Notes on viewpoint

I'm cleaning out files again. I came across some notes I made when I first started writing fiction. I thought I'd elaborate on some of these notes because it's good material.

Today's topic is viewpoint, something a lot of writers struggle with when they are learning to write fiction.

I made these notes after digesting a couple of very good books. One was How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean R. Koontz, Copyright 1981, Writers Digest Books. Unfortunately, this book is out of print. I understand if you own a copy, you can ask a small fortune for it on Ebay.

The other was Writing Novels That Sell by Jack M. Bickham, copyright 1989, Fireside Book by Simon and Schuster. I think there was a second edition of this book published by Writers Digest Books some years back. You can probably find it by cruising the Internet book stores.

According to Jack Bickham, a story is "the formed record of a character testing conflict, told from a point of view." As for viewpoint, he says: "All fiction begins with the technique we call viewpoint."

This technique places the reader in the mind and heart of a person at the center of the story's action. It allows the reader to identify with the central character of your story - to imaginatively become that character.

Though when watching a movie, you see the action from several different eyes because the camera jumps around, you have to be careful not to do this in print because believability is harder to achieve in print than with the visual medium of movies because the picture is there for you to see on the screen. So the reader needs help to identify and believe. That is why viewpoint is so important.

Can you change viewpoint within a book. Of course, but you change because you have logically decided to do so. Not because you have simply run out of thoughts for your character.

To select the viewpoint character for your story, ask yourself these four questions:
1. Who will be at the center of the action
2. Who will have everything at risk
3. Whose struggle toward a goal is the fuel driving the story
4. Who will be moved, changed, by the outcome?

How do you establish viewpoint? By forcing your imagination to see everything from inside the viewpoint. The viewpoint character never sees his own face unless he's looking in a mirror. He cannot know what is going on inside anyone else. The best he can do is guess - which is the way we do it in real life.

The verb tense used conventionally in novels is past tense (I went for a walk). Why? Presumably because the story must have happened before the author could write about it.

There seem to be many books written in present tense now, but when I started to write fiction the only one I could think of was Rabbit Run by John Updike.

The great majority of first novels are written in first person for two reasons:
1. It's an easier grammatical form to handle since we communication with each other in our daily lives that way.
2. Many first novels are autobiographical to a great extent.

Most novels are narrated in third person.

How many different view points are there? Most people say there are five, those being First Person, Second Person, Third Person, Omniscient, and Modified Omniscient.

Purists say there are eight: First Person Protagonist, Third Person Protagonist, First Person Supporting Character, Third Person Supporting Character, First Person Minor Character, Third Person Minor Character, First Person Shifting, and Third Person Shifting.

Of course, there can be variations on the basics. Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in First Person using Restricted Omniscient. James Jones wrote From Here to Eternity in Third Person Unrestricted Omniscient. John LeCarre wrote The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in Third Person Restricted Omniscient.

The important thing to remember is to choose your viewpoint character and stay in that viewpoint unless there is a compelling reason to change. Beware of the literary sin known as "head hopping" in which each person who speaks also thinks, meaning viewpoint shifts back and forth as often as a dog wags its tail.

In other words, learn the rules first, then learn how to break them. Many romance novels are written with shifting viewpoint used in intense emotional scenes, such as lovemaking. When the viewpoint change is obvious and it works in that particular scene, don't be afraid to break the rules. But learn how to make those seamless viewpoint shifts that carry the reader along.

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