Using POV to Create Higher States of Energy
I've gone back and forth about how to start this article, to begin with a standard explanation of Point of View, or to offer what I really teach people who are struggling to understand how to use POV in storytelling. I decided to go with what I teach.
I teach that POV in storytelling can be compared to a concept in physics, that to change the orbit of something requires energy. Any shift in POV requires a transfer of energy in the world of the story, and some of that energy needs to be transferred to the story's audience. Those bursts of energy are what help keep a story's audience in orbit around a story's world. If there's no shift to a higher state of energy for a story's audience, a shift in POV has failed its purpose. A POV shift that is badly done creates a negative flow of energy, as the audience has to use its own energy to try and maintain an orbit around a story's world with.
What this failure looks like in practical terms is often seen in the beginning of a weak script. The POV in a first scene could show an environment, a house, for example. If there's not something about that house that speaks to some dramatic truth the story will explore, if the house is simply a house, there's no transfer of energy. There's no sense of dramatic purpose to be gained by the audience, no quality of illumination offered, no build up of a sense of expectation that sends a current of energy through the audience. If the house is completely non-descript, there's actually a loss of energy, because the audience is required to assign dramatic meaning to details that have no clear purpose, or, worse, that appear pointless. The more details offered, the greater the load the audience must carry forward hoping to discover some reason for what they're being shown.
This isn't a call for being obvious, or on the nose, about a story's dramatic purpose. It's just that a storyteller choose a POV for an opening scene that offers a story's audience a vantage point to enter the world of a story; or, in terms of the energy analogy, that a beginning scene expend the energy that will lift and sustain a story's audience in a story's orbit.
A few sentences for an opening scene that suggests moonlight in Paris and clouds obscuring the Eiffel Tower could be the most energy-efficient way to give an audience a sense of time, place and mood about a story's world. A half page description of that same scene risks becoming neutral in terms of energy; a full page just to establish a simple location generally becomes a drain.
Except, of course, if that longer opening 'works' and does something that energizes the audience. Good storytelling can always find a way to violate all the 'rules' and conventions of writing. The Opposite of Sex, for example, uses POV to get us to identify with a nasty vixen played by Christine Ricci. The story is both funny and bracing (and not for every taste), and one jolt of energy after another.
The opening of A Room with A View offers an example of a dramatic use of POV that transfers energy to the story's audience.
The movie's opening credits names the story's characters and their relationships to each other. This makes it easier - requiring less energy - for the audience to understand who characters are, which is helpful in a story with a large cast.
Then we see a door with a sign, Pensione. This is a quick cue that we're opening in Italy, and leaves open the question to what a pensione is. A small question, but it begins to draw us into the world's story.
The next scene opens with an older and younger woman (Charlotte and Lucy Honeychurch) opening a window to find they looking at a very non-descript street. The older woman begins to fuss about their not being given 'a room with a view,' and that she intends to do something about it. The POV of the scene showing their lack of view speaks to a deeper issue, that these two women lack an expressive inner view of life; their inner lives are as non-descript as the street scene. Thus, the scene is framed to do more than introduce two characters; it introduces two characters who embody what will be a central idea of the story, the issue of repression in conflict with expression.
If the POV of the scene had been used to simply tell the audience Charlotte and Lucy are tourists staying in a bed-and-breakfast in Italy, the scene would have failed to offer a deeper point. Technically, the POV would have functioned correctly, but the scene would have operated just to convey information in a passive way.
In the next scene, Lucy and Charlotte move down a staircase and argue about who should be given a room with a view if one is available. Lucy or Charlotte. This conversation gives the audience a clearer sense of the relationship between Lucy and Charlotte, that Charlotte is a chaperone. So, first the story is set into motion, then the characters are more clearly defined in that context. And because they are in conflict around what to do about this lack of a room with a view, the scene radiates energy. The conflict is in the service of the story.
In the next scene, the POV is of a group of English tourists eating. As Lucy sits, a young man across from her lifts his plate so she can see he's formed his food into the shape of a symbol. Since the POV here is through Lucy, we see the symbol upside down until the young man rotates the plate and we see that the symbol is a question mark. This is a playful moment that also speaks to a deeper issue, that this young man is engaged on a quest to understand the truth of life.
The use of POV here created a bit of story magic, and with that magic there is that transfer of energy to the audience, an energy that offers a quality of illumination about this young man. We both learn something about him and are drawn deeper into the story's world to learn more.
I'm not suggesting that every scene in every script have a clever POV shift, written in, but a screenplay can suggest the writer understands that movies are a visual medium, not merely a descriptive one. Just letting the audience know Lucy and Charlotte are joining others for lunch would be another neutral transfer of energy.
A number of very quick exchanges of dialogue illuminate the different character types in the room. Mr. Emerson, the young man's father, then turns his attention to some older ladies to give them some forceful advice about drinking lemonade. The father and son embody expression in this story, so the father's expressiveness is larger than life, in a way that impacts the other characters. He is, in short, an energetic character, and some of that energy comes off the screen to the audience. And the father and son also have rooms with a view that the father is willing to exchange with Lucy and Charlotte. Except Charlotte won't have Lucy sleeping in the same bed as the young man.
If the scene had been staged simply to introduce these characters and change rooms, there would have been no energy transfer. Here the clash of characters who embody values clearly in conflict - expression versus expression - are placed in an environment where they can't escape each other.
As the story continues, the clash between expression versus and expression heightens as Lucy flees Italy and agrees to marry a man even more repressed than she. But the young man follows her and that energy Lucy experienced in his presence can't be denied and they eventually marry.
The ending of the story releases the story's audience. The story has fulfilled its promise in showing that expression can overcome repression.
Movies that have used POV to heighten a story's impact include Rashomon, which offers four views of the same event, with each view offering a differing truth about what has transpired. If the different views did not offer conflicting truths, there would be no great illumination on the nature of reality.
Hilary and Jackie opens with an omniscient POV, with two young girls on a beach being looked over by one of the girls as an older woman. Both girls are musical prodigies, but it is Hilary who goes on a career as a world famous cellist, while Jackie becomes a wife and mother. When Hilary shows up at Jackie's after a failed marriage and sleeps with Jackie's husband (with Jackie's knowledge), the POV of the story through Jackie suggests that Hilary is a plundering, self-centered, narcissist bitch. But then the POV shifts, and the audience is shown the same events through Hilary's POV. We now see that Hilary shows up at her sister's home broken and bereft, deeply in need of comfort. Everything we thought we 'knew' about Hilary from the film's earlier POV is shifted, illuminated in a whole new light. It's great storytelling, accomplished with a great understanding of using POV to heighten a story's impact.
Peeping Tom has people being murdered shown from the soon-to-be-deceased person's POV. The audience sees the utter horror on the face of the victim, but not what creates that look of horror. Ultimately the audience is shown what killer the killer does to create this final look. of horror.
In films like Psycho, Hitchcock uses POV to get his audience to feel involved with Norman Bates. When Norman tries to get rid of a body in a car by pushing it into a swamp, the car starts to sink, then stops. In that moment, the audience is led to identify with Norman's need/desire for the car to disappear.
In the first Star Wars, the POV of the opening scene, the screen filling with that giant star ship, was thrilling.
Three Kings slows time and takes the audience inside a body being hit by a bullet. The story takes a standard movie moment and offers it in an interesting, visual way.
When I find people who have a flawed sense of the purpose of POV - using a character's POV simply to relate what appears in a scene, or to explain things to an audience - I generally find that passive quality extends through the rest of the storytelling. Characters become puppets at the use of the storyteller to examine and report on environments, or to report to each other information the storyteller wants communicated to the audience. This often reduces the first ten pages of a script (or the first twenty-five pages) to an introduction of characters, of environments, building a stage to enact a story's plot.
I push people to recognize how a particular view of something or someone can create a transfer of energy to a story's audience, can 'light up' or power some revelation that dramatically changes an audience's perception of what is happening, that can use that energy to deepen an audience's sense of being sustained in the orbit of a story's world.
Some questions about POV that can be asked:
Does a shift in POV offer an illumination of some story issue?
Does a shift in POV force a character to see something they feel compelled to resolve?
Does a shift in POV show the audience something that will impact a character, while withholding that information from the character? This can hold an audience in orbit around a story's world to find out what will happen next.
Using POV to energize a story's characters and audience is a path to writing visually interesting stories.
(This article appeared in ScreenTalk, The International Magazine of Screenwriting.)Top of page