Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Viewpoint But Were too Confused to Ask

Antique-spyglass-small-1145005-lThis is the blog post on viewpoint I promised in my last post, wherein I talked about how I judged a writing contest and nearly all the entries had problems with sketchy world building and viewpoint.

Getting viewpoint wrong sinks your manuscript from the get-go.  Send an agent a story rife with viewpoint violations and kiss any chance of representation goodbye.   Viewpoint slips look amateurish and annoy the reader, who may not know exactly why they are annoyed, just that they are. 

And you do not want to annoy the reader.

I am the Chief of the Viewpoint Violation Police, much to the chagrin of my bi-weekly writing group that meets here in town.  You got a viewpoint lapse, even a subtle one, and I'll find it.  And I also have a simple way to master it.  Here goes:

I Am A Camera.

That's actually the name of a Broadway play based on a Christopher Isherwood book, but I've always liked it as a way to remember viewpoint.  Whether you are writing first person or third person, when you are in a character's viewpoint you are in their head and all the reader can see is what that character sees.

I am a camera, or he, she or it is a camera.

So, if you have a scene in which your protagonist (we'll call her Beth) talks to her mother and her mother is riled up about something, Beth can only intuit the upset from her mother's dialogue, facial expressions, body language, and actions.  But Beth cannot leap inside her mother's head and relate how mad she is.

Correct (if clunky): Beth watched as her mother furrowed her brows and tightened her lips.  "You must be joking," her mother said.

Incorrect:  Beth watched as her mother furrowed her brows and tightened her lips.  She felt so angry at her daughter.  "You must be joking."

The incorrect part?  The sentence that dives into Beth's mother's head:  She felt so angry at her daughter.

That's head-hopping, people, and it will make your reader feel they are at a tennis match, watching the ball bounce back and forth across the net.  Remember: your character has a camera in her head, and everything it records, you, as the author can record.  But nuttin else.

Employing multiple viewpoints

If you are using multiple viewpoints, make it clear to the reader when you switch heads, and do it either at the start of a chapter, or the beginning of a scene, i.e., after a white-space break (four single returns).

Remember that any character you choose to write in viewpoint will automatically become better known to the reader (we'll be in his head, after all) so choose accordingly.

Now comes the point where you ask me about using omniscient viewpoint and I say: Don't.  Just don't.  I don't allow any of my students or clients to use because I'm fussy that way and mostly because it is really damn freaking hard to do right and most people screw it up.  Omniscient viewpoint is the God viewpoint where you're jumping into characters' heads at will and done poorly, which it most often is, it simply looks like a viewpoint violation.  

Single viewpoint

If you're writing in first person, odds are good you'll stick to one character's viewpoint.  (It used to be a big no-no to have a multiple first person viewpoint novel but standards have relaxed lately.  It is still not as common, however.)  I'm a single viewpoint kind of gal because I love getting inside a character's head and getting to know her and her world view intimately.  I wrote Emma Jean in a third person singular viewpoint--we're in Emma Jean's head the entire length of the novel (which I admit can get a bit suffocating).  The novel I'm currently plowing through (almost done with the first draft) is written in first person, entirely in the protagonist's point of view.

By the way, most writers I know use the terms viewpoint and point of view interchangeably so don't let that confuse you.

Questions?

Okay, what have I forgotten?  (I always forget to mention things and then my brilliant readers bring those things up in the comments and that makes me happy.)  If you have a question or problem with viewpoint, leave a comment and I'll answer.  If you don't have a question, I have one for you: do you struggle with viewpoint?  How do you keep it straight?

 


Point of View Tips and Tweaks

Look_close_macro_224801_lI 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.


Saturday Writing Tip: Experiment with Viewpoint

At the Diamond writing retreat I co-led, I got clarity about where I'm going with my current novel.  (On some odd subliminal level, getting my first novel accepted has made a huge difference in my commitment level to this WIP.) Light-light-bulbs-110673-l

But last week I spent most of my time caring for my daughter and The Most Beautiful Baby Ever Born, and not a lot of time working on my next novel.

So imagine my surprise one morning this week when the first thought I had upon rising was this:

Change Jemima's viewpoint to first person(In case you hadn't guessed, Jemima is my protagonist.)

Clear marching orders.

Or guidance from the divine.

My reaction?

Yikes.

Changing the viewpoint made me nervous.  One could say panicky. 

Because Emma Jean is written in third person.  The entire book is her viewpoint, and it is a very close-in third.  I like third person.  A lot.  I wrote my MFA novel in first person and after I finished it (sort of, it's still a mess), I decided I hated that viewpoint.   Thought it was too chummy.  Swore I'd never write in first person again.  I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when I started writing Emma Jean in third.

So, of course, when I began writing Jemima, I swung naturally to third person.

And I didn't want to change.

But divine guidance is divine guidance.  I figured I could give first person a whirl.  Just to play with it. ( For the record, changing viewpoints is not as simple as doing a global search for "she" and changing it to "I."  If you don't believe me, try it some time and check back here.  That's all I'm going to say.)

So I spent some time retyping Chapter One into my computer, this time in first person.  I was convinced I was going to hate it.  Hate it.  But guess what?

I'm sure you know where this is going.

I love it.  Love it.

In the third person version, I struggled with a sense of distance from Jemima.  She's a cool cucumber, and judging by the reaction from members of my writing group, a bit too cool.  Like, unlikeable.  (Yes, I struggled with this problem in Emma Jean, too, go figure.  I'm really a very nice human being in person, I swear it.)

First person is inherently friendlier.  It is as if you're sitting down with the narrator, having yourselves a chat.  Sometimes it feels as if the narrator is letting you in on secrets and deep thoughts.  And Jemima sorely needed this.  Suddenly, in first person, her voice came together.

And now I'm happy.

Create a successful, happy writing life:  Play with this.  If you're struggling with a character, switch it up, first to third, third to first.  Hell, try second.  (The "you" voice.  Read Bright Lights, Big City if you think it can't be done.)

Oh, how it would delight me if you commented.  Have you ever experienced a distance voice?  Or have you switched up viewpoints with success?

Photo by ferrison.