What It Takes

What It Takes

Nonfiction Points of View

By Shawn Coyne | Published: August 18, 2017

In my last post, I reviewed controlling idea/theme as it applies to the Big Idea book.  Now let’s take a look at how to best present the Big Idea to the reader. The following is an edited adaptation of a previous post I wrote over at www.storygrid.com.

Just as in fiction, the choices the nonfiction writer makes about Point of View in Big Idea Nonfiction are make or break decisions.

What is the best way for the writer to address the reader for his particular thesis?

 How will the choice of POV effect the conventional requirement of establishing a consistent and trustworthy Ethos throughout the work?

The way Malcolm Gladwell chose to answer these questions in The Tipping Point is a major factor in the success of the book.

And the brilliant way he introduces each point of view choice very early on in the telling sucks the reader right into his Story.

Remember my post about the need to have the three forms of argument (Ethos/Logos/Pathos) made in a Big Idea book? Well the Ethos part takes form in the writer’s choices of Point of View.

So what POVs does Gladwell actually use in The Tipping Point?

1. He uses Third Person Omniscient, the Authorial Journalist Point of View. Or simply the “reporter’s” POV.

For example, from the very beginning of the book, the introduction, here are the first two sentences:

For Hush Puppies — the classic American brushed-suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole — the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995. The brand had been all but dead until that point.

The above represents journalism’s standard form—simple declarative statements. The point of view is that of the professional, the seasoned reporter. The subtext is that the reporter has done the work necessary to confidently state the “facts” and has the notebooks from interviews and research to back them up.

We read these sorts of sentences all of the time and we subconsciously recognize them as the voice of the professional.

2. He uses the First Person Plural, “We.”

Here is the first sentence from the third scene of The Tipping Point:

A world that follows the rules of epidemics is a very different place from the world we [emphasis mine] think we [emphasis mine] live in now.

Using the first person plural takes real courage because it cedes the usual virtual lectern that journalists step onto when they report their “objective” findings.

Just 1,059 words into his book, in the above sentence, Gladwell tells the reader that what he’s going to share with us is as difficult to comprehend for him as it will be for us. He’s telling us that he walks the same ground that we do.

We’re used to reading nonfiction as proclamations of “truth” and/or “fact” and subconsciously we place the author on a pedestal. And we’re comfortable learning from the writer in that formal manner. It’ similar to the way we’ve been taught since we had to not fidget while penned into a wee desk as children while passively absorbing lessons from our teachers.

We’re accustomed to reading books written by braniacs who have gone into the darkness and have returned with universal truths, which they then bestow upon us, the not so smart unenlightened.

Gladwell could easily have restructured that sentence to abide that standard nonfiction professorial convention. He could have put on the cloak of the genius and written:

A world that follows the rules of epidemics is a very different place from the world as it is lived in today.

But he didn’t. He broke convention and innovated the form. He chose to be one of us, one who struggles understanding why things happen seemingly so suddenly as we do.

3. He uses the First Person Omniscient, “I.”

The use of first person allows the journalist to make himself a character in the reporting. It’s New Journalism 101.

Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved (published June 1970 in Scanlon’s Monthly Vol. 1, No. 4) is a wonderful example of the writer stepping in front of the report to give you the context of what it took to gather the pieces of the story. You know the writer has a payoff in mind as you follow the narrative, but you’re not quite sure where he’s going to take you.

For example on page 13 of The Tipping Point, Gladwell writes:

I remember once as a child seeing our family’s puppy encounter snow for the first time.

Compare this to the first sentence of Thompson’s article:

I got off the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal.

Both of these first person statements imply that the narrator is setting up a story…one that contains valuable information. The author knows something you don’t. He’s omniscient. And it is the implication that he’s got a payoff in the offing. That promise keeps you reading.

4. He uses the Second Person Singular, “You.”

Like using the first person plural, speaking directly to the reader is another risk. Especially for a journalist. It’s something we were told never to do when we learned how to write the objective “essay” form in High School. The reason being that the writer’s use of “You” can easily come off heavy handed and didactic or worse still, glib and smarmy.

But when it works…

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy 

 When they kick out your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun

–The Clash

Gladwell wisely introduces his use of the second person singular in the third scene, just as he does with first person plural and first person omniscient.

He gives the reader what they expect in his first two scenes (the first 1059 words) to establish the fact that he is a seasoned journalist capable of playing it straight…but then he jumps down from the lectern, pulls out a chair, sits down next to us and starts to talk. Like he’s one of us.

This on page 10:

I [first person omniscient] made some of you [second person singular] reading this yawn simply by writing the word “yawn.”

We’re not even out of the introduction to The Tipping Point and Gladwell has us in the palm of his hand. This is not an accident. It’s an expert use of POV.

Gladwell’s point of view choices required careful planning. Just as his choices to tell an Action Adventure Story while hammering home the data and case studies necessary to support his Worldview Revelation genre/Big Idea Nonfiction do.  Make no mistake.  The structure and form of The Tipping Point was so thoroughly conceived that it seems invisible.

When we track The Tipping Point’s scene-by-scene construction in The Story Grid Spreadsheet, we’ll be able to see exactly where he used each of these four POVs.  More importantly we’ll see how using one or more serves the Story and Gladwell’s thesis.  It’s these little things that Gladwell does that make a huge difference.

Posted in What It Takes

2 Responses to “Nonfiction Points of View”

  1. Lyn
    August 18, 2017 at 9:09 am

    I’m so glad you’re addressing POV. It’s easy to get stuck in the rules and scared to change POV, but when artfully done, POV shifts flow. They’re natural and powerful. I loved hearing how Gladwell first established credibility through 3rd person omniscient, his reporter’s voice, but later made his message personal through first person and second person, talking to the reader. Brilliant. Thanks for putting into perspective what a powerful tool POV is.

  2. Julie Murphy
    August 18, 2017 at 9:37 pm

    I’ve never consciously selected voice and view as a method to reinforce the message and engage the reader–I just wrote as I “felt” it should be presented.

    I now see the difference between talking to my reader and talking with them. Wow, I might have thrown away my best idea because I wrote in a way that didn’t invite people to see it.

    Perfect timing for this post, Shawn. Thank you so much.