The Three Perspectives of Effective Storytelling

How to shift perspectives in writing editing and revising

The Three Perspectives of Effective Storytelling

[This article originally ran in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association‘s WriteOn! quarterly magazine.]

As authors we are tasked with the responsibility—the privilege—of taking on other perspectives and exploring them in the fabric of our stories.

But effective storytelling requires taking on other perspectives as well in various parts of the creative process: not just as writer, but as reader and editor.

How often have you begun revising your story shortly after reaching “The End,” paging back to the beginning and painstakingly fine-tuning, smoothing, and honing?

This is the most common approach to revisions I hear from authors, but it almost always results in highly—sometimes overly—polished opening chapters that slowly lose momentum or focus or cohesion as the story goes on.

The problem is that this approach (or the other common one I hear, which is “editing as you go”) keeps you firmly anchored in what I call “writer brain”—the author’s perspective. That’s exactly the perspective you want for drafting, and it’s essential for actual revising, but it skips over two necessary stages in assessing what you actually have on the page and figuring out how to address any weak areas of the story.

For that you need two other perspectives: “reader brain” and “editor brain.”

Taking on the Reader’s Perspective

The reader’s perspective is one authors have likely honed at least as well as their writer brain: Most of us came to this craft from a lifelong love of books and reading.

We rarely get the chance to enjoy our own work from this mind-set, but there is one especially essential time to adopt this perspective and take in our stories simply as a passive reader: After we’ve completed a first draft.

Before you dive into what you already know are areas that can use strengthening, take this singular opportunity to simply read your story like a reader, to get a complete overview of your own work with the most objectivity you’re ever likely to have, short of taking months or years away from it.

No matter how intimate you think you are with the story during the drafting process, how can you hope to know how it’s coming across as a whole if you haven’t had the experience of reading it the way your “end users” will—your readers?

When I’m doing a professional edit, that initial cold read of the full manuscript is the very first indispensable thing I do—not taking notes, not analyzing, just reading like a reader and planting my feet in the story. It’s my first, best chance to see what the author actually has, what’s coming across on the page. Without it I can’t bring that 30,000-foot view to my actual edit passes, when I dive deep and start scrutinizing each individual moving part and how well they’re working together.

The same applies to you as a writer—no matter how intimate you think you are with the story during the drafting process, how can you hope to know how it’s coming across as a whole if you haven’t had the experience of reading it the way your “end users” will—your readers?

Not to mention it’s the greatest pleasure to finally see for the first time, while you’re still fresh to it, how your creation holds together. Don’t skip this key, irreplaceable step—it’s essential to the next, most vital perspective of the creative process.

Taking on the Editor’s Perspective

If you’re of the jump-in-and-revise or revise-as-you-go school, you’re robbing yourself of the necessary groundwork to make your revisions as effective and efficient as they can be: editing your story.

Editing is what happens before you start doing to the hands-on work of revising—it’s how you know what work there is to be done.

Editing = assessing, revising = addressing.

Editing is what happens before you start doing to the hands-on work of revising—it’s how you know what work there is to be done.

You wouldn’t want your surgeon plunging in with the scalpel before a thorough exam, diagnostic images, and tests so she knows exactly what she’s operating on. That’s what editing offers you.

But sticking with the medical metaphor, it has to be holistic—that’s why the first read is so important. Just as your doctor needs to understand your health and lifestyle as a whole to most effectively treat you (like knowing you have high blood pressure so she can be vigilant for attendant complications in surgery), as an editor you first need to understand your story comprehensively before you can make an accurate diagnosis.

Once you know what’s actually on the page—and what isn’t—and how it’s all working as a whole, you can decide on a “treatment plan” for fixing any weak areas.

Are your characters falling a little flat? Why, specifically—do readers not understand the forces that shaped them into who they are in the story? Are their motivations or goals unclear, or weak, or not urgent? Do we see clearly who they are, and if not, where exactly in the story did that strike you, and how could you flesh them out on the page through their actions, reactions, interactions, inner life, etc.? Or do you need to actually do a bit more character development work before you can begin addressing the issue in the manuscript?

Editing lets you take all the information you gleaned from that first read and start running diagnostic tests to pinpoint the source of any problems and figure out what’s needed to fix them. Only then are you ready to go in and start cutting, transplanting, stenting, and strengthening.

Once you’re finally at the revision stage, that’s when you can slip back into writer brain, the perspective that will help you make those changes as you use your knowledge of craft to incorporate into the manuscript those insights you gleaned from the reader’s and editor’s perspectives.

And when you finish that next draft…you start the whole cycle again for each subsequent draft, so the process winds up looking something like this:

Practice Shifting Perspectives

The best way to strengthen your skills taking on the editor’s perspective stems from the reader’s perspective: Once you’ve taken in any story as a reader or viewer—a more passive (not in a bad way), receiving mind-set—get into the habit of going back into the story and practice adopting the editorial mind-set, which is active and analytical.

That means when you’re reading for pleasure, or watching TV or a movie, after your first read or viewing ask yourself what your impressions were—did you stay up late flipping pages? Check out halfway through? Could you predict the ending? Did you care about the characters and what happened to them? Were you on the edge of your seat at any point, or moved to tears? Did the plot make sense and get fully resolved?

Now shift into editor brain and go back into the story—reread or rewatch—and see if you can identify exactly why you felt that way, and specifically how the author evoked the reaction you had (or failed to evoke a reaction).

This kind of practice is one of the most valuable things you can do for your writing, getting you comfortable and conversant with shifting perspectives from reader to editor to writer and back again, so you can examine, diagnose, and formulate the most effective treatment plan for your own stories.

Over to you, authors–do you have trouble shifting perspectives as you’re writing, editing, and revising? What tools or tricks do you use to get in the right mind-set for each function?

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