February 19, 2021

Write It! How to get started Chapter 4 Point of view or why we watched the flick Hitch

The Writer as Director—or Why we watched the rom-com Hitch

As we go along here and if you stick with me, you’ll discover that I take a different approach on the “Getting Started” topics you read about in “how to” books. 

One example: I think outlines are a deadly way to start inventive work. Not that they aren’t useful down the road as part of the editing process—They are, of course. But I think an outline gets in the way of initial and formative and changing invention.

In this chapter, let’s talk about point of view.

Writers connect with their readers in the first sentence they write. We’re like directors with a camera. The writer-director tells the cameraman where to look: close-in or far out, where to move.

So for the term of art point of view in craft books, you’ll hear first person, third-limited or third person, second person (usually you’ll be told never to use this one—but remember all rules are made to be broken!). 

I like "camera" as a term of art better than "point of view" because the camera takes me to the way I see, right to my father’s home movies and right smack into that dark theater or favorite book where I can disappear and come out transformed.

In the movie Hitch, the camera, moves right to Will Smith. We’re in his head. 

So let’s consider what point of view we’re in when we see his first client, Kevin Sussman as Neil, on screen and not with Hitch. The camera shows us Neil, longing for the lovely actress he ends up with. 

Are we in omniscient or all-knowing point of view? Is the camera-man and director like a god who sees all? 

Well, sure and in many ways in this flick.

What I’m doing here, through the use of a fun film, is help you understand how the camera works—and how the camera is a good metaphor for the term-of-art point of view in “how to” books. 

I’m also saying that in this flick, one point of view dominates—and for good reason.

Let’s talk about Albert, the terrific overweight lovable man, played by Kevin James. Albert’s story is one central narrative strand of the movie. 

That means his story is inside Hitch’s story. When Albert is in the board room with Allegra, Hitch is not there. He doesn’t see or know what happened until Albert returns.

So the camera went where Hitch could not, right? 

And that means it knew more than Hitch could know.

Defining POINT of VIEW: Point of view is best seen as a continuum from knowing everything like a god, to knowing only what one character could know, or could be told or what the narrator could know about his character all the way to the other end of the continuum where the camera knows only what the main character knows or is thinking.

Rule #5: Writers need to know where the camera is and how to use that camera.

Here's a quick way to understand what I mean:

1. Write the first sentence of your story.

2. Does that sentence begin with “I”, with “you”, with “he” or she”, with “they” 

—or something like this? 

“The Joneses always had Sunday dinner together except this Sunday, Ruthie said she wouldn’t be coming.” 

That last sentence immediately gives the narrator privilege to all the Joneses—not only Ruthie—even when Ruthie is not around to see or hear.

The first sentence you write, almost always (Remember that rule about breaking the rules!), decides for the reader whose story this is. 

That first sentence sets expectations and your reader expects you not to jar him, not to make him stop and read back to figure out too much. 

Though do remember that good, challenging books often require reading back or even re-reading—easy reads don’t. 

As a writer, you’ve got to remember that, like the director of Hitch, in your first sentence you’ve made a decision about point of view. That decision has something to do with your choice of “I”—the narrator as central character—or, on that continuum, to “knowing all the characters like a god”. 

Here’s a famous first line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

 Tolstoy’s first sentence is not the voice of a character in the story. This is the narrator’s voice, established in the opening of the book and letting us know that he is there and he will tell the story.

So let’s go back to the first sentence I made up: 

“The Joneses always had Sunday dinner together except this Sunday, Ruthie said she wouldn’t be coming,” giving the writer/director more privilege. 

I made a decision to let my camera move around, know more than just what Ruthie knows. 

Suppose this is my first sentence: 

“Ruthie wasn’t stuck in traffic. She was stuck in love and couldn’t tell anyone. So no way she was coming to her parents’ Sunday dinner.”

I can’t now willy-nilly switch to Ruthie’s mother or any other of the Joneses, unless I started off with that other first sentence, giving my camera the privilege to move around.

The problem with shifts in points of view that don’t involve some sort of hint to the reader as to what is going on is that the reader senses a gap—as if something’s been left out. 

The reader kinda feels as if a new story has started. What just happened? he asks—unless the reader senses that this was a good place to stop and wants to hear about this other character.

Our stories need to be able to bear the weight of shifts in point of view as if—yeah, yeah, that’s where the camera needed to go! 

The reader needs to see some purpose to the shifts. 

Usually, one of the points of view in the shifts will be the dominant point of view.

In the flick Hitch, I’m arguing that his role, played so charmingly by Will Smith, is in fact the dominant story.

Rule #6: All good stories tell more than one story.

In Hitch, we get Hitch’s story. We get Albert and Allegra’s (played by Amber Valleta) story and we care about them. We get Sara Melas’ story (played by the gorgeous Eva Mendes) and we care about her. We get Hitch and Sara’s story and we even get Casey’s (played by Julie Ann Emery) story. 

That’s a lot of levels of storytelling. And levels—meaning more than one story inside a story—make for great stories that we want to watch and read.

Rule # 7: The writer and the reader need to know whose story the narrator, aka director-writer, is telling.

One thing’s for sure in Hitch: This is Hitch’s story.

One thing’s for sure in Anna Karenina—and it took four years for Tolstoy to write this great love story: This is Anna’s story.

Here’s a tip if you’re just starting or even if you’re a pretty seasoned writer: 

Learn first how to write in third person and use a narrator. This means your narrator’s first sentence is something like my second sentence about Ruthie. 

I argue that if you learn how to write a story inside a single character’s point of view and you use a narrator, you will learn everything you need to write in any point of view. 

Bottom line: Point of view means not only the choice of “I” or “he or she” or “they”. 

It’s, more importantly, the writer-director’s choice about his camera. 

After all, if the written story is good, it comes off the page for us like a good flick and that means the reader comes along for the ride and never falls out of his seat in the theater or drops the book from his hands.

A good writer-director knows how to use his camera.

Eudora Welty put the craft problem this way so that we would understand that figuring out how and where our camera will go and how it moves around is part of the invention, part of the art, part of the magic:

“One of the most important things the … writer comes to see for himself is that point of view is an instrument, not an end in itself, that is useful as glass, and not as a mirror to reflect a dear and pensive face. Conscientiously used, point of view will discover, explore, see through—it may sometimes divine and prophesy.” ** 

We’ll talk about other points of view soon.

And remember this: Good writers are like the hedgehog. They know one big thing: You gotta learn the rules to break them, and all the rules are made to be broken.

Go invent and come back to see me for chapter 5. And remember this too: The so-called “rules,” mine included, can get in the way of invention. 

I like to say, Forget what you just learned while you’re in the inventive stage of the writing—as I hope you found in the “On Going Home” writing experiment in: click this link 👉 Chapter 2.

I will be talking soon more about writing in third-person limited to learn craft or through the my private Zoom classes, discounted for each additional student who joins. Write me at mltabor@me.com for more info.

For now, here is an example from the opening of my short story “Guarding the Pie” in: click this link 👉 The Woman Who Never Cooked (discounted by publisher)

Martin had kissed her during the week of shiva, barely five days after they’d stood beside his father’s grave. Now with her own father close to death, Olivia wondered how he could have done it. Not that she excused herself, either—Martin’s father was her uncle; Martin, her first cousin.

When Martin called, it had been thirty years since they’d been alone together, when they’d been briefly—over almost before it began—engaged. They’d seen each other, of course, occasionally at family parties, bar and bat mitzvahs.

He said, “I want to bring you the letters.” The love letters, she understood without his telling her, the ones she had written him.

He was calling from Boston, where he lived. He told her he was coming to Baltimore to see his eighty-four-year-old mother—the same age as Olivia’s father. “She’s still on her own, thank goodness,” said Martin, “but I know I need to see her more often now.” Olivia didn’t mention that her father wasn’t faring as well. “I’ll be coming in about three weeks,” he said. “I could drop by one afternoon.” So there’d be time to cancel, for her to change her mind, for him to change his.

“Why now?” she asked. “What do I want with the letters?” When he didn’t answer, while his silence gave her time to think, she decided this must be his way of telling her he’d kept them all this time. Well, he had, hadn’t he? She felt flattered, though ashamed to admit it. She agreed to the visit because he’d saved the letters.

She hung up and sat at the kitchen table with her husband, who’d been reading the Sunday Sun, eating his second, late morning bagel, drinking coffee. “I think I should see him alone, don’t you?”

“Not really.” Al rubbed the balding spot on the crown of his head, the way he did when he was feeling uncomfortable, when he didn’t want to explain how he was feeling.

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If you want one-on-one help, I offer, for a fee, via Zoom, an Eight-"session"-course (each session includes 11 parts and one-on-one attention) with slides and more experiments than in these chapters I am giving away for free. 

email me at mltabor@me.com

I taught variations of this course at George Washington University, in the undergraduate and graduate MFA/Ph.D. creative writing program at the University of Missouri and at the Smithsonian's Campus-on-the-Mall. For more about me, Click Here 

Chapter 5 coming soon ...

Questions, comments welcome.

**Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews, Vintage International Edition: New York, August 1990.