How to Manage Narrative Perspective in Story-Telling

Effectively managing narrative perspective in story-telling is one of the most important and difficult skills to master. By perspective I mean the hierarchy of vantage points the writer adopts in relating the story to her audience or readers. There are three main levels of perspective: the author’s (she decides when, what and how much to reveal), the protagonist’s/characters’ (who act as if they have a life independent of the author’s), and the reader’s/audience’s (who interpret the story according to their own expectations). Most commonly, perspective is intimately tied to the protagonist’s point of view. Hence, in the absence of authorial or directorial declaration, what the protagonists sees and perceives to be truth is transmitted to the audience/reader as being true – until the revelation or point of schism. In the film The Matrix, for example, the audience is initially as unaware that the depicted world is an illusion as is Neo (Keano Reeves).

The Point of Schism

The plot thickens when our point of view separates from the protagonist’s. Before this moment, we share the protagonist’s confusion, bewilderment, and surprise as events unfold. Here, our association with the protagonist is one of subjectivity and identification. After the point of schism, we see beyond this limited vision – we perceive the dangers and are made privy to the traps planned for him by the antagonist. I call this moment the point of schism – or a tear in perspective – and regard it as a narrative device whose importance is comparable to that of a turning point or mid-point. The insight afforded us at this moment increases the suspense we feel for the protagonist, since we see danger approaching more clearly than he does. An example of this in The Matrix is the meeting between agent Smith, and Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) who offers to lead Neo and the others into a trap in exchange for being re-inserted back inside the matrix as “someone important”.

Reversing the Schism

Sometimes, however, the schism works in reverse order: the protagonist knows the truth while the audience doesn’t — in The Hunt for Red October, the audience believes that the defecting Russian submarine has been sunk by the Russian fleet, when in fact, it is a trick played on the Russians (and the audience) by Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) in order to slip through the Russian net and seek asylum in the United States.

Simultaneous Revelation

Occasionally, the story’s true perspective — the perspective of the author — is revealed to both the audience/reader and the protagonist simultaneously. Here, the author withholds crucial information from us and the protagonist till the revelation. In the film The Sixth Sense, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a child psychologist, who is shot in the stomach by a disturbed patient at the beginning of the film, ostensibly attempts to help his young patient Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) to deal with problems arising from his ability to see dead people. His relationship with his wife continues to deteriorate as Crowe spends more and more time in his basement alone, and continues to treat Cole. The film, which is a master class in sleight-of-hand, reveals the biggest twist of all towards the end of the film when Crowe notices that his wedding ring in no longer on his finger but in his sleeping wife’s hand. We suddenly realize, along with Crowe, that it is he who has been dead all along as a result of having been shot in the stomach.

A Short Exercise

With reference to three films or novels you admire, answer the following questions:

Where is the point of schism in each?
Describe the type of schism.
What is the effect of the schism on the story and how could it have been done differently?

In Summary

Choosing precisely when, where, and how to introduce a schism in perspective, and what form it will take, requires an understanding of how it will change your story and what effect it will have on your readers and audience. A skillful use of schism is an essential aspect of accomplished writing.

Published by

Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

7 thoughts on “How to Manage Narrative Perspective in Story-Telling”

  1. First I wanted to say I actually liked being able to pass approval on one page instead of 3. However, I haven’t hit the comment button YET, crossing fingers.

    I was digesting what you wrote, thank you for that insight. I’m a first person pov writer and was thinking how that 6th sense pov is just natural in first person perspective and easy to pull off. I find the challenge in first person is creating that schism without the protag ever knowing it. Revealing a set of events and having the protag wonder over it while knowing the reader will draw their own conclusions. Obviously it’s hard to pull away and actually see what the first time reader sees, and even more, how to be ever so slight with the clue without making the protag look like a dimwit.

    1. Yes indeed. 1st person narrative presents its own challenges, of course – in terms of the reliable/ unreliable narrator, to name but one. That in itself can be a boon, though. In the psychological thriller that I’m writing at the moment, The Level, the whole story revolves around whether or not the protagonist is sane or delusional. Writing in the 1 st person sustains this uncertainty.

  2. All true, Mark. In this post, I just wanted to identify the point of diverging perspectives and give it a name so we could explore its structure and function, as well as its relationship with existing structural entities in future posts. I think it’s a huge topic!

  3. I had to read this twice! Would you call the schism a pinch point? It would seem to me the first pinch point in the story would serve to create more empathy for the character, which is probably around 3/8 into the story. The reader might see the antagonistic force, or at least feel it. More empathy is created since in this part of the story the reader and hero (generally speaking) are one and the same.

    The schism event seems like it would occur around the 5/8 mark, or the second pinch point. Learning from your article, the exposition begins to change the reader’s perspective away from “being” the protagonist, for the simple reason our reader (generally speaking) isn’t a hero in real life. Yet this distancing doesn’t mean the reader doesn’t care, rather he anticipates a heroic change in the protagonist and his mindset changes to “look up” to our changing protagonist. The reader might think, “I wonder what he will do,” and he feels a deep connection to the main character’s condition, because he was so empathetic previously.

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