've never cared about. Unfortunately. From now on I will. :)

Suzanne B.

I finished the battle scene from another character's POV. By doing this, I learned more about what was going on, and what would need to change, and what I needed to add. Invaluable! So I have this scene from 2 people's POV. I will write it a third time from Ethan's POV. He's a character (this is spec. fiction) who doesn't actually appear until the end of the novel. But rewriting this scene has given me a lot of information I wouldn't have had otherwise. I will only attach this one section. Thanks. I give up trying to upload stuff. It's too cumbersome. Really, it shouldn't be such a struggle. I tried filepicker, the file mgt. system you use and I still couldn't get it. And it came with lots of warnings.

Suzanne B.

P.S. Oh, and Ms. Atwood's work, for me, is a definite influence. Like the assignments, her writing helps me ask the right questions of my own work.

Suzanne B.

I'm so enjoying The Blind Assassin - I'm at the point in the novel where Iris is about to marry Richard and Laura is distraught at losing her older sister. The narrative pulls in so many directions. I was confused by the beginning of the novel, but I persevered and the beginning has become quite clear to me. The layout of chapters and Blind Assassin segments and trysts and sweeping landscape weave beautifully.

Suzanne B.

I've rescued my YA novel from the back burner with this assignment. There is a battle scene and three characters are involved. It's the perfect section of the novel (denouement) to share POVs.

Andrew Stephen L.

Pale Snails Tails The debate was on between the dolphin and the whale.Should pale snails tails be allowed in the sales?The dolphin wanted to exchange two fish for the delicious sort after dish of pale snails tails, flailed and sundried on nails all the way from Exotic Wales.Unfortunately the whale had never seen a snail but the dolphin assured him that he had one day done a triple reverse flip and seen one on a sailing ship and so he really knew what he was talking about.The whale had recently been released from jail and was on his way to the English Dales; He thought 2fish was worth it for the perfect wish of the most sort after dish of his pale snail tails,flailed and sun dried on nails, deep fried with kale all the way from Exotic Wales. The whale was about to go,so the dolphin,who was also on his way to the English dales to deliver some dolphinian mail,gave a discount of one fish if the whale took his mail quick.The dolphin said that they were VINTAGE pale snail tails,sun dried on nails deep fried with kale all the way from Exotic Wales.Oh VINTAGE PALE SNAILS TAILS,you hadn't said,said the head of the very large whale.The whale agreed to the deal,switched the fish and took the dolphin mail and won the most sort after dish of snails tails sun dried on nails all the way from Exotic Wales .The whale decided to eat the snails tails when he arrived safely in the English Dales,then he swam off with the Dolphin mail. On the way he met a she-whale,they were chatting when she got trapped in a whirlpool; oh no the whale who had already fallen in love had to nudge,nudge and nudge her free,fortunately he was a big whale and saved her that day from the wave that might have swept her away.Phew she kissed him and the happy whales decided to get married on arrival in the English Dales.He was a happy happy whale. 🙂 Off they swam together and he impressed her by offering her some of his vintage pale snails tails, flailed and sun dried on nails, deep fried with kale all the way from Exotic Wales. Todays date was march 2010,they were about to tuck on in when the whale noticed the best before date was December 2008!! What!!! In a rage he realised they certainly were VINTAGE!,He'd been had!He almost came off the rails and went mad! On arrival in the English dales he met a lark,he decided he'd sell most sort after dish of the perfect wish of vintage snails tails,flailed and sun dried on nails, deep fried with kale all the way from Exotic Wales.He decided hey why not?do a quick sale before they started to rot.The lark was very hungry and agreed to buy them for two fish.The whale was about to swap the perfect wish of the most delicious dish of snails tails,flailed and sun dried on nails,deep fried with kale all the way from Exotic Wales,when he realised he might end up back in jail.The whale gave up the idea and gave them away,he swam away into the high tide, with his best princess she-whale to get married in the English dales and decided that on their honeymoon they would return to Exotic Wales to to find some fresh pale snails tails,flailed and sun dried on nails,deep fried with kale;yet really the whales knew not what Pale Snails were, or if delicious their tails!!!!!!!

Claire M.

Thank you, Jo Leigh Evans, for your help clarifying a second person narrative. I'm surprised there's not a way to respond more directly to responses...but this way seems to work alright too. Thanks!

Claire M.

Thank you all for your feedback. Very helpful. I have a tendency, I think, to let things slip too far into the abstract. My issue in doing this exercise is that I find I end up spending far too long explaining the background to the event and in that telling I tend to lose the event - or never get to it. I've done one draft, just from my POV, but if I do manage to finish the other two POVs I might post it here for feedback. Thank you again for all your responses....and keep them coming. :)

Kathryn W.

A really timely lesson; I have a section of the manuscript I'm working on where the information is necessary for the reader, but it reads as rather dry. I hope/believe that a change of narrator will lift the piece, and help to make the work as a whole more cohesive. Fingers crossed...! For the assignment, my three characters are: Grandmother, mother and granddaughter share a house. The event: grandma loses her glasses. Not so remarkable, but this is the third pair she's lost in a week and she never, never, loses anything. Change is coming. She knows it. So she turns to the old wisdom: tea leaves, horoscopes, telephone psychics. Her daughter is convinced she is making a fuss about nothing; everyone loses things, it doesn't mean anything, it's a sign of growing old. Her granddaughter, aged 4 or 5, sees the sadness that the grandmother is experiencing. Why is she frantically searching the house? Why is she staring into her teacup? Why does she shake every time she answers the phone? Then the noises start in the night. If I were to continue the story, I think I would follow the narrative of the child, perhaps using this event as a flashback - the beginning of the story that is actually being told - grandpa back from the dead? Aliens? A rat infestation that brings with it a handsome exterminator who steals the child's mother's heart and the family heirlooms. Now flat broke, the child pursues him across three continents in a mission to claim what's hers? Who knows? But an intriguing and helpful exercise...

Claire M.

Is anyone else losing sight of what in fact constitutes "an event"? At one point, Margaret commented that she thought there was too much theory in the world today, and in a way I agree with her, but I also get stuck on this notion of something happening. I'm coming from a social science background (PhD Anthropology) so perhaps I'm overthinking it, but my thesis was dealing precisely with notions of truth, fact, and events in the context of historical memory. So now I'm feeling a bit lost. What's an event? A story could be an event, right? I'm struggling, as you can see, with the exercise for this class - an event and then three characters.... Any thoughts?