There’s a fascinating assessment of plot—have you heard it? Some say there are only two plots in the world: “A stranger comes to town” and “A person goes on a journey.”

Now, here’s what’s even more amazing. Those two seminal plots are exactly the same—depending on the point of view. (I introduced you to point of view here.)

If you’re writing from the person-on-the-journey’s point of view, you might say:

I saw the sign for Littleton. And even though I was on the way to Reno, I thought—why not? I pulled my truck into the parking lot of the Midpoint Café. Even though I could barely see through the darkened windows, I headed inside for one more cup of coffee. I’d been to more dangerous places. I had a long road ahead. Might as well stoke up on caffeine.

If you’re writing the same story from the “stranger comes to town” point of view, you would write:

I saw the red pickup pull into our parking lot, and wondered who was driving. We don’t get many red pickups in Littleton, let alone with tires like that. When the gotta-admit-handsome man in the leather jacket unfolded himself from the driver’s seat, I slicked back my hair and made sure the coffee was fresh. Even though the windows were grimy—as they always are these days—I could tell this was someone from away. I smiled, retying the drooping bow in the front of my faded apron. I hadn’t seen a new face in I don’t remember how long.

That is exactly the same series of events. Told from two different points of view. The stranger who sees the little café and decides, in a choice we as readers know will be pivotal. And the woman behind the counter, who wonders, obviously, how this arrival will affect her life.

See how point of view makes a difference? See how you can tell the same story through different brains? And with a different voice?

When you write your book, point of view is your first decision

Through whose eyes will you tell the story? The stranger? Or the waitress?

Or, maybe, first one, then the other?

Let’s indulge in clichés here—and I know you will write better than this—it’s only to go on with this experiment.

Again from the guy in the truck’s point of view:

The parking lot had seen better days, the asphalt probably from the same era as the place inside, likely with pay phones that worked. Rick could have written his name in the dust on the windows, so fogged with time and neglect he saw only the slim outline of a white-aproned person inside. He squinted, assessing. A woman. The person in white, haloed by flickering fluorescents, was female. It didn’t matter. He was headed for Reno. And redemption.

And from the waitress’s point of view:

The guy in the leather jacket walked like he owned the place, and far as I was concerned, he could have it. He strode across the parking lot, two steps for each faded yellow line, on a mission, I supposed, for coffee and maybe some of our famous meatloaf. Strange, I thought, how since Bill took a left turn out of my life, making people happy with food was the only thing that mattered. When the stupid bell over the front door jangled, I tried not to look at the guy, worrying he might take my curiosity the wrong way. All I needed. Actually, it was.

Point of view. We are in the exact same situation, but we are seeing it, and contemplating it, through two different brains

In one version, in the arriving stranger’s point of view. In the other, from the reactive point of view—the person who the stranger is approaching is assessing the situation through her eyes.

Is the stranger a good guy? Or a villain? Is the waitress a potential victim? A love interest? A partner? We don’t know that yet.

But the key in this exercise is that you see we can be in only one point of view at a time. We don’t know, in the stranger’s section, what the waitress thinks, or who she is, or what her motives are. We do not know his name. In her section, we don’t the arriving stranger’s motives or identity.

The points of view—in the same story—are separate

And will stay separate. You should have only one point of view at a time.

If we want to label these, the stranger is third person, using “he” and the character’s proper name. It’s also past tense, with verbs like squinted and headed.

The waitress is first person past tense. Her section uses “I” and verbs in the past tense, like supposed and jangled and needed. We don’t know her name, because she’s in her own head, and might not think about herself by name.

If you needed to make sure the reader knows her name, you could do something easy, like this:

Dorothy, I told myself, stop thinking about Bill. I adjusted my silly plastic name tag. It still had Bill’s last name, Tolliver. But I still thought of myself as Ritter. So, I promised myself, if the guy in the leather jacket asked, that’s what I’d answer him. Dot Ritter.

Okay, I know it’s not great writing. But it works to show how point of view works. And why it matters. And how powerful it can be.

As the author, you can illuminate two characters, individually and understandably—to allow the reader to know more than the characters do.

We know the woman has been hurt in a love affair, and the man is looking for redemption from something, even though we don’t know what.

But—the characters don’t know that about each other. Will they tell? And what will happen next? That’s how we use point of view to amp the suspense or the conflict.

Any questions about POV? Trust me, there’s much more to discuss in this pivotal part of your writing—and I’ll talk more about that another day. But for now, join the conversation about point of view on Facebook.

Now, get writing!