Shooter by Caroline Pignat: How to Read Like a Writer
If you follow my blog, you might have noticed I’m a big believer in using a writing format that enhances your readers’ experiences. This includes the basics like putting dialogue in quotation marks and using italics for character thoughts, emphasis, and more, and it means thinking outside the box to use format to reflect your character’s perspective. Caroline Pignat has mastered this idea in Shooter.
All five main characters have first person point of view chapters in Shooter. In addition to distinct voices and using the POV character’s name as the chapter titles, Pignat uses formatting to reveal how each character sees the world. For Isabella, Noah, and Xander, formatting is crucial to their perspective and characterization.
Queen Bee Isabella’s Text Messages
Isabella’s chapters are straight forward, first person point of view. However, she is the only main character with a phone and her texts are revealed to the reader. That means any time a reader sees text messages on the page, they know they are in Isabella’s point of view. Here’s an excerpt showing how Pignat chose to format texts:
IZZY: Are you ok to txt? I don’t wanna get you in trouble.
Or draw attention with the buzzing.
BRI: On mute. ;)
Txting is my lifeline. Seriously.
This whole thing is INSANE.
I can’t stop shaking.
You doing ok?
IZZY Ya if you think being stuck in a washroom with Hogan and Xander Watt is ok (44).
Pignat formatted the texts between Isabelle and Bri like a play, so it’s clear who is texting what and in what order. She also used a combination of proper English, slang, and emojis, which builds believability. Because many teenagers (and other people) text in this manner, it makes Isabelle and Bri’s conversation feel real.
The fact that Isabelle has a phone and what she chooses to talk about with Bri reveal a lot about her character and priorities. Isabelle is the kind of person who is attached to her phone, who needs to be plugged in to her school’s social society at all times. The other main characters aren’t like that. She is also more upset about learning her flavor-of-the-month boyfriend cheated on her than being stuck in a boy’s restroom with four other students because a mass shooter is roaming their school halls. Her character arc requires her to adjust her priorities and goals in life. Her text messages help demonstrate her change in perspective, and her sections would not be as impactful without them. This formatting choice both advances the plot, deepens her character, and signals to readers they are in Isabelle’s POV.
Socially Awkward Xander’s Journal
Instead of a traditional first person point of view, Xander shares his perspective through his journal. Because Xander has a difficult time understanding social situations and cues, his adviser recommends he keep a journal reflecting on his interactions with people. Xander calls these social autopsies and has a hard time reading facial expressions in particular. Here’s an example of his POV:
In Social Autopsy #27 she [Mrs. O’Neil] held up two photos and asked “Was your teacher looking more like this or this when she said ‘Oh, sorry, Xander, am I boring you with this lesson?’”
I pointed to the one most like Mrs. Brown’s. . . . Mrs. O’Neil told me that Mrs. Brown was being sarcastic.
Adjective. using irony to mock or convey contempt. Snide. Scornful. Smart-alecky.
I wonder why it’s okay for Mrs. Brown to speak sarcastically, but it’s not ok for me to speak the truth? Either way, that Social Autopsy taught me a few things:
1. Don’t yawn loudly in class. Even if you are bored or tired.
2. Don’t give feedback unless asked. Even if it’s something amazing that you think everyone should know.
3. If a teacher asks for feedback, 9 times out of 10, it’s probably a trick.
Seek clarification. Ask, just to be sure. Always (79-80).
Through Xander’s journal, readers learn why he often says the wrong thing, asks inappropriate questions, and comes off as cold and cruel. He can’t read social cues like facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. Although Pignat never says anything, it’s likely Xander has a disorder like Asperger. The reader needs to understand why he is this way in order to believe and accept how another key student is able to take advantage of and trick him.
Xander’s perspective is not all handicap. By striving to learn body language to form friendships and connect with others, he develops an unique and crucial POV as a photographer. He doesn’t take pretty pictures, instead, he seeks to capture those illusive facial expressions – the instants that reveal how someone really feels. Through Xander’s photos, the students in the bathroom are able to learn about each other, grow as people, and guess at the shooter’s identity. If Pignat had chosen not to write Xander’s chapters through his journal, his perspective wouldn’t come across as strongly. Again, this format choice advances the plot, deepens Xander’s character, and is necessary for his perspective.
Autistic Noah’s Poetic World View
Noah only gets a handful of short chapters, but his have become my favorite. He is an older autistic student who can’t communicate with others or handle the disruption to his routine the shooter causes. Some of Noah’s chapters are only the images his aid uses to teach Noah his schedule, others are poetry.
At one point, Noah busies himself in the bathroom by unrolling the paper towels. The other students are happy to let him do this and continue on with their conversation despite the squeaking handle. This is how Noah perceives that moment:
Paper towel rolling,
puddles on white tiles
–the paper needs out!
I love how Pignat’s version of an autistic person’s thought process is poetry. It shows how Noah isn’t stupid. He sees the world differently and therefore has different needs. He is the only character whose sections are comprised of poetry and images, so his chapters are instantly recognizable. They also emphasize how starkly different his perspective is from all the other characters. How Noah’s sections relate to Xander’s show different degrees of communication struggles people can have. The other three students’ points of view show that even “normal” teenagers can misunderstand each other. Without the different formats and narrators, Pignat would not be able to pull this off.
Why an Editor Recommends Writers Study the Format of Caroline Pignat’s Shooter
Not every story needs or should have special formatting like Shooter. Standard formatting is the standard because it works really well most of the time. You also don’t have to only use different formatting for multiple or first person point of view stories. It can work with third, second, or omniscient points of view and single perspective stories.
If you’re working on a story with different points of view and perspectives, think about what’s important to your characters. What are their priorities? Is it a phone and social connection like Isabelle? Or a set schedule like Noah? Do they think and speak like most people? Or do they perform social autopsies and think through poetry? Format can be more than a way for your reader to tell who’s speaking. It can also deepen your characters and do more to show their point of view than words alone. If perspective plays a large role in your story, consider experimenting with your format to mimic that unique world view and Ignite Your Ink.
How have you adjusted your story’s format – slightly or majorly – in the past? Share your choices in the comments below. For more articles on format and a free Point of View Comparison Chart, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.