Depending on Your Point of View (A Love Letter)

You live for adventure and global travel. Or you love to stay home by the cozy fire. You can’t stay still—you have to be doing something. Or everything you love to do involves sitting. You love gardening. Or you hate getting your hands dirty. You agree with everything our president says, or you take to the streets to protest him. You love kale. Or hate all vegetables. You love summer. Or you hate being hot.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

My point is this: there are many points of view in this big, wide, wonderful world of ours (and now more than ever, it seems).

And, as I like to remind you incessantly often, as in life, so in writing. (Or vice-versa.)

We writers talk a lot about point of view (or viewpoint, if you prefer) and it has been much on my mind recently because of a book I’m reading. The book is Women in Sunlight, by Frances Mayes, and man oh man does she do strange things with viewpoint.

The story has a lot of characters, but the main ones are Kit, a woman who lives in a small town in Italy, and Julia, Camille, and Susan, all of whom have had recent upsets in their lives. They decide to move for a year to the same town where Kit lives.

Kit’s viewpoint is in first person and all the rest in third. But Mayes head-hops between them. Constantly. All the time. Sometimes it is impossible to tell which character is narrating.  At one point, Kit related something that happened to one of the other characters when she wasn’t there. It is massively confusing.

Despite all this, I’m absorbed in the book and I am almost finished with it. (I will confess to skimming a lot of her excessive descriptions. But if you love Italy cuisine and travelogue, you’ll likely read every word.) I decided to check the Amazon reviews to see if others had similar reactions to mine. And, yup, readers range from lukewarm to ecstatic about it. But one thing that struck me was how many mentioned their confusion over who was speaking when. (Doesn’t help that all the characters sound alike, and talk in long speeches.) Some had a hard time keeping the characters straight.

And, here’s the deal, people: when it comes to viewpoint, your average reader doesn’t know if you’re doing a point of view violation. But they do know when they get confused. And a confused reader is a bored reader. And a bored reader is a reader who puts the book down.

So, a couple of simple viewpoint reminders:

–Omniscient is really hard to pull off. Don’t do it. Just don’t.

–To maintain viewpoint sanctity, just remember to be in your character’s head. What she can see and hear and touch and smell you can report. Nothing else!

–It doesn’t matter what viewpoint you choose. Some people love first, some hate it. Some like single viewpoints, others prefer multiple. Doesn’t matter! Just stay consistent. And stay in whatever character’s head you’ve chosen at the moment you are writing.

Have you ever read a book whose viewpoint turned you off? Hit reply and tell me. Also—might you need help with viewpoint? Need a supportive coach to help you with your writing? Hit me up. I’ve got room for one client this summer.

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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?