word craft



One of the key ques­tions a writer must come to terms with right from the begin­ning is—how is the sto­ry to be told? What is “the Point of View,” also known as POV? Is it me or he/she? That’s to say does one start off by writ­ing, “She woke one morn­ing,” or “I woke one morning.”?

The options are many. 

The epis­to­lary novel—in which a sto­ry is told with a series of letters—had its first major suc­cess in the Eng­lish lan­guage with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela in 1740. The for­mat is still used and may be found in such mod­ern nov­els as 1982 The Col­or Pur­ple by Alice Walk­er. 


My recent Loy­al­ty was writ­ten in the first per­son, but is bro­ken down chrono­log­i­cal­ly, almost like jour­nal entries, some­thing like—but not truly—an epis­to­lary novel.

When British nov­el­ist Wilkie Collins pub­lished The Moon­stone in 1868 he wrote what is con­sid­ered a high­ly inno­v­a­tive detec­tive fic­tion. If I can trust my mem­o­ry, I believe it was T.S. Eliot (of all peo­ple) who said it was the best detec­tive sto­ry ever writ­ten. It had a con­sid­er­able impact on count­less mys­tery nov­els that followed. 

But aside from the inven­tive sleuthing, Collins did some­thing else new: the sto­ry was told from mul­ti­ple points of view. That’s to say, the sto­ry was told in the first per­son but from a num­ber of dif­fer­ent persons.

The Murder of Roger Akroyd Agatha ChristieIn The Mur­der of Roger Ack­royd, the 1926 mys­tery by Agatha Christie, the nar­ra­tor (and pre­sump­tive detec­tive) of the mur­der mys­tery is the char­ac­ter Dr. James Shep­pard. It is “Shep­pard” who tells the tale in a first-per­son voice. Only in the last chap­ter is it revealed that he is the mur­der­er. The book—and the con­cept— of the “unre­li­able nar­ra­tor”—caused some­thing of a lit­er­ary scandal. 

These days the “unre­li­able nar­ra­tor” is no longer unusu­al and is a lit­er­ary tech­nique there for the writer to use and quite often is. (I sus­pect it’s because we—as a society—no longer have much trust in anything.) 

Nothing But the Truth

Over my years as a writer, I have used a vari­ety of for­mats. Some­times I don’t even think about it. I just begin—in a crude­ly intu­itive way—and set out along the plot’s jour­ney with one POV or anoth­er. (Noth­ing but the Truth has many points of view.) 

Every now and again, as I work my first draft, I get a nag­ging feel­ing that some­thing is not going well. Gen­er­al­ly, it is tru­ly a nag­ging feel­ing, obscure, and annoy­ing as all get out because it’s not clear what I’m doing badly. 

Then I recall what an edi­tor once said to me when she reject­ed a book of mine. She said, “It lacked salt.” 

She was telling me “It lacked energy.” 

City of Light, City of Dark

And indeed, after a long time of thought and strug­gle, I turned that par­tic­u­lar book—City of Light, City of Dark into a graph­ic nov­el. Now there was a change of POV! 

So, per­haps instead of POV, it might be bet­ter to speak of The Voice of the Sto­ry. Not the voice of the writer—but the voice of the sto­ry. Find it and you can give your sto­ry life. The right POV brings ener­gy, and truth of being to the text—and most of all to the characters. 

That, I think, more than any­thing, draws the read­er in, (and hope­ful­ly) holds them.  

In short, the POV is one of the most impor­tant choic­es a writer can make. 

And that’s why regard­ing the book I’m cur­rent­ly work­ing on I just changed the POV. 

Pass the salt. 

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