Viewpoint is the single most disruptive issue in writing a novel.
The veterans of writing are nodding here, while everyone else asks, “Why the heck is that?”
I see lots of manuscripts, and they come from many sources-publishers, agents, folks wanting to take their novels to the next level in order to publish. And almost all of them have a central core issue-viewpoint. It’s a tricky, tough, sometimes ephemeral monster that can elude the best of us.
But, viewpoint is a beast that can be tamed. We just need to break it down a bit. I actually give half-day workshops on this topic, and we don’t have near that much space here, so we’ll do this in parts.
For this first one, let’s just focus on what viewpoint is.
We all know the three points of view: First, second, third person. But point of view is not exactly what I’m talking about. Viewpoint, on the other hand, is the specific eyes, ears, tastes, thoughts, etc., of the narrator in your story. That can be one character (first- or third-person singular) or multiple folks (third-person multiple) telling the story. I hesitate to use the word “telling” here, as that’s not what we want from our novel-we want showing, evoking, creating. And the very best way to hone that down is by mastering viewpoint. In doing so, you will be forced to show, create, and evoke. And therein lies the recipe for a powerful book.
So, at its very essence, our viewpoint character is the one through whose eyes, ears, tastes, touches, thoughts the reader experiences the events of the novel, rather than being told about one. Your goal then, as a writer, is to get behind the eyes, deeply into the head and psyche, of the person narrating your book. And that is where the trickiness comes in.
When we first go to write fiction, almost all of us sit down and begin by telling the reader what’s going on: Cindy is a nurse in southeast Chicago. She is really tired from her shift, and it’s freezing when she walks to her car. Her husband left her a year ago, and she is just now trying to date again. Ray, her son, is twelve years old, precocious, and smart.
Sound familiar? That’s not character viewpoint-it’s the author’s. It reads like the author’s notes to herself, rather than a book. Or worse, as author intrusion-where some voice from the sky just comes down and tells the reader what’s happening.
Were this in Cindy’s viewpoint, it might go something like this: Cindy sighed heavily as she walked from her shift at Chicago General into the bitterly cold night, wind whipping ice particles into her face. Whew, her feet ached. The ER hadn’t stopped, all nurses kept hopping. And then there was that gentleman asking for her phone number at the end. That hadn’t happened in a while. She smiled, thinking of what Ray would say. Her twelve-year-old had been admonishing her to date for a while, ever since his dad disappeared last year.
Cindy’s author has now put the reader in the scene with her, evoking the cold night, her aching feet, a hint of excitement from a man’s attention, coming chiefly through what her son would think. We get a whole slew of emotions and facts to set this up, all in the character’s viewpoint. Oh, yeah, someone did write this, but our job is for the passage to seem like Cindy is doing the talking.
And yes, while it is true that you, as the author, are virtually God in relation to your book (with the ability to create and destroy), your job is to do so in much the same manner as the Wizard of Oz, pulling strings from behind the scenes (and hoping against hope some little terrier of a reader doesn’t pull back the curtain). The way to avoid that happening is to hone your skills so that readers (and especially readers who are also writers) stop and say, “How the heck did she do that?”
In the next part, we’ll start out discussion of exactly how to achieve that goal.
You can ask Malone questions about this or anything else regarding writing and publishing at : firstname.lastname@example.org