Robert McKee’s Insights on Point of View and Your Protagonist

In his excellent book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee (the highly regarded teacher of Hollywood screenwriting workshops) offers profound advice on Point of View and your Protagonist—advice that applies not only to screenplays but to stories and novels as well:

“If in the two hours of a feature film you can bring audience members to a complex and deeply satisfying relationship with just one character, an understanding and involvement they will carry for a lifetime, you have done far more than most films. Generally, therefore, it enhances the telling to style the whole story from the protagonist’s Point of View—to discipline yourself to the protagonist, make him the center of your imaginative universe, and bring the whole story, event by event, to the protagonist. The audience witnesses events only as the protagonist encounters them. This, clearly, is the far more difficult way to tell story.

“The easy way is to hopscotch through time and space, picking up bits and pieces to facilitate exposition, but this makes story sprawl and lose tension. . . . Shaping a story from the exclusive Point of View of the protagonist is a creative discipline. It taxes the imagination and demands your very best work. The result is a tight, smooth, memorable character and story.

“The more time spent with a character, the more opportunity to witness his choices. The result is more empathy and emotional involvement between audience and character” [emphasis in the original].

From Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 364.  (Brought to my attention by my longtime friend and outstanding author Deborah Raney!)

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3 Comments

  1. Great post! I am in definite need of spending more time with my main character. Do you use a story bible or plot chart to help keep the POV consistent?

    Reply
  2. Thanks for your note, Jennifer. I have some thoughts on this question, but I wanted to gather some additional thoughts from some writer friends. I’ll get back to you with an informative answer soon. All the best! —JD

    Reply
  3. A STORY BIBLE is a list of facts about characters, chronology, and plot issues that enable you to keep your story or series consistent. I don’t think a story bible would help very much with Point of View (POV).

    To keep POV consistent, you essentially need to make sure that all the information that is disclosed to the reader within one POV is consistent with what the POV character knows. For example, if we are in the POV of a character named Max, we should not hear the thoughts of any other characters, we should not become aware of information that Max doesn’t know, and we should never hear the narrator give us information that Max does not possess (such as an ominous foreshadowing of future events). While we are in Max’s POV, we should only see, hear, think, experience, and know what Max perceives and experiences.

    A PLOT CHART is an outline of the plot, like the “Snowflake” spreadsheet invented by my friend, novelist Randy Ingermanson. A plot chart can be helpful with POV in that your chart gives you a panoramic overview of the plot. By noting on your chart the POV of each chapter or scene, you can see the structure and flow of POV throughout your entire novel.

    My friend, novelist Stephanie Grace Whitson (best-selling author of over twenty novels, most recently the Quilt Chronicles series) calls her plot chart a “book map,” and she keeps track of POV so that she can maintain a balance between her POV characters.

    “By looking over my book map,” she told me, “I can quickly tell if I’m out of balance with how many times I give each POV character their moment in the spotlight. I don’t always have a perfect balance, by the way, but if there’s an imbalance, I have a reason for that.” Stephanie’s objective is not to ensure that every POV character gets “equal time,” but rather to make sure that no POV character is slighted—or begins to take over and dominate the book.

    One simple trick that I and many other writers use to keep POV consistent is to insert a bracketed or highlighted note at the beginning of each scene. Example: [Max’s POV]. You could also add other important facts that you want to keep consistent as you write the scene: [Max’s POV; Setting: Max’s backyard; Time: 10 pm on a Tuesday in April; it’s dark and raining.]. At the end of the writing and rewriting process, you can computer-search for those brackets and cut those notes out of your final manuscript. Or, if you prefer, you can put these notes in your plot chart instead of your manuscript.

    You can create your plot chart with Snowflake Pro software or other plot-mapping software, or you can simply map your book out on a yellow legal pad or 3×5 cards or the backs of old envelopes—whatever method works best for you.

    If you are still unsure about how POV works in fiction, you can find clear, detailed explanations of Point of View in Stein on Writing by Sol Stein, Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson.

    Reply

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