Columns > Published on October 8th, 2015

Storyville: Playing With Point of View

Think about how major events happen in your life, and the way those moments ripple outward like a stone tossed into a body of water. What did you see, think and feel? How about the other people at the center of that story? And as your narrative expands, how does that trickle down and affect others? What is the truth in those moments, and how does that change? Today we’re talking about point of view in fiction, perspective, and truth.

I wrote a short story once called “Dyer” and that story originally ran at Beat to a Pulp. It was four different perspectives on a night spent on the Indiana Dunes, in Dyer. It was inspired by a film, Rashomon, which you may or may not have seen, directed by Akira Kurosawa. The film also recounts several different versions of a series of events involving violence—murder and rape, to be exact. By the end of the film we aren’t sure who is telling the truth. By the end of “Dyer” we grapple with the same things.

I wrote “Dyer” to explore the gray areas of perception and reality, to explore how different people, coming from different places, might see events differently. I wanted the reader to have sympathy for certain characters, and then I wanted that sympathy to shift. I wanted to sit in those moments and explore what it felt like to be on both sides of a coin—to be the victim, to be the villain, to find reasons for committing such horrible acts, reasons that may or may not have any value or weight by the end of the story.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And so is the truth. Nobody is entirely evil, and nobody is perfect.

Pair that with the idea of how we become the sinners and saints that we are today. What happened in our childhood years to form the physical and emotional traits that rule us now? Were there moment of heroics that inspired you to be a better person? Were you abused and neglected, leaving scars across your heart?

You’re familiar with the idea of black and white—and shades of gray. Nobody is entirely evil, and nobody is perfect. We’ve all made mistakes, and yet, we all make choices as well. I like to explore those shades of gray to see how my audience will react. How can I show you something, and then change that perception? What could I possibly do to make that hero turn from white to black, what can I do to save the monster in the night? Was it all a misunderstanding? Did we judge a book by its cover? Are our own prejudices slanting the way we see the world?

Think of protagonists and antagonists, think of heroes and anti-heroes. What you choose to show, and how you show it, that will change the narrative. Don’t write the same old plot, fulfill the same expectations, instead, surf the shadows, hide in the corners, take the path that isn’t a path, veer off center, the whole time listening, the whole time letting your feelings bubble up to the surface, feeling whatever you feel, letting yourself be honest and true, unflinching in the face of tragedy, and then survival.

If you always write your story with one main character, one POV, try to mix it up, split that narrative, and see who tells the truth, and who lies. And who gets caught. Think of Gone Girl as a good example. What happens if you include a third person—why does THAT story need to be told, what is it they have to offer that the first two perspectives don’t? I think of epic novels like The Stand, by Stephen King, such a huge cast of characters, so many stories to be told. Experiment with form and function, elevate the sidekick and demote the superhero. Think of the marginalized characters, and what their story might look like. Step out of the spotlight, and into the shadows, and see who lurks there with you—watching.

Play with the truth. Play with sanity. Play with perception. Think of the Hitchcock movies, and how they showed you one thing, but eventually revealed something else. Think of the early work of M. Night Shyamalan, and how your world flipped upside down at the end of The Sixth Sense, or The Village. Or for a really shocking film, watch the original Oldboy. I often delay the truth, doing a slow burn, a slow reveal giving you bread crumbs, a trail to follow, showing you with my right hand what I want you to see, while the left does something horrible just out of sight.

Think of how things can be misinterpreted, often assuming what has been said, or texted, or seen—having only one clear truth, when often, it’s something quite different. Relationships, they change, they are elusive, those two walking hand in hand—family or lovers? Defy expectations, and avoid the easy choices, instead turning left and then right, maybe never coming back to the original road we were on. Maybe that road was never there.

I’ve been reading the Best Horror of the Year, Volume Seven, edited by Ellen Datlow, and one common element is this—the stories that really have impact, are the stories that surprise me. They do something differently, the perspective, the POV, the history, the frame, the ending, the truth. They all do something that I haven’t quite seen before, the best ones at least. Do that in your own work, and see what happens. Tell the story, and then step out of that skin, and into the skin of the other, the one that was hurt, or lost, or rescued—and then tell their story as well. Look to films like Under the Skin and Ex Machina, Spring and Enemy and see how they surprise you, how the truth you thought was gospel has now morphed into something else entirely. Think about how that makes you feel. Hold it, squeeze it, that feeling—slimy, furry, wiggling, dormant—what comes next?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And so is the truth.

About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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