Tag Archives | viewpoint

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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Point of View Tips and Tweaks

Look_close_macro_224801_lI spent yesterday afternoon reading a rewrite of a client's novel (at least the first part of it). He has struggled with point of view in the past, and I've nudged him mercilessly on it. So I was thrilled to see that he is mastering it!

Reading his manuscript brought to mind some tips on viewpoint that might be helpful to others. (Note: most people, myself included, use the terms viewpoint and point of view interchangeably.)Please note that this is not in anyway a definitive rundown on viewpoint. Volumes have been written on it.  If you need more info on viewpoint try this or this.  What follows are just some simple ideas that might help you if you get confused about it.

1.  Don't use omniscient.  Just don't, okay?  In my experience, most of the time the use of omniscient viewpoint turns out to be viewpoint violations galore.  Or laziness.  Whatever, omniscient viewpoint is hard to master and do correctly and it confuses the hell out of readers–which is a cardinal sin.  So don't do it.

2. I am a camera.  Or at least your character is one.  All he or she can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel is in her viewpoint.  It's in her head.  Not the other character's head, hers alone.  Sometimes I see subtle viewpoint violations, like, "Sandra noticed that Frank felt scared."  Sandra can't know that Frank feels scared because she's not in his head.  She can notice that he seemingly felt scared, or she can see an expression on his face that tells her he's scared.  If you get confused on this point, think back to the camera analogy.  

3.  Change viewpoints at the start of chapters or scenes.  It's fine to use multiple viewpoints.  All you have to do is be clear to the reader that you are doing so.  Don't switch points of view in the middle of a sentence or even a paragraph.  Do it at the start of a scene or chapter, and please also give us some hint of who we are switching to.

4. To denote a scene shift, use white space.  If you want to switch viewpoint in the middle of a chapter, its easy–just use white space to signal the reader.  White space is four single hard returns or two double hard returns.  If the white space falls at the top or the bottom of the page, show it with stars:  *  *  *  *  *, otherwise it might not be evident.  Note: you don't need to use stars or any other symbol to show white space if it falls anywhere else on the page.  That's why they call it white space.

5. If you struggle with staying clear on viewpoint, try first person.  This is a great trick, because first person is easy to stay true to–all you've got is that "I" viewpoint, after all.  You don't have to write a whole novel in it, but try a short story or a piece of flash fiction.  It will teach you the limits of viewpoint very quickly.

Okay, those are my quick tips.  Do you struggle with viewpoint?  How have you taught yourself to master it?

Photo by xptakis.

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The Dream World

"Imagination is sacred and divine–I trust it implicitly."

So said Andre Dubus III at his Wordstock reading last weekend.  Dubus, best known for House of Sand and Fog, read from his latest novel, The Garden of Last Days, which was inspired by the Florida sojourns of the 9-11 hijackers.  After he read from the book, Dubus talked about writing the book.  He quoted Flannery O'Connor, who said, "writing is waiting," to make the point that even when you are staring at the computer monitor, you are writing.  And then he ripped off this line: "You are summoning, almost like a prayer to an angel, the imagination to give you something."

After hearing that line, I was ready to go buy every book the man ever wrote.  He went on the say that if you summon the imagination regularly it will reward you with things to write about.  Someone in the audience asked him how difficult it was to get inside the head of one of the September 11 hijackers, and he told how he resisted and resisted it, that he had no interest in making one of them a viewpoint character.  But then the novel seemed to sputter and fall flat and he was in danger of losing it completely.  He realized that he had to make one of the hijackers a viewpoint character, so he sat and did nothing but read books about the Middle East for five months.

Dubus quoted Mike Nichols, saying that the charge of the storyteller is to share what it is really like to be in the midst of whatever is happening.  In character-driven fiction, you want to establish empathy for the characters, not sympathy.  As a writer, you do this to the point that there is no other.  What you do in writing is to go beyond knowledge of the other to totally be the other.

Interestingly, this is true in fiction, as well as in many other arenas of writing. When you write a press release, there's a certain tone and style that you emulate.  In a much more superficial way, you're becoming the other–the PR pro who knows what will grab attention.  A blog post sounds different than a web page and an article in a newspaper is dissimilar in tone to a piece in the New Yorker.   In each instance the trick for the writer is to figure out the trops and do them.  Be the other.

I was discussing this with Mary-Suzanne yesterday in terms of ghostwriting.  How does a writer get out of their own skin and into the skin of the person who is supposedly writing the book?  Here are some tips (which are applicable to every kind of writing imaginable):

1.  Get Over Yourself.  Clear the gunk out.  Do it however you like, but I think the best way is to write a bunch of crap down on paper.  Set a timer and write out all the petty judgments and grievances and even all the things that are making you happy.  (You may get some ideas along the way, though that is not the point of this.  As an added benefit, you may also improve your mental health along the way.

2.  Enter the Dream World.  Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, center yourself, do whatever it takes to get yourself calm and zen and relaxed.  Listen to music if you need to. 

3.  Start to Observe.  Pull an image of the person you are melding with into your brain.  What do they look like, smell like, sound like, feel like?   Be aware that in making these observations you are still on the outside looking in.

4.  Become the Other.  Now, go a step farther and sink deeper into the character.  Instead of observing the character, imagine yourself actually going into her head.  What does the world look like from inside her viewpoint?  Where is she sitting?  What is the view outside her window?  What does she do when she first gets up in the morning?

5.  Trust Your Imagination.  Remember, as Dubus says, it is sacred and divine.    All you are really doing in this exercise is imagining life through another person's eyes.   And, honestly, what could be more important than bridging the gaps between us?

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How Far Away Are You? Part Two

Several days ago, I wrote Part One of this post on distance in viewpoint.  Rashly, at that moment, I promised a Part Two,  complete with how-tos.   The how-tos are the hard part, because as with all writing, they are difficult to explain and sometimes even more difficult to put into action.  But sometimes not. 

But never let it be said that I have backed away from a challenge. So here goes.

The goal at hand is to get deeply into the head of your viewpoint character.  There are places in your novel when you might want to stay in a more distant, cooler viewpoint, but that is not the point of our discussion today.  The point of our discussion is closeness, hot and intimate closeness.  None of that Ice Queen distance stuff for us, baby.  Its all about connection. 

How to accomplish that, given that we're talking about on the page and not on the body?  Here are some suggestions:

1.  I Am A Camera.  Or you are.  You job as the writer is to be the camera inside the viewpoint character's head.  Go deep inside your character (it is not as kinky as it sounds) and see the world through his or her eyes.  What does he see, smell, hear, taste, feel?

2.  Write Character Journal Entries.  One of the ways you get a character's voice on the page is to know that character well–so well that you can write her viewpoint as easily as you talk.  You don't always plan out what you are going to say, do you?  No, instead you talk.  Most of the time it is as natural as breathing.  Theoretically, the same should be true of writing in your character's viewpoint.

3.  Read Out Loud.  The best way to find out if your character talks the way you hear him talk is to read your manuscript out loud.  It makes a huge difference.   You'll pick up phrases that don't sound right and dull lines of dialogue.  If you character is the Duchess of York and you have her talking like Daisy from the Dukes of Hazzard, you'll hear it when you read out loud.

4. Interview with the Vampire, or at least your hero.  Another way to get inside your character's head is to ask her questions.  Make like Barbara Walters and find out what kind of tree she might be, among other things.

5.  Ordinary Day.  We all know there aren't any ordinary days, but just for the sake of your best-selling novel, let's pretend there are.  Take your character through a typical day in her life from the minute she gets up until she hies herself to bed.  Step by step.  This sounds tedious, but it is not, it is fun, and you'll discover way more about your character than what kind of toothpaste he uses.  You might get insight into what drives him (and also what kind of car he drives), what his day to day conflicts are, and perhaps even a taste of his motivation:  what gets him out of bed in the morning ( and the answer has nothing to do with an alarm clock).

6.  Put Her In Action.
  Have her do something.  Write a scene with your hero mowing the lawn or driving across New Mexico or teaching a child to swim.  These scenes will probably never make it into your book, but they will help you to understand who your character truly is as person.  Make a list of activities (use your life as a starting point) and every time you have a few minutes, choose an activity and write your character doing it. Action defines character.  Action is motivation in motion. 

So, are we recognizing a theme here? Are we perhaps noticing that the common denominator in all these exercises is a sincere desire to get to know our characters better?  Knowing your character inside and out is the key to being able to get inside his head to write in his viewpoint.  If you're having a hard time making your character's viewpoint come alive, go back to the starting point–character.  Ask more questions, delve more deeply, learn more about who you are writing about. 

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How Far Away Are You?

I refer to the issue of distance in viewpoint.

Yawn.   Way to make a post fascinating, right?  Excuse you while you lean your head back in your chair and take a wee nap.  Once you've dozed for a minute, you might want to rouse yourself for this one, because it can make the difference between an engaging novel and one that skims along the surface.  Between a book that sells and one that doesn't.  Between a book that hits the best-seller list and one that languishes.

Perhaps you are now wide awake and paying attention.

Explaining viewpoint can be thorny.  Oh who am I kidding, even people who've been writing and teaching writing for years don't grasp every aspect of viewpoint.  So attempting to explain one aspect of viewpoint–distance–is tricky.

But I shall persevere in my effort, because, after all, you want to sell that novel, don't you? 

So let's begin with a quote from Janet Burroway, the godmother of all creative writing instruction (if you don't have her book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, stop what you are doing right now and go buy it.  There are seven editions, and the most current one is dreadfully expensive, but you can buy one of the older editions in a cheaper used version.)  Here's the quote (its from one of the earlier editions, like the second or third, so don't go looking for it if you a later book):

"As with the chemist at her microscope and the lookout in his tower, fictional point of view always involves the distance, close or far, of the perceiver from the thing perceived.   Point of view in fiction, however, is immensely complicated by the fact that distance is not only, though it may be partly, spatial.  It may also be temporal.  Or the distance may be intangible and involve a judgment moral, intellectual, and/or emotional."

The kind of distance in viewpoint that I'm talking about here falls into the first category that Burroway mentions.    For instance, yesterday I was at a networking meeting here in LA,and a woman asked me to take a photo of her with my friend Suzanne. I'm a terrible photographer and so I did what I always do–aim and shoot.  The resulting photo was of the two of them from the waist up. The woman asked me to take a closer shot and she jiggled some button on the camera and in the lens zoomed and the two faces of the women were now framed in the viewfinder.  Et voila, a much better, more interesting photo.

Why was it more interesting?  Because the photo got in close enough to capture the essence of the two women.  You could see their expressions, the way each of them smiled, the twinkle and joy in their eyes.  None of that was visible in the waist-up shot.  If you've ever taken photography classes, you've probably been admonished to get in close to get the good shot. 

So, too, in writing.   A favorite admonition is to "go deeper."  Often what this means is to go farther into the head of the viewpoint character.  Think about the last piece of deeply involving fiction that you read, or the most recent discussion you had in your book club.  Odds are good that you talked about how alive the character felt to you, how you wanted to know what happened to them after the book ended.  How you thought about them after you finished the book and wondered what they were doing now–just like a real person. 

This kind of character identification–when we are so deeply bonded with a character we forget she is not real–does not come from a distant viewpoint.  A distant viewpoint is me taking the photo of the two women from the waist up, so you can't really see any of the details.  Close-in is that photo I took when their faces filled the entire frame.  Distant skims the surface, like God looking down on the world he created and watching all the little people do their thing.  Close-in is God being inside the heads of those characters.

To put it (broadly) another way–distant tells, close-in shows.  Distant explains, close-in feels.

Alright, enough already, how is one supposed to accomplish such a feat?

As with all fiction, that feat is easier said than done.  Easier explained than accomplished.  However, I shall rise to the occasion and do my best to give you some how-tos tomorrow.

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