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?

 

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19 Comments on "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Viewpoint But Were too Confused to Ask"

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J.D.
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J.D.
07/01/2014 20:06
“Brilliant readers.” Okay, you must’ve been doing this omniscient thing, prowling around inside my head. While you were in there why didn’t you turn the light on? I get screwed up trying to keep person and viewpoint straight. First person is “I.” I saw this. I think this. I pulled down my copy of Emma Jean. 3rd person. We hear her talk. We read her mind. That’s all I need, right? I should use one of those two. Since this simple stuff darkens the halls of my mind, I sure don’t want to mess with 2nd person or multiple viewpoints.… Read more »
Zan Marie
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07/02/2014 05:37

Give me clear POV or I’ll give your story the boot! I hate messed up POV. I just read a major mystery writer and will never read their books again because of it. It was just annoying. My fear of screwing it up myself is mitigated by my use of a single first POV exclusively. At least for now, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 😉

Charlotte Dixon
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07/02/2014 06:19
Yes and you are one of those brilliant readers, J.D. As you can tell by all the aspects of viewpoint you mentioned, I could write five more posts on it and people would still be confused. Okay–1st Person is the I, and 3rd person is he or she. When you have a multiple viewpoint, it is either 1st or 3rd, but alternating between several different characters. 2nd person is “you,” and it is rarely done. A notable exception is Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerny, which is well worth reading for that alone. He does it well. And yes,… Read more »
Charlotte Dixon
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07/02/2014 06:21

I agree on both counts. I’ve also read major writers with POV issues and throw their books across the room. Sometimes they are messing with omniscient. I’m telling you that damned omniscient viewpoint is just not worth it. And I love single first and third person POV. I love the chance to really get to know one character over the course of a novel.

D young
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D young
07/03/2014 05:26

Off topic from this post- but Charolette, do you have information regarding the trip next year you can get to me? Or that I can go request, since you probably don’t have my contact information…?

Charlotte Dixon
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07/03/2014 06:41
Ooh, exciting that you want to come, D! Since this year’s trip is still coming up, we’ve not yet started planning for 2015. However, we generally go in September, and the past two years its been to the south of France. We are open to suggestions for other places, however! To get a feel for what this year’s workshop will be like, you can visit this page: letgowrite.com, and scroll down just a little to the post titled “Writing in the South of France–Pezenas.” It would be so fun to have both you and J.D. with us next year! We… Read more »
J.D.
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J.D.
07/03/2014 17:13
Charlotte, I read three chapters of your book. Now that I’ve started, I suppose I’ll read the whole damn thing again. Emma Jean is a great example of writing by the Chief of the Viewpoint Police. I didn’t find a single violation in the first three chapters, though I searched. Seriously, I am not trying to hook you, I’m trying to learn. Oh! And you don’t rush! Cool. But I have a question. What is the advantage of 3rd person if we remain in the protagonist’s p.o.v.? Is it better than 1st? Other than avoiding the repeated use of “I”… Read more »
D young
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D young
07/04/2014 03:53

Unfortunately the page wouldn’t open for me….

J.D.
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J.D.
07/04/2014 04:10

There’s a link to short article at the top of this page. Inside the article is a link to this year’s trip. It may get you there.

Charlotte Dixon
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07/04/2014 11:50

Did you get it to work?

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
07/04/2014 11:52
That’s actually a great question, J.D. and I don’t have an answer for it. (Shocking, I know.) Most people do use 3rd person when they are moving from one character to another. But Emma Jean started talking to me and the voice that came through was in third person. I also think in her case being in first person might be a bit much. Bear in mind that 1st person is the most intimate viewpoint and third person gives you some distance. Does that answer your question? And thank you for the compliments about the book and the viewpoint. If… Read more »
J.D.
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J.D.
07/04/2014 14:47

Yes, that answers it and your point about the distance is interesting.

D young
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D young
07/05/2014 05:10

Yes! I’ve contacted you, Charolette:)

D young
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D young
07/05/2014 05:16
I have found, the most enjoyable books to read are first person. For me anyway. When head hopping occurs, rarely do I finish the story. In writing- sometimes first person is much easier said than done. But when attention is kept – and head hopping isn’t allowed- it produces a much cleaner piece. The books I’ve read where multiple viewpoints are shared- to me- always seem to be the stories that happen within a very short amount of time. And seem to be separate stories about the same subject. When done right it can be enjoyable. But structure must be… Read more »
Don Williams
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Don Williams
07/05/2014 08:24

All I will say about this post is …. FANTASTIC!

Charlotte Dixon
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07/05/2014 09:28

Glad. 🙂

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
07/05/2014 09:29

Often, first person is more character driven and third person multiple can be used to create page-turning plots. So perhaps you like character-driven stories better. I know I do!

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
07/05/2014 09:29

Aw, shucks, thanks, Don!

D young
Guest
D young
07/05/2014 17:50

Yes, I do! How simply put. It totally makes sense.

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