How to Manage Narrative Perspective in Story-Telling

Narrative perspective in The Matrix
Narrative perspective in The Matrix

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.

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.

The Point of Schism in Narrative Perspective

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 to 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 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 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, 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 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 on 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?

Summary

Choosing precisely when, where, and how to introduce a schism in narrative 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.

Published by

Stavros Halvatzis

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

One thought on “How to Manage Narrative Perspective in Story-Telling”

  1. Interesting read
    For this Exercise I will selected : Good Fellas by Martin Scorsese, Sea biscuit starring Tobey Maguirey and Breve heart by Mel Gibson

    The point of schism in Goodfellas

    The film follows the story perspective of the anti- protagonist’s Henry Hill – “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. ”

    The point of view separates from the protagonist’s when the narrative switches to Karen (Henry’s future wife). Before this moment , we are given a very intimate look into Henry’s life from his harsh Irish/ Italian workers class upbringing in Brooklyn New York to his later involvement with Paulie and Jimmy in the mob . we perceive the dangers that are being for shadowed for Karen should she begin a relationship with Henry. By Marrying Henry Karen is also marrying into the mob ( the antagonizing force of Henry’s life) ” It never seemed like crime. The more time we spend together it only got to be more normal- it got to the point that I was proud that that I had the kind of husband who was willing to risk his neck just so that I could have the little extras .”

    Sea biscuit
    The film follows the perspective of a narrator. The narrator gives the audiences a taste of the cultural change of America from Henry Ford’s introduction of the model T , the crash of October 1929 and the the implantation of the new deal . The characters change with the times. The point of schism is slightly more difficult to identify. But perhaps takes place the moment when Red Pollard brakes his leg and when Sea biscuit fractures his hove . Leading to the question – will Red and Sea biscuit ever race again.

    Breve Heart
    Reversing the Schism
    William realizes that the Scottish generals have been bought over by the English , thus causing them to abandon Wallace and his army at what is a deciding battle. The audience believes that the Scottish generals are cowards but there betrayal is manifested when it is revealed that Wallace’s attacker is non other then the crown king of Scotland.

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