Years ago, I was lucky enough to have Jo Beverley judge one of my manuscripts in a contest. Her one comment stuck with me–learn to control viewpoint and you’ll sell. She was right. Now, I’d already tightened up a lot of other craft technique, but viewpoint was a place where I went a bit fuzzy. I wasn’t even aware how much it slipped, but it made me take a really hard look at viewpoint—and to start practicing the habit of only changing viewpoint when I absolutely needed to be in someone else’s POV. This let me cut a lot of the deadwood out of my stories, making them tighter and stronger.
Since then, I’ve since seen a lot of the same old habit I had in contests entries. It’s like something most writers have to go through. And I’ve noticed that viewpoint control actually impacts a whole bunch of other things.
Tighter viewpoint control picks up the pacing. It forces you to show more and tell less (you can’t keep slipping in and out of omniscient POV). Tight control improves characterization, brings in more emotion, and you get a much better story. The reader also tends to be less confused, and becomes more engaged by the character—spending time with anyone (even a character) is a good way to get to know and like that person.
Yet, this is a place where a lot of folks seem to want to be a little loosey-goosey. Folks will say, “But I like to switch POV.” And, yes, switching is fine, but if you’re not doing it for a reason, you may be killing the best parts of your scene. This is where a little more discipline and a little less seat of the pants can help.
And first person viewpoint can help a writer lean a lot. I’ve written a lot of stories in first person, and I still use this technique for scenes that are giving me trouble. Don’t get me wrong, I love third person, but first person is a great way to learn more control. It’s also sometimes the best way to tell a story. But watch using several first persons in a story, that can be tiresome and confusing to a reader unless there are large chunks of time with each character.
With the contest entries I read, I also sometimes get the feeling that some writers may not be aware of what are the viewpoint options. And how do they tighten their control of these. Managing POV is an important technique to learn, and master.
Viewpoint control is like any other writing technique. It’s one you have to think about, study, and practice. Once you get really good at it, you can put it in your hip pocket and forget about it—until it comes time to edit and fix problems. And then you need to get back to basics.
I’m doing a workshop on Managing Viewpoint with Savvy Authors this month. Hopefully, this will help folks pick up a few more tips and techniques to bring out the best in their scenes, stories, and characters. There are techniques that can help you smooth viewpoint transitions. And there are exercises that will strengthen your control of viewpoint.
Even with first person POV, there are ways to improve your control—you can still slip into omniscient from first person if you’re not careful.
And I’m hoping the workshop will remind me, too, of the basics that I always have to keep in mind to tell a good story.