15 May 2021

The Road to Writing "The Road to Bellville"

One of the things I worry about during the planning stage, before sitting down and starting to write a story, is deciding which character can best tell the story.

My V of POV

At the risk of rehashing things all of us already know, let me say something about Point of View in fiction. I've always felt that the viewpoint character should be the person who's most affected by what happens in the story. This isn't necessarily the title character or even the most visible or memorable character. The person who tells the story in To Kill a Mockingbird is Scout, not Atticus. In Shane, it's the little boy. In The Great Gatsby, it's Nick Carraway. In the Sherlock Holmes tales, it's (almost always) Watson. Ideally, it's the character who learns the most from the story's outcome.

In stories (and novels and movies) where there's more than one POV character, the writer has to consider some other things too, like who'll be in the best position to build suspense and/or make the story "flow" well. This is something I ran into in my story "The Road to Bellville," in the current (Spring 2021) issue of Strand Magazine. It's a 6200-word mystery about a rural female sheriff in Florida who's transporting a young female prisoner from one jail to another, and the unexpected things they run into when they make a stop at a roadside cafe on the way. It's also a story of loyalty, deception, escape, pursuit, betrayal, courage, sacrifice, perseverance, redemption, and plenty of lowdown criminal activity.

Characters. plot, etc.

I knew, when I first started thinking about this story, that I wanted to make the sheriff the viewpoint character. She was the one in the best place to tell the story, and would also (as required) be affected the most by what happened. But the more I got into the plot, I realized I needed a multiple-viewpoint story rather than single. That automatically meant the narrative would have to be third-person rather than first-, but that was okay because third-person is a little more comfortable for me anyway if the POV character's not a male. The main thing was, I needed the extra point of view in order to describe some offscreen action that the sheriff wouldn't be in a position to see, and also to generate the tension and misdirection I needed in the middle of the plot. FYI, scenes #1 and #2 and scenes #4 and #5 in this story are from the viewpoint of the protagonist, and the middle scene is from the POV of an antagonist (the third one of the main characters).  Symmetrical, I guess, but only because it just happened to work out that way.

Note 1: I've not yet received my copy of the current Strand so I've not yet seen the published version of this story. What I've told you is based on the manuscript I submitted. (Andrew, I hope you haven't changed anything in printing the story.)

Note 2: The name of the fictional Bellville Correctional Facility for Women probably came from my recent re-watching of the movie The Road to Wellville, whose plot and setting and characters bear no resemblance at all to this story. I just liked the sound of the title.

Questions for the class. Anyone? Anyone?

If you're a writer, what are some of the things you consider when you choose the POV through which you tell a story? Which kinds of stories do you usually write in first-person and which in third? Does it matter? How often, and why, do you choose to use multiple POVs? (I've heard some writers say you should never use multiple viewpoints in a short story, which is simply not true.) How do you go about selecting your viewpoint characters? Is the process obvious, or does it require a lot of consideration? And do you ever start writing the story and then change your mind about POV in midstream and have to start over? I sometimes do, even though I call myself a planner and not a pantser.

A final word. If you happen to see and read the story I've been talking about, I hope you'll like it—and I hope these issues I puzzled over during its creation aren't noticeable.

Let me know.


  1. I use third person in some and first in others and in novels I sometimes use multiple, first and third in the same book. It's fun.

    1. O'Neil, it IS fun to use different POVs, in stories and novels too. I suspect that a short story might not be able to handle the mixing of first-person and third-, but I still marvel that some writers feel you can't use multiple third-person in a short story. To each his own.

      Thanks for the thoughts!

  2. I use 3rd person in some, but mostly first. And sometimes what I have been informed is "third person deep", i.e., where it's third person, but actually through only one character's POV. Mostly, I go with the voice telling me the story in my head.

    1. Eve, I've never heard the term, but sounds like it's the same as third-person singular, or third-person limited. (Limited, I guess, in that you can't tell the reader anything the POV character can't see himself/herself.) Almost the same thing as writing in first person.

      As you said, best thing to do is go with what the voice in your head says. I think it's very possible to overthink and overanalyze this whole subject!

  3. John, I think you covered the topic quite well. Thanks.

    For me, the story itself determines the Point of View, that and the protagonist usually lets me know if it will be 1st or 3rd POV when he or she starts telling me the story in my head. So far, multiple POV's have been a hard sale to the editor, but then it may have been because I was trying out a different type of story format, such as telling the story out of sequence and the rejections may not have been the multiple POV at all.

    1. More voices in our heads--I guess all writers hear 'em, right?

      As for third-person multiple, RT, I find myself using that in longer stories that have a lot of scenes and require things happening offscreen that the main character wouldn't see or know about. (As Hero left the building, Hero's Girlfriend picked up the phone and said, "He's on his way. Get him!") As you said, the story itself determines that.

      Often I'll write a story start-to-finish and never once think about all this. But the teacher in me says it's also fun to study it after the fact and see what works and what doesn't, and why.

      Thanks as always!

  4. I also rarely consciously choose POV. It's instinctive. I almost always write in first person. Once I was three pages into a short story before I realized I was writing it in close third.

    I like your idea that the POV character should be the person who is most affected by the story, the person who learns something. I'll add that with a whodunit, the POV character should be the person who solves it. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I've read stories where the main character didn't solve the crime. Where their sleuthing went nowhere and then the cops had to come on the scene and tell them what really happened. Maybe the authors thought they were being different, but that approach really didn't work for me. Those cops should have been the POV sleuths in those tales.

    1. Barb, your mention of the POV character being the one who solves the crime reminds me of the Robert B. Parker Spenser series, many many books that were all written in first person, and Spenser indeed always solved the mystery. Then Parker wrote the Jesse Stone series, which were all written in what you called "close third." I found myself wondering if that was hard for him to do--and I even found one instance in the Stone series where he lapsed by mistake into first person, and the editors didn't catch it.

      I like your observation about POV usually being instinctive, and I agree. Now and then, though, I've had to change in midstream to accommodate the story.

      Hey, whatever you're doing, you're doing it right. Keep writing those great stories, and I'll keep reading 'em.

  5. Great post, John.

    I usually choose POV based on which character has the most at stake, especially to lose. Most of my stories are in limited third, and all my novels except one are in multiple third. I use the changing viewpoint to conceal information from certain characters. It's also a good way to control the pace and rhythm of the story.

    I used first person for one novel, and I actually wrote the first version of that back in the 1970s. It felt so right I never even dreamed of changing it. I've written a few short stories in first person, too, and most of those characters spoke to me early on, which told me they were the right choice.

    I wrote one story last year where it started in one character's point of view, but it wasn't working. When I realized that the story belonged to someone else, I changed it and the writing went much more quickly and easily. That's the only time I can remember changing, but it taught me--again--how much we need to trust that little voice that whispers these things to us.

    1. I'm with you, Steve: multiple POVs is the way to conceal info from certain characters while revealing it to the reader, which is a good way to build suspense. And, as you say, to control the pace and flow of the story.

      I once heard that traditional mysteries and whodunits in first person (or limited third) conceal information from the reader--until the revelation at the end--and thrillers that are often written in third-person multiple conceal information from the other characters while letting the reader in on the secrets.

      Whatever works! Thanks as always.

  6. Thoughtful and provocative post, John.

    Back when I was writing my novels, I heard/read an Elmore Leonard quote, that "Nothing that needs to be in a story can't be done in just dialogue" (not an exact quote; my memory isn't as good in my old age), so I wrote my third novel totally in dialogue, no narrator, and half of it was in present tense. And when I accepted a challenge to write an erotic novel (under a separate pen name), I used first person from the POV of one of the players.

    Now I'm finding myself writing many of my short stories just in dialogue. And like you, I often hear from my inner voice without really noticing or analyzing it.

    1. Hey Jake! Thanks for the thoughts. I'd not heard that Leonard quote, but I can believe he said it--he was the master of dialogue. Hats off to you, for writing that entire novel in dialogue--not an easy thing to do. I bet it was fun, and also doing that short story the way you did. Experimenting with POV can make writing even more interesting.

      I've done one or two stories entirely in dialogue (and several with no dialogue at all). Mostly I just lean toward stories that have more dialogue than most, partly because of the Leonard-like thinking you talked about and partly because dialogue is so much more fun to write than description/exposition/etc.

      Many thanks for dropping in, here!


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