Tag Archive | point of view

Picking a Point of View

pietown1940When I first began writing fiction my viewpoint wandered all over the place. I was fine in first person, but the rest of it…omniscient on steroids. I’d throw in the viewpoint of the dog on just a whim. Thankfully, I had some other writers who would read my work and who pointed out a better path. I’m teaching an online workshop on Point of View starting this week. Getting control of viewpoint in a story gave my writing a huge jump in quality. But what is it about viewpoint control that really helps a story?

1-A connection to one character helps the reader into the story. When I learned how to write deep third person POV, and how to stick to a viewpoint and smooth any transitions, I discovered I could better hook readers into the story by connecting the reader to one character. Let’s face it, walking into a room of strangers is tough. If you connect with one person, now you have a reason to stay at the party. That’s the same with any book. A wandering viewpoint or a distant viewpoint can keep the reader from getting past the first couple of pages in your story.

2-Viewpoint control improves the emotion in a scene. I sort of knew this from writing first person, but it didn’t really sink in until I realized that picking the character with the most emotionally at stake in any scene gave me a stronger scene with more emotion. Changes in viewpoint changed the tension and the emotion in a scene–so a change at the wrong time drained my scenes of their impact. A lot of writers know instinctively to stay with the emotion. But I’ve also seen writers change viewpoint right when things are really cooking in a scene–the writer backs off from the best emotion and the reader is cheated. This is where viewpoint control can really improve your writing a lot (with very little effort).

3-Viewpoint control keeps the reader focused. This may sound obvious–too many jumps in viewpoint and the reader gets confused. A confused reader puts the book away and may never return. I’ve seen this in movies, too. I had to stop watching the Transformer movies–too many jump cuts and changes and viewpoints and I not only stopped following the action, I stopped caring. It just became noise. You want to learn how to handle any shift in viewpoint so the reader isn’t thrown out of your story.

4-Points of view tells the reader what’s important. I’ve seen–and I used to do this–stories where EVERYONE’S viewpoint gets shuffled into the story. The guy holding the door open in chapter ten, the second cousin of the heroine who appears only for a page in chapter twenty…on and on. A lot of this and the reader starts wondering who are the main characters and starts wanting a scorecard to keep track. I’ve only seen this handled really well once–in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the point of view shifts are to anything that’s funny (which is the point of the book, really). Can a lot of viewpoints be brilliantly handled? Sure–if you’ve got the talent to pull it off. But why stress yourself and the reader–stick with the viewpoints of the people who matter. One big lesson I learned–when in doubt keep it simple. Stick to one or two viewpoints.

5-Strong viewpoint control lets you increase the tension in your scenes and your stories. When I was jumping around with everyone’s viewpoint my story lost focus. The pacing suffered because I was sending the reader off on tangents. It’s a lot like that party I mentioned earlier–if you’re wandering around a party hearing snippets of conversations, you’re not really involved or caring about any of them. But if you stop and focus on one conversation or get involved in one argument, that pulls in your focus. Now you have something you care about, meaning things matter. That is key to having tension in a story. If the reader doesn’t care that the heroine may not ever really love the hero, or that the hero may not save the world, you can have all sorts of great action but the book is going to be a yawn. You want your viewpoint control focused and tight so the reader is also focused–and caring about what happens next.

6-Viewpoint control helps you write. I used to get stuck in stories. Somewhere between page fifty and one hundred the story would wander off a cliff. When I went back to look at these failures I saw I was not really attached to any one character–I hadn’t figured out whose viewpoint mattered, and so I didn’t really know whose story this was. It’s important to figure out the viewpoints you want to use because you want to tell those character’s stories–and you want to know who is at the center of any story. These days if I get stuck in a scene I always try two things: I change the viewpoint, or I go back to see if I have the conflict identified. That fixes just about every roadblock in my writing.

7-Smooth viewpoint shifts keep the reader in the story. Any transition–between viewpoints or in time or between scenes–is a place where the writer can lose the reader’s attention. It just seems a natural stopping point. Elizabeth Daly who wrote lovely mysteries in the late Forties and in the Fifties taught me a lot about how to smooth and handle transitions point. The key is to hint or introduce the start of the next scene before the last one ends. Nora Robert’s books also taught me a lot about handling viewpoint shifts. When you find writers who do something really well, take the work apart and see how they do things.

When in doubt, you can always stick to first person–but even first person has some tricks to it to keep it from becoming all about “I…I…I” But that’s something to cover in the workshop.











POV — What Readers Don’t Notice (Unless it’s Wrong)

Point of View is a phrase that writers use to death. It’s one of those things that a reader doesn’t notice until it’s done badly. But it’s also one of the most critical skills because it affects everything else in the story.

You don’t really think about until you have to figure out whose point of view gives you the best story.

Now, the “duh” moment here seems to be that well, of course any story uses the point of view of the main character. But sometimes that doesn’t work so well. Dr. Watson is the point of view character in Sherlock Holmes stories so Sherlock can seem smarter. (Watson’s no slouch, but by making him the POV character, the writer can hide clues that Sherlock will eventually use to make amazing deduction.)

My rule of thumb is to use the character with the most at risk in a scene–this gives the scene better conflict and drama. That risk also works better, too, if it’s emotional risk–a character who doesn’t care that a gun is pointed at him is not going to give you great drama if that character doesn’t care about dying. But this is a guideline, not a rule. Also, this doesn’t help with the whole story.

Should you write in third person, first person, multiple viewpoints, single?

This goes back to being a reader first.

What do you read? What do you like to read the most?

I’ll read just about anything, cereal boxes included. But while I like first person stories–when they’re good, they’re brilliant–I tend to read more third person. I’ve written first person stories, but I lean towards third person. But I’ve also learned over the years to control this so it’s a limited third person–I’m not dragging the reader into everybody’s heads.

There are also a few tricks to smooth viewpoint transition.

1 – Use proper names, not pronouns. He/she (or even worse, he/he) tends to put the reader deeper into his/her point of view. By moving out to a proper name, you’re moving the viewpoint out (like a camera would move out), which helps smooth the transition.

2 – Use action to hand off the POV switch. As in: Helen dropped the book. John caught it and handed it back. Notice how the action again moves the reader out of thought and into “seeing” a scene, so the action allows a change of POV by also helping move the POV out a little, into the room before dipping back into someone’s thoughts.

3 – Use clean sentence and paragraph structure to keep the transition cleaning. You can do anything, even change the point of view in the middle of a sentence. But why risk losing your reader by doing this? Instead, make your transitions clean and clear.

If you use POV right, no one will ever notice it. But oh, if you do it wrong, everyone knows.