Written by Ali Laventhol
Robert Evans, the iconic Paramount Studios boss once quipped, “There are three sides to every story: Your side, my side and the truth.”
He was right, perspective is everything—in life, but also in storytelling. In fact, it’s one of the most interesting and important things to consider when developing your next tv or film project. We here at Script Anatomy believe that choices you make about point of view can truly help you craft the most compelling version of your narrative.
What choices? Let’s dive in. But be warned: **SPOILERS AHEAD**.
WHOSE STORY IS IT?
Let’s start with basic character development. We know that digging into things like stage of life, core wound, flaws, goals and quirks is essential in order to create memorable people to inhabit our scripts. And one way to help audiences care about a character is to put us directly in their shoes. Let us really live inside their skin. Take movies like CASTAWAY and THE MARTIAN or shows like FLEABAG, THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, or THE DROPOUT where we’re locked into one character’s perspective. In these cases, we generally don’t cut away to other storylines and the audience experience is as internal and intimate as it gets.
A more common tv format is the ensemble, which includes secondary characters to fill out B and C stories (or more), like THE MORNING SHOW, SUCCESSION, FRIENDS, SEARCH PARTY, STRANGER THINGS and movies like X-MEN, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and GLASS ONION.
An ensemble gives you an external perspective which is nice when the story is more about group dynamics. But if you’re writing an ensemble, you’ll have to decide whether or not to write an anchor character – like George Clooney’s character in OCEAN’S ELEVEN. He drives the story at first, brings us into the world. Meredith Grey serves as the anchor for the GREY’S ANATOMY ensemble, she is the nucleus that the other characters revolve around. Similarly, Kristen Wiig’s character anchors the ensemble in BRIDESMAIDS as we feel her emotional journey more than the other ladies, even though that cast is bursting with talented comediennes.
Conversely you can choose to forgo an anchor character in your ensemble a la THE AVENGERS, MODERN FAMILY or THIS IS US. There is no right or wrong here, as long as you make a purposeful choice.
Somewhere between a single-lead story and an ensemble is a dual perspective story like THELMA & LOUISE, GINNY & GEORGIA or BEEF. And yet, even though these three examples each have two leads, they are unique in the way they utilize POV. THELMA & LOUISE tells its story primarily via scenes that both leads are in. There are only a few moments in the movie where Thelma and Louise are separated (uhm, hello, Brad Pitt??).
In GINNY & GEORGIA, the two lead characters have plenty of scenes together as the story centers on their mother/daughter relationship. But in addition, Ginny and Georgia each have their own sub-stories with friends, work, school or romantic interests. And finally, BEEF uses POV differently in that it’s a story about two complete strangers who cross paths in a road rage incident. After that action packed series opening, the two equally-weighted leads, Danny and Amy, return to their own lives which couldn’t possibly be more different… until their worlds slowly begin to intersect.
A SEARCH FOR TRUTH THROUGH MULTIPLE POVs
Of course, the OG version of this is the Kurasowa film, RASHOMON in which several subjective points of view are used to revisit the same crime. THE AFFAIR on Showtime, a story about a schoolteacher and a grief-stricken waitress embarking on an extramarital affair, did this in a unique way. THE AFFAIR divides each of its episodes into two distinct sections separated by a title card – the first section is told with the male as the POV character while the second takes us back into the same period of time through the female’s POV. The scenes are replayed with various details altered and often the repeat visit gives us new context, helping us understand character motivations in a new way. By looking at the same scenes through these two disparate POVs, the show is able to explore themes around how subjective and even unreliable memory can be.
POV CHOICES REGARDING ANTAGONISTS
In more traditional structure, POV comes into play when deciding whether or not to put us in your Antagonist’s shoes– are we cutting to them as they hatch their plan, or do we only see them through your main character’s eyes? In a mystery/thriller, showing us your Antagonist’s POV creates suspense because we know what lurks around the corner, so to speak. However, if you omit the Antagonist POV, you have more potential for surprise.
Another thing to consider is using POV to humanize an Antagonist. Recently in a class I was teaching, a writer was working on a story with an Antagonist who was a formidable figure and had an oppressive effect on the world but was coming off as a bit of a two-dimensional villain. The only information we had about him was through the main character’s perspective. Once the writer decided to add a sub-storyline through the Antagonist’s perspective—showing us his life situation, the demands placed on him and what he was struggling with, he went from pure evil to three-dimensional and someone we even had empathy for.
UNORTHODOX POV SHIFTS
Usually the POVs you set up at the beginning of a story stay consistent throughout, meaning that whomever your POV characters are as we meet everyone in the world of your show or movie, remain the POV characters until the end. But there is a series that breaks this convention brilliantly by switching POVs abruptly in its 7th episode. The Antagonist suddenly becomes the main character in her own storyline whereas previously we had only seen her through the eyes and flashbacks of her resentful ex-husband.
The series is Hulu’s FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE and it uses this unorthodox, late-in-the-game POV shift to subvert assumptions that it built for its viewers in its first six eps about Rachel (Claire Danes), the apparently uncaring, selfish ex-wife of Toby (Jesse Eisenberg).
Rachel leaves for a yoga retreat in episode one, and never returns to pick up the kids. After determining that she hasn’t been in a terrible accident, we’re with Toby as he spins out, desperate to know why his upwardly mobile talent agent ex-wife ghosted the family. What kind of mother abandons her young children? Toby is an attentive father and doctor who is rightfully pissed.
There are flashbacks, also from Toby’s perspective, of fights they had before their divorce and before Rachel’s disappearance. Hints that he may have said something terrible to her. The strange mystery unfolds while we’re centered in Toby’s point of view, coupled with narration from the beginning by his old friend Libby (Lizzy Caplan), whom he reconnects with to help him get through this rough patch.
However, Libby finds Rachel on a bench one day in the midst of an utter breakdown, and it becomes clear that villainizing Rachel was a mistake. The jolting perspective shift occurs, and we see Rachel’s story. What’s actually going on in her life, past and present. Through her eyes we watch and feel the unbearable pressures from her career, marriage, and motherhood and the various traumas she’s endured that have caused her to finally break.
Suddenly we see there are no heroes or villains in FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE —just people trying their best.
POV for VOICEOVER
Speaking of narration, FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE is a great example of how a third-person narrator can add an interesting layer to your story. When you’re writing voiceover, POV again comes into play. Are you going to choose first-person or third-person?
If you’re looking to pull your audience into the thoughts and feelings of your main character, first-person is the way to go. Consider how much more intimate it is to hear charming serial killer Joe Goldberg’s V.O. in YOU, in which he reveals his innermost thoughts—versus a third-person narrator telling us a story about someone else. Like when Carrie Bradshaw’s V.O. in SEX AND THE CITY says, “Meanwhile, downtown, Samantha was preparing to treat herself to a night of great music…” and we drop into Samantha’s story looking AT Samantha instead of really embedded in her perspective.
There is no right or wrong, simply a choice that must be made to craft the effect that you, the writer, are looking for.
Ali Laventhol has been Tawnya‘s writing partner for over a decade, most recently as the Co-Executive Producer for My Life With The Walter Boys (Netflix), and Bel-Air (Peacock), as well as several Lifetime movies. She is a long time Script Anatomy instructor.