Have you ever found yourself reading along in a novel, and realize you don’t know who’s telling this part of the story?
Wait a minute, you think. I thought Randy was narrating this chapter. When did I get into Nancy’s head? Whose viewpoint are we in now?
As a book editor, I see this in manuscripts all the time. We’re going along through a scene, one character beginning the narration, and then we jump into somebody else’s head.
Sometimes, we hop into the heads of everyone who’s in the scene.
More often than you’d think, I see stories where we go into another’s viewpoint when in someone else’s flashback. Now, that takes the collective unconscious to a whole different level!
When writing a story, it’s easy to do this. And, it can seem expedient as well. That way, you can convey what everybody in the scene thinks and feels, how each one reacts, and presto—all the characters are accounted for.
So what’s the problem?
The rule of course is, one scene/one character viewpoint.
No shifting viewpoints within the scene.
Then once you establish that v.p. character, you can only show that which he knows, sees, experiences, etc. You evoke his emotions, show what he sees, create what he hears, smells, etc.
If your viewpoint character doesn’t know or experience something with his senses, then the reader can’t either.
Sounds quite limiting, doesn’t it. Wouldn’t it just be easier to tell what everyone’s thinking?
Yes. That’s much easier.
But easy isn’t what we’re looking for here. We want our scenes to be powerful. We want to create something that the reader experiences too, which is what makes a great novel, and one that remains memorable long after the final page is turned.
So why does shifting within scenes not work?
֎ First off, shifting viewpoints within a scene is confusing to your reader. Not only does she have to go back to remember who’s telling what, but also the focus becomes quite broad. Diffuse, even.
Remember, this is a book, not a film. We don’t want a bird’s-eye view, but rather, the sharp gaze of one character, with whom we’re experiencing the events.
֎ Second, any time you shift within a scene, you risk confusing the reader about the goal of the scene. Because each scene has a goal, no? You’re moving the storyline and the character along, through the events that happen, to the person.
When shifting, you chance putting the reader’s identification in the wrong place. And said reader might just miss the entire point of what you, as the writer, were trying to accomplish with the passage.
֎ Third, the more you do this, the more watered down the story becomes. This holds true for too many viewpoints in general as well. The more heads you jump into, the more telling you’re doing of thoughts, emotions, etc., rather than creating the story and people and events.
And yes, this too goes back to showing vs. telling. If you can’t just jump in and tell what others are thinking, then you have to show their reactions and create them on the page.
֎ Fourth, every time you change viewpoints, the voice must change as well, in order to portray how that person perceives her world. Each voice must be age and gender and socio-economic and well, all points about being a unique individual, appropriate.
Tough to do unless you’re a very experienced author. Especially within scenes.
Viewpoint remains a very confusing topic for most writers. Studying it helps, but you learn oh-so-much more when the issues are pointed out in your own manuscript. Work with your book editor about this, to make sure you understand the ins and outs.
Mastering viewpoint will revolutionize your writing. It truly is the wheel around which the rest of the spokes revolve.
Focus on that one scene/one viewpoint rule. Once you do, it’ll make everything so much clearer.
Because when the scene is clear for you, as the writer, then it will be for your reader as well.
And isn’t that the point of writing a great novel?