I spent yesterday afternoon reading a rewrite of a client's novel (at least the first part of it). He has struggled with point of view in the past, and I've nudged him mercilessly on it. So I was thrilled to see that he is mastering it!
Reading his manuscript brought to mind some tips on viewpoint that might be helpful to others. (Note: most people, myself included, use the terms viewpoint and point of view interchangeably.)Please note that this is not in anyway a definitive rundown on viewpoint. Volumes have been written on it. If you need more info on viewpoint try this or this. What follows are just some simple ideas that might help you if you get confused about it.
1. Don't use omniscient. Just don't, okay? In my experience, most of the time the use of omniscient viewpoint turns out to be viewpoint violations galore. Or laziness. Whatever, omniscient viewpoint is hard to master and do correctly and it confuses the hell out of readers--which is a cardinal sin. So don't do it.
2. I am a camera. Or at least your character is one. All he or she can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel is in her viewpoint. It's in her head. Not the other character's head, hers alone. Sometimes I see subtle viewpoint violations, like, "Sandra noticed that Frank felt scared." Sandra can't know that Frank feels scared because she's not in his head. She can notice that he seemingly felt scared, or she can see an expression on his face that tells her he's scared. If you get confused on this point, think back to the camera analogy.
3. Change viewpoints at the start of chapters or scenes. It's fine to use multiple viewpoints. All you have to do is be clear to the reader that you are doing so. Don't switch points of view in the middle of a sentence or even a paragraph. Do it at the start of a scene or chapter, and please also give us some hint of who we are switching to.
4. To denote a scene shift, use white space. If you want to switch viewpoint in the middle of a chapter, its easy--just use white space to signal the reader. White space is four single hard returns or two double hard returns. If the white space falls at the top or the bottom of the page, show it with stars: * * * * *, otherwise it might not be evident. Note: you don't need to use stars or any other symbol to show white space if it falls anywhere else on the page. That's why they call it white space.
5. If you struggle with staying clear on viewpoint, try first person. This is a great trick, because first person is easy to stay true to--all you've got is that "I" viewpoint, after all. You don't have to write a whole novel in it, but try a short story or a piece of flash fiction. It will teach you the limits of viewpoint very quickly.
Okay, those are my quick tips. Do you struggle with viewpoint? How have you taught yourself to master it?
Photo by xptakis.