Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Who Tells the Story: Narrative Point of View

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 09:18 min

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.

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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


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. 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...

About the Instructor

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.

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Margaret Atwood

Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.

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