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October 25, 2021

Point of View: A Guide For Screenwriters

When you come up with the initial ideas for your screenplay, the most pressing question you will face is, "whose story are you telling?"

Are you telling one person's story, or are you capturing multiple points of view to give your viewers a broader overview of how different characters' lives intersect?

Deciding what point of view to take will depend on what messages your story conveys and the expectations and conventions of that genre.

Single Point Of View

The most straightforward narrative you can construct is centered around one character we follow for all of the film. Sometimes this is referred to as the limited third-person point of view.

This is the most effective way of telling a story centered around a hero's journey. You must stick to this. Generally, a script that starts with a single point of view and then brings in the second point of view halfway through will feel disjointed and not fleshed out.

Voiceovers

The most intimate way of expressing a limited third-person point of view is to have your main character tell the viewers their thoughts and feelings through a voiceover. Often they are speaking from a future perspective, looking back.

A great example of this is Jordan Belfort's character in The Wolf of Wall Street. We are initially positioned with him in his present tense when he has made it as a millionaire stockbroker on Wall Street. He describes his hedonistic lifestyle of excessive drugs, money, and sex.

However, we switch seamlessly from Belfort's character on camera to a voiceover at the end of the scene. He now begins narrating his past self and how he came to be where he is now. This gives viewers insider information.

There are many other great films with voiceovers, including Scorcese's The Irishman and The Big Lebowski.

Remember, not all voiceovers have to be a character in a film: the narrator in Y Tu Mama Tambien is an excellent example of an unnamed narrator not connected to the story. This is an omnipresent narrator rather than point-of-view narration.  

Consider whether a voiceover is suitable for your script. And what benefits and insights it could offer your viewer.

Breaking The Rules of the Single Point Of View

Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Psycho begins as a single point of view film. We are positioned with Marian Crane as she embarks on a risky mission to steal some money from the real estate company where she works to pay off her boyfriend Sam's debts.

Viewers might be fooled into thinking this is the central conflict or problem of the film. However, in one of the most famous sequences in movie history, Crane takes refuge in Norman Bates' eponymous motel and is brutally killed off in the shower.

The famous shower sequence in Hitchcock's Psycho wrongfoots viewers because it brings Marion Crane's point of view to an abrupt end.

We are misled, thinking this is a film about her and her moral journey from innocent employee to thief on the run. Instead, we change the focus to detective Arbogast. Now we might think this is a straightforward detective film told through Arbogast's point of view as he investigates Crane's death. Instead, Hitchcock plays the same trick twice, and soon, Arbogast is again stabbed to death by Bates.

We change perspectives for a second time and are now positioned with Crane's sister Lila and Sam.

Psycho is an example of how point of view and perspective suggests certain expectations to viewers. Hitchcock subverts this to his advantage.

Consider how you can subvert expectations when you're in the early stages of planning your script.  

Multiple Points Of View: The Sweeping Narrative

Having multiple points of view is an excellent way of telling an epic, sweeping narrative. Various points of view where we are positioned with and follow different characters can work well for television series which are episodic by their very nature.

A great recent example of this is Netflix's The Crown. The series aims to tell the story of post-war Britain through the lens of the monarchy over six series and sixty episodes. It's an epic undertaking.

The series is meant to be more than just a biography of The Queen from her marriage and accession until the twenty-first century. While her storylines are at the focal point of everything, not every episode is centered around her.

In the first series, Windsor positions us with David - the Duke of Windsor and former King. This helps us understand his motivations and resentment towards key figures like Tommy Lascelles and The Queen Mother. We flashback to the abdication crisis in 1936 and see how the British establishment isolated and shunned him.

Other episodes focus entirely on minor characters, merely footnotes in history, such as episode 5 of Series 2, "Marionettes," which looks at the influence and motivations of Lord Altrichingham on The Queen's personal style.

An episode of the second series of The Crown focuses on the point of view of Lord Altrincham, a minor historical figure, and how his outspoken criticism of the monarchy changed The Queen's personal style.
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This allows Morgan to give a greater depth and complexity to the story he is telling while always returning to the inner circle of characters we feel familiar with: The Queen, Prince Phillip, Princess Margaret, and in series 3 and 4, Prince Charles and Princess Anne.

War And Peace  

The BBC's 2016 adaption of Tolstoy's War and Peace is another example of how multiple points of view can be utilized to tell a sweeping historical narrative.
We shift between two prominent families in the Russian aristocracy, the Bolkonskys, and the Rostovs. Set between 1805 and 1812, it tells deeply personal stories of love, the meaning of life, and the impact of war, and the level of imperial Russia itself at the turn of the 19th century.

The BBC's adaptation of War and Peace tells the story of Imperial Russia at the turn of the 19th Century and the height of its power through multiple points of view.
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Narratives with multiple points of view give viewers the chance to be privy to information that some characters might be unaware of.

Helene Kuragin is depicted as being in an incestuous relationship with her brother Anatole. But this is a secret from the other characters. It gives us as viewers insights into their personalities, helping us to sympathize with them.

Peep Show: Experimenting With Point Of View

Britain's Peep Show is a show which experiments with point of view and takes it to the extreme for comedic effect.

This is because it is filmed in first person - we are positioned as the main characters, flatmates Mark and Jeremy, seeing precisely what they see, even their most intimate moments like when they're having sex. But we also hear their internal monologues spoken as a voiceover as well as their dialogue.

As viewers, we get to hear the disconnect between what they think and what they articulate out loud. In series 2, episode 2, "Jeremy Makes It," Mark befriends Daryll, who has racist views. He insists Mark join him on a World War II reenactment where they dress up as Nazis.

Awkward Mark is hesitant to articulate his concerns to Daryll or Jermey, but we hear the moral dilemma inside his head through voiceover. This has a fantastic comedic effect.

"Oh God," Mark says in internal monologue, "I'm even boring when I'm a Nazi."

If you're writing a comedy, consider how you can use point of view and form for comedic effect.

Peep Show is capitalizing on the space between what characters think and what they actually say. This is often what makes something funny or the basis of a great joke. The show is the ultimate in-joke. Because of the point of view, we are all 'in' on a joke that the other characters are unaware of.

Point Of View Is About Whose Story You Are Telling

When you consider what point of view to tell your story from, the fundamental question is whose story you are describing. Are you telling the story of one individual - your hero - and their journey?

Or perhaps you are trying to tell a bigger story about a group dynamic or a period of history.

The kind of story you want to tell - and therefore the point of view - also depends on the genre. Multiple points of thought lend themselves more to sweeping historical epics; experimental points of view can often work well with comedy.

A story told from a single point of view can also work well for biographies or hero-led action films.

Remember, all the rules in scriptwriting are there to be broken. If you execute it well, there's nothing to stop you from subverting the expectations of point of view and genre.

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Point of View: A Guide For Screenwriters
Harry Cunningham

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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