One of the key techniques I learned as a writer is viewpoint control, meaning when to shift viewpoint and how to shift smoothly. This generally is not a problem for writers working in first person, but I’ve also read works lately like Shannon Mayer’s Rylee Adamson series which mix first person and third (that’s a trick too pull off!).
I’m teaching a POV workshop this March-April and here are a few tips to help with knowing when to shift the viewpoint and how to shift smoothly.
When to shift viewpoint?
1-Don’t change the viewpoint unless you need to. Stick with the character who has the most emotionally at risk in a scene.
2-Stay with viewpoint as long as you can to keep the emotion and tension in a scene.
3-Only shift viewpoint if the scene becomes stuck, or the story forces you to switch.
For example, maybe you’re writing a love scene. You’ve started in the heroine’s point of view because you want the reader identifying with her and this is a big emotional moment for her. But the hero may have a moment, too, once the sex is over—maybe that’s the point he finds himself becoming emotionally involved with the heroine. You finish the scene out, and the hero has to leave. Right there, if you stay in the heroine’s viewpoint, the hero is going to walk out and that leaves the reader with just her and no conflict—if her issues in the scene are over, the hero’s AND his viewpoint need to come into the story. Now you either have to have omniscient info about him and that could pull the reader out of the story, or you have to force thoughts into the heroine’s head that are going to read like plot exposition (and not really her thoughts). Or you have to shift viewpoint if you want to follow the hero and stay with what’s going on with him. Now you have an excellent reason to change viewpoint.
Above all, make your decision to change viewpoint based on the fact that there’s no other choice to make this scene work.
How to shift viewpoint smoothly?
Shifting viewpoint is a lot like handing off a baton in a relay race–it’s easy to fumble it if you don’t smooth the shift for the reader. This means you want to treat every point of view change as a place where you can lose the reader. Here are tips to help you smooth shifts:
1-Make viewpoint shifts happen in new paragraphs, not the same paragraph.
2-Use proper names not pronouns.
3-Use a bit of action to smooth the shift.
As an example of this, let’s look at an awkward viewpoint shift.
She ran into the room, panting hard, gasping for breathe. She wanted to tell him everything that had gone wrong, but would he understand? He thought she looked a mess, her hair tumbled and her face red, and he only wanted to help.
Right there we trip up the reader in that we move straight from one character’s head to another. Most readers will need to re-read that passage. So let’s apply the three tips–break up the paragraph, apply names, and use action to shift the viewpoint.
She ran into the room, panting hard, gasping for breathe. May wanted to tell him everything that had gone wrong, but would Tim understand? Leaning against the wall, May put out a hand to steady herself.
Tom covered May’s hand with his own. Under his touch, he could feel the heat from her skin, and her rapid pulse thudding hard in her wrist. He thought she looked a mess, her hair tumbled and her face red, and he only wanted to help.
The action of May reaching out and Tom covering her hand, the use of proper names before we move back into pronouns, and the paragraph break now all signal a viewpoint change.
But if you really want to force yourself to learn viewpoint control, write each chapter in one viewpoint only. You’ll learn a lot.